Yeltsin's two worlds

A Canadian journalist says that present-day Russia looks like "Dostoevski as interpreted by Fellini."

Published June 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's invitation to participate in the Summit of the Eight in Denver over the weekend was both a reward for accepting NATO expansion and encouragement from his allies abroad to press on with economic reforms -- some of which have caused chaos at home.

Since becoming president of Russia six years ago, Yeltsin has followed an erratic course, dog-legging between spells of inactivity and spasms of political vigor. Though power struggles continue between conservative forces -- communists and nationalists -- and Yeltsin's "free-market" reformers, events of recent weeks show Yeltsin flexing his political muscle. He fired defense chief Igor Rodionov, blaming him for corruption in the military. He reshuffled the key security council, adding three of his reformist allies. And he proposed a referendum on whether to remove Lenin's mummified body from its present resting place in Red Square -- an act that would symbolize a rejection of the communist ideals still held by his enemies in Parliament.

Salon spoke with journalist Jennifer Gould, author of "Vodka, Tears, and Lenin's Angel," recently published by St. Martin's Press. Gould covered Russia for the Village Voice and other publications in the first half of the 1990s.

In your book you describe present-day Russia as "Dostoevski as interpreted by Fellini."

There are 100,000 homeless people in Moscow, and a lot of them live in railway stations. A poverty-stricken old man came up to me at one of them and gave me a single long-stemmed red carnation. There was the painter whose place was so packed you couldn't move. The walls were covered with art, and every single painting was of a cat. There was the jet-setting Russian Orthodox priest who has homes on the Riviera and in Manhattan and travels with a dwarf. Old soldiers selling their medals for butter. The woman selling yellow daffodils in Grozny, where the buildings have been so shot up they look like lace work.

There's been a flood of books about Russia in recent years. What made you write another one?

I wanted to write a book that would speak to a general readership as well as to Russian specialists. I tried to write in an informal style and tell the story of Russia through my own story as a young female North American journalist living in that crazy landscape. There's a chronological order to the stories, and they are interspersed with chapters that symbolize some essence of Russia -- how cars and drivers reveal the lawlessness of Russia, for instance. What's it like to live in an apartment in Russia? What does it look like? What does it smell like? I wanted the book to make the place come alive.

Can democracy take root or is Russia a prisoner of its own dark soul, as some Western observers believe?

When the Cold War ended, a lot of people in the West had this conception of instant democracy. And I think the lesson is that there is no such thing. It took centuries for the democratic tradition to develop in the West. I think it can happen in Russia, but it will take a very long time. And things will get worse before they get better.

In your book you describe two worlds in Russia, one stable and middle class and one anarchic.

Things people used to have to do in secret they can now do in public. But there's no law to protect them, so they take the law into their own hands. If you are stopped by the traffic police you can bribe them.

Except for extremely political cases, you can buy your way out of jail. And if you don't like what's happening in a business situation you can hire somebody to harm or kill your partner. I would be interviewing a businessman in his office, and on his way out he would take a gun and put it in his silk sock and go out with his bodyguards. I'd be riding on a plane in the Arctic and this young guy beside me tells me he's 26 years old and has $5 million. And as we're getting off the plane he says, "Just a minute, I checked my gun with the captain." To me, that's anarchy. There is no authority.

What can Boris Yeltsin, or whoever comes after him, do to prevent anarchy from spreading?

Some things are definitely possible. More could be done to stop senior levels of corruption. And he could create laws. Russia is literally a country without law, with everything based on presidential decrees. Basic conflict-of-interest laws don't exist. There are no privatization laws. So, there's a small elite group that has political power, and that now means financial power because they control all the real estate. Things like that could change.

Western media have run stories about a religious revival in Russia.

There was a real void left with the collapse of communism. People are turning to religion to fill that void. There have been mass baptisms. American cults are there. Muslim cults are there. The Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which was involved in the poison gas attack in Tokyo, has a big following in Moscow. And builders have been working 24 hours a day to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Stalin had destroyed. The cathedral is extremely decadent and lush. The inside is covered with gold, much of which was donated by the Russian Orthodox Church. So some people are turning to the church to fulfill a spiritual need. But there's a lot of superficiality and hypocrisy.

After a series of medical problems, Yeltsin seems to be having a second wind. Is he now trying to strike a blow at his opponents in the Russian Parliament?

He doesn't try to do anything until he's sinking in the polls. He was very popular in 1991, but he didn't do too much. By 1993 he's being told, you've got these serious opponents who are working behind your back. So he ends up doing really undemocratic things, like firing Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and shelling the Parliament building. And starting the Chechen war, which could have been avoided. He uses a lot of force, but he hasn't really thought ahead. To me, this talk about moving Lenin's body just indicates his present mood. That doesn't mean the mood is going to last.

How successful have Yeltsin's reforms been?

He's been successful in the sense that he's still in power. But in social terms he hasn't been successful at all. Infant mortality and suicide rates are up. Life expectancy has gone down. These things shouldn't be happening. There are things in the stores, but people can't afford to buy them. The actual quality of life has gone down. There's a very small class that has done very well. And for some young people who speak English or who have some entrepreneurial spirit things are going well. If you look at Moscow or St. Petersburg you see people who are prospering. But if you go out into the countryside, it's really terrible.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov suggested turning the whole of Moscow into a kind of independent fiscal state.

Well, that's essentially what it is. Luzhkov is basically the king of Moscow. To have a successful business you have to go through the city and the city has to become your partner. If you look at Moscow now it's quite beautiful. They paved the roads for Queen Elizabeth's visit. There are fountains and beautiful little bridges. Buildings have been renovated. And Luzhkov has done some smart things, like starting a cheap Russian fast-food chain. The city looks good and a lot of businesses are profiting. But what has he done for the people who live there? Not much. There is still not one shelter for homeless kids. Also, Luzhkov has these incredibly autocratic ways. He'll go through the city and round up people -- Afghans -- with dark skin. And if they don't have residence permits, they're bussed out.

Luzhkov is a leading contender to be Yeltsin's successor.

He's been talked about that way for a few years. Basically the players that we see today are the same ones that were there in the late 1980s that became popular after the collapse of communism. Luzhkov was a fierce critic of Yeltsin. He criticized the Chechen war. Right now he and Yeltsin are on the same team. But they've been on the same team before, and then they fought. He's definitely a strong contender at the moment. But you just never know. For me the first rule of Russia is that nothing is ever what it seems. Whatever it looks like on the surface, it's probably the opposite.

What has happened to the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky? He seems to have sunk from view.

There was always talk that Zhirinovsky's party was created by Mikhail Gorbachev. I asked Gorbachev about that. He just smiled and wouldn't say. If it's true, which I think it is, that means Zhirinovsky was working with the forces that were in power at the time. And when Zhirinovsky came on the scene the entire political spectrum shifted to the right. Zhirinovsky's face was on the cover of all the Western magazines. The West was scared of him, and Yeltsin looked even more like the great democrat, the only one the West could depend on. If you analyze the way Zhirinovsky voted when he had the largest number of seats in Parliament, he always came out on Yeltsin's side and never seriously opposed him. Traveling with Zhirinovsky along the Volga and seeing him in action, I really do believe that he had a lot of power. He had a strong grass-roots base that other politicians didn't. Then all of a sudden, in the last elections he just didn't campaign. Why? If he was really an independent politician, why would he do that? It didn't make any sense. So I do think that at some time Zhirinovsky and Yeltsin were cooperating.

By Michael Boxall

Michael Boxall lives in Vancouver, B.C., where he contributes to publications in North America and Asia.

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