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Last Updated: Monday, 28 May 2007, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Russians face up to prosperous reality
In the first of three special reports, Bridget Kendall, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent, reports from Russia on life and attitudes in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Photo of Nizhny Novgorod
Nizhny Novgorod, like much of Russia, has changed significantly

At 7 am on a sunny spring morning I step down onto the platform in Nizhny Novgorod.

The other passengers on the overnight train from Moscow are well dressed and carrying briefcases - businessmen and women returning from meetings in the capital, it seems.

Nizhny Novogorod is one of Russia's largest provincial cities, an ancient trading centre on the banks of the Volga, due east of Moscow.

It is nearly eight years since I was last here, just before President Yeltsin stepped down.

It seems a good time to come back, ahead of the next transition to a new Russian leader, to see what is new and what Russians think of life under President Putin.

Bears and buskers

At first glance the city has changed a lot.

I walk down the pedestrian precinct leading from the ancient Kremlin walled city that is now the Governor's seat.

Eight years ago I came across a live bear here, begging for food because the local zoo couldn't afford to feed him.

The accordion players on the street corner were university professors, humiliated at being forced to sing for their supper because salaries and pensions were not being paid.

Ikea warehouse store in Nizhny Novgorod
The world's biggest brands have seen Russia's economic potential

Today the buskers are young musicians. The local zoo enjoys business sponsorship. And the precinct is bustling with smart cafes and many of the same shops as in London.

On the outskirts there is further evidence of the consumer boom that is now transforming not just Moscow, but many bigger Russian cities.

A new shopping mall includes a gigantic blue and yellow Ikea furniture store, offering all the same goods and even fast food Swedish meat balls as everywhere else in Europe - except that the signs are in Russian.

New memories

Of course, only if you have a car can you drop in here for an afternoon's shopping.

But the mall is packed with families. I catch up with one young couple, Yulia and Ivan, and their small son Daniel.

She's a teacher, he's a former police investigator who swapped careers to work in commerce to make more money.

They see nothing special in this shopping mall. They are already used to it, I am the one who is astounded.

Yulia, Ivan and their son Daniel
Yes, we are Russia's new middle class, but we have a long way to go yet.
Yulia

What I find particularly interesting is that they are too young - in their late twenties - to really recall the chaotic 1990s, let alone what came before it.

I mention the old Soviet adage 'I pretend to work, and you pretend to pay me', and they look at me with blank faces.

"We don't know what you are talking about," they say.

All their adult lives they have lived in a Russia where you need to work hard to bring in enough money to live comfortably.

They own a car, have taken a holiday in Europe and are trying to get a mortgage (another recent change in Russia) to buy a bigger apartment.

"Yes, we are Russia's new middle class," Yulia tells me, "but we have a long way to go yet."

Limited horizons

At the lower end of the scale, less well-off Russians also admit they live better.

In a shabby park, where half wild dogs play and snap at each other from behind dusty bushes, I meet an elderly couple, members of Russia's old middle class, the so-called 'intelligentsia' which enjoyed a special status in Soviet times.

They agree that there is more stability today than in the 1990s, when wages were not paid and savings were wiped out.

But they are bitter at changes that have left them, they say, impoverished.

My husband and I feel we are simply hanging on
Lyudmilla

"In the Soviet Union I used to visit my brother outside Moscow every year," remembers Anatoly.

"Now we can't afford to go further than our vegetable plot on the edge of the city," says his wife Lyudmilla.

We go into the local supermarket, stocked to the brim with local and foreign goods. I count 13 different types of butter and 15 brands of sour cream, all Russian.

We both remember the empty shelves of the Soviet era. But Lyudmilla is not impressed by this new bounty.

"I can't afford most of it, except for a special treat," she says.

"My husband and I feel we are simply hanging on. They pay my husband's pension now. That's something. But I have no hope in the future."

Greasing the wheels

In another part of the city, cranes and bulldozers are busy clearing ground for a giant block of luxury flats, soon to be constructed.

Next door, rows of charming rickety two-storey wooden houses wait to be demolished. We venture in.

The staircase is covered in moss and mould, the light fittings are woven with cobwebs. A woman shows us round her apartment.

There is only cold running water, and no heating to speak of. She is a shop assistant and cleaner, and is on her way out to work.

House in Nizhny Novgorod, near a new block of flats and a crane
In Russia, the old way of life often sits right next door to the new

"I have five separate jobs and they all pay a pittance," she says. "It's a struggle to get by. And who knows where we'll go when these houses are got rid of."

Peel back the veneer of new prosperity and you very quickly realise the levels of stress today in Russia are astronomical.

Even Yulia and Ivan admit they are obsessed with the worry of how to afford a new apartment when property prices have doubled in the past year, mortgage deals are hard to negotiate, and every price tag comes with an extra hefty bribe attached to it.

"Putin claims he's combating corruption, but people demand bribes everywhere," says Ivan.

"We may be considered well off," says Yulia," but our flat is tiny, only one room, and there are three of us. All I can think of is how to afford somewhere bigger."

Blank votes

Yes, by and large Russians do feel more prosperous. But that doesn't mean their lives are much easier.

And despite the high opinion poll ratings for President Putin, when it came to politics, what I found everywhere in Nizhny Novogorod was apathy and disillusionment.

Neither couple were planning to vote in Russia's upcoming elections.

"I've lost all interest in elections. Any change would only be for the worse," said Lyudmilla.

"There'll be no real choice, so what's the point of voting?" said Ivan, "Everything is decided for us in this country."

Bridget Kendall's radio report from Nizhny Novgorod will be going out on Radio 4's Today programme at 0730 BST on Tuesday 29 May.

Should you miss it, or want to listen to it at a later date, then you can find it at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/


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