Our translator, who I'll call Olga and was one of the very few in her once-closed city to speak English, explains that yes, indeed, her city did have some entrepreneurs but they would be difficult to find.
We ask why. Olga sighs and looks at Doug and I like we are a little slow.
'This is Russia,' she says. 'For years, everybody earned the same salary. Nothing. A doctor was paid the same as a janitor. We all had small apartments. We stood in the same lines to get fresh meat.'
Ugly American journalists
OK, Doug and I say, still not getting it. We have just two days to pull together interviews chronicling the new capitalists, and we feel a little desperate. Our Alaska Airlines flight is the first on a new international route, and my stories and Doug's photos would unveil to our state the once mysterious Cold War foe.
But we come up with nothing. We had just gone through a bustling open-air market, where people sold everything from pirated compact discs, electronics, produce and baked goods. Nobody would talk to us. One grizzled character even raised his arms and shouted what I believe were expletives at Olga while pointing in our direction. Even the shoppers gave us the evil eye after that.
We sit on a park bench nearby and Olga says, 'This is a communist country. If one man has more than his neighbor, it is considered wrong.'
Then Olga tells us this little story. I'm a little foggy on the details but here's the gist: A man works hard on a little garden he maintains in the country, earning enough to buy a goat. This goat produces milk that feeds his family, making his children strong. Food is rationed then and hard to come by. People stand in long lines for hours just to get a chunk of cheese or loaf of bread. He sells the extra milk to supplement his salary at the factory.
The man lives in a tiny apartment but keeps the goat on his dacha, a postage stamp of land just outside the city. He must visit the goat in the morning and night. She soon gives him two kids. In a couple years, he has four goats and is making good money off milk and vegetables. His children are healthy, and his wife is happy.
However, his neighbors don't like his changing fortunes. They want what he has. But rather than starting their own gardens and getting their own goats, the solve it Soviet style.
They beat the guy up, burn his garden and kill his goats. 'You're no better than we are,' they say.
The parable is roughly the same as Nickolai Gogol's 'The Overcoat,' which I devoured as a grade-schooler. I mention this to Olga and she smiles and nods.
Sticking with the status quo
The neighbors in the story remind me of the oil industry. They're secure with the status quo and wary of change. Rather than encourage the pursuit of other sources of industry, they'd prefer to stick with the familiar.
That short-sightedness didn't do much for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When President Reagan said, 'Tear down that wall,' he knew it was already full of cracks.
Lobbyists for the fossil-fuel industry aren't looking too far beyond the next election. That short-term view may hamstring Big Oil and Big Coal at some point, especially as the international cry for curbs on carbon dioxide production increases and weather patterns continue to change.
Cracks are forming in our fossil-fuel economy, too. Added costs of extraction for oil, natural gas and coal boost viability of renewable energy. And people generally are getting sick of polluted air and the illness it brings.
Rather than kill the goat, the oil industry could buy a flock of them and maybe convince its friends in Congress that favorable policy for his new green ventures would be beneficial economically and -- heaven forbid -- environmentally.
Two decades to clean air
In fact, a new study by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California, Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi says the world can be fully powered by alternative energy in 20 to 40 years with existing technology and at about the same cost as conventional energy.