Viewpoint: The Last Tochka

The last illicit liquor store of a small hamlet in the Latvian seaside just went out of business. What does it tell about the place, and perhaps the Latvian countryside in general? Alexander Krasnitsky, editor-in-chief of LSM's Russian-language service, gives an answer in a piece relating the recent history of the village he lives in. 

A watershed event happened in the last days of 2015 in a hamlet where this correspondent lives. The last tochka in the former fishermen's village closed for good, being driven out of business by much-lamented demographic shifts in Latvia's countryside and cut-throat competition with retail chains.

Tochka is the Russian word literally meaning "point", "dot" or "spot". No scientific theory plausibly explains how these innocent and almost-scientific meanings mutated into "a place (usually a house, a barn or sometimes a car) where somebody illegally sells booze for takeaway".

Yet in the Soviet Newspeak a lot of things were named tochka (often used interchangeably with German-rooted "punkt"). The word almost always meant a less than permanent entity serving an essential purpose: "med(ical) punkt" staffed by a nurse where a fully fledged doctor's practice was long overdue or "ognevaya tochka" (literally -- fire point, meaning "makeshift weapon emplacement") instead of solid long-term fortification.

And yes, there was also "torgovaya tochka" (trading post, usually small and with nothing to trade except kerosene-scented vodka). This correspondent doesn't know when the Russian tochka entered colloquial Latvian, but he vouches that the word was an integral part of it in the early XXI century when he became the proud owner of an old wooden house in a seaside village fifty kilometers from Riga.

Back then, according to the locals, several tochkas operated in the hamlet. Some pushed real homemade moonshine. Others peddled liquids of psychedelic colors and with smells nasty enough to get a UN chemical weapons inspector interested. There were also those who resold perfectly legal liquor, but without a proper license and in completely illegal hours.

Where have all the tochkas gone? It's quite easy to work out. Most of their clientele have departed long ago: many to work in the "Old EU", others to eternal rest in graveyards.

The choice of location for a new graveyard (the old one is close to saturation point) is currently the hottest topic in local public discourse, usually shaped by the things well beyond control of the local council -- despite the fact that it publishes the only media specifically devoted to local life. It's monthly and it's free (notionally: it is paid for from the municipal budget).

This writer adores this bulletin and waits for it to be delivered with great eagerness: it covers (invariably good) work of the council members with the assiduousness of North Korea's state information agency reporting Kim Jong-un's meeting with top military brass. It also cheerfully congratulates newborns and solemnly mourns the deceased, listing all of them by names. A typical monthly body count is three arrivals to eight departures. That's the new normal, but this writer remembers really abysmal months, like zero to thirteen (and once there was a positive anomaly — seven to three).

Minors do not drink moonshine; some elders obviously do. Or did. However demography alone cannot explain the hard fact of the last tochka going bust. Outmigration played a significant role.

On the surface, it's pretty strange: it's a nice place to live, with the sea and a lake within a spitting distance, with good asphalt road leading to the next village complete with very decent pre-school and middle school and a doctor's practice further up the coast to Riga. But sadly that is exactly the road many locals of working (and therefore both of child-bearing and legal drinking) age have taken, with some settling in Riga and others as far away as Svalbard and Madeira.

There is work on faraway shores, but not here.

Regional specialties -- fishing and fish processing -- are either dead or dying, with EU fishing quotas having much greater impact than recent Kremlin "counter-sanctions". Yes, there are still a couple of small fish-processing factories, restaurants, guesthouses, sawmills, cargo forwarding companies, car repair shops, a large road constriction enterprise and even a small factory producing car spares for the top German brands. But they cannot make up for the hundreds of jobs subsidized by the Soviets' long-defunct "fishery collective farms".

But in the era of the global village it seems weird: 50 kilometers surely should not be that great a commute to prevent somebody looking for a job in Riga or, for that matter, in Tukums, a fairly industrialized town 30 kilometers in the opposite direction. However this nice logic of internal workforce mobility does not stand a chance in a head-on collision with the logic of national public transportation policy.

Bus schedules are compiled centrally, on a national scale, much like under the Soviets and sometimes with approximately the same Soviet-style care for the real needs of real people. Secondly, ticket prices are set centrally as well and these are heavily skewed to make the electric railroad look more appealing that diesel-powered buses. Thirdly, tariffs are unified, and as a result the same rule -- that "the bus is always a way more expensive option" -- applies even in places with no railroad at all.

You can go to Tukums for 1.80 euro one way -- but just three times a week. (the bus comes every other day). There is Jurmala, halfway to Riga, but they have few jobs on offer in Jurmala, except in summer months (and a ticket costs close to 1.50 euro one way). A seventy-minute ride to Riga costs 2.40 euros, so with no discounted monthly tickets offered, one should be ready to spend something close to 7 euros each day (you usually need to move around in Riga as well) just for the joy of getting to work and back home.

That's over 150 euros per month altogether -- close to London prices. But unlike London, in Riga entry-level jobs are usually paid close to the official minimum wage, i.e. roughly 280 euro post-tax. No political party in Latvia even in the heat of an election campaign would dare to call 130 euros left after transportation expenses a living wage. And let's be sensible: you can rent a room in Riga for less and save yourself 140 minutes of life every day as a bonus.

Yet a lot of people do commute to Riga: the early morning and the late evening buses are filled quite well, even the last one from Riga (departs at 9 pm, and if you don't catch it, you'd better start looking for a free spot under one of Riga's bridges -- there will be no other bus until 7.30 am).

Passengers of the last buses usually fall into three distinct but roughly equally sized groups. Those who belong to the first one fall asleep barely taking their seats (priming alarm clocks in their cellphones before that, though: to wake up at night to realize that you’ve missed your bus stop and now are traversing a forest in the very middle of dark nowhere makes the idea of sleeping under the good sturdy concrete bridge in Riga almost appealing -- there will be no return bus until 6 o'clock in the morning). Members of the second group start to unscrew caps from their bottles even before the engine starts. They fall asleep later, usually halfway through Jurmala.

The third group is occupied by their laptops, tablets or smartphones. Some watch movies or chat online (wi-fi is free at least), but many read serious stuff -- like online language courses. Nowadays it is German - it was Norwegian a couple of years ago and Dutch and English before that.

Middle-aged and older-generation locals usually have a source of income closer to home. Again, it's strange -- but they do take up entry-level jobs scorned by the youth. Moreover, usually they work part-time, just enough to settle their scores with the State Revenue Service and to cut off any intrusive questions. They spend rest of the time in the informal economy.

At this point this writer must beg his patient reader for pardon and inject another odd word into his notes. Here you are: haltura (pronounced 'khaltoorah”). Again, originating in Russian, it thrives now in colloquial Latvian as well. Earlier haltura meant either work not properly done or extra work taken informally after the main work (usually to the detriment of the latter) and occasionally both.

For example, a Soviet master plumber could repair somebody's kitchen sink in his spare time -- but using tools and materials issued to him by his official employer -- and not necessarily sticking to whatever standards of quality the Soviet master plumbers had. Of course he was paid in cash. Nowadays haltura means virtually any work undertaken without a proper formal contract.

This writer knows of haltura builders, car repairmen, hairdressers, chimney-sweeps, people who operate sewage trucks etc. Virtually every trade in demand here is covered by haltura practitioners.

These are way cheaper than chartered companies – by up to 3 times or sometimes even more (and that provides a good idea of the tax and administrative burden of running a fully legal business in Latvia).

Besides, despite popular belief, life in a city is cheaper than in the countryside. To be more precise, life in a village is cheap only if you agree to live the way people did a century ago: with firewood stoves, toilet in the backyard, no running water and so on. This correspondent cannot say a thing about the price of firewood in 1916, but nowadays even firewood is cheap only if you know where to safely steal it or at least you know somebody who knows.

There is electricity these days, and you need a plenty of it, because virtually everything you do -- preparing your food, heating your water, pumping it up from a borehole and treating it to make it safe -- you do by burning up kilowatts. Modern communications are also available: several years ago this writer approached Lattelecom (the only provider) to get wired to the Internet. He was told to pay 2 300 euros upfront for burying a hundred-meter cable in the ground ("designing a dedicated trench is expensive").

A certain workaround was found locally, the overall budget collapsed to around 350 euros, and since then this correspondent can (for instance) send his scribbles  via a connection that in a city would have been considered tolerably fast 15 years ago. Yet it costs twice the price customers in Latvian cities pay for a modern 100 Megabit connection.

Designing (or, rather, digging) the trench for the aforementioned Internet cable would be impossible without a practitioner of haltura.

Curiously, there are almost no abandoned houses in the village. People move out, but other people move in. Usually these belong to the middle-middle or upper-middle classes. They are already well-established and feel no need to look for local jobs: they have good ones in Riga. Most of them do not live locally permanently and do not even register as residents (and therefore do not make into local statistics). They spend weekends and holidays here and semi-permanently settle in for the summer. They are not locals -- but they already make a difference.

At the end of the day it was they who -- unwittingly -- killed the last tochka. To cater to their needs a retail chain moved into the hamlet and occupied an old Soviet shop's premises (the building had stood empty for years). Unlike the local shops, which were so small they were unable to stay open late, the chain mini-market closes at 10 pm, making even tochkas redundant.

10 pm satisfies the demands of virtually all serious local drinkers. Only a select few desperado holdouts would crave booze in the real heat of the night, and they are far from sufficient to make the legal risks of running a tochka worth the trouble.

As to these newcomers -- they are willing to drink big-label whisky and brandy but not the mysterious vodka of old. In any case, whatever their other skills, these just-moved-ins simply don't know where to go and how many times to knock at the secret backdoor of a tochka. And now they will never learn, as the last one has closed for good.

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