Friday, February 27, 2009

Selling Salla: Finland’s Dream for Russia

The Finns have done their part to develop the Salla border region as a Finnish-Russian tourist attraction. The Finnish side boasts ski resorts, visits with Santa Claus, wood sculpture competitions, ceramics, and reindeer petting zoos. But the Russians don’t seem ready. The Finnish Commerce Tourism’s aptly named publication, Salla Border, tries to help, attempting to romanticize what Russia does have—“the Russia side of the border has a petrol station and duty free shop”—but the Russians don’t seem eager to join the campaign. The truth be known, the petrol they sell contains water and the duty free shop’s selection is worse than the tiniest Helsinki-Tallinn ferry.

But let’s not sell Russia short. The Salla Border writers have overlooked the real jewel of the region: the Kandalaksha supermarket. Forget Tallinn, Finnish shoppers, this is where you go for bargains.

Like most things in Russia, it’s not easy to find. If you stay alert on the road from Salla—the roads are so bad, there’s little chance of falling asleep—look for it right after you pass under the railroad bridge. There’s a sign on its concrete front with two thumbs up and text claiming “low prices” and “good quality.” If you can’t read Cyrillic text, look for the thumbs up.

Upon entry, a sober young man will closely scrutinize you. Large bags, cameras, anything big enough to hide a cucumber must be checked. This young man is firm but fair. Unlike in Soviet times, he won’t force you to take a basket, and no one is required to wait in line. (In Soviet times, stores used the number of shopping baskets to regulate store traffic, customers without baskets standing in line to wait for someone to leave.)

Inside the store are stenciled signs, blue block Cyrillic on a white field. If you still can’t find what you want, ask one of the many friendly clerks. They’re the ones in green smocks and tall black hats like horsemen from the Caucuses. They’ll personally escort you to the dairy section and provide advice concerning kefir. “This one’s locally made,” a clerk declared proudly. “That one, Aktiva, will keep you healthy.” She refused comment on a third one made by Danone. There was also a refrigerator full of treats made from curds. These are marketed for children, but I bought a variety for the trip home.

Some things haven’t changed since Soviet times, of course. Eggs still come straight from the chicken, shit-smeared and packed ten to a plastic bag. The meat looked suspicious, the Russians’ idea of a butcher being any man with an axe and a tree stump. And the fish looked like someone had driven over it with a tractor before freezing it rock solid.

In some sections, Russian tradition and western marketing meet head on. Vodka, for instance. There were forty different brands. There was one with a camouflage label, Spetsnaz vodka, named for the Russian Special Forces commandos. “For strong people,” the fine print read. There was every color of label and shape of bottle, the most expensive around four euros per bottle. A friend picked one with a slick black label and English text. He held it up for examination. “That one’s shit,” said a passerby. My friend put it back.

At the checkout, scanners have replaced abacuses. Gone are the surly clerks who could move wooden beads at light speed, point at the wire and wood, and expect you to know how to read it.

In the car, on the way back toward Salla, I opened a coffee-flavored curd treat and settled back to reflect on Russia’s consumer-friendly advances and prospects for the Salla region. But that didn’t last long. No more than halfway into my treat, I was greeted by a long, thick black hair. My vision of the new, hygienic Russia was immediately replaced by an image of a toothless, cursing factory worker who had forgotten her hair net. I rolled down my window and flung the offending curd into the forest.

I wondered if maybe the Salla Border writers weren’t right to confine their praise to the duty free shop and petrol station. People rarely complain about finding a hair in their gasoline.


By the way, a note about the new Google Ads. I'm trying them out to get a hands-on education in this internet thing and stinkin' rich at the same time. (Liina pointed out that neither one is likely to happen.) If you're reading from Estonia, you might have seen the ad offering quick loans ("1500 EEK for only 75 EEK")? I'd say that's pretty indicative of both our local internet advertising culture and the economy at large.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pick Up the Glove

Not a week goes by when I don’t notice Mayor Edgar Savisaar sounding off on the incompetence of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. If it’s not on television, it’s in the papers. If it’s not Mr. Savisaar himself casting aspersions, it’s another Centre Party member. Often his own wife.

It may be that Mr. Ansip gives as good as he gets, but my impression is he seems to more often play defense. He seems to bear the criticism in silence or shrug it off, perhaps feeling he shouldn’t dignify it with a response. But I’d like to see the man stand up for himself. As few as one hundred years ago, Savisaar’s words would have been cause for a duel.

So why not now? In this economy, in the frame of mind the citizenry is in, settling this matter of honour is the very least the government owes us.

Victory or defeat, depending on whose side you like, will lie in the methodus pugnandi, the terms of the duel. Since Savisaar is the one doing the goading, etiquette calls for Ansip to throw down the glove and demand satisfaction. But if Ansip challenges, Savisaar sets the terms. And if you were Savisaar facing Ansip, what’s it going to be? Swords or pistols?

If it’s swords, I favor Andrus. He is fit and nimble from bicycling and skiing and will not exhaust quickly from lunging, parrying, and ripostes. Edgar, who is no fool, will favor pistols. Although Andrus’ fitness will give him a steadier hand and lower heart rate, Edgar is required only to stand firm and make one shot count. Something he’s done often in his political career.

Of course, it’s not limited to swords or pistols. In 1843, two men fought a duel by throwing billiard balls at each other. Others have used sledgehammers or forks. Abraham Lincoln, once challenged to a duel, chose to fight with cow dung (his challenger then declined and issued a public apology).

It’s time to bring back dueling, that wonderful, nine-hundred-year-old tradition. It was popular in the Baltic in the studentenverbingdungen or fraternities. A schmiss or mensur scar on the face was a mark of distinction for a Baltic noble. And politicians took part, too. Four British Prime Ministers fought duels (William Petty, William Pitt, George Canning, and Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington). The American president, Andrew Jackson, fought thirteen duels, though all before he became president.

I propose this coming Saturday. Dawn is the traditional dueling hour, as it’s free of interruptions. The field of honour? The grounds beneath the freedom monument, of course. What could be more fitting than armed combat under Estonia’s ten-million-dollar Balkenkreuz?

I recommend swords. This will serve to show the world that Mr. Savisaar is, in fact, a sporting man, and in the event of his victory, will leave less bitterness in the ranks of Mr. Ansip’s peers.
As for seconds, Mr. Savisaar should bring his wife. A natural second for Mr. Ansip would be Mart Kadastik. These are merely dramatic suggestions, and the duelists themselves will fill out their rosters. By tradition, three is the number of seconds for each party.

Of course, dueling etiquette of the Code Duello clearly forbids interclass battles. If Ansip or Savisaar is of a higher social class than the other, the duel may not be permitted. If that is the case, however, it is permissible under the Code for he of the higher class to beat the other with a cane. Or, if he finds that distasteful, he may order his servants to perform the task.

In all cases, my proposal will temporarily restore honour in Estonian politics and end the trading of insults and petty carping. And satisfaction shall be had. At least by the public.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Moving the Peanut

Sitting in an airport bar, my boss Ted shelled a peanut and put the kernel on the countertop between us. “I push it to you,” he said. “You push it back to me.” I nudged it back his way. “Now,” he said, pushing it my way again, “we’re moving the peanut. If we wear neckties and do this ad infinitum, this is called a career.”

And that was how Ted, fifty-eight years old and owner of one of America’s most successful advertising agencies, viewed the office grind. His theory was that ninety percent of the work we do is meaningless and that many of the people he employed were there for largely ceremonial purposes.

Working freelance in a crisis economy has stripped away the fat from my work life and shown me which jobs were simply peanut moving. Editing and writing for local English-language magazines? Gone. Despite my best efforts to create quality, advertisers seemed to only want something cheap. The Moscow jobs where I was paid good sums to stay awake through hours of market research presentations? Gone, too. You don’t need market research to sell soap to Russians: paint the package gold and say it’s “lux.”

I’ve been reading lately in the Estonian press about saneerimine, which I understand is the equivalent in laymen’s terms of getting protection from creditors while you fire a truckload of people and make the survivors work harder.

Like the receptionist. She gets fired and they put the youngest, least valuable employee closest to the door. He’s too inexperienced to see the writing on the wall and so he’ll still smile at guests. The company drivers are the next to go. These are glorified deliverymen, and all the company bigshots drive their own cars, anyway. Next go the boss’ mistress and his various friends, relatives, and pinginaabrid still on the company payroll. Then goes the blonde bombshell marketing manager, the Estonian CEO’s ultimate fashion accessory. After the staff is reduced, the socialist trappings are cut. The company starts charging employees for coffee. The order for corporate-logoed ski jackets is canceled and the company ski event in Otepää is rescheduled—for July. Employees are made to pay for personal calls. Finally go the company cars. After much hand wringing, the board of directors decides that an employee doesn’t need a BMW 7-series to drive from his apartment in Kesklinn to the office in Kesklinn. And then so much for underground parking…

Ah, the crisis. It can turn a job into work.

I was stopped on the street the other day by ETV and asked if I was suffering because of the crisis. Was I cutting back on my cultural caloric intake and attending fewer plays and shows? Damn right, I said. I explained how I now see everything in its fully-taxed splendor. That coffee in Old Town might be priced at 25 kroons, but as both employer and employee, it will cost me enough in taxes to make it a 40-kroon cup. And I told the interviewer I also didn’t have the several thousand kroons anymore to take the family to a Saku Suur Hall “Broadway” production of Phantom of the Opera, which would turn out to star the understudies of the understudies of the understudies. I’ve become so suspicious of any heavily advertised show, that if Kivirähk, Tüür, or Pärt hasn’t written it, my wife Liina has to both pay for my ticket and promise to buy me a half dozen Byeli Aist brandies at intermission. For my money, I’d rather see Chalice’s Phantom. Though I still don’t understand why a grown man would go by the name “goblet.”

See what happens when you take away my peanut? Fog enshrouds the soul. A foul mood sets in.

But I have faith. I read somewhere that the Estonian state employs nearly 160,000 people, an astronomical percentage of Estonia’s work force. The state is currently thinking, reflecting, coming up with a plan. One hundred and sixty thousand is a lot of peanut movers. And that movement requires the tax money of those who really do churn the wheels of industry. Hopefully, that’s you and me, my friend. So cross your fingers. And keep your peanut ready.

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