Opinion Section, August 13, 1995


Gregory Freidin

In Moscow, August is the quietest month. Whoever can take leave of this metropolis, blinded by heat and choked by dust, does so with great relief. Whoever is left behind makes do with vacation jokes. In 1968, when foreign travel was almost as rare as snow in Los Angeles, a popular saw went something like this. A man is contemplating a vacation at a Czech mountain resort. "So what's keeping you here?" asks his co-worker. "The transmission on my tank is giving me trouble." Four years ago, the butt of the joke would have been Moscow itself, invaded half-heartedly on August 19, 1991, by its own army on the orders of hapless plotters while President Gorbachev was sunning himself at a resort in the not yet foreign Crimea. Today, the jokes again makes its rounds in Moscow, but with a change of venue -- Russia's old-time favorite holiday spots in the Caucasus, courtesy of the war in Chechnya. But the society that revives these jokes and still revels in them cannot be more different.

All throughout the summer, in Moscow, one ran into roadblocks and checkpoints, with the traffic police complemented by disheveled but well-armed paratroopers lounging about their monstrous APC's. The ostensible reason was to anticipate a terrorist attack, suddenly a distinct possibility after the bloody hostage taking in Budennovsk. But these days cynicism with respect to anything that has to do with the government runs so deep that many even that this seemingly reasonable precaution gave rise to suspicion, with some commentators suggesting that the principle reason was a display of force to intimidate the Duma as it was contemplating the sacking of the Chernomyrdin government and impeaching President Yeltsin. The government survived the crisis, the attacks, though promised in a televised interview by Shamil Basaev, never took place, and the paratroopers have been called off. Nobody bat an eyelash. The energy and intensity of the city was so great that the presence of what must have appeared a few years ago as an intrusion of a formidable and alien force was swallowed and absorbed by the living tissue of the city practically without a trace.

Perhaps even more remarkable for a city anticipating a terrorist attack with many of its young still pinned down in the Chechen debacle, close to a half of the Muscovites found the actions of the terrorists who seized the town of Budennovsk "understandable" (this, according by an informal poll conducted in by a popular radio station Moscow Echo in early July). Referring to the results of this poll, Emil Pain, one of Yeltsin's more liberal and far-sighted advisers on problems of ethnicity and nationalism, exclaimed waving his arms incredulously: "Just imagine such a response from the Israeli public in the wake of a terrorist attack in some settlement!" In his opinion, the Russians are still having a great difficulty perceiving themselves as a unified national community and still feel distant and alienated from their state. As a result, for many, the war in the Caucasus was, if not exactly unjust, than unjustified. The new and, for the most part, fiercely independent Russian media made it easier for the Muscovites to identify with the suffering of the population of Chechnya than with the reason of state defined in the garbled and contradictory pronouncements of their government. Those who see in Russian society a trend toward a more aggressive nationalism will do well to examine the public attitudes to the war in Chechnya for the counter-trends that appear, at least, as powerful.

Four years after the August revolution that brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, Russia is approaching a new parliamentary and, soon afterwards, the presidential election at a time when exhaustion, cynicism and impoverishment of many seem to be competing with the growing civil society, political stabilization and prosperity, if not for many, than certainly for more than a few. Indeed, the picture is so contradictory as to make any informed predictions next to impossible. The same people that welcome the government's increasing irrelevance -- the largely liberal press was full of self-congratulations when it realized that Yeltsin's hospitalization in July did not provoke a major crisis or cause widespread panic -- blame the government for not taking an activist stance on corruption and crime or, in matters relevant to the print media, failing to support special tax breaks for the press.

Moscow is a cruel city for those without money or influence, yet through the efforts of the city government and the business community, the city's center -- a huge area within the Garden Ring Road -- has been beautifully restored and, even more important, brought to life as a commercial, cultural, and residential area that will soon rival some of Central Europe's wealthier cities. One may look at this success as a high-price oasis in a vast desert of crumbling concrete housing developments and urban misery brought about by the destructive communist industrialization and the early predatory capitalism of the post-communist Russia. But it is likewise possible to see in this skein of winding streets, green parks and embankments lined with the pre-Napoleonic gentry mansions, the early twentieth century buildings of the "style moderne," Bauhaus-like Constructivist experiments in architecture, with a sprinkling of shiny churches of the last four centuries, and the rapidly increasing number of small supermarkets, boutiques, theaters, banks, bookstores, repair shops, restaurants, and cafes -- most of them sparkling and freshly painted -- a promise of a great and varied public space worthy of a great metropolis like Moscow.

Many a politician and opinion maker reaching out for a popular platitudes, would decry the cynicism, self-seeking materialism of contemporary youth, yet the statistics for the entrance examinations at Moscow's colleges and universities indicate an unprecedented competition for admission -- eight to twelve applicants for one place -- into programs such as psychology, sociology, and, yes, philology, with the study of Russian literature leading the way. All of this at the time when a teaching job to which a degree in philology leads may literally buy one little more than the proverbial subway ticket. The competition for what would look like a more promising career trajectory -- business and finance -- is now trailing the more academic subjects with the four to one ratio.

The overabundance of conspiracy theories points to another contradiction: such theories impute to the government a far higher degree of intelligence than warranted by its performance in many areas of its political and economic activity. Take the attempt by a Federal prosecutor to prosecute the producers of the political satire show, the Puppets, on the Independent TV channel, for portraying Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin in an unfavorable light (as itinerant beggars). A case of a zealous or ambitious prosecutor, one may surmise. Even the sober minds believed that this action was calculated not to intimidate the Independent TV, owned by a critic of Yeltsin's government, the owner of Most Bank, Gusinsky, who had just won a defamation suit against the government's broadsheet, but by some forces in the government, perhaps, the injured parties themselves, in order to encourage the public's sympathy for the liberal media and its powerful "underdog." A far more likely scenario, given practically no history of public satire directed at the state, is that the prosecutor -- in the words of the now very popular aphorism attributed to Prime Minister Chernomyrdin -- "wished to do a better job but ended up with the same old junk."

Mikhail Gorbachev's many attempts at resignation notwithstanding, the political culture of Russia, along with the economic calculus, do not encourage politicians or government officials to submit a resignation when their policies fail or become unpopular. And it was an unusual day indeed -- and a happy one for those who would like Russian politics to resemble more those in the West --- when two of the three "power ministers" tendered their resignations and were allowed to quit. Judging by the more popular newspapers and the faces of friends, Moscow's intellectual and political elite had every reason to feel elated. The attitude change to chagrin as soon as Yeltsin appointed the loyal commander of the Government Protection Service as head of the FSK (the former KGB). The result may be Yeltsin further consolidating his power, but by appointing a man with insufficient credentials to run such a complex and, in the recent years, greatly weakened agency may serve to undermine further precisely that power which the President seems to wish to consolidate.

Nowhere do the contradictions of the pre-election Russia manifest themselves more than in the country's system or, better, pile of taxes (there are such gems, for example, as the exemption of Moscow businesses from some of the federal import duties). For a company or individual to be operating strictly by the book means often to lose practically all of one's profits and simply go out of business. Add to the tax situation the proliferation of organized crime and corrupt officials who collect their own "tax," and the climate for business should be qualified as lethal. Yet, one need not be an expert to see that Moscow is a real boom town. The traffic alone, thanks largely to the increase in private automobile ownership, has been growing exponentially, making cities like London and Paris, perhaps even New York, seem placid by comparison. Moscow's office space, according to The Economist of London, now rivals that of Washington, D.C. And with only 40% of individual income coming from salaries (15% less than a year ago), it appears that small businesses are proliferating at an unprecedented rates. Conclusion: tax evasion is not juts a massive, but, it would seem, a universal phenomenon.

"The people are honest; it's the tax laws that are crooked," said Alexander N. Yakovlev, the veteran of perestroika and, among its three leading architects (Gorbachev, Shervadnadze), still wielding considerable authority in the Yeltsin government. A prolific and provocative author with a keen political mind and distinct style of his own, he is often invited to speak abroad. "I once said to Chernomyrdin," he responded to my question about the punitive taxation in Russia, "when I receive a speaking fee abroad, why should I pay more than 80% in taxes to the state? The state did not buy me a ticket, it did not pay me salary to write my lectures and books, why, then, should I give up what I earned?" Chernomyrdin was incredulous. At that point, the First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets walked into the office. "Is it true what Alexander Yakovlevich has been telling me?" asked Chernomyrdin. Soskovets, according to Yakovlev, blushed and answered in the affirmative. "Chernomyrdin and his party cannot go into the elections with these crazy tax laws; they will change," said Yakovlev and loudly slapped his desk as a sign that this was a prediction he was willing to stand by.

Debates about taxation, parliamentary elections, the give and take between the government and the press, a skeptical public, uncensored education, opportunity, and a thriving business culture are the achievements that the people who made the revolution four years ago hoped to see only in the distant future. Crime, the weakening of the social services, impoverishment of large segments of the population, government corruption, the fragility of the democratic institutions, and the ease with which the state resorts to force are on the other side of the scale. The elections in December will show which of them weighs heavier.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Gregory Freidin

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