- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

ZVENIGOROD, Russia — Along a road that winds through forests and meadows, wealthy Russians speed to their country mansions in BMWs and SUVs with tinted windows, past sunburned men cutting grass with scythes and women sweeping gutters with homemade brooms.
Babushkas peddle buckets of potatoes and bundles of firewood by the road to add a few rubles to the family budget. But there are also garden centers offering Japanese maples, lawn chairs and hammocks — the must-haves of today's upwardly mobile Russia.
All along the 24 miles of two-lane highway from Moscow to Zvenigorod, garish new villas in red brick clash with tumbledown wooden huts, some built before the 1917 Communist Revolution.
Russia in the summer of 2001, year 10 of the post-Soviet world, is a panoply of raw, thrusting consumerism and newfound wealth jostling with age-old images of ingrained poverty.

Aftershocks still felt
In a country where the communist system allocated housing and allowed virtually no travel abroad, billboards along the road trumpet the change: Package holidays to Greece. Japanese restaurant. Private school. Hugo Boss designer clothes. Fitness clubs.
It was a decade ago, on Aug. 19, 1991, that Boris Yeltsin hauled his linebacker frame onto a tank, faced down a coup by communist die-hards, and gave the world a defining image of the end of an era. The following Christmas Day, the 74-year-old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disbanded, and those 15 republics spun off on independent trajectories.
The aftershocks are still felt in sputterings of civil war from Chechnya to Central Asia, and in diplomatic corridors from the White House to Beijing.
What was once a communist monolith stretching across 11 time zones is now a jarring patchwork whose main contours are a thin layer of very rich people, a wide swath of very poor, and a vulnerable middle class. It's the opposite of the egalitarian society communism set out to build, and a very long way from the prosperous democracy Russia yearns to be.

Downhill after 1992
Many look back at the early 1990s as the high point of freedom and civil peace. Already by 1993, Mr. Yeltsin had turned to force, sending in the army to bring defiant lawmakers to heel, then into Chechnya to crush a separatist rebellion.
Meanwhile, a few bankers and businessmen with government connections became fabulously wealthy. They snapped up villas on the French Riviera and stuffed money in offshore accounts.
The rich sent their children to expensive private schools in Europe, filled their homes with crystal and silverware, hired servants and traveled with armed bodyguards. The new middle class holidayed abroad, updated their wardrobes and renovated their apartments.
But few people paid taxes, corruption ran rampant and Western investors were turned off. The state soon ran out of money.

Collapse of the ruble
In August 1998, the bubble burst. The ruble was devalued and thousands lost their money. Banks folded, businesses collapsed and Russia's credit rating sank.
Current economic development is uneven. Oil, natural gas and weapons account for most of Russia's exports. Russia doesn't manufacture much that the world needs.
The stress has taken its toll, particularly on Russian men. Their life expectancy was 59.8 years in 1999. In the United States it's 74.2. And the population is shrinking — by 3 million since 1993, to 145.6 million. The average monthly wage is 2,200 rubles, or $78. Pensions are half that.
Since succeeding Mr. Yeltsin as president in 1999, Vladimir Putin appears to have made some progress. The tax rate has been slashed to 13 percent, most workers appear to be paid on time, and Mr. Putin is resisting opposition from old-guard communists to badly needed land reform.

Putin worries liberals
But Russian liberals worry about their judo-loving president. A former officer of the once-feared KGB secret police, he's accused of hounding opposition media, chided for allowing the new Russian anthem to revert to the melody of the old Soviet one. Human rights advocates say Russian tactics in Chechnya have become even more brutal under Mr. Putin.
All this seems a world away from Saidunmaro Rakhmatkhudzha as he coaxes 200 head of cattle across the road. But the white-bearded, 57-year-old cowherd is a vivid example of how painfully the Soviet breakup has affected ordinary lives.
He once worked for the water department in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Then the Soviet republic became independent, civil war broke out, and he lost his job. So he moved north to Russia to tend cows for an agribusiness.

Ex-Soviets now illegals
Mr. Rakhmatkhudzha and his fellow herdsman, a Ukrainian, are among the millions of workers who have poured into Russia from the former Soviet republics. Once they all had the same Soviet passports. Now they are illegal immigrants, underpaid and overworked, liable to be deported, tolerated only because Russia's shrinking population needs laborers.
"Things have calmed down in Tajikistan, but there is no money, so I had to come here," Mr. Rakhmatkhudzha said.
Zvenigorod is the oldest town in the Moscow region. It withstood assaults by Poles, Napoleon's army and the Nazis. Under Soviet rule it stagnated. It has yet to flourish in the new Russia.
The roads are good, and the gas station on the way to town is a pleasant place to stop for coffee. Its very existence is a sign of progress. Ten years ago, there were hardly any gas stations in the area, and people waited in line for hours to tank up.

Soviet era missed
"When I was little, people spent the whole day in line to get bread. They came, marked their place, went home and then came back. Buying bread took all day," Yevgeny said. Now "things are good. There's freedom."
But there are many who long for the simple certainties of the Soviet era, when living conditions for all but the Communist elite were about the same.
A poll this year by the Public Opinion Foundation said 79 percent of Russians now regret the demise of the Soviet Union, up from 69 percent in 1992.
But though they may sometimes look back fondly to the past, and grow cynical about the ability of politicians to solve their problems, and wonder why they should bother to vote, turnout in last year's presidential election was 65 percent. [By contrast, the turnout in last November's U.S. presidential election was a little over 50 percent.]


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