The Vodka Diaries is my account of living and working in the Russian Far East as a Peace Corps Volunteer during the tumultuous, post Glasnost years of 1994 and 1995. It was a period in which people watched in shock as the economy collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation, and lawlessness eroded any sense of personal security.
I had joined the Peace Corps for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to make a difference in the world and the second was that I wanted one last adventure prior to entering a career in corporate America. My inspiration stemmed from an NPR segment in which a recently returned Peace Corps Volunteer discussed serving in Moscow as a Business Volunteer. She had been assigned to a team that created and managed the Moscow Stock Exchange. She exuberantly explained how she was able to contribute and make an immediate impact that was in stark contrast to how she envisioned her career path had she taken a position on Wall Street. I immediately contacted the Peace Corps.
The Vodka Diaries depicts my experiences living in a world in which capitalism was in its infancy, the Mafia controlled the local political and business environments and an anything-goes attitude resembling the “Wild West” took hold.
I was eager to jump in, but within days the reality of my situation set in as I witnessed car bombings, assassinations and shake downs. My initial idealism was a great motivator, but living in Russia was like a hard punch to the gut. My first two months consisted of living with a Russian family to better understand Russian culture and focus on learning the language. Nothing differentiates cultures more than the way we eat and drink . . . and I quickly became adept at both and formed a close relationship with Mama, Papa and my brother Timofey.
As a Small Business Volunteer, I managed a local Business Center in a city with a population of 100,000 whose primary industries were agriculture and mining. From a work perspective, my goal was to help Russian entrepreneurs write business plans, find Western investors and navigate the global marketplace. In reality, I struggled to earn the locals trust and struggled even harder to navigate the Russian way of doing business and the subsequent control of everything by the Mafia.
It was a struggle to learn the language and customs, but I persevered and developed meaningful relationships and eventually felt like I was part of the community. I reported to the mayor of the town, who also happened to be the head of the local Mafia, had regular clients at the business center, taught a Junior Achievement class, befriended an eighty-year-old pensioner and developed an active social life. I was the only American and one of only two foreigners to live in the city. The other foreigner was Chinese and ran the only restaurant in town. He spoke only a few words of Russian and zero English making our relationship one of hand signals and grunts.
In time I became a local celebrity, eventually being referred to by my neighbors as “Our American.” I was often interviewed on local news programs, attended parties in which I was expected to stand toe to toe with the Russian men when it came time to drink vodka, was the guest-of-honor at events honoring local politician. I even made a mistake of getting beaten up by another Mafia group that objected to my dancing with one of their girlfriends . . . which led to my being med-evacked to Washington, DC for six weeks.
Over time I was torn between sharing the anguish, fears and anger that permeated the lives of my Russian friends as their life savings dwindled and their hope for a better tomorrow took a back seat to mere survival while alternately living the high life with my Mafia buddies. The Mafia took me under their wing, and invited me to wild parties that could easily have come directly from the scenes of an American gangster movie.
I had been advised when signing up for the Peace Corps that to succeed as a Volunteer I would need to have patience, flexibility and a sense of humor. Russia was a new country for the Peace Corps and our host country had great difficulty accepting humanitarian aid from a former enemy and found it equally suspicious that Americans would give up lucrative jobs and lives back home to suffer with them with limited amenities. I needed every bit of patience, flexibility and humor as I dealt with months of cold showers, inconsistent transportation, animal attacks, Rabies shots, conniving girlfriends and more glasses of vodka then I can recall. Despite the challenges, I grew to love the people, admiring their courage and ability to push through the harsh realities of a nation in flux.
The Vodka Diaries: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Adventures in Russia
Richard Sayette (Russain Far East 1994–95)
Peace Corps Writers