Back in the USSR 

Alfred Kokh grew up as the nation he knew was slowly falling apart.

What's it like to belong to the last generation that ever grew up in a nation that no longer exists? Ask Alfred Kokh. Now a mathematician, philanthropist, economist, and entrepreneur, Kokh served as the USSR's first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and as head of Russia's State Property Committee. A runaway bestseller upon its publication in Russia two years ago, his book A Crate of Vodka — whose English translation, by Antonina W. Bouis, is being released this month — is a wry, unscathing look back. It takes the form of a dialogue between Kokh and his coauthor, the journalist Igor Svinarenko; each of its twenty chapters represents another conversation over another bottle of vodka, shared as the pair discuss being young in an era that Kokh will revisit during his lecture, "Twenty Years that Shook Russia," in 223 Moses Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on April 30, sponsored by the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

He considers the year 1984 a worthwhile point of comparison. Just as during "all the years of stagnation" that surrounded it, in 1984 Russians appreciated small pleasures because such pleasures were all they could get. "Numerous books were accessible — Faulkner, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Hemingway," Kokh remembers. "And what great science fiction! Lem, Asimov, Bradbury, the Strugatsky brothers, and H.G. Wells. You could read and lose yourself." Reflecting on an era when personal space was scarce and many neighbors typically shared a single toilet, he adds: "When you realize where the bar was — and it was very low — then a [cheap Russian-made] Vostok watch made you as happy as a Rolex."

Nonetheless, "we sensed that it was changing." Watching a 1984 TV broadcast of the Moscow rock band Mashina Vremeni, whose name means "Time Machine" and whose biggest influence was the Beatles, "I had a sense that the finale was sneaking up ... that the machine was running down." Until then, Kokh had believed "that I would have to be a secret dissident all my life" in a family where his father was a devoted career Communist — "though, really, what he wanted with the Communists I don't know. They screwed him when he was six."

Currently working with the Atlantic Council toward improving Western-Russian relations, Kokh funds an annual Russian prize in mathematics as well as the work of independent filmmakers and organizations that fund pediatric heart surgery and youth wrestling competitions. The underground spirit that inspired him twenty-plus years ago is worth reviving now, he avows: "During the stagnation period we had the official line, which was later destroyed by the alternative culture. And now the official line is appearing again. So we will have to develop an alternative culture again — show the young people how it's done." 4 p.m., free.


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