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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 01:03 GMT
Inside Putin's Russia: The great divide
Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Boris, an elderly resident of Russkaya Amerika
I can still chop wood with my right hand
Boris, an elderly resident of Russkaya Amerika
Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the first of the series, Bridget Kendall starts her journey in the far west and finds gaping chasms between old and new, rich and poor.

Eighty kilometres' (50 miles') drive outside St Petersburg's elegant city centre is a settlement that had gone back in time.

"Russkaya Amerika" is what the locals call it. The reality could not be more different: a two-storey wooden house with a rusty portrait of Lenin still pinned to it.

On the bench by the doorway, several old people are waiting patiently for the weekly truck that brings bread and other essentials down the muddy track through the marshes. There's no electricity or water.

One old man, Boris, has been there since he crippled his left hand in a factory accident a few years ago. His home is the derelict building that once housed the Communist Party.

"I can still chop wood with my right hand," he says. "And the old women give me potatoes."

His neighbour, Viktor, has lived in Russkaya Amerika since he worked there when it was a thriving community of peat diggers. Now he camps in one room, his bedclothes and belongings blackened by wood smoke from the stove.

Viktor Strokhov
Viktor lives in one room
He looks wild, but his manner is dignified and educated. At night he reads old newspapers by torch light.

"Tell me," he says, as he drinks an impromptu vodka toast from a plastic beaker. "Just what does George Bush think he's doing in Iraq?"

It is hard to fathom how this poverty co-exists so close to the ostentatious wealth in Russia's biggest cities.

Squalid scenes

Back in the centre, we came across a brand new blue Ferrari and a gleaming mauve Bentley, parked under guard outside a grand apartment block.

Our destination was next door, through a dark hall smelling of rot and urine, and on to the top floor.

Elderly ladies wait for the weekly bread truck to arrive
Russkaya Amerika: A settlement that has gone back in time
Here we entered a massive old communal apartment, shared between 16 different people, all forced to use the same cluttered kitchen and squalid bathroom, the rusty pipes dripping, the plaster crumbling. The same scene you might have found here 40 years ago.

You don't need to go far in St Petersburg to find the gaping chasms that divide modern Russia: between old and new, super-rich and very poor.

Sometimes one person embraces both old and new.

We were being shown round by Ilya Utekhin, a young ethnographer whose doctoral research is devoted to the communal apartments of St Petersburg. He even has a website.

Yet it turns out Ilya is studying himself as well as other people. He spent his childhood in this flat: a small boy, sneaking up to the flat roof to get away from the noise and arguments, slipping behind the flapping sheets to watch the Communist parades marching past, way down below.

"It's so different, so quiet now," he says. "Many neighbours have moved out. Soon some rich person will buy this."

No expense spared

Self-made millionaires are already taking over whole blocks in St Petersburg's historic city centre, developers like Vitaly.

He too grew up in a communal apartment - a product of the new Russia, but with his roots in the old. We found him inspecting his latest purchase - a majestic Art Nouveau residence which he is stripping back to its original design.

It was a wrench to leave the centre. But there were too many sad memories in that house
Irina Andreyevna
No money is being spared on the project. Yet it will be merely a pied-a-terre for him and his wife when they come into town to catch a movie.

Their main abode is a well-staffed mansion, complete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis court and lakeside view on the Gulf of Finland.

In order for Vitaly to buy his new apartment, several ancient inhabitants, including 83-year-old Irina Andreyevna, had to move out. We tracked her down to a soulless dormitory suburb of identical grey blocks on the outskirts where Vitaly had bought her a new flat in exchange for her old room.

She never saw her friends any more. All were either dead or had likewise been dispersed to distant suburbs, persuaded by offers they could not refuse from wealthy developers. But she wasn't unhappy.

"It was a wrench to leave the centre," she agreed. "But there were too many sad memories in that house."

I thought she meant the Leningrad blockade, World War Two. She had endured it all, begged for bread crusts to stave off hunger, fled the city across the frozen Lake Ladoga, and barely survived.

But she did not mean the siege. She meant the ructions following the Soviet Union's collapse and Russia's chaotic tumble into a market economy in the 1990s.

It was a traumatic time, during which her husband died and her only daughter passed away in her arms.

"The last 10 years were worse than the blockade," she said.

'Russia is too boring'

Not everyone dwells on what they've been through, but it seems many are still coming to terms with the dramatic changes of the past 10 years. Perhaps it is only the very young who have survived unscathed.

Photoshoot with model dressed as early Madonna
Making Madonna on a set dressed with Communist banners
Evidence of that came when the young designers for a glossy St Petersburg magazine, Sobaka Ru, invited us to their latest photoshoot.

It was a "retro" look at perestroika. The model, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, was practising a pout, trying to look like early Madonna.

Andrei, the director, held the mirror.

"Why perestroika?" he replied in answer to my question. "Because Russia is becoming too calm and too boring, too European. So we feel nostalgic for those mad days of perestroika, and revolution."

And he turned to dress the set with red political banners he had wheedled out of the local Communist party.

How bizarre that the slogans of Russia's once all powerful Communist party, the iron fist that for decades ruled a superpower and determined the fates of millions of people should nowadays be reduced to drapery at a fashion shoot.

Images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.

Inside Putin's Russia is broadcast on BBC World Service radio starting on 8 December, 2003 at 0006 GMT. It will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 5 January, 2004.

Click here to listen to
Part one of Inside Putin's Russia

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