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1 December 2003

Russia 1 – Too big? Too cold? Or just ungovernable?

Russians go to the polls in a few days. Moscow's super-rich may give the brutal new consumer culture

By Helen Womack

Life in Russia may have improved in some ways, but the paper-pushing under President Vladimir Putin is as ponderous as ever. I run from bureaucracy to bureaucracy, chasing the necessary documents to reside in Moscow, and reacquaint myself with the city I knew through the years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and Boris Yeltsin’s free-market reforms.

With parliamentary elections due in December and the Kremlin leader facing re-election next March, international journalists will soon descend in droves to deliver a verdict on the first four years of Putin’s rule.

I reconnect cautiously, taking nothing for granted. What looks familiar may be changed deep inside; what seems different may just have a new coat of paint. The Russians have not dispensed with pokazukha – laying on a show to impress visitors. When St Petersburg celebrated its 300th anniversary earlier this year, the city erected high metal fences to hide the homes of the poor from visiting foreign delegations. Mindful of the old saying that you cannot understand Russia with your brain, only with your heart, I am trying to feel my way towards a fair assessment. The bottom line is: are ordinary Russians finally living any better?

The Russian woman on the plane out to Moscow gave a lesson in the danger of jumping to conclusions. Her name was Galya. She had flame-red hair and tarty clothes. She said she had been working in England. Selling herself in some sleazy bar, perhaps? No, she was an engineer on a North Sea oil rig.

“At first, they did not take my Soviet qualifications seriously,” she said. “I worked as a waitress in the canteen before I was promoted. I am happy to be pursuing my proper profession at last.” In the 1990s, many educated Russians took menial jobs to survive the turbulence of the transition from communism. Now Galya and her family have gone beyond mere survival and can afford to enjoy themselves.

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Central Moscow looks as solid and sleek as Berlin or Paris. High-fashion shops line Ulitsa Tverskaya, where once were dreary window displays of tinned salmon and mannequins in Crimplene. The chaotic street markets and kiosks that under Yeltsin were prototype shops are now replaced by proper stores and supermarkets. You can eat out almost as well as in London.

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If, that is, you have the money. For Russia has become a real capitalist country, unashamed of the divisions between rich and poor. In one shoe shop on Tverskaya, a pair of pointy-toed, fur-trimmed lady’s boots costs three times the monthly salary of a budgetnik, one of the army of teachers, scientists and other state employees whose salaries depend on the national budget.

It is not just the shops that fill one with awe. The cinema on the Arbat is showing The Return by Andrei Zvyagintsev, which won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and marked Russia’s comeback as a leading cultural nation. Theatres are packed and the nightclubs are buzzing. The city has been renovated. A new, marble-lined Metro station has opened; new bridges span the river, Stalin’s wedding-cake skyscrapers have been cleaned and fountains tinkle in the parks.

Credit for architectural improvements belongs to the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, rather than to Putin, who, with his KGB training, manages to be all things to all men. Apart from repressing Chechnya, emasculating the media and bashing oligarchs, he seems to have done little since coming to power in 2000. Then, his youth and sobriety ensured his popularity over Yeltsin, and perhaps still does. But has he created stability or only presided over stagnation, getting by on oil revenues? The prices for Russia’s main export have been high throughout his reign.

“If you want to know the truth, go behind the main streets, into the backyards,” said Zhanna, a painter. The outskirts of Moscow, not to speak of the provinces of this vast country, might as well be on another planet. Vitali, a musician, lives in a high-rise block of flats in the far-flung suburb of Balashikha. His building is almost the last before the pine trees begin, stretching all the way to Siberia. To reach Balashikha, which in Soviet times was closed to foreigners because of its concentration of KGB and military installations, he rides on the Metro to the end of the blue line. After that, it is a choice of bus or marshroutka (shuttle van). “I try to take the bus if I can,” said Vitali. “The vans are quicker but they are death traps. The passengers are packed in like sardines. The seats are not screwed down properly. Recently, two collided and 15 people were killed. This is the third world.”

Beyond the island that is Moscow, the poverty deepens. Kostya, who runs a small business, offers me a lift to St Petersburg in his Volvo. We drive through dilapidated villages with fairy-tale names such as Big Jelly, Little Jelly and Water Rat’s Chute. In Yeltsin’s time, the peasants sent their daughters out to sit on benches, offering sex to long-distance lorry drivers. Now the rural population has found another way of earning a few roubles. Men stand with signs advertising cheki – false receipts for things like petrol. “Lorry drivers buy them to bump up their expense claims and the villagers take a 5 per cent cut,” explained Kostya.

In the village of Krestsy, women in headscarves scrape a living by selling tea from samovars and hot pies out of children’s prams. The November mist induces melancholy. What is Russia’s problem? The vastness of the country? The harsh climate? “That’s got nothing to do with it,” said Kostya. “Look at Finland over the border. Same landscape, same climate, different standard of living. It’s because they are truly free while we still have a slave mentality.”

In St Petersburg, I stay with Irina in a one-room flat far from the glittering city centre. Irina is a theatre director. During the 300th-anniversary celebrations, she helped to stage the ballet on the fountain steps that was broadcast all over the world. For this, she earned $1,000, enough to renovate her flat, which was flooded when hot-water pipes burst last winter. Her walls are now a tasteful shade of green and she has a zebra-striped divan. Smart curtains hide the motorway flyover being built outside her window. But nothing can change the fact that her little box is in a Soviet-era building that is really only a house of cards. She can make cosmetic changes but has no control over the wider problems of Russia’s crumbling infrastructure. “I’m just praying the pipes don’t burst again,” she said.

On her new coffee table, I lay a copy of a chic design journal for those who would think nothing of spending thousands of dollars on a kitchen sink. In the latest edition, avitaminoz or lack of vitamins, a dire problem for the poor in winter, has become the theme of an art feature about fruit. Lemons are photographed pouring out of a safe and a dress is made from orange slices and apricots. The Russian super-rich have reached the stage of satiety where they want a publication that tells them: “When you walk for a long time alone, you re-evaluate all that you have. You begin to understand that happiness is in very simple things.” Fortunately, Irina, like most Russians, has a robust sense of humour. For if you didn’t laugh, there is still plenty about this long-suffering country that would make you weep.

Helen Womack was Moscow correspondent for the Independent during the 1990s. She now reports for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age