Alessandra Stanley,

Alessandra Stanley,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 20 1997 3:30 AM

Alessandra Stanley,

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       Another brush with organized crime this morning. An early morning phone call from our local extortionist reminding Michael, just back from Israel, to remind me to pay the December "zvyatka." Or else.
       He was scared. I don't blame him. I threw on a coat over my pajamas and raced out the door with the money in a plain white envelope.
       "Zvyatka" is a bribe in Russian, and one of the more common business transactions in Moscow. This particular local extortionist is Alla Yurevna, director of Children's Home No. 242, across the street from our building. We pay her $100 a term, and she allows our preschoolers to play in her school's empty playground for half an hour a day.
       The one time I forgot to make the payment on time, she locked the gate and scared the teacher, Masha, so bad she got hives.
       We didn't start out with criminal intentions. Our preschool is basically one room in our building, with about 10 kids and their Russian teacher, Masha. We don't have a playground in our building complex, just a small concrete courtyard that is used for parking. Next door, there is Alla Yurevna's school, with a fairly nice playground--if you don't mind broken glass, jagged wires, and wood slides with splinters. Her school's enrollment has dropped to fewer than 10 children and the playground is never used. So, we parents figured we could put it to better use and started sending our children there for recess.
       In one of those clumsy Western attempts at doing well by doing good, we also started buying educational toys now and then for Alla Yurevna's charges, as a kind of thank you. One day she picked up the Montessori-style abacus we had proudly donated, looked at it as if it were a dead mouse, and said, "I'll take the cash, thank you."
       I only mention this because that is basically how Russian capitalism was built. (And because I don't want readers to get the idea that life in Moscow is one big party.) After the Soviet Union and its command economy collapsed, some Russians found themselves in control of oil fields, factories, art treasures, and playgrounds that other people suddenly wanted really bad. And while the state theoretically still owned everything, it rarely interfered in these backdoor bartering and business deals. All over Russia, people like Alla Yurevna started saying, "I'll take the cash, thank you." And when people like me failed to pay up, then their big, strong, unfriendly cousins from Dagistan would show up at the door at strange hours.
       Some of you, like me, may still be wondering whatever happened to Kim Philby's silver cocktail shaker. It was sold. I asked the superspy's widow, Rufina, what happened to it, and she says it did get sold at Sotheby's in 1994 along with his papers.
       I went over to her house, the Philby apartment, to check the shelves myself. All that's left are his books (lots of John Le Carré--a tad narcissistic, I thought), some teacups, and an Italian landscape painting smuggled to him via the KGB from Anthony Blunt after Philby's defection. I was tempted to steal his paperback copy of his own book, My Secret War. But I didn't. I was still holding out for the shaker.
       Rufina can't remember who bought it, and Sotheby's wouldn't say. She said she thought it--and most everything else--was bought by an American, an ex-CIA man who collects spy paraphernalia. I asked her idly, "Was it Aldrich Ames?" But that name didn't ring a bell. But it seems like somewhere in suburban Virginia, an elderly Cold Warrior is mixing martinis with my cocktail shaker.

Alessandra Stanley is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.