MOSCOW — Back during my Wall Street days, there was a saying, “If the taxi drivers are giving stock tips, you know the market is topping out.” Taxi drivers know things. They have in-depth conversations with lots of people. They can feel the pulse of a nation.
I tapped into this pulse on a recent trip to Moscow with a fine taxi driver named Yuri, a Russian from Siberia, working hard to earn a meager living for his family in Moscow. He was a great big man, well educated, and full of spitting energy and bluster, ready to give his loud, firm opinion at a moment’s notice. He picked me up from the flat to take me to the city center for a meeting, a 30-minute ride. When he found out I was an Americanitz, he was ecstatic. Once you get some Russians talking, they don’t stop.
“$#@% Putin!” he roared enthusiastically, loud enough for the car next to us to hear if the windows had been open, which they weren’t. I was surprised.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“He’s made it very hard to make money,” he bellowed in semi-broken English. “Everything is more expensive! Prices keep going up, except the cab fares.! I have to pay for a license and rent this car. This costs me several thousand rubles a day. I can only make about five hundred on most fares. It’s hard to make a living. No one has any money, not us small people anyway. And do you know? They fired 3,000 doctors. My father, he is in the hospital. He had, how do you say, a strike.”
“A stroke,” I corrected him.
“Yes, he recently had surgery. Anyway, this weekend I went to the hospital to see him. There were probably a hundred people in the recovery room. There was only one nurse for all of those people! Can you imagine? What if something happened? What if they needed real help? There was no one there. You have to bribe someone to take care of your family. They are not spending money on things the people need.
“Putin and his friends just want more and more money. They don’t care about us. I even heard Putin married his daughter to a Korean. Can you imagine that? And he talks about how everyone needs to care about Russia first. It’s all &*%@#. I want you to know we don’t all hate Americanitz!”
He turned around and smiled a big smile, his gold tooth shining in the afternoon sunlight.
“Spaceeba [thank you],” I added, not knowing really how to respond.
“Putin and his friends, they need an enemy. So Amereeka, you are the enemy now. Most people in Moscow can see this.”
“But what about in the villages?” I asked. “How do they feel?”
He just shrugged.
I thought the conversation was telling. At least in expensive Moscow, the weak economic conditions are starting to bite. The common-man on the street is hurting. This was the first break I had heard in the almost monolithic support of the Kremlin narrative that everything is fine and Russian President Vladimir Putin has overwhelming support. It will be interesting to see how people react if economic conditions worsen.
Russians have accepted the deal that for a loss of freedom and civil rights, they will enjoy prosperity and a better quality of life. But what happens if the Kremlin can’t hold up its end of the bargain?
Perhaps this scenario is why there is a further and further crack down on opposition media and unapproved demonstrations. Perhaps this is why the anti-American meme on state media is so shrill and dominant. Maybe the Kremlin believes that if the people are worried about NATO and the United States invading the country, they won’t worry about their relatives in the hospital. Only time will tell.
“How do you survive?” I responded. “How do you make money?”
“I look for foreigners; they tip well,” he responded with a grin.
Soon we arrived at my destination and I bid Yuri goodbye. I gave him a nice tip.