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A specter haunts the elites of the Empire of Chaos; the new Russia-China strategic partnership. It’s manifesting itself in myriad ways – energy deals, investment deals, a closer political alliance inside the G-20, the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a concerted effort to progressively bypass the petrodollar. I have described this long process as essential to the birth of the Eurasian century.
From a Washington/Wall Street point of view, it was so much easier in those long gone, unipolar, “end of history” days. China was still tiptoeing on the banks of the river of capital accumulation, and Russia was down if not out.
So allow me a flashback to the early 1990s. I had been on the road in Asia for months, from all points Southeast Asia to India, Nepal, the Himalayas and the eastern Chinese seaboard. Then I finally hit Beijing – waiting in the bitter winter of early 1992 to take the Trans-Siberian to Moscow. I was barely aware of the collapse of the Soviet Union – not exactly a news item in the Himalayas. I was also fortunate enough to be in southern China just a few days after Deng Xiaoping made his famous tour – whose key consequence was to catapult the dragon to dizzying development heights. A look back to those heady times may have the merit of illuminating our present.
All aboard the night train
It’s 8:32 pm in Beijing Railway Station, and the Trans-Manchurian Train 19 to Moscow is about to depart. It’s minus 9 degrees Celsius. A bunch of Romanian crazies are trying to load more than 20 huge, vaguely green bundles stuffed with Made-in-China gear into one of the carriages. The Russian comptroller spouts out a “Nyet.” Romanian chicks immerse in Transylvanic hysteria. Then a stash of George Washingtons changes hands at the final whistle, just in time for PLA soldiers and lady sweepers sporting the ubiquitous red armband with the words “Serve The People” to impassibly observe the happy ending.
A cacophony of Russians, Poles, Romanians, Czechs and Mongols has deployed dozens of bags, bundles and sacks to totally overload the train corridors. 300 kg of shoes. 500 kg of jackets. 200 kg of T-shirts. Thousands of beauty cream pots that will be all the rage from Bucharest to Cracow. A “bed” on the train is a concavity over one of the bundles. That will be story for six days, across over 9,000 snowy kilometers in the former USSR, now Russia, from East to West.
At the comptroller’s compartment, more bags – whose content will be sold in the streets of Moscow. With so many George Washingtons in sight, the success of her bazaar is guaranteed – what with multiple stops on the way and an unregulated “free” market in every platform. The whole of Eastern Europe is loaded with stuff and dying to make a quick buck.
In the Chinese stretch of the journey, nothing happens, unlike the 1930s, when Japan occupied Manchuria, installed puppet Pu Yi on the throne and was ready to take over Asia. The Terminator action starts in Zabaikalsk, at the Russian-China border – after we cross a huge Arc of Triumph in cement, complete with Leninist motto and not-yet-destroyed hammer and sickle. Customs – on both sides – is absolutely deserted.
The train changes configuration to adapt to the new tracks. Yet all sights are set on the new dining car; exit Chinese, which only offered a miserable pork with soya sauce; enter Russian, crammed with goulash, soup, salami, frozen fish, black caviar, champagne from Crimea, coffee, eggs, even cheese – everything on the black market paid with US dollars.
With the border behind us, it’s go-go bazaar time. Everyone freaks out, because we instantly move from Beijing time to Moscow time. Sunrise is at 1 in the morning. The black market is running at $1 = 110 roubles, the rouble in free fall as we cut through the sublime snowy infinite desert of the Siberian tundra, where each spectacular sunrise under a slight Arctic fog is an epiphany celebrated with more Crimea champagne.
Occasionally we spot reindeers or even huskies. The taiga – coveted by Japan, Korea and the US – is enveloped in snow. Beyond lay the ghosts of the 20 million corpses in Stalin’s gulags, the hunters of the rare Amu tiger (fewer than 200 left) and the sinister Norilsk complex; 2 million tons a year of sulphuric acid and other heavy metals dumped in the atmosphere – the reason for that Arctic fog.
The train stops stretch for 15 and even 20 minutes, reaching a nadir in Novosibirsk and Perm, which previously housed a notorious gulag. At every stop, hordes of Russians in Genghis Khan mode attack the train with little plastic bags. The best deal in the Trans-Siberian is anoraks and leather jackets. Jao, from Beijing, sells 50 in three days, at up to US$50 each; she paid $20 each in the Beijing hutongs. The Russians buy everything in sight and sell roubles – now plunging to 160 to the US dollar – as well as vodka, beer, salami, champagne and local $1 Pepsi bottles.
The whole of Eastern Europe has taken over Train 19. Post-Ceausescu Romanians are the most exuberant – from former boxers to hookers to a seedy gangster in a tracksuit boasting about his two hours with a Russian doll for $10 (the going rate is $20). There’s an Albanian contingent, young Polish students, shirtless Mongol nomads feverishly counting their profits, babushkas bored to death and even a loquacious Chinese dandy.
The Russian carriages, once elegant, are a mess: foul air, dense cigarette smoke, drenched in sweat, toilets crammed with sacks, and “Kapitan,” the only waiter, trying to make a quick buck selling Soviet paraphernalia. I find it the ideal setting to devour almost 1,000 pages of Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a history of the CIA.
Blame it on glasnost
Train 19 is not only a bazaar but also a multinational Agora. Young Russians elaborate how the almost genius perversity of the Soviet system led it to boost to the limit all the problems of modern industrial societies – offering nearly none of its benefits. Eastern Europeans volunteer that it was not the Cold War that finished off “real socialism”; it was the invasion of the capitalist economy combined with the inefficiency and “stupidity” (copyright by a Polish undergraduate) of the socialist economy.
Russians say that glasnost finished off authority and perestroika finished off the economy – and there was nothing to replace either. End result: physics graduates selling caviar tins in a moving train for survival. Everyone praises Gorbachev but essentially condemn him to a short historical footnote. In the train, I heard arguments that would be reproduced years later in countless US academic studies.
All the Trans-Siberian navigators exhibit a solidarity not to be found at the United Nations; they exchange currencies, swap addresses, lend money and the indispensable calculators, help to load and unload the loot, accept bundles in their compartment, offer their places for half an hour for those who only have the corridor to sleep, and crack jokes about the small Bank of China yuan bills. They are all ardent defenders of this unheard of form of direct democracy that is synonym with the end of the Cold War.
Amid the casino lurks the most improbable character: Lulu, a diminutive Bangladeshi, always attached to a Samsonite, dabbling in Allah-only-knows mysterious activities, passport filled with dodgy visas, Saudi Arabian included. Chinese and Russians treat him like an allergic Pekingese. Train chow is predictably unbearable for this strict Muslim, who wakes us all up everyday at 5 am with his prayers – Rashid Muhammad spends six days literally on bread and water.
Skolka? That’s the Trans-Manchurian bazaar motto, a preview of Moscow. Pink Floyd launched the legendary Dark Side of the Moon at the height of the Brejnev era; Moscow suburbs look like the ghostly, dark side of the moon. Stalin’s lunatic legacy is alleviated only by a solitary kiosk selling flowers, fruit or sweet Georgia brandy.
We arrive as zombies – and only a few hours late – at Yaroslavlsky Vakzal, one of nine Moscow train stations, where a deluge of Volga taxis fight for the precious Chinese cargo. Those moving on to Eastern Europe without a reservation are doomed: seats for Warsaw and Berlin are only available in 40 days.
In Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, I had witnessed the spectacular success of post-Tiananmen Chinese “market socialism,” where the economy was the locomotive and politics was dispatched to the bottom end of the train. Nothing more astonishing than the contrast with Moscow, where politics was the locomotive.
I’m housed by Dmitri, an odontology student, three metro stops from the Kremlin, paying $6 a day, a small fortune; he and his girlfriend precariously subdivide the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with a whole family, dog included, besides the occasional Western visitors, who sleep in the master bedroom. This is considered an upper middle-class lifestyle.
At the beautiful metro stations, it’s the return of the Trans-Siberian bazaar; on sale are political or porno samizdats, second-hand clothes, bottles of every possible liquid. Only when I reach Red Square doI see the light; at the Himalayas and China, my time-zone was still on Gorbachev. What’s now at the top of the Kremlin is a Russian flag – as well as in the center of Dzerzhinsky square, in front of the KGB. As a perfect idiot, I aim for the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the former head of the Soviet secret police, only to be warned by a student that it had been torn down weeks ago. Gorbachev is now a vodka brand. And I can’t get inside the KGB building.
The whole city is converted into a giant Turkish bazaar. After Boris Yeltsin liberated the sidewalks, everyone wants to exercise this privatizatsiya thing. Until 1990, nobody knew what a checkbook or a credit card was, and $1 was equivalent to 1 rouble. There are absolutely astonishing street markets on Prospekt Marka and Gorki street, everyone silently in line exhibiting their wares; a broken doll, a solitary shoe, dusty champagne bottles, perfume, instant coffee, sardine tins, an empty beer bottle.
The streets are filled with all the stuff brought by the Trans-Siberian navigators, but the supermarkets are empty. There’s very little milk or meat, but lots of canned fish and interminable lines to buy nothing – with potential consumers resigned to play chess.
The biggest hit in town is the new McDonald’s on Pushkin square – one of the busiest in the world, selling full meals for 50 cents by cashiers sporting an Eva Herzigova smile. In front of the MacD, a paper Gorbie poses for tourists, and a crowd sells caviar tins for $5 and champagne for $3. At the GUM department store, there is not much except a few Sony and Honda showrooms and a new Dior window.
The recent past does not let go; it’s impossible to call Europe. It’s impossible to send a fax from the Post Office. It’s impossible to make a train reservation. It’s impossible to make a plane reservation – at least on the Aeroflot shop in Lubyanka; only at the cavernous Intourist Hotel.
At the lugubrious ground floor of the Mockba Hotel, deaf and dumb characters straight out of an Ionesco play crowd the corridors while a beer black-market does brisk business in front of the hotel bar. A glass of champagne goes for 50 cents. At the hall of the legendary Metropol – the 1899 Grand Dame favored by Trotsky – a dry martini is a steep $7,70. The Metropol is the new Wall Street; Danes, Italians, Americans and Chinese discuss all deals this side of a Brave New World downing Heinekens at $5 a pop.
On Armed Forces Day, a Sunday, there’s a communist demonstration, repressed with tact, boasting large numbers of old ladies carrying flowers and flags. For their part, Moscow punks with anarchist flags protest against the Armed Forces. A pre-historic Volga takes me to Sheremetyevo as if I was running from a 1950s Cold War B-movie set. The Volga gurgles, stops, cools off, runs, gurgles, stops again, cools off; a metaphor of the new Russia, and I almost miss Aeroflot SU 576 back to Paris.
Nothing will ever be the (unipolar) same
Those were the days. That McDonald’s – symbol of unipolar, “end of history,” Pax Americana – has been recently shut down. It’s harder and harder for the Empire of Chaos to rule the world alone while McDonald’s serves burgers. Across Pushkin square, the fashionable Cafe Pouchkine now serves the best of Russian haute cuisine.
And still, both Russia and China are seen as pariahs by the unipolar, imperial elite. It’s as if we were still frozen in those early1990s days. Russia and China may have changed almost beyond recognition – but for the Empire of Chaos the priorities are to tear Russia apart, starting with Ukraine, and “pivot to Asia” via an anti-China military/economic axis in the Western Pacific.
Meanwhile, the Trans-Siberian will soon be linked with the Chinese-driven New Silk Roads. And then one day in the early 2020s this will all be a high-speed rail network, linking Eurasia in a flash. And nothing will ever be the (unipolar) same. Except for the back-to-Russia Crimean champagne.