[Marxism] Living Larger in the New Russia (WSJ)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sat Nov 3 05:18:30 MDT 2007

(Russia has gone back to capitalism, and I'm sure that the benefits of
this aren't evenly, but the popularity of Putin seems to be genuinely
rooted in material improvements. It also seems heavily rooted in such
risk-laden practices as consumer debt. As long as things are expanding,
no one notices, but if they begin to contract, how will people like
these pay for their newly-acquired items??? For the moment, Russia's
lucky it doesn't spend any money on foreign wars of conquest and
occupation. No wonder Russia doesn't like feeling surrounded when the
U.S. says it's installing missile defenses around RUSSIA's perimeter.) 


November 3, 2007

Living Larger in the New Russia
Broke in the Nineties, the Starodubovs
are bouncing back -- and thanking Putin
November 3, 2007

Reutov, Russia

Svetlana Starodubova swings left past the cold-cut case, pointing out
the stick of salami she picked up earlier in the week. "On sale," she
crows. Her 16-year-old daughter, Irina, catches up to drop a package
of mussels and her beloved Lay's potato chips into the shopping cart
as the two head for the checkout.

After a brief wait at the cash register, the family is headed back
home to their apartment in this high-rise suburb just east of Moscow,
passing the new Kofe Khaus cafe and the Chevy dealer.

When The Wall Street Journal first visited the Starodubovs as the
Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, salami was also an important issue.
To get some, Svetlana and her husband, Vitaly, had to stand in line
for three-and-a-half hours in the winter cold holding baby Irina.

The paper returned after Russia's financial crisis in 19982 to find
Svetlana standing for hours at an open-air market selling meat pies
to make money for the family while her jobless husband helped Irina
get ready for first grade. Their marriage was near collapse.

Like millions of Russians who have been lifted out of poverty by a
booming economy over the past seven years, the Starodubovs' life has
been transformed. Both now have steady jobs. They say they've patched
things up. Sitting in their cramped but sunny kitchen, they show off
the new Polish-made stove they bought on credit this spring. Svetlana
opens the refrigerator to show the well-stocked shelves. "There was a
time when you opened the fridge and there was nothing," she says,
remembering the lean days of 1991.

"We live modestly, like all working people," says Svetlana, a plump

"Modestly, but we have enough," chimes Vitaly, 49 years old.

The Starodubovs' ascent from the hand-to-mouth existence of the 1990s
to relative security today helps explain why President Vladimir Putin
is perceived so differently in Russia than he is in the West. 
For many here, he is a hero. After nearly two decades of crazy
desperation and living from one day to the next, the relative calm of
the Putin era feels like such a tremendous achievement that for many
in Russia, it's more than enough to earn their loyalty.

"To tell the truth, I don't know who runs out of money these days,"
says Vitaly. "I don't think anyone is that badly off."

Since Mr. Putin took office in 2000, about 20 million Russians have
been lifted above the official poverty line (another 20 million
remain in poverty, according to government figures). An oil-fired
economic boom has brought long-awaited stability after a string of
crises in the 1990s and more than doubled average incomes, adjusted
for inflation, since 2000. A middle class is growing, but so is the
gap between rich and poor. Still, the government is scrambling to
pour tens of billions of dollars into rebuilding Russia's crumbling
roads, power networks, hospitals and schools, all of which have seen
little investment since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Rising incomes are the big reason why nearly half of Russians say
they want Mr. Putin to stay on when his term ends next spring, even
though that would require changing the constitution. Mr. Putin has
said he won't do that, but recently said he might become prime
minister after the March elections.

Though the Starodubov family is better off than they've been in
years, rough edges remain. Among the shiny shopping centers and the
new McDonald's that have popped up around their neighborhood, the
Starodubovs' dilapidated brown Soviet-style high-rise is a dingy
throwback to an earlier era. The elevator smells of urine. Over the
summer, Vitaly was mugged nearby and couldn't work for over a month,
forcing the family to dig into savings because neither his nor his
wife's job offers sick leave.

Vitaly says he could barely recognize his native village in central
Russia when he went to visit his 83-year-old mother this fall.
"Everything is in collapse; there's nothing but old women left," he
says. "People survive on what they grow themselves."

Like most Russians, Vitaly and Svetlana never marched in the rallies
for or against the democratic transformations that swept the country
in the past two decades. They voted for President Boris Yeltsin in
the 1990s. After he abruptly resigned in 2000, they cast their
ballots for the man he recommended to replace him, Vladimir Putin,
even though Vitaly says he thought the former KGB agent seemed too
"soft" to pull Russia back together then.

They say they aren't concerned by Mr. Putin's crackdown on political
opponents and the independent media or his increasing use of
Soviet-style symbols.

Indeed, the reassuring stability he has brought leads Vitaly to
wonder why the Soviet system couldn't have been adapted to allow
fully stocked stores and freedom to travel like today.

Under communism, "we were like children. We went where we were
directed. Then they gave us freedom and we were lost, we didn't know
where to go and what to do next," Svetlana says. "I like Putin's

By Moscow standards, the Starodubovs are lower-middle class. Vitaly
usually earns about 20,000 rubles ($800) a month, double what
Svetlana makes. Sergei, their son, contributes about 5,000 rubles a
month from the 15,000 rubles a month he earns as a forklift operator
at a warehouse. Svetlana says the family spends about 15,000 rubles a
month on food and utilities. They got their two-room apartment, plus
another one granted to Svetlana a few years ago, free from the state,
so they pay no rent or mortgage.

Starting a few years ago, the steady income allowed the family to
start saving money each month again, building up a rainy-day fund of
several months' income in the Sberbank savings bank across the street
from their apartment.

Svetlana says they dream of buying a car, which would cost at least
$10,000 new, but haven't saved enough. Vitaly demurs that they don't
really need one.

The Starodubovs' two-room, 520-square-foot apartment is a visual
reminder that the family's fitful journey to prosperity isn't
complete. The fading flowered wallpaper and worn linoleum are a sharp
contrast to the richly finished new wood doors with smoked glass on
the bathroom and kitchen. In the bathroom, the floor is done in dark
red ceramic, but the bare concrete walls still await tiles.

"We do the renovation bit-by-bit, so we can afford it," says Vitaly.

The habits born of a lifetime in cramped communal apartments mean the
Starodubovs aren't sticklers about personal space. Sergei sleeps in
one room, which he's been sharing with two visitors from Vitaly's
hometown who've come to Moscow to look for work.

Vitaly, Svetlana and Irina sleep in the living room on beds that
double as couches during the day. There's also Irina's white rat in a
cage, and the family cat.

Irina's pride is her computer, which stands nestled in a bookshelf
just to the left of the television set. Svetlana says the family
bought the top-of-the-line model last year at the Eldorado
electronics store nearby, paying for the nearly $2,000 machine with
an instant consumer loan they signed up for in the store.

"We just bought it and didn't really figure out how much we'd pay,"
Vitaly admits. Svetlana says she doesn't know what the interest rate
was, but that the 10-month loan cost about $200 over the cost of the

Last month they finally gave in to Irina's calls to connect the PC to
the Internet, which costs about 800 rubles a month.

The kitchen is bright and nicely finished with brown cabinets and
blue tiles bought with the proceeds of one of Vitaly's rich paydays
building villas for the wealthy in the 1990s. It's a squeeze to get
in between the refrigerator and a cardboard box of cooking oil
bottles. "On special, 12 bottles for 19 rubles apiece," crows

Over Vitaly's embarrassed objections, she opens the refrigerator to
show off the five frozen chickens she got on sale, as well as the
lamb they use for soup.

"We need about 300 rubles for food for all of us each day," she says.
Irina, whose tastes run richer, puts down her bottle of Coke and
corrects her, "sometimes 500."

"Potato chips are a necessity," her father teases.

Irina buys X-men comic books and loves Hollywood movies, which she
watches on pirated DVDs sold widely for a few dollars in the
neighborhood. One of her first questions for an American visitor was
whether he'd ever met Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.

Svetlana complains that Irina has already spent all the money she
earned over the summer filling in as a concierge with her mother.
"She doesn't know what she spent it on," Svetlana scoffs.

Irina shrugs. She needs a new pair of jeans for school, she says,
although her classmates aren't that fashion-conscious. But cellphones
are an important status symbol, she says. "I want one with speakers,"
Irina adds.

"You want a new mobile?" marvels her father. "Why do you need another
one?" Irina backs off and leaves this issue for another day.

Irina graduates from high school in the spring, but her career plans
are still a matter of discussion.

"I wanted her to be a dental technician," says Svetlana, but when
Irina visited a family friend's clinic, "she almost fainted" from 
blood. "We'll be signing up for bookkeeping courses now," declares

"What bookkeeping courses?" Irina squeals. "I won't do that, 
I don't
want to be a bookkeeper."

Since early August, the family has had to dip into their savings for
everyday expenses because Vitaly's earnings have all but dried up.

Vitaly was mugged walking back from visiting Svetlana in her
concierge compartment one evening. He says a young couple he thought
was waiting for the bus asked him for a cigarette. As he reached to
get one, he was hit from behind.

He wasn't carrying his cell phone, he says, so all the thieves got
was the 800 rubles he had in his pocket. When he stumbled home, he
didn't call the police or a doctor. "The police will just accuse me
of something I'm not guilty of," he says.

Vitaly has tried several different jobs in security over the past few
years. He moved up from his old parking-lot job to a position as a
guard in a new supermarket. But he says his supervisor started
demanding kickbacks from his paycheck, threatening to report him for
nonexistent violations if he refused. Vitaly says his request for a
transfer was refused, so he quit and found another security company.
There, he worked round-the-clock shifts of four days on with four
days off in between, guarding construction sites and auto junkyards.
As the weather turned colder, he left that job to look for one

Since the mugging, Vitaly has been spending most of his time around
the apartment, but there's no sign of the tension that wracked their
marriage back in 1998 when he was out of work. Now, Svetlana coos
about his signature chicken recipe and he affectionately calls her
his "little bookkeeper" for her close watch over the family finances.
"We worked things out," he says.

When they're not working, the two spend a lot of time together. One
afternoon found them headed to the local outdoor market to buy a new
pair of pants for Svetlana.

"I have three pairs of pants," says Svetlana. "When one is in the
wash, I wear the others."

Squeezed in along a sidewalk in front of a new shopping mall going up
near the railway station, the market is a maze of narrow passages
between cramped compartments made of corrugated metal. Dodging other
shoppers, Svetlana heads for a section whose walls are draped with
clothes. She picks out a pair of dark polyester pants and asks to try
them on. The saleswoman slides out of the unheated 4-foot by 6-foot
box that serves as her shop and signals for Svetlana to go in.
Standing in the walkway, the saleswoman holds up a small curtain for
privacy as Svetlana tries on first one pair and then another.

She asks Vitaly how they look, and gets his approval for the pair
that cost about 700 rubles.

"In stores, things are much more expensive," she says, tucking the
purchase into her bag.

Further down the passage, Svetlana stops at a stall selling linens,
looking for a new bedspread for the living room. The saleswoman shows
her a white satin one for 4,000 rubles and looks perplexed when
Svetlana asks if there are any available for closer to 500 rubles.
But after heading off to an unseen storage spot, she comes back with
a deep-red one that costs about 700 that Svetlana says will work just

On the way home, Vitaly and Svetlana show off Reutov's new city park.
On a late summer day, workers are still bringing soil in to plant
lawns. A golden-domed Orthodox church stands to one side.

"You go in, I don't have a scarf to cover my head," Svetlana tells
Vitaly. (Orthodox tradition requires women to cover their heads in
church). Religion was suppressed under the Soviets, but now it's
back. Svetlana increasingly turned to the church in the 1990s. Vitaly
is less of a believer and prefers to walk toward a newly installed
fountain just down the path, a computer-controlled one laid with
black granite tiles.

Asked about politics, Svetlana and Vitaly say they welcome Mr.
Putin's tough-guy image and agree that he should stay on for a third
term, even though he's said he won't do that.

"Yeltsin shouldn't have let the reins go," Vitaly says, as Svetlana
points out that both voted for the former president at the time. "Our
country is used to a firm hand." He's happy Mr. Putin has said he'll
remain influential after the elections. "I wouldn't turn down the
chance to vote for him again if I could," he says. He's also
impressed by Mr. Putin's new prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, who is
considered a potential presidential candidate. "He's not scared of
anyone," Vitaly says of the former Soviet collective-farm boss.

Putin's rollback of democratic institutions such as elections and
media freedom doesn't bother them. Opposition demonstrators beaten by
police this spring are probably paid stooges, Vitaly says, citing
state-TV reports.

"Nobody's twisting arms," he says. "But just like in any country,
person shouldn't talk too much."

In any event, politics takes a back seat to everyday concerns.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Svetlana recites prices from memory for
summer fruits and where the best deals are. The sleek shopping center
directly in front of their building is for "rich people, the ones
with two or three cars," she says. Their family goes around the
corner to a cheaper store, where fruit is still plentiful.

"It was just awful before," says Vitaly, recalling the deprivations
of the 1990s and before that of the Soviet period. Lines for salami
were so long shoppers marked their places with numbers written on
their hands. Now, he says, "we're not used to waiting in lines

Walter Lippmann
Havana, Cuba
"Un paraíso bajo el bloqueo"

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