Johnson’s Russia List #6547, 12 November 2002
I live in Kiev, Ukraine. To get to and from work, I use gypsy cabs. I would say that in Kiev, one out of five private cars on the road is driven by a person willing to suspend his plans for half an hour in order to earn an extra $2, so the moment I raise my hand, a private car stops to pick me up. A very telling statistics: their “real” job can wait or it does not exist at all. Here in Ukraine, it seems that only those who steal other people’s money, bandits and tax inspectors that is, earn enough.
Working five days a week and commuting to and from work in gypsy cabs, I am traveling with ten perfect strangers a week. A valuable experience, since I like listening to people. But there is one thing that never fails to happen: the moment I get in a car, my new driver turns on the radio, loud. “Can we turn the radio off, please”, I must say that fast, when the driver can still hear me. To that highly unusual request, I get two reactions: “But why???” or “OK, what your favorite station?” My answer, “I do not want to listen to the radio”, is greeted by stunned silence, bordering on utter disbelief. I am waiting for the summer to take off my pants in the car: I want to see if that would match the astonishment. It is clear: Ukrainians have taken to the radio, in a big way.
Now, Ukraine is a country that has much more than its share of problems. Per capita income is about $30 per month, the infrastructure is crumbling, the health care system has collapsed, there is a raging AIDS epidemic, and the heroin addiction is becoming almost as widespread as alcoholism. Most importantly, the Ukrainian state is actively at war against people’s hope for a better future.
There once was in Russia and Ukraine a religious sect called skobtsy. Male members of the sect thought that the best thing they could do for themselves was to amputate their own penis. Ukrainian economic science has taken much from this proud cultural tradition. One problem with the sect was its members were not procreating, but then the population of Ukraine also decreased almost by 10% within this last 10 years. The fate of Ukraine is currently being determined by its President, Leonid Kuchma, and Mr. Kuchma is impeccable. One journalist who opposed Mr. Kuchma ran around like a headless chicken but still could not peck at the President : because his body was really found without a head.
One would think that with so many problems Ukrainians would not have so much time for the radio. It is the middle of your workday and you are driving somewhere. It is a good time to think about your next appointment, to plan your week, or to call the junior on your cell phone to make sure he is not sticking a heroin needle into his arm. Yet, Ukrainians are listening to Britney. The Ukrainians tune their lives right out to make sure that days fly by without making an impact. A sixteen year old constantly listening to his Walkman is in many ways like an eighty six year old: he wants nothing, he is retired, he lives in his dreams, he is deaf, and tomorrow he may be dead.
Here, we have several issues to consider.
We want to build a democracy in Ukraine, that is, a society that would create economic opportunities. Democracy would create inequality, it would remove an excuse for not being successful, for not working hard enough - but economic opportunities are supposed to outweigh these perceived drawbacks.Yet, when Ukrainians are given a perfect opportunity to think about their lives while being passengers in a car, apparently, all of them demand loud music. We cannot build a democracy in a country where there is no insistent demand or at least an awareness of the benefit that democracy brings about: an opportunity to construct YOUR life in YOUR country. What free elections: in Ukraine, pirated CDs are already as cheap as can be, and there are no other pressing issues. In a car, there is no secret police, no political pressure: yet, Ukrainians choose to tune out on their own volition.
But could it be that spending all your waking time listening to Britney is life? If so, it is appropriate to welcome the existence of a whole new species. Homo Sapiens has certain well-defined characteristics: he (note that homo is male, and so in this instance I am actually politically correct in using a “he” to refer to my subject, rather than the ubiquitous Japanese, he-or-she), has five senses, he works, and he is self-aware, which means that seeks to actively control his own life, and he is dependent on oxygen, water, and food. An extremely important characteristic of Homo Sapiens is his capacity to use language, to express complex ideas using it, and to logically think, constructing this language in one’s own mind. If so, then Homo Audiot, is indeed a new species. First, the Audiot has an urgent need to connect its ears to a Walkman and to glue its eyes to a screen. His right hand holds a remote control or a computer mouse at all times when he is not asleep and increasingly when he is having sex (or “sex”, which he is also having). The Audiot is referred to as “dead” when his phone battery goes down, yet, there are so many recordings of him he can pretend to be alive long after having been buried. The Audiot is not self-aware: he is so engrossed in a soccer game taking place in Brazil that his fly stays open for hours; he may zip it up, in a gesture of impatience, only during a commercial interruption. The Audiot’s world is very fragile: McDonald’s may have inadvertently killed off the tourist industry by claiming that Big Macs taste the same everywhere you go. Yet, the Audiot is a master of the entire known world, which he designates to suit its purposes. In an effort to get some sun, the Audiot flies from the Andriy-Shevchenko-land to Luis-Figo-land and returns tanned, knowing very well how much do CDs cost over there. As far as physical appearance, the Audiot is noticeably fatter than the Homo Sapiens; the Audiot does not walk. In fact, physical abilities are of no consequence to an Audiot as he is thoroughly device-dependent. Stephen Hawking, a paralyzed British physicist, could have been a perfect example of an Audiot specimen, but, unfortunately, Hawking can think.
It should be noted that Audiots do not have a language: Ukrainians do not talk since they are listening to Britney, and as they do not know the English words and sounds she uses, they do not understand the wisdom she imparts. American Audiots are even worse: they understand what Britney is saying, yet listen to her anyway.
Audiots exist all over the industrialized world, and it is important to repeat that they are thoroughly dependent on technical devices. One such technical device is a democratic system of government. If Audiots remote-control it, they can exist, but Audiots that cannot get access to this device are a sorry sight, indeed, as they resemble beetles whose legs have been torn out.
Ukraine is getting the wrapper without the candy inside. A German businessman buys a Mercedes because he has created another 100 jobs; a Ukrainian buys a Mercedes, because he sold off a hundred machine tools from a factory he has been stripping. American students may listen to Britney, but they do not cheat on their exams and end up having a profession. Ukrainian students listen to Britney while earning money they need to bribe their professors.
I could have written some more, but I was interrupted by a tragedy that took place in our courtyard. A human life is sacred, even if it is a life of an Audiot. When a person dies, a part of me dies as well, and this is exactly what happened. At first, I heard it, very loud, “I’M NOT A GIRL, NOT YET A WO:” But then there was silence, silence incompatible with life. What could have happened to make the Audiot turn the hit song off? Far away from the scene, I tried a mental mouth-to-mouth: “NOT YET A WOMAN, NOT YET A WOMAN”, I screamed inside. But the melody never returned: My heart is aching; this piece is over.