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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 October 2006, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
The winners and losers of modern Russia
Shoppers walk past exclusive boutiques in St Petersburg, Russia
New wealth has come to Russia

The news that Russia may join the World Trade Organization before the end of 2007 is further evidence of the country's transformation since the demise of the Soviet Union.

Kevin Connolly, a longtime former BBC Moscow correspondent, considers what has been won and lost during Russia's remarkable transition.

When the Soviet Union died, it did not leave much behind in the way of achievement - it won the Second World War, it ran an electric cable across Siberia and it operated a chain of political prisons which once contained more inmates than the combined populations of Belgium and Holland.

But it also inspired a very particular school of feebly humorous travel writing - and let's face it, I should know.

You remember the kind of thing - Russians who sidled up to you and attempted to buy your jeans, or hotels where there were 1,000 bathrooms and not a single bathplug.

The ultimate story was the one about the Western visitor worried about being bugged by the KGB who finds a metal dish under the rug in his hotel room, secured to the floor with huge bolts.

Russia's spectacular transition has created winners as well as losers

Determined to foil the Soviet agents he spends ages unscrewing the device which he disables by placing it in a bath filled with water.

When he goes downstairs to eat later, the restaurant immediately below his room is closed because a giant chandelier has somehow worked loose from the ceiling and crashed to the floor.

Modern Moscow

I always felt the stories had a slightly uncomfortable edge to them - based as they were on a mockery of poverty - but somehow it was acceptable to joke about Soviet life in a way which would have been regarded as tasteless anywhere else.

I suppose this was because while the Soviet Union was poor and inefficient - a banana republic without bananas - it was also a hostile, nuclear-armed superpower: Upper Volta with rockets.

Woman arranges shop window display, Moscow
Ancient and modern

Modern Moscow of course is a city of cappuccinos and Cadillacs, unrecognisable as the symphony in porridge-coloured concrete that I first knew back in the 1980s.

On the drive from the airport to our apartment, there was in those days, just a single neon sign, an advert for an East German office supply company.

Now, it is neon-drenched Casino-grad. The street near my old home looks like a high-resolution freeze frame of an explosion in a firework factory.

In other ways too, the sense of being absolutely elsewhere has been subtly eroded.

In the old days eating out in the Soviet Union went like this:

A waiter who looked like a guard from a hospital for the criminally insane would hand you a menu the size of a book of wallpaper samples. Slowly it would become clear that the items described did not constitute a list of items for sale, just a kind of collective folk memory of the entire Russian nation on the subject of food.

Trying to tease out of your server the one or two dishes that were actually available nearly always took longer than the process of eating dinner itself.

Suffocating certainty

Nowadays it is all sushi, and service, and salads dressed in olive oil, rather than motor oil - all signs that a new Russia has risen to its feet, albeit a little unsteadily, on the ruins of the old Soviet Union.

Red Square march 1989
Life in the Soviet Union was materially poor, and occasionally oppressive, but it did offer a kind of suffocating certainty

It can be hard to remember that the past ever happened at all - but every so often you will find it, poking through the fragile surface of the present like a broken bone, through skin.

Sometimes, it is faintly surreal - American tourists at souvenir stands sifting through piles of T-shirts carrying pictures of the Soviet nuclear missiles that were once pointed at their homes.

Sometimes, it is not - outside that restaurant where your sushi came with such a winning smile, you will often find the losers in Russia's great transition - respectably dressed pensioners reduced to begging from foreign tourists.

Life in the Soviet Union was materially poor, and occasionally oppressive, but it did offer a kind of suffocating certainty - no-one had much, it was true, but then no-one needed much either.

This was after all a society in which even hot water was produced in central locations and then pumped into apartment blocks through miles of leaky, unlagged metal pipes.

If you live for 50 years under that kind of wasteful, but well-intentioned madness, the pressures and anxieties of the market economy just seem madder still.

Spectacular transition

I met one old man, a veteran of the siege of Leningrad, hanging around outside a shop in St Petersburg where I had just bought a razor and pack of blades which cost more than a Russian pensioner's basic income.

Street vendors selling cigarettes
Some pensioners have been reduced to begging from tourists

Now you could not quite say he was begging - he was selling packets of old-fashioned cigarettes which still come in their Soviet-era packaging at slightly inflated prices.

He had seen the same thing done by the sharp young men who run stalls in tourist flea-markets and he had copied the idea for himself - another little victory for market economics.

I bought a couple of packs and we stood chatting for a while as the evening sun smoothed the ripples off the Gulf of Finland behind us and left it looking like a sheet of beaten steel.

On my journey back to my beachfront hotel I found myself threading my way through a car park filled with Mercedes and BMWs and even the odd Bentley.

Clearly Russia's spectacular transition has created winners as well as losers.

Still the thought stayed with me for the rest of my time in Russia that there are plenty of pensioners there for whom the world made more sense in the age of those terrible old stories about bathplugs and blue jeans, than it makes now or perhaps will ever make again.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 October, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Inside the Kremlin
14 Sep 06 |  In Pictures
Russian rouble faces world market
30 Jun 06 |  Business
Country profile: Russia
05 Sep 06 |  Country profiles


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