Issue #03/58, February 10 - 24, 1999  smlogo.gif

Feature Story

In This Issue
You are here
Moscow Babylon

FIMACO: an eXile exclusive
Thank You Porn
Fear of An eXile Planet


Welcome to Hell

by Matt Taibbi / Meleyuz, Bashkortostan

10 a.m. here in Meleuz, a city of 65,000 in the middle of fucking nowhere, somewhere to the south of Ufa, Bashkortostan: I was supposed to be out of this apartment-the home of the local general prosecutor--by 7 a.m. I had a job lined up, laying bricks for a local construction firm. The company is building a "torgovliy complex" for a local gangster by the name of Zhenya, who earned his fortune by being the son of the federal representative to the Ufa oblast.

The whole point of my coming to this area was to find the shittiest of
possible jobs doing manual labor somewhere here in the provinces, and come away with the usual stuff--a week of drunken conversations with beleaguered workers, new details about the extent of unpaid labor, etc. It didn't work out that way. I'd thought already last Thursday that I had something lined up back in civilization, in Ufa--an oil refinery job, through a girl I'd met, appropriately enough, at the Hungry Duck--but it all fell through. On the appointed day I shaved with a single-edged razor, doused my socks and other smelly parts with cologne, and went to go see Igor Alekseyevich Gorbunov, the director of "Bashkirneftiprodukt". Gorbunov had already agreed to take me on on the phone, and when I came to see him, I was expecting to be changed into a flame-proof jumpsuit and sent out on the line right away. It didn't happen.

"We have a problem," said Gorbunov, a pleasant graying fortyish bureaucrat of the type we would have called a "token human" in the Soviet days. He had the spooked, wary look of a man who spends a good 50-55% of his time trying to avoid, for whatever reason, being stabbed in the heart in somebody's trunk and dumped in a lime pit.

"What kind?" I asked.

"With those other guys," he said.

"What other guys?"

"You know, the FSB," he whispered. "They don't want you hanging around the oil refineries."

"Do I look like a spy to you?" I asked.

"That doesn't matter," he said. "You could send a cocker spaniel out here, they'd think he was a spy. Not that we have anything to hide. Our factories are so old, they're falling apart. In fact, that's another reason they don't want you out there. The environment is so fucked up at our plant, you might die just breathing. And then we'll have an international incident on our hands--you know, Clinton, demanding an apology, the whole thing."

I shook his hand and left, then immediately made arrangements to head south the next day to Meleyuz, a small industrial town where, I was told, there was a job waiting for me in a brick factory. I ordered a car that would take me away in twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, the Hungry Duck girl had me laid out in the dormitory (the entranceway to which was marked with the English inscription, Welcome to Hell) of her med school friends, who apparently had not seen a male
person, or a person with more than ten rubles in his pocket, for at least five years. I bought two bottles of cognac and started to drink heavily. They sat in a circle around me and stared. It was a pattern that would continue throughout the trip. I'm drunk right now, as I write this. It turns out that that's all anyone does around here, including--or possibly especially--visiting American reporters. Anatoly Grigorievich Mizin, my new boss here in Meleyuz, explained it to me this way:

"There's no money here. I mean, physically no money. It didn't get worse after August because there was no money here before August. We pay for bricks with paint. We pay for paint with cement. And then we have to find a sucker who'll give us food for the bricks. Vodka, you can always make yourself."

Ufa was once a mighty industrial center. There are no less than twenty oil refineries here, all functional, all allegedly mining major petroleum deposits. But according to Gorbunov, there's been no business since the previous year. "There's no oil," he said. "We bring up less and less all the time. We're shooting blanks."

The Hungry Duck girl and her friends didn't care about any of this. When it got late enough last Thursday, I was moved out into the cold--it was -30 that day--and dragged off to "Navigator", the "happening" new nightclub in Ufa. The interior had an impressive post-industrial look to it, with plenty of exposed pipes and wire mesh to give that "real" urban feel. But the place was dead. About twenty couples sat timidly at their tables listening to a terrible house band play a dimly-recognizable version of "Tom Sawyer". The girls were all wearing artificial fabrics, courtesy of migrant traders from Turkey, I guessed. I left the med-school crowd and carried an armload of Baltikas to a table of young men, in their early twenties, all dressed in slacks and silk shirts. When drunk and in a desolate scenario, masculine company is the way to go. Drinking with a bunch of guys is one of life's constants. You can always depend on it to get through any night. Only-- not in Ufa.

"Why don't you come with us?" said Sasha, drinking the beer I'd bought him. "We're about to go to band practice."

"Oh yeah? What kind of band?"

They looked at each other conspiratorially. "You know the Backstreet Boys?"

I paused. "Know them?" I said. "I slept with two of them."

They looked at other. "Um: Well, we play their kind of music... Wait, you
slept with them?"

"Only two of them."

After that I barely remember what happened. I don't think the local Backstreet boys hung around long. Before I knew it it was the next day and I was staggering out of the med school dorm and in a car heading for Meleyuz. My driver was doing seventy on icy roads. I ate two Imovanes and passed out. "Just close your eyes," he said. "You'll be there soon enough."

Now it's ten p.m. on Tuesday, and I'm beat. I've been laying bricks all day for a company called MeleyuzZhilStroi, the leading local construction company. Every other major company in the city refused to take me on. The director of the local powdered milk factory declined, threatening to beat me "with a pipe" if I wrote anything at all about him. The director of the Meleyuz brick factory turned me down because he didn't have safety shoes in my size-brick factory workers wear iron shoes, in case they drop bricks on their own feet. The local chemical factory was closed to me by the area's one FSB officer, a drunkard who by most accounts hasn't left his office for more than two years. MeleyuzZhilStroi was the only option left. Anatoly Grigoriyevich Mizin, the director of the firm, had a sense of humor about his position. His firm for years had existed almost solely on the orders of the local chemical factory, MeleyuzKhimZavod.

"Up until 1994, we were building 300-400 apartments a year for those people," he said. "In 1998, we built ten. They have no money. Neither do we."

Zhilstroi now has about six different jobs, two of which are luxurious homes for gangsters in the nearby city of Salovat. The others are small commercial jobs here in in Meleyuz, one of which became my home this afternoon. Mizin sent me along with his foreman Sasha to a job in the center of this small city, where a "torgoviy center" is being built on barter deal. I'd signed a document relieving the firm of any responsibility in case of accident, so they wasted no time putting me on the line laying bricks with the rest of the "kamenshiki", or bricklayers. Most of my co-workers stay on the job out of reflex, making most of their money hiring themselves out as migrant laborers in Ufa, Yekateriburg and even Turkey in the summer months. In the winter months, these guys make nothing--literally nothing. ZhilStroi compensates its workers with the local version of food stamps--a list each worker receives, once a month, which gives him the right to buy products at a store which has a deal with ZhilStroi. ZhilStroi, in turn, compensates the stores with construction materials--bricks, cement, etc., which they themselves receive as compensation for their own work on buildings of all types, including government contracts. ZhilStroi, for instance, has a contract with the Bashkortostan government, which allows them to assume the debts of delinquent factories all across the province--a chemical factory here, an oil factory there. By the terms of this government deal, ZhilStroi is supposed to be paid at least 30% in cash for whatever work it does at the government's bidding. In fact, though, it doesn't work out that way.

"The cash turns out to be veksels, and other crap like that," said Mizin. "Nobody sees any real money." Before passing me off on his drunken foreman, he'd downed a liter and a half of vodka with me in his office. I didn't feel it. I'd been drunk since the previous Friday.

My generous host at home, Fanil Davletovari, the local prosecutor, had sat me down with a gallon-sized plastic bag of beer and a bottle of vodka the instant I arrived last Friday. Fanil (whose own elevator is also marked, eerily, with the English inscription "Welcome to Hell") was anxious to show me all the local sights.

What these turned out to be were five fat girls at a half-empty club--there is no "nightlife" in Meleyuz--and a trip to the local military control center on Sunday, when we were already so drunk that we couldn't stand. Zhenya, the local colonel-commander, insisted in showing me the map, the fuzzy-screened navigation computer, and the box that held "the button". "We can launch missiles from here," he said. "We'll destroy New York."

"Why New York?" I said. "I have relatives there. You can have Chicago, Los Angeles, whatever."

"No," he said. "Only New York."

By then I'd stretched out and fallen half-asleep on the strategic map. The Meleyuz VoenKomitet was maybe once a serious place, but by now the appearance of a drunken American sleeping on the big board bothers no one. One of Zhenya's subordinates, a major named Vadim, tried, incredibly, to wake me by reading off, from memory, the poetry he writes in his spare time on the job. I can only recall the last stanza:

You and I
Hand in hand
Emerge from the bushes
And disappear alone
Love alone
Keeps us
Hand in hand

I was trying to get a grip on this when I heard Zhenya standing over me on the big board, shouting at Fanil. "If he's going to sleep here on the big board, then I think we should send him away," he said. "Let's wrap him up and send him to Iraq, as meat."

Anyway, this isn't much of an investigative report. Like the eXile itself, I've slowed down with age. And I'm tired. By the next issue, I'll be able to report on all the finer aspects of laying low-quality brick with low-quality cement on a barter job in the middle of Russia. But for now, my job is only one day old. And like everybody else around here, I'm too drunk to try harder.

ImageMap - turn on images!!!