Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world. Teenagers walk down Tverskaya Boulevard with stylish new cell phones pressed to their ears; they stop before shop windows that could line Madison Avenue; they treat themselves to ice cream and coffee at a wide spectrum of new foreign and domestic establishments. Restaurants of every sort serve every kind of food from pizza and hamburgers to sushi and the finest pre-Revolutionary lamb. “Moo-Moo,” with its enormous polyethylene black and white Holstein out front, “Shesh-Besh,” “Shashlyk-Mashlyk,” “Yolki-Palki” with their colorful ethnic trappings in full display announce themselves where but ten years ago nondescript storefronts presented signs that read simply: “Shoes,” “Furniture,” or “Women’s Clothing.” Ordinary shops are packed with expensive foreign goods. Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and mammoth SUVs converge on all the boulevards, and, in traditional Moskvich style, do not recognize the rights of pedestrians to enter their privileged world of speed and power.
All this is clear evidence that Vladimir Putin’s plan to “consolidate the vertical power of the government” is paying off: the oligarchs are intimidated, in jail, or in exile, and much of their carefully constructed empires has fallen into government hands. The ruble is more or less stable, and vast wealth is beginning to pervade Russian society, at least the top strata of Moscow society.
Little of this opulence is evident in the countryside, however, where economic depression, social malaise, and severe depopulation, particularly of men, continue unabated. Villages are often so devoid of men that the old women who remain are simply unable to transport the heavy sacks of potatoes at harvest time into their cellars. In some areas paper money is not even used to purchase goods—there isn’t any. In July, a suggestive, if dubious, article appeared in a Moscow newspaper about a man who had petitioned the State to allow him to marry his cow. Why? There were no women left in his village and he needed companionship.
In Moscow, however, women are available day and night at bargain basement prices, some advertised to look just like famous Russian tennis stars and beauties. But the sad truth is that for every ten women today there are only seven men and of these seven, two or three are alcoholics. Real estate is as expensive in Moscow as in New York, perhaps more so, but scruffy packs of wild dogs run everywhere, along the sidewalks and in the parks. Outside the percolating center one feels the oppressive weight of many years of destitution and neglect in the unkempt squares and shabby high-rises whose inner courtyards are lined with entryways that resemble bank vaults rather than doors through which people come and go, intent on normal daily affairs, where mangled children’s play equipment rusts amid heaps of broken glass, and broken-down cars are worked on in the shadows.
The astounding contrasts between opulence and poverty recall the opening pages of Crime and Punishment in which Dostoevsky describes St. Petersburg with the houses of the rich on one side of the street and hovels for the poor on the other. A glass of beer can cost 7 USD, but the salary of a professor of history friend of mine at a major Moscow university is 150 USD per month.
Under these conditions, it is no wonder that despite Putin’s efforts at stabilization Russian society is still experiencing grave uncertainties about the future. Behind this remains the huge underworld of its unexamined past. When Putin recently rebuked President Bush at the St. Petersburg G-8 meeting by saying that he didn’t wish democracy in Russia to resemble what had been achieved in Iraq, he scored political and rhetorical points around the world. But the kind of democracy he does wish Russia to achieve remains in doubt.
The divide in Russian society, however, is not simply between rich and poor, democrat or Communist, the haves and the have nots. Economic stratification is not simply a matter of economics, and wealth does not signify simply the amassing of worldly goods, prosperity, and well-being. It signifies an orientation much more fundamental. Wealth is the future. Age-old Russian poverty is the past. Between past and future lies a deep and perilous gulf.


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