[Marxism] Class divisions in Putin's Russia
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 20 09:15:59 MDT 2006
The Road to Riches and Ruin
You'll find $800 pens and luxury cars, decrepit homes and desperate
pensioners along a highway that epitomizes post-Soviet Russia.
By David Holley
Times Staff Writer
October 20, 2006
MOSCOW Tired travelers heading downtown after arriving at Sheremetyevo 1
airport probably don't pay much attention to the village-style wooden
houses, set behind picket fences and painted in fading shades of green and
blue, that line the busy highway.
One home on the down-at-the-heels stretch of road is where Viktor Zhivin, a
71-year-old retired road worker, was born and grew up. The roof has
collapsed over one corner of the house, making half of it uninhabitable.
There is no running water, no plumbing, no central heating or piped-in gas,
and in winter Zhivin's family burns coal in a stove to fight the bitter cold.
"It's like we're lost in Siberia," he said. "The only advantage is, shops
are close. But you need money to go to shops."
Capitalism has transformed Moscow over the last decade, but Zhivin and many
others think they have been left breathing exhaust fumes. To make the
bumper-to-bumper drive from the countryside near the airport to Moscow's
city center is to take a 21-mile tour of the haves and have-nots, a highway
as microcosm of the nation.
The route starts out at open fields and birch forests, passes poor rural
homes more fitting for a dying mountain village than Europe's largest city,
and ends with some of the most expensive shops in the world just a few
hundred feet from the Kremlin.
"The road from Sheremetyevo into Moscow is like a symbol of all processes
underway in Russia," said Igor Korolkov, a commentator with Novaya Gazeta
newspaper. "As you drive along this road into town, you can read it like a
book with very vivid and distinct pictures pictures of abject poverty and
excessive wealth, the appalling stratification of society which is getting
deeper and deeper."
Zhivin's and his wife's pensions total $290 a month, and like millions of
Russians left out of the new prosperity, they are bitter about being so
poor amid so much ostentatious consumption.
"How can our life be called normal?" said Zhivin's wife, Alexandra, tears
welling in her eyes. "For us it has changed for the worse. There's nothing
good for us in the changes. The only chance we have for something good is
after they take us away feet first."
Despite frenetic development and the refurbishing of old buildings across
much of the Russian capital, this patch of rural poverty hasn't been
bulldozed because long-term plans for building something else have not
gotten off the ground.
Decades ago, communist authorities "wouldn't allow us to build better
houses not even better outhouses," Zhivin said. "They kept telling us our
village was going to be torn down."
In 1996, five years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Moscow officials met
with residents and showed them plans for an elite residential development.
"They said they would relocate us to apartments in Moscow, and they would
build houses for richer people on this land," Zhivin said. "That's how they
explained why they weren't providing us with tap water and gas. We
complained many times. 'We don't have this. We don't have that.' And they
said, 'Look, your village will be demolished. That's why you don't have it.' "
Two miles toward downtown from the decrepit Zhivin home stand two
landmarks: a memorial marking the spot where the Nazis were stopped in
their 1941 assault on Moscow, and behind it a huge shopping complex that's
a free-market mecca to the city's emerging middle class.
The Mega Mall boasts a year-round ice-skating rink, a 12-screen theater
complex, more than 200 small to medium-sized shops, and five large stores,
including an IKEA and an outpost of the French supermarket chain Auchan so
big it has lines for 90 cashiers.
Zhivin has a connection with both landmarks: His father died in the battle
to defend Moscow, and his grandson works at Auchan.
"This was the main battle front. I remember how soldiers came here and took
positions around our house and inside our house, and slept in our house,"
said Zhivin, who as a 6-year-old stayed at the family home throughout the
fighting. "I remember when the planes came and bombed, and the soldiers
took us into shelters."
Continuing toward downtown from the war memorial, the highway is home to a
string of foreign automobile dealerships: Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hyundai,
Ford, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover. There are three McDonald's outlets
along this strip, an Imax theater and a Ramstore supermarket, part of a
In this area the road is known as the Leningrad Highway because in the
opposite direction it leads from Moscow to that city, once again called by
its czarist-era name, St. Petersburg. From the airport into Moscow, the
highway is eight or 10 lanes for much of its length, but traffic moves
slowly, partly because there are many crossroads and stoplights.
Moving toward downtown, the wealth level escalates. Mercedes-Benz, for
example, is closer to the city center than the other automobile dealerships.
The gap between rich and poor recalls czarist times. More than two
centuries ago, in his book "Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow,"
Alexander Radishchev used the highway as his backdrop for an attack on the
ills of the imperial era. He fiercely criticized the privileges of the
wealthy, serfdom, censorship and a lack of democracy.
In the 1790 book, Radishchev described a peasants' hut: walls and ceiling
covered with soot; cracked wooden floor thick with dirt; cooking stove
lacking a chimney; dried animal bladders instead of glass in the windows.
He also mentioned "two or three pots" and added, "Happy the hut if one of
them each day contains some watery cabbage soup."
Radishchev, who was exiled to Siberia for 10 years as punishment for the
book, contrasts the poverty of peasant life with a parody of a corrupt
government official who developed an inordinate taste for oysters.
"Asleep or awake, he thought only of eating oysters," Radishchev wrote.
"While they were in season nobody had any rest
. He would send an order to
the office to furnish him a courier at once, to dispatch with important
reports to St. Petersburg. Everybody knew that the courier was sent to
fetch oysters, but he had his traveling expenses granted anyhow."
Today's critics speak in remarkably similar terms.
"The closer to the Kremlin, the more the city looks like the capital of the
filthy rich," said Korolkov, the newspaper commentator. "There are signs of
embezzlement and corruption everywhere
. Lavish cars are parked all day
long near government offices. They are not even hiding their excesses.
"There are some fancy shops in Moscow that make you wonder what is their
purpose, where shop assistants, guards and managers can wait all day long
for a single customer. You may start thinking that they are just a
money-laundering operation, but then at the end of the day this customer
comes along, buys several thousand dollars worth of hugely overpriced
trinkets and makes their day."
Among the echoes of the past still visible along the Leningrad Highway is
the 18th century Petrovsky Palace. It was built for Catherine II as a place
to freshen up on trips from St. Petersburg to Moscow before arriving at the
Kremlin. In the Soviet era, it was used as an air force engineering
academy; now, the Moscow city government is restoring it as a luxury hotel.
Another landmark is the 866-foot Triumf-Palas apartment tower, aimed at the
city's nouveau riche and patterned after the "Seven Sisters" skyscrapers
built under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in what is variously described as
a "wedding cake" or neo-Gothic style, with lower blocks ascending in a
stair-step pattern to a central high-rise tower.
The Triumf-Palas was marketed as the tallest residential block in Europe.
Apartments sold a few years ago before construction was finished and
before a sharp run-up in real estate prices for about $450,000 for a
Half a dozen more blocks toward downtown is a czarist-era church that in
Soviet times became the Valery Chkalov Club, a cultural center named after
a famous test pilot. Today it is the Imperiya Casino, garish at night with
At this point, the road's name changes to Tverskaya, itself a change from
the Soviet-era Gorky Street, which boasted such institutions as an
Intourist Hotel and the Friendship Bookstore.
Now there are European brand-name boutiques, cellphone stores, expensive
restaurants, nightclubs, the Moscow City Hall and the refurbished
czarist-era Yeliseyevsky gourmet supermarket, boasting floral chandeliers,
stained-glass windows, mahogany furnishings and golden trim on its ornate
columns and ceiling.
Beggars can also be seen along this stretch although most Muscovites
believe only professionals panhandle in this district, because they must
bribe police to avoid being driven away.
Elena Popova, 29, an English teacher spending time on the shopping street,
said she enjoyed new opportunities in the post-Soviet era but felt sorry
for pensioners who expected to have a comfortable retirement only to have
inflation throw them into poverty.
Even for the young and ambitious, she said, the competition is sometimes
"People come here to Moscow, and they're looking for opportunities," she
said. "If you're young, educated, you have dreams, ambitions and so on,
then you'll be able to earn money and gain high position. The bad thing is,
rivalry is so great here. Everyone wants money and wants good positions
My friends say it's very hard work and there's pressure all the time."
But for some big winners, the reward lies partly at the end of this road,
the last store on Tverskaya before the Kremlin: S.T. Dupont, a French maker
of high-end pens, lighters and leather goods. The typical pen or cigarette
lighter costs anywhere from $500 to $800, while small leather wallets are
"The collections of pens and lighters are very limited, and they're issued
just once a year, never to be issued again," said salesclerk Tatyana
Shilkina, 42. "That's why many people began to collect them. And, of
course, it's a famous brand name."
It is here that Tverskaya ends at a T intersection, pointing toward Red Square.
Whenever Kremlin officials head straight from the office to Sheremetyevo 1,
they traverse this route in reverse, passing by Zhivin's tumble-down home
shortly before reaching the airport.
"How can the big shots look us in the eye?" Zhivin asked. "How can they not
be ashamed to drive past my house? All the authorities, at all levels, they
passed my house and they don't give a damn."
david.holley at latimes.com
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.
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