"We will always hope life
will become better. It's simply got to." With these words, Alexej sums
up his feelings for the country he's learned to love and hate. Why I
had wanted to travel 20 hours up north to Archangelsk on a bumpy train
like this "just to see who people live ", he cannot quite understand.
He formally shakes my hand goodbye as drizzling rain and a cold Siberian
wind sweep over the platform. Then we go our own way and the crowd around
the railway station swallows us up like we had never stood there. Welcome
back to Moscow! With the little money Alexej once earned as a translator
in the army he couldn't make ends meet any more, not with a family to
feed. That's why he does casual work in Moscow while his family stays
some 700 miles behind in faraway Severodvinsk. This naval port for nuclear
submarines, and thus a theoretically still-closed place to foreigners,
has become a casualty of its own making.
With the end of the Cold War, the military hive off many of its staff.
Unemployment is endemic, the pay for those who stayed extremely low
and sporadic. Since my return to Moscow I started seeing things a lot
differently. Beyond the fairytale-like Kremlin and touristy Red Square,
but above all beyond the capital, life has always been a bit more complicated
for ordinary Russians. I tried to understand how difficult it must be
for them, the pensioners for instance, who often have to live on less
than 700 rubles (approximately 20 Pounds) a month. "These are difficult
times", a sentence I so often got to hear from people of all walks of
life. "Yes, the economy is slowly recovering, but no, stability is missing.
We don't know what's happening tomorrow." Silent heroes are those who
keep working in the public sector for between 1000 and 2000 rubles a
month simply because they have a vital job to do, the doctors, teachers
and all the untold.
Indeed, on a larger scale, the past few weeks I spent in Moscow have
become somewhat of a symbol of this rapid decline in morale, the pride
of an entire country. An 'extraordinary' string of events, a chain of
'unfortunate' tragedies riddled the lives of Muscovites this summer.
What the Russian media initially labeled "Black August" soon had to
be extended to September as well. Let's take a brief look back: In early
August, a bomb blast ripped through a crowded underground walkway near
Pushkinskaja metro station, leaving seven commuters dead and scores
of injured. The usual suspects: "Chechens, of course", as the authorities,
hurriedly aired their suspicions. And thus, badly-copied wanted-posters
of a "Caucasian"- looking man were promptly stuck up in every underground
station. The chase was declared open as "southernly"-skinned people
-tourists and locals alike- were even more rigorously checked up on
their ID papers. In the media, comparisons to the 1998 bombing of several
Russian apartment blocks were quickly being drawn up on. What then served
as justification to move back into rebel Chechnya to fight " terrorists"
(and not to avenge a fatally-lost 1994 -96 war, of course) didn't seem
to come all too inconveniently this time either. But the police were
soon forced to concede that the latest, still-unresolved terrorist attack
might well have been a gangland crime. But at least 'something' was
being done, as TV viewers were nightly reassured.
While public shock soon turned to anger, sinister rumours made their
rounds among the odd ones out as to whom all this was playing in the
hands and why. And some questions, many fear, are better left unanswered.
Less than one week later, on August 13th, Russia's newest nuclear-powered
submarine, the Kursk, sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 sailors
on board. While the Russian public was provided news on the tragedy
the 'Chernobyl style' in terms of information policy, the government
blamed a so far unidentified object for the disaster, a foreign sub
or a mine. The theory that the tragedy could have been the result of
a training exercise gone fatally wrong was strongly denied by the Kremlin.
The public outcry would have been unthinkable, thus the theory impossible.
Among the more critical media voices, the Moscow Times called the devastating
loss by its name, blaming the government for the completely under-funded,
badly-equipped and poorly-paid army. It concluded that "the Kursk disaster
was yet further evidence of our own fallibility", and sharply criticized
President Putin for his delayed reaction in accepting foreign help.
" Putin has robbed those 118 men of four days." When the President was
to be asked live on CNN in his so far most agressive interview one month
later during the World Summit in New York about what had really happened
to the Kursk, Putin smiled coyly and said: "It sank."
The next disaster didn't wait for long as a sheer speechless country
yet had to confront another misfortune. On August 27th, Moscow's famous
1771 feet-tall Ostankino TV tower caught fire, killing two fire fighters
and a lift operator as their lift plunged to the ground. Thick clouds
of smoke were widely visible above the Moscow sky, steaming from the
second-tallest free-standing structure in the world as the one pride
of Soviet engineering was burning for hours. Live pictures were transmitted
throughout the world while the fire brigade stood by helplessly. What's
more, with all state TV channels knocked off the air for days in most
parts of Moscow, the tower has come to symbolize all that has gone wrong
with Russia. A sarcastic, if telling joke soon was to be heard in the
fire's aftermath: "From a government statement: The Ostankino TV tower
collided with a foreign tower, if American or British still has to be
established." The current affairs magazine 'Itogi' summed up the Moscow
mood at boiling point, pasting its front cover with the question "What's
next?" But no one knew and no one dared asking...
As for the events in Chechnya, or the so-called "anti-terrorist measures"
that were never officially meant to be a war, people have become tired
of asking for the current death toll. Why should they? They know that
"everything is under control and that the war will soon be over." Putin
says so, and even Yeltsin said so in 1994 when it all began. Putin has
to know. After all, it was him who planned the latest war in Chechnya.
By the way: the city of Kursk, hometown to dozens of the 118 dead sailors,
tried to steer their soldiers clear off the latest madness in the northern
Caucasus by sending them to the Marines instead. But now, they, too,
have perished. In the meantime, summer has turned autumn and relative
calmness has settled again in the Russian capital. Deep-hanging clouds
have transformed Moscow into a melancholic gray of concrete housing
estates and pot-holed tarmac. Fallen birch leafs cover the wet benches
in Gorkij Park. Most tourist have left Russia to report again of elegant
theatre performances and delicious Georgian wine served in fancy Moscow
restaurants. For most Russians -like my landlady- this summer indeed
wasn't all too different from previous ones as she was far too occupied
with more mundane questions like " Will my money pay for next month's
rent?". As for politicians, they don't interest her. "They come and
go." Only the admiriringly-patient Russian soul seems to remain the
same. People live on, they always will. After all, "it will become better
again. It's simply got to."
© Stefan Bruder 10. 2000