Survival in the New Russia

Boris N. Yeltsin, speaking to the Russian people on the anniversary of his reelection, asserted, according to the July 5, 1997 New York Times, "This year, I think, was the most difficult of my life. But it was also a special, unique one. I could never imagine that a man of my age could change so much. But that is how it turned out. I can feel how I have changed."If Yeltsin could be cloned, his country would be in good shape. Transforming from communism to a democracy, from a system where the state made all decisions for everyone to a system of free choice, can be impossible for some and traumatic for others. Given the long Russian history of endurance, this may be the most difficult task of all.Anna Chudnoskaya, post-graduate student at the S. Ordzhonkidze Management College in Moscow and who attended the Conflict Resolution Conference in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), said, "This is a kind of healthy evolution where the strongest will survive and the weakest will die."She points to a drawing of crocodiles and snakes lying in wait for a desperate person held above the animals by balloons. The drawing is a metaphor for survival in Russia.Chudnoskaya labeled the balloons psychological flexibility, a readiness to cooperate, professional facility that corresponds to the job, the ability to analyze the behavior of co-workers and the ability to resolve all kinds of conflicts. The crocodiles and snakes are old habits and old reactions to new relationships.She imagines the person tied to the balloons not able to fly away. "Not only does he have to get more air in the balloons," Chudnoskaya said, "he also has to shake off his old ways of doing things."Yeltsin has gotten rid of his crocodiles and snakes. In his description of recent budget discussions with his opponents, as reported by The New York Times, he said, "In the old days, I would not have been able to put up with it and would lash out. But now I have started to discuss things with them calmly, seek a solution. We have only one country and we must work together."Irina Zavolokina, who works as an interpreter for the Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI) in St. Petersburg, an organization promoting entrepreneurship in Russia, refers to the generation gap in Russia's time of transformation. "Many of our problems come from the fact that our system is still a socialist system, a state-run system. Society has changed, but the old bureaucrats don't know how to fit into the new system. The new people, the young people, the new generation, get a very good education and they fit into the system very quickly."But the older people who are their superiors, their bosses, don't have good educations, don't know computers, don't know market information, don't want the younger people to be promoted. They just press them down, and the young people have to pay money for the promotion, and this is a different kind of Mafia."Zavolokina is married to a military doctor and has two children. She graduated from college as a teacher, taught one year and immediately found out she was not cut out for teaching. "It was very difficult for me ... finding my next job. I had to leave St. Petersburg to go with a manufacturing factory in the Moscow region and worked there as an interpreter because they did a lot of exporting and it gave me a chance to use my second language, French."She saw changes coming while working at the municipal chamber of commerce in St. Petersburg, and knew she needed economic education to survive in the future. "There were a hard few years," admits Zavolokina, "going to college, working, taking care of my children. But I was prepared for perestroika when it came." Perestroika is in every Russian's vocabulary. The word translates as demolish and rebuild. Commonly called "restructuring" by Russians, the concept officially took hold when Yeltsin gained power in 1991."The people who have trouble changing their habits came out of a system that demanded obedience without understanding why," explains Chudnoskaya. "That system formed a certain kind of person who could act only in a limited rigid framework. For instance, at my school where I studied, we were taught that we constantly owe something to someone. We owe our lives to the state. When we made an attempt to express our own thoughts, we were told to be silent because children in Africa didn't have what we had. We had lots of conflicts inside because when the inner voice would tell us that something contradicts something else, the voice on the outside would say, 'Really, those children in Africa don't have what I have,' so it was even dangerous to allow that inner voice to speak because we would get bad marks."If someone did speak up, we would hear the common phrase, 'Are you the brightest of all of us? Do you need more than the others? Are you the cleverest of all of us? Are you the wittiest of all of us?' All negative. We didn't have any opportunity to say 'yes' because if we did, we would be silently oppressed by the other schoolmates."Speaking the inner voice is still rare for Russians. "At the opening night of the conference," Chudnoskaya says, "when an American stood up and said, 'I'm shy, but will speak anyway,' nobody in a Russian auditorium would listen to that kind of confession. And if they would listen to me, I would think how isolated I would feel from the audience afterward."Change comes slowly; power doesn't shift overnight. Zavolokina says former communists moved to hold on to their power after perestroika began and still cling to it today."At the start of perestroika, everything was very quiet," she says. "Every citizen was given a so-called voucher with which to buy property. But no information was given with the vouchers. Nobody explained. There was just an announcement and some very general words about what privatization meant. The voucher value at that time was 10,000 rubles. But it represented only a tiny bit of property. Some state plants and factories were assessed too cheap and as a result, the people who were aware of the real estate market bought the vouchers back from the citizens for little money. They collected a big number of the vouchers in their hands and brought the property from the state very cheap, and then they made big money from the property because it had been kept in top condition by the state."Nobody understood anything about ownership," Zavolokina continues. "We used to have no private property at all before perestroika. We were allowed some personal belongings. A car was a personal belonging; a flat was not. Because the flat was owned by the state, usually by the factory that one worked at. We lived in fear of irritating anyone at work because our flat could be taken away from us."In the beginning, nobody knew how this or that man got this or that factory. Only now we see who got these plants, and they all got them through their (Communist) Party connections. Only now are biddings announced, for instance, for the improvement of roads. All the construction people know in advance who will get the projects. It is just a matter of formality. But still the fact that the biddings are announced is a good factor."Those connected, usually through family relations, to the Komonsol (Young Communist League) got many of the properties formerly owned by the state, says Zavolokina. The power to acquire came by having the right information. "But not all of them are bad or stupid," she says. "Komonsol was a very good school of management. People were in the Komonsol League at the age of 14. They would become the leader of the League in their schools, and they were learning how to manage groups of people all along. Some of them were decent, some of them were clever, and some of them would become real leaders. Some of them now are very successful business people."In contrast were the old communist bureaucrats without a sense of competition or a desire to learn. Out of 17 million members of the Communist Party, there were only 500,000 who agreed with the ideals of communism, according to Vladimir Shestakov, director of the CCI in St. Petersburg."All the others were forced to become members because it gave them certain career advantages," he says. "The ideological work was very effective; it pushed us in the direction of the Party. We were made to think that if you wanted to achieve something in this life, you had to be a Party member."That was true for Alexandre Stepanov. He wanted to see the world and figured the best way was to join the Communist Party and go to sea. After graduating from the Leningrad Marine Institute, Stepanov worked as a chief electrician on trade vessels from 1981 until 1995. Moving from communism to perestroika was easy for him because all during those years he had been able to compare the oppressive Soviet style of life with the free Western style."The first time I visited a Western country was in 1981, and I kept watching Western life since that time."In 1995, Stepanov founded the Stepanov Baking Co. in St. Petersburg. The business currently employs 70 people. He visited Kansas City in June with nine other bakers and millers under the Productivity Enhancement Program (PEP) which is administered by the CCI.The PEP is based on the post-WWII Marshall Plan concept of technical assistance. Its goal is to bring 10,000 private producers from Russia and the Ukraine to American enterprises throughout the U.S. where they will receive intensive production training in companies similar to their own.Stepanov, 36, drinks his vodka straight and is "thankful to this day to the state that artificial difficulties were created for me because without these difficulties, I wouldn't be able to mobilize," he says, laughing.But in a more serious tone, Stepanov adds, "There will always be differences among people. They have different potentials, different capacities. And that is what is beautiful in our time in Russia. There is freedom of intent. That is the achievement of perestroika. Even in areas where I couldn't even think of trying, I am discovering newer and newer horizons for myself. I see no limiting factors on the horizon. I don't have enough time to reveal all my potential. That's the most important -- to develop our full potential so we can give back to our society."Galina Azovtseva, 56, is a psychologist. Perestroika allowed her to realize her dream of becoming a therapist. She also sees the disturbing aspects of Russian life today.Working with her colleague, Dr. Elena Ivanova, Azovtseva does organizational development. Both women are mediators and work at the St. Petersburg Conflict Resolution Center. Azovtseva also creates relaxation techniques for hospitals and clinics. In private practice, she charges $6 an hour per session of consultation and therapy.For many years Azovtseva worked as an engineer in shipbuilding. She hated it. But her family said she couldn't quit because she wouldn't be able to get another job. "I always wanted to be a psychologist," Azovtseva says. "But psychology was not permitted since 1936. So after perestroika, it was like an explosion in my feelings. The government organized special classes for those who had higher education. My husband had a job and could feed me (so) I entered the psychological department of my university and from that minute, I felt very free and became very happy."But Azovtseva acknowledges there have been difficulties. "Moving from communism to perestroika somehow destroyed my extended family," she says. "My mother and father don't want any changes. My father fought in the Second World War under Stalin, and it's very hard for him. My husband went into the software business and he has not been paid since the beginning of the year because many Russian enterprises collapsed because people have no money to buy."My father-in-law was traumatized. He was operated on his hip and when people are in the hospital, the physicians and lower personnel only care about the money; and if you don't pay, they don't care about you. So he died. We still owe $1,000 for the hospital and funeral costs because we have so little money."Yeltsin has said two of the country's most distressing problems are its ruined system of public health and the demoralized, inept military. General health care and life expectancy in Russia rank low in comparison to other industrialized nations. "Without dramatic improvements, there will simply be no new Russia," Yeltsin said.The most vulnerable in the new Russia are the elderly. Perestroika has hit them most severely. Chudnoskaya says old people not only face losing their pensions ($50 a month on average), but their ideals and values are crushed. "A lot of them lived their lives with only one thought: We will suffer maybe, but our grandchildren will enjoy their lives. Now, they see that nothing of the kind will happen."Azovtseva says gangsters hunt for the aged. "On the radio, there are ads that say, 'We will help you to survive and we will pay you some money if you promise to pass your flat to us after your death.' The old people who do that die mysteriously or become homeless."What bothers Azovtseva most is the number of homeless children, a byproduct of alcoholism and drug addiction. "Some mothers sell their children to get money for drugs. Before perestroika, it was not possible at all," she says. "Sometimes, the children are exploited sexually, and some people who buy these children made beggars of them."To Azovtseva, the value placed on life in Russia today is low. "Up to this time, I know that conflict resolution for most of the business people is by the gun," she says. "There is corruption on a very high level, the Mafia is everywhere. When I am working in the morning, I may hear a gun in the park; I may see some corpse right on the street."Chudnoskaya says, "It might be cheaper to hire a killer to get rid of a partner. That happens frequently because the chance that the killer will be found is very low. It is rumored the Mafia has ties to the police. It is much easier to kill a partner than to find some compromise and to find out why he rejected this or that."Azovtseva believes this disregard for human life came about because under communism people never had to take care of themselves. They were brought up believing some government structure would take care of them. "We were all dependent," says Azovtseva. "All of us."She believes even the Mafia, who have adjusted to the new Russia, are co-dependent. "They became very rich in a short time by selling resources abroad and depositing money in off-shore banks just for themselves. But they depend on their bodyguards, on their hired killers."Azovtseva's dependency theory is questioned by Stephen Holmes, director of the East European and former Soviet Union legal reform program of the Soros Foundation. Writing in the July-August 1997 issue of The American Prospect, he asks: "Why are pensioners, veterans and former Cherobyl cleanup workers infuriated by rumors that their welfare entitlements are soon to be reduced even further for budgetary reasons? Their problem is not (or not only) that seven decades of socialism have weakened their moral fiber. Rather, they do not relish being advised to tighten their belts, to give up, say, their pension benefits on which they counted their whole working lives, by unscrupulous apparatchiks (bureaucrats) who recently became windfall millionaires through insider giveaways of assets that once ostensibly belonged to all and who are now surreptitiously stashing Russia's investable resources in Cypriot banks. The roots of post-communist popular discontent lie less in deplorable habits of dependency than in accurate perceptions of betrayal."The men and women in the PEP program know of the betrayals and of unscrupulous apparatchiks. But they continue to be optimistic about the future. Azovtseva is planning to work with the wives of organized crime leaders, hoping to change not only them but their children, their parents, maybe even their husbands. "Wives are becoming as cruel and competitive as their husbands, trying to control them as they are controlled," says Azovtseva. "They want to kill their husbands and I can show them how to be independent and go about their own lives."Azovtseva doesn't agree with Chudnoskaya that people silent too long are not in touch with inner selves. "Everything about these people is normal. They have no skills, and this is my job -- to teach people how to communicate," she says. "In the old days if some KGB person saw you on the Metro reading a foreign book or papers, it's possible you could be taken to prison. Nevertheless, people found their own way how to express themselves. I remember we got foreign books about politics and psychology which were restricted in Russia during those times but we read them. We would type the whole book on the typewriter and pass them on to our friends. I typed, for instance, Games People Play by Eric Berne and that was my first lecture I delivered to my students at the university ... nothing happened."Learning to communicate and to resolve conflict, Azovtseva says, will help people gain more power over their lives and destinies.Efforts are being made to get more information out to more people. "For example," says Zavolokina, "in local legislation ... every month about 1,000 decrees are issued. Just imagine how difficult it is for lawyers to interpret and keep abreast of these decrees. It is next to impossible for business people who depend on these laws to operate in a logical manner."The lawyers who process this information distribute these decrees to their clients. But not everybody can be a client because as you know, not everyone can afford a lawyer. So people get information wherever they can -- from different publications, from newspapers. But at least people are not as ignorant as they once were."Yet seeking more information isn't necessarily asking for better conditions. "The business people just ask for one thing: not to interfere to make their lives worse," Zavolokina says. "They can cope with this difficult situation if it doesn't change for the worse.""The Russian government's more urgent task today is to decriminalize the economy and stimulate the development of organized rule-of-law constituencies, presumably businessman who accumulate wealth without force or fraud," writes Holmes in The American Prospect. "But thoroughly compromised incumbents cannot even begin such as process of reform. And where could they find honest businessmen to support them if they tried?"Shestakov of the CCI agrees with Holmes that the only way for the country to survive is through private enterprise. But he is realistic about the future."What form the Russian freedom will take will depend on the overlapping of individual wills," he says. "Everything is so unpredictable, and emotions sometimes are overwhelming, and as a result it will take some time to determine where as a nation we would like to go. Right now, it's vague how we can live peacefully and allow everybody to live in the way everybody loves."At the end of an evening in a Kansas City home, the four Russian bakers toasted their hosts with one saying: "We are very much alike as a people. We all love our families and have the same basic human values. Let's try to stick to these values and try to isolate politics -- to not allow politicians to interfere in our lives. There's really nothing that separates people."Igor Batrakin was one of the founders of Torgovi Dom, now a 140-employee company in Ekaterinburg established in 1992. The business produces baked goods and operates two cafes. Batrakin applied for a loan for the business not expecting to get it. When the loan was granted his wife didn't speak to him for two weeks, he says. Batrakin had a stable position as a foreman in a factory with prospects for further promotions. He left that job behind."I have tremendous responsibility. I cannot fool around, otherwise I will lose everything," Batrakin says. "What I have achieved in my life was only by my stamina and by my perseverance. There wasn't any chance involved."Zavolokina says her future depends on Yeltsin's policies. "During the last election my father, who is not very supportive of Yeltsin, was outraged by my voting for him," she says. "I said, 'What do you want father? I am voting for my future, my work and my money.'"I'm not very much in support of Yeltsin, myself. But at least if he stays in power, he will guarantee some stability for the country. Any change in power would mean people would lose their jobs. Changes in the economy are always for the worse, because those who are close to power can make something out of it; plain people would lose, always lose. The more dedicated to the capitalism cause, the better it is for me. I don't have any fear of capitalism, especially civilized capitalism. But nothing is going on in our country except totally uncivilized capitalism."Russians want to live like others who live in a capitalistic society, says Zavolokina. "But they don't know how to do that. They've seen the pictures. They know some things; they would like to get there but they don't know the right, civilized, harmless way to do it."

#story_page_ below_article

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.