- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

ULYANOVSK, Russia When President Bush visits Russia's two biggest cities this week, he will see what many tourists see: the golden cupolas of Moscow, the czarist palaces of St. Petersburg, the downtowns clogged with imported cars, expensive restaurants and fancy boutiques.
What he won't see are piles of uncollected trash or buses packed with sweaty passengers and spewing black exhaust. He's unlikely to experience heating or water stoppages or to meet a schoolteacher who has to plant potatoes on her days off to feed her family.
In short, he won't see what for so many people is the real Russia. Moscow and St. Petersburg are far wealthier than other cities in the region, offering few clues about the rest of the sprawling country.
"That's the Russia that you can show people, and this is a different Russia," said Valentina Semyonova, a teacher in Ulyanovsk, a city of 700,000 about 430 miles east of Moscow.
Ulyanovsk is in many ways typical of the Russian provinces. In recent years, meager salaries, rising prices and crumbling infrastructure have chipped away at the pride of this port city on the Volga River.
It is named after its most famous son, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. His statue still stands here, but the Soviet Union he founded has been dead for more than a decade, and the capitalist system that replaced it has yet to spread the wealth.
The city still has such old charms as tree-lined boulevards, unobstructed views of the wide Volga and tasteful 19th-century buildings along the main street. A few new restaurants and a Western-style supermarket have popped up, along with a renovated movie theater that shows Hollywood blockbusters. Shiny new washing machines and televisions fill the displays at the city's main department store.
Democratic systems have taken root in Russia, meaning Ulyanovsk's local leaders are elected.
But these improvements mean little to the average Ulyanovsk resident. Many homes have no running water, and this year utilities have worked sporadically throughout the city. In one big neighborhood, heat and hot water was turned off during a chilly March because of a dispute between the municipality and the power company.
These are familiar problems throughout the country, where the average monthly wage equals about $130. Although housing remains subsidized and food prices outside the capital are low, restaurants, foreign travel and washing machines are beyond the reach of most provincial Russians.
In many communities, telephones and indoor plumbing are still luxuries; elsewhere, economic reforms have strained the existing infrastructure. Blackouts and heating breakdowns occur regularly.
"They keep dogs in better conditions than people live in this city," said Alexander Zykov, 72, who was peddling homemade brooms to supplement his 1,200-ruble ($39) monthly pension. "What can you do? There's no place to complain. Under the Communists, you could complain, there was order, but now there is none."
It's not only retirees who struggle. Alexei Pudovkin, 42, works as a mechanic at the Ulyanovsk airport, earning $58 a month. He spends his days off driving a cab to pay his son's $320 annual college tuition.
Mr. Pudovkin's co-worker, Konstantin Troshin, survives by planting vegetables and raising ducks and pigs in his back yard.
Schoolteachers, whose salaries start at about $16 a month, have to grow potatoes and other vegetables to survive, said Tamara Volchkova, assistant principal at a school in Baratayevka, a suburb across the highway from an airport that itself is a symbol of Ulyanovsk's decline. The once-busy runways are eerily quiet for a big city: Only one daily plane Moscow-bound takes off from here.
Outside the white brick school building in Baratayevka, plastic bags and bottles glisten in the grass while bigger piles of trash accumulate on the sides of buildings the result of sporadic garbage collection, residents say. Other basic services are similarly unreliable.
"Now we have water, but for much of last year, especially in the summer, we didn't," said resident Nina Chernova, who lives in a two-story apartment building. "We never see our local beat cop around here. It's like there's no authority, no one to appeal to."
On a recent Tuesday, two baby carriages stood outside a garden shed across from the school. A year-old boy named Maxim played with empty beer bottles nearby. When approached, the children's mothers, apparently on drugs, emerged reluctantly from the shed. "We have nothing to say," one of them said when asked about their lives.
Back in the city, Vera Ronzhina, 24, was hanging laundry next to an overflowing trash bin. She called her hometown "a swamp" and said there are few employment prospects here for her and her friends, despite their college education. Ulyanovsk offers little in the way of cultural life or entertainment, she complained.
Recently, Miss Ronzhina's aunt came to visit from Syracuse, N.Y. "She said she would never bring her American friends here," Miss Ronzhina said.

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