Russia

DOWN AND OUT

Not everyone is sharing in the new Russia’s riches

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU November 29 2004
Russia

DOWN AND OUT

Not everyone is sharing in the new Russia’s riches

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU November 29 2004

DOWN AND OUT

Russia

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU

Not everyone is sharing in the new Russia’s riches

Maclean’s Contributing Editor Alexandre Trudeau has reported from Moscow on the Nerv Russians and their wealth (Nov. 15), as well as the Communist old guard (Nov. 22). In this week’s instalment, the last of his series, he writes about those who are not sharing in the riches of Russian capitalist?!.

NADEDJA IVANOVNA lives in a concrete jungle on the fringes of Moscow, an area made up of row after row of cement block housing. Before arriving at her building, photographer Heidi Hollinger and I stop at a store to pick up something to bring to her. The bright mini-mart offers some 30 varieties of cheese and a huge selection of fruit. Even in remote and rough suburban Moscow, Soviet consumer austerity is a thing of the past. You can now purchase whatever you want in Moscow, if you have the money.

Nadedja’s flat is accessed off a dark and grimy stairwell that smells of urine and boiled cabbage. The apartment is minuscule: a one-square-metre kitchen and a tiny bedroom/sitting room. Nadedja is a little, bent-over old woman of about 65. She is slowly going blind.

Her sitting room is dominated by portraits of the same man: her son, Vladimir Yatsina. He is seen in various poses: as a young man in his military uniform, with his camera, outside in the snow. Vladimir was a photojournalist for a Moscow news agency, and a friend of Heidi’s. A few years ago, he went to Chechnya, but on arrival at the airport in Grozny he was apprehended by some Chechens. They hustled Vladimir into the mountains and demanded a ransom for his release. He was regularly marched from one hiding place to another, but Vladimir had a bad heart and had trouble keeping up. On one arduous trek, he lagged badly behind. His Chechen kidnappers executed him on the spot and left his body there.

Nadedja lives for only one thing: to get her

son’s remains back, and to bury his bones so that she herself can die in peace. Some efforts were made. But the mountains belong to the Chechens, and Russian search parties are not welcome there.

Nadedja exemplifies the plight of the old and downtrodden. In ruthless Russia, the elderly and ailing have to rely on the young

to survive. With the death of her only son, Nadedja was cast to the wind. She receives a pension of 1,500 rubles a month—about US$50, barely enough to cover her medicines. Her name, Nadedja, means hope.

IN MOSCOW, there are few actual taxis. But to get a ride, all you have to do is stand with

your hand out. Before long, someone will stop. Almost invariably, the car is a beat-up Lada. You tell the driver where you want to go and negotiate a price. Four dollars worth of rubles will get you halfway across town.

This unofficial taxi service is a catch-basin job for thousands of unemployed men. All that is required is a vehicle, and Russians

can keep old Ladas running for years with pocket change. Understandably, the driver profile is usually a pretty rough one. Niceties are not the norm: you get in the car, the man behind the wheel barks at you, you bark at him, and you are off.

Dima is a pleasant exception. His Lada doesn’t smell of sweat, stale cigarette smoke

and booze. He is gentle, even soft-spoken, and becomes my driver of choice during my stay in Moscow. Dima is a Russian from Ukraine who has lived in Moscow for five years. His story is a common one. He came to the Russian capital to find work, but the Moscow city authority is extremely frugal in meting out new residence permits, lest the city become overrun by castaways seeking employment in the only place in Russia where work is plentiful. Legal employment in Moscow, though, requires a valid residency permit. So, to get by, Dima, like many others in his position, has resorted to offering up his car as an unofficial taxi.

“I am Russian, but because I lived in Ukraine when the Soviet Union split apart, I now have only Ukrainian citizenship,” he tells me. “I have applied for Russian papers, but they require that I have a valid residency permit somewhere in Russia. But to acquire Moscow residency, where I actually live, I need to have Russian citizenship or proof of employment in Moscow. What am I going to do?” He shrugs. “I just keep driving.” Russians like Dima are in sharp contrast to the wealthy and exuberant New Russians. These masses struggle to eke out their own little existence. They work, get money, buy food, stay out of trouble and hope no great misfortune befalls them. If something bad

should happen, they endure their suffering like Russians. They don’t complain because no one will listen. Broken down, they keep their heads up, almost proud, almost saying: “Look how well we can suffer!”

Dima has very little to gain or to lose from changes at the top. I ask him what he thinks of President Vladimir Putin, and his latest manoeuvres to acquire more power. “What do I care?” he says. “It is none of my business. Putin does his thing, I do mine.”

One day, Heidi and I get Dima to drive us out of Moscow. Having already seen the New Russian dacha-

land, I tell Dima: “I want to see the end of Moscow.” We drive toward the southwest. Past the city’s outskirts, and the vast urban jungle of cement housing complexes—some of them old Soviet tenements, some brand new developments—we reach the rolling, forested hills of Russia. Here on the fringes of Moscow, they are still scarred by harsh pockets of industrialism: ominous thermal plants that fill the sky with acrid smoke, rusted factories surrounded by trash.

But old Russia also pokes its head up in these hills. Little villages of crooked wooden shacks emerge from the forests. So close to Moscow, these villages are slowly being devoured by the sprawling metropolis. But they still have dirt roads and cabbage patches. They are home to the aged: hunched-over babushkas

with dirty fingernails and beet-stained hands, dried-up, toothless old men wrapped in woollen coats and wearing peasant hats. As Heidi and I walk through one such village, they look right through us as if we weren’t there. Heidi approaches one old couple who are tearing the hinges from an old door on a trash heap. She asks them what they think of things in Russia these days. They ignore us for a moment, then finally shout: “What do you think? Look at what has become of our lives!”

When we get back in the car, Dima is angry about the old people’s reluctance to talk to us. “What are they so afraid about?” he complains. “They think they are still living in the days of Stalin, that at any moment they will be arrested and deported. As you can see, they are just out of it. Poor people.”

We drive on to the industrial town of Pogrolsk, where we stop for lunch. In a dingy little café, at the table next to ours, young university students are happily chatting away. We ask them if they care about politics. Yes, they answer, a little surprised. “Why are you surprised?” I ask. “Because most young people our age don’t care, but we happen to,” one says. “Why?” I wonder. “Maybe because we are economics and political science students,” another tells me. “We know our future depends on politics.” What do they think of Putin’s taking

IN THE NEW and ruthless Russia, those who are elderly and ailing have to rely on the young to survive

control of the governorships in the provinces, and of the lower house of government? It’s a little worrying, one student says, “but what can we do?” I ask them if they believe someone can succeed in politics or in

business in Russia—and at the same time be an honest person. They laugh. “No. Definitely not!”

Dima is happy. “You see the difference between the young and the old in Russia,”

he points out. “The young aren’t afraid.”

There was a time here, in the mid-1990s, when political parties and professional politicians of all types were legion. Those days are gone. Putin’s Unity party now has over 90 per cent of the seats in parliament, and widespread support. Despite some criticism, he is getting away with taking control of the media, and with expanding his power. There is even talk of him manoeuvring to change the constitution, so as to allow him to extend his presidency beyond the allotted two terms of four years each.

So far, the people most concerned about Putin’s machinations are other politicians whose livelihoods have dried up, and the iiber-rich oligarchs who are increasingly being targeted by the central government. Ironically, the erosion of democracy is being conducted with the support of the people, or at least with their relative indifference. It would seem that if there is hope for a stable democracy in Russia, if there is a chance for a less corrupt government and a less ruthless society, then Russians are first going to have to learn to care. I?!