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A Glimpse Of Russia Today

Perhaps the first peculiarity that strikes a first time recent visitor from India to Moscow is the total absence of any sort of political activity, although the crucial presidential elections are to be held just about six months from now on March 4, 2012. For us Indians, used to a rising crescendo of political cacophony months before the general elections, such quietude is unthinkable.

But then, perhaps the Russians have yet to get used to the free air of democracy. They have been breathing it for just 20 years. Before that they were under the thumb of Communist rule from 1917 and prior to that they were ground under the heel of feudalism and monarchy for centuries.

And they have good reason to be cynically blase about the present dispensation. The 2008 presidential elections which put Putin’s alter ego, Medvedev onto the throne was lambasted as less than fair and free by western observers.  To be fair to him, during his two consecutive terms as president  from 2000 to 2008, Putin did bring Russia back from the economic brink, removed the crime-causing casinos from Moscow  and successfully defused the Chechen insurrection.

But, the ordinary Russian darkly hints at widespread corruption in the administration and close connections between ruling politicians and the oligarchs who control most of the country’s enterprises today. There are allegations that Putin himself is a disguised oligarch. Privatisation of the once colossal public sector has actually meant parcelling out to a close coteries of ex-Communist Party officials and their friends.

The economy is in a much better shape now than it was 20 years ago, thanks to the sharp price rise of oil, gas and minerals (Russia has huge resources of these) in the global market and investment pouring in from western multinationals, Japanese trading giants, China and even our own ONGC.

There is a growing middle class these days who are increasingly becoming prosperous by involving themselves in legitimate business, with a few of them becoming very wealthy. They are known commonly as ‘novye Russkie.’ One indication of this new prosperity is the revamped GUM market which, in the Soviet days, had dowdy shops dispensing essential goods. Today it is a stylish multi-storey shopping mall with posh shops hawking luxury brands from all over the world.   

The number of Russians living in poverty has halved since the economic crisis following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the improving economy had a positive impact on the country’s low birth rate. The birth rate of Russia rose from its lowest point of 8.27 births per 1000 people in 1999 to 12.6 per 1000 in 2010.

 One had heard horror stories about Russian women having to sell themselves to make ends meet, immediately after the collapse of the protective umbrella of Communism. During my recent visit, I did not notice any such signs of indigence or ugly slums in the cities in the west, like Moscow and St. Petersburg or in the east, like Irkutsk and Novosibirsk.

Confident look
In fact, contrary to the image of the dowdy Russian, most women on the street , were smartly turned out and had a confident look about them.  An Indian couple accompanying us, who had studied in Moscow in the ‘old days,’ acknowledged that the street scene now, with smart new  malls, pubs, restaurants etc., was a far cry from the drabness of the Communist regime times. 

The most striking sign of better times for Russians is the growing personal automobile population. Owning a car has become so popular that, although Moscow has one of the best public transport systems in the  world, its broad roads are crammed with automobiles and traffic jams have become the rule rather than the exception. 

The same cannot be said of rural Russia. The glimpses we had of the countryside from the windows of the Trans Siberian Express between Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, showed ramshackle villages with wooden buildings and dirt roads. Not very edifying.

There is a darker side to the improving economy. Rising prices of consumables and soaring rents in cities are hitting the middle class hard. Especially vulnerable are the elderly, whose meagre pensions cannot suffice for their needs and have to perforce take up, in their advanced age, some sort of employment  to make ends meet.

In conversations with such people, one could discern a nostalgia for the Communist days in which basic needs were taken care of by the state. In the previous Soviet system, people were provided with low-rent accommodations, subsidised factory canteens, sports facilities, shops, and even vacations. Hardly any of these remain today. Plus, before the liberalisation of the economy, public transport, utilities, cigarettes, drink, and food were also cheap.

Due to the current economic situation, the price of real estate in Moscow continues to rise and rents are soaring. It costs about US $ 2,500 per month to rent a 1-bedroom apartment and about US$1500 per month for a studio in the centre of Moscow.

The other striking aspect of  Russia’s current urban landscape is the large-scale renovation of ecclesiastical buildings, particularly churches and monasteries belonging to the Russian Orthodox denomination.  An example is the Church of Christ the Saviour,  demolished by Stalin in 1931 and  converted into a public swimming pool, which was rebuilt in all its original glory by 2001.

Have the people gone back to relegiosity after 70 years of being forced to swallow atheism by the Soviet state? My queries yielded mixed results. It is not that people have become regular church goers. But special occasions like christenings, marriages, deaths, religious festivals have them flocking to the churches.

The politicians seem to have sensed this resurgence. Medvedev does not miss a photo-op  showing him hobnobbing with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. And, state funding of church restoration is generous.