THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
FOUR CENTURIES AND THREE DECADES
BY JUST I N L I F F LANDER
Conversations in Moscow with Russians of different social strata paint a vivid picture
of a country grappling with the meaning of the past quarter-century's upheavals.
Justin Lifflander has lived in Russia for nearly 30 years.
After stints as a contractor at the U.S. embassy in Mos-
cow and the INF treaty inspection facility in Votkinsk,
he spent 20 years as a salesman for Hewlett-Packard in
Russia and four years as an editor at
The Moscow Times
paper. He is married to a Russian and received Russian citizenship
in 2000. He is the author of
How Not to Become a Spy: A Memoir of
Love at the End of the Cold War
t first it seemed tome as if he was
wearing X-ray glasses. Having
purchased a fur hat from Sasha, the
keteer) working the Oktyabrskaya
subway station inMoscow that day
in 1986, I earned the right to chat
with him inmy broken Russian.
As he scanned the passers-by
in search of potential clientele, I couldn’t figure out how he
was able to spot the foreigners. “Look carefully,” he explained.
“The facial features, the shoes, the wrist watches, the eye
glasses. …” I began to understand how he chose who should be
(pins) or money changing services.
Thirty years later my
is probably a successful
oligarch. He and his countrymen no longer think they are
“covered in chocolate”—a phrase going back to the Soviet
era meaning “fortunate, lucky, living well”—as they build the
socialist paradise while the West rots on the garbage heap of
Living and working in Russia for the past three decades,
I’ve become acquainted with people from a broad range of
social strata—from government ministers to migrant workers.
I turned to them to collect and distill their insights on how
Russian thinking has changed since the end of the USSR.
The Evolution of
My friend Mikhailovich is a middle-aged entrepreneur who
moved to Moscow from Kyiv as a young man. He believes that
the factors contributing to an individual’s mentality are both
experiential and hereditary.
“Look at the past 400 years. The Romanov dynasty started
in 1613 and lasted 300 years,” Mikhailovich says. “The com-
munists were in power for 74 years, and we’ve been free of
them for 25 years. It is not a coincidence that 75 percent of
the population are content to live under authoritarian rule;
24 percent think like communists—either thieves or despis-