Page last updated at 13:47 GMT, Saturday, 13 November 2010

Capitalism's tough reality for many Russians

By Rupert Wingfield Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

When the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 20 years ago, Russia emerged as an independent country that embraced capitalism but what has this meant for its citizens?

Boris Yeltsin reads out a statement during 1991 coup
Boris Yeltsin led resistance to the 1991 coup by Communist hardliners

More than half a century ago Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

It is an old cliche but not without truth. To this day, outsiders still find Russia very confusing.

I remember the day the Soviet Union began to fall apart.

By a strange twist of fate, I was sitting in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport waiting for a flight to London.

The terminal at Sheremetyevo said a lot about Russia then. It had been built for the 1980 Olympics but it was one of the most uninviting places I had ever been.

It was dark brown and smelled of industrial detergent. The officials wore granite expressions and ridiculous, oversized hats.

Of course I had no idea there had been a coup. It was a secret. Only when we touched down in London did I find out what was happening.

'Forbidding'

It would be another 15 years before I would return to Moscow.

On a cold and wet November day, my wife and I drove through the streets of what was about to become our new home.

Shoppers in Tverskaya Ulitsa
Moscow shoppers can now shop in Western-style malls

In those 15 years, Russia had changed enormously.

Ladas had been replaced by Range Rovers and Mercedes jostling for space on the now gridlocked inner ring-road.

Huge advertising hoardings shrouded the old Stalin-era apartment buildings along Tverskaya Ulitsa (Street).

The outskirts of Moscow had sprouted enormous American-style shopping malls and - sprawling out into the farm fields beyond - a chaotic jumble of dachas, some the size of minor stately homes.

But Moscow was still a baffling and forbidding place.

A leaden sky covered the city like a low-slung ceiling. People still did not smile easily or, rather, at all.

On that first day, I remember my wife looking at me and asking plaintively: "Are we really going to live here for the next three years?"

We did, and we survived.

We made friends and even came to enjoy the fearsome Russian winters.

I learned to drive on ice and to accurately gauge the temperature by how quickly my nose-hair froze when I walked out of the house.

Unbridled capitalism

And at work I tried to solve the Russian riddle.

Homeless people eat handout meal in Moscow
The fall of communism left many people in poverty

The day, 15 years earlier, when I sat in the airport unaware that the Soviet empire was crumbling, had unleashed a wave of euphoria in the West.

Our leaders told us the world had changed and that Russia would too.

It would embrace democracy and join Europe.

Well they were wrong.

Instead Russia has remained sullen and hostile, and re-embraced autocratic leadership in the shape of Vladimir Putin - and we wonder why.

What you realise, when you live in Russia, is that so many of our assumptions are wrong.

While we were celebrating Russia's release from Bolshevik tyranny, most Russians were being plunged into poverty, unemployment and misery, as unbridled capitalism was let loose upon an unprepared populace.

The trauma of the 1990s is deeply felt.

Tragedy

Just before leaving Moscow this autumn, I went on a road trip.

The weather was magnificent. As I drove through little towns and villages along the Volga valley, I began to feel a deep sadness that I was leaving this beautiful, maddening country.

But then at end of a dirt-track four hours north of Moscow, I arrived in Budushchee.

Fifty people live in the village now and, at two o'clock in the afternoon, most of them were drunk.

The fields lay uncultivated. Many of the wooden houses were falling down. The tragedy of Budushchee is that it is not special - it is typical.

Since the collapse of communism, the Russian countryside has fallen apart.

Those who have not fled are slowly drinking themselves to death. It is one reason why the average life expectancy for Russian men is just 60 years.

The next day in Moscow, I had an even starker reminder of how different Russia still is.

In a darkened room, a group of young women in very short skirts were being taught how to pole-dance and improve their sex techniques.

This was not a class for aspiring lap-dancers. The young women were learning how to catch a rich husband.

When I asked them why they needed such a class, I was given a coldly practical answer.

There are very few rich men in Russia, they said, and the competition is intense.

So young Russian women are equipping themselves with a range of techniques to gain a competitive advantage in the mating game.

There are many things both wonderful and terrifying about Russia but, for millions of Russians, communism has not yet been replaced by something better.

Instead they struggle to survive in a thuggish, lawless society, where a few have a lot and where most have very little.

Given that, it is not surprising that some choose oblivion at the bottom of a vodka bottle and others trade their beauty for the chance of financial security.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

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How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website



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