Thursday, September 25, 2014

Blog Reactivation

For various reasons too convoluted to address at the moment, I was unable to continue with my blog for the duration of my incarceration. Over the coming months, I plan to re-activate this blog through new posts devoted to my experiences as well as the re-posting of previous posts devoted to my life behind bars that I was asked to remove. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Russia, do I Miss You?

Let Me Count The Ways...

I've been teaching Russian to a fellow inmate, a big, burly, lumberjack of a guy with a thick brown beard whom I'll call Paul. We've started, fittingly enough, with that most important category - swearwords - so the experience has been as useful for him as for me, dredging up as it has certain long-dormant words that were at one time crucial to my survival in rough-and-tumble Moscow. 

More seriously, it's been interesting for me to view Russia through Paul's eyes. You see, Paul plans to move to Russia the second after he's released from prison and the travel strictures of probation. He views Russia as a magical place free of America's more onerous societal and social mores. He dreams of vodka. And of pretty young Slavic girls unspoiled by American feminism. And of freedom from onerous taxation and pervasive surveillance. Of being able to think and act in a decidedly non-PC way.

In short, he dreams of being able to cavort and drink and swear and act in a Don-Draper-goes-international manner in which middle-age Americans have long ceased to indulge. Unsatisfied and disillusioned with the US and what he thinks he's learned (as an inmate) of its very flawed democracy, he's latched onto an even more flawed kleptocracy as the answer to his prayers.

The experience is interesting for me because Paul's view, with its focus on freedoms, is the opposite of how I've long thought of Russia. It's just been such a long time that I've heard the word "Russia" associated with the words "free" and "freedom" that it got me to thinking whether I ever thought the same.

Upon reflection, I realized that, once upon a time, way back when I first moved to the place in 1995, I did, although my markers were different: not the ability to drink or stay up all night but the transformation of a totalitarian system into what I thought was a new burgeoning democracy. I saw a Russia transforming before my very eyes, a Russia becoming (or so I thought) free and democratic. 

How depressingly wrong I was. In terms of freedom and development and openness and optimism so much has since changed for the worse. Not that Paul accepts my protestations: he's made up his mind that in Russia he'll be free to do as he pleases. And maybe he will, if what he pleases is to drink vodka all night. Just goes to show, I suppose, that one man's idea of heaven can be another man's idea of hell. 

As those of you who know me know, by the time I fled Moscow at the tip of the oligarch's sword those several years ago, I was incredibly disillusioned with the place. Burned out. Fed up.

Admiration had long since turned to hatred: for the more sordid aspects of the culture, for what I saw as a harsh indifference to equality and democracy, freedom and enlightenment, as a result of my experiences working with its corrupt and crude elite, its billionaire oligarchs.

The collective ideal still held by the majority, the big-brother-in-the-Kremlin-knows-best mentality, the stuck-in-the-peasantry attitudes toward gender and child-rearing and politics, the barely hidden xenophobia and racism, all of those things had soured me on Russia, despite my near-assimilation and the country's rich and deep culture. While I loved many Russians, I really had come to hate their country. Since then, it's only gotten worse, with Putin's ascendancy to near Stalin-like power and near-Stalin like demeanor.
So despite the awful circumstances of my departure, and my fervent wish to be wherever my family happens to be (which for much of the past three years was Russia), my overwhelming feeling for these past years was: good bye and good riddance. But you know what? I do, in my own way, miss the place. Not enough to go back. Or to wish I could recreate the mistaken bourgeoisie life that I so crudely shredded with my theft. But the fact is, Russia was a major part of my life for many years - a domineering parent, an overbearing friend, a dysfunctional spouse - but a major part nonetheless. 

As I sit here, images of my lost life - what I do miss - flash through my mind: of our "dvor", or courtyard, where my kids and I spent countless hours playing on the slide and the swings; of my first new car ever, a tiny green Czech Skoda that strained to reach 50 mph; of skating with my kids on a frigid winter afternoon on the frozen pond at Chistye Prudy, taking breaks for swigs of hot chocolate from a thermos; of evenings at the kitchen table with friends and family, eating sushi and sipping Georgian wine; of our apartment and khachapuri and traffic jams and bums and weddings.

In short, of life.

Russia was my life. For a long time. And the jarring, violent way that it was torn from me, like a jilted lover from my arms, still stings. Russia, for me, has come to represent everything I have lost.

I don't expect to go back. Ever. Nor do I really want to. My family, thank God, is no longer there and, unlike Paul, who in his disillusionment with the US has
latched onto a distant shangri la that is little more than a mirage, I don't idealize the place.

Despite my tepid nostalgia, the bad in my mind still far outweighs the good. For me, after all my travels, the US is good enough for me, even if my version of the US happens for the moment to be a prison.

The fact is, I've seen worse. So unlike Paul, and many other prisoners, who've essentially been disenfranchised from the system and view their country and government with disillusion, if not derision, I've finally realized where I belong. And, sad to say, it's not Russia, that failed kleptocracy across the sea. So until someone convinces me otherwise, or until I, like my inmate brothers become completely and totally disillusioned with this flawed old US of A, I guess I'll go on disliking the values and beliefs propounded by Putin and his ilk.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Blaming the Mailman...

...For Bad Financial News

Most evenings I anxiously await mail call in the hope that I'll receive a letter from friends or family. Barring that, I'll settle for the latest issue of New Yorker or Vanity Fair, the two magazines I subscribe to. This week, however, the mailman has been the bearer of little but bad news. Bad financial news, to be exact. It's not, to be sure, that I was expecting good financial news: haven't had much of that in quite some time. But this news truly takes the cake. 

On Monday, I received a notice from the IRS that I owe an additional $20,000 in back taxes. In my previous life, even before I stole money from the oligarch, this would have been little more than a pittance, a mild nuisance to be cured by sending a check the next day.

Not any more. In my current situation, $20,000 might as well be $20 million. Both are equally out of reach.

Then on Wednesday, just as I was recovering from the shock of the IRS bill, I received a notice from the Justice Department. This notice was formatted the same as a typical bill, just like the one you might get from the gas or phone company.

We've all seen them: a sheet of paper with a perforated section at the bottom to be detached and enclosed in the provided envelope together with a check for the requested amount. Even the language was the same: please pay this amount in full immediately, and in any event not later than the indicated date.

The only thing that set it apart from the typical utility bill was the amount. Instead of the usual gas or electricity bill of $50 or $80 or maybe even $100 in a particularly bad month, this bill was in the amount of $1,416,360.85.

I couldn't help but laugh. Then cry.

First, I should state right up front that no, this is not a typo; no misplaced comma or period here (unfortunately). This is the amount I owe in restitution, the difference between what I stole from the oligarch and what I returned to him; the amount our considerate federal government intends to collect from me over time and return to that billionaire Russian, sanctions notwithstanding. So the amount itself - though large and depressing - was not a surprise. I fully expected to have this humongous debt, this constant reminder of my crimes, hanging over me for the foreseeable future (if not the rest of my life). 

What surprised me was the unequivocal nature of the request itself: please pay NOW! As if I have that amount sitting in my bank account. As if the government doesn't already know of my dire financial straits. As if a repayment plan hasn't already been arranged.

While in prison, I pay $25/month toward restitution, an amount almost (but not quite) covered by my generous kitchen salary. At this rate of repayment, I've calculated, it will take me only about 4,000 years to repay the full amount. Unlike the restitution invoice, at least the IRS notice took account of reality: the response has a box that can be checked stating that I am currently unable to pay.

Unfortunately, not only do I not have any money in my checking account but I don't even have a checking account. Or a savings account. Or any account at all. You see, my actions and my incarceration have left me more-or-less destitute: much more in the red than in the black. 

The funny thing is that in prison it's not that much of an issue. There are many here worse off than me and my basic necessities - a roof over my head, food on my plate - are provided free of charge by our kindly government. And the extras - e-mail, phone, commissary treats - while not exactly cheap, are covered by considerate relatives.  

But what comes next - my eventual return, penniless, to the real world - is an endless cause for concern, despite the fact that it's still almost two years away. While I dream of little else of rejoining my family, rejoining the world, I can't help but stay up the occasional night worrying about how I'll support myself and my kids.

The depressing thing is that when I tell people here on the inside what I did - and I'm forced to do that nearly every day here in the treatment program - they can't believe I'm broke.

"Where's the money?," they ask. "Where'd you hide it?"

Many of them seem to seriously believe that I have a few million buried somewhere in a hole in the ground. Or a Swiss bank account. Either that, or they believe my protestations that I'm completely broke and consider me the biggest idiot in the history of the universe. Inmates tend to be a money-obsessed lot, and the vast sums that passed through my greedy hands are an endless source of fascination for many of them. 

That, however, is a topic for further exploration in some future post. As for now, I can't wait to see what comes in the mail next week.