Russia Today: Not Fit for a Dog?

Bradford P. Wilson

February 1, 1995

My family and I have been living in Moscow for about six months now. In this heavily polluted, rather hazardous, overly-crowded industrial city, you learn to take life a day at a time. A kind of fatalism seems to pervade the city, something on the order, "If the bandits don’t get you, a pothole or a fallen electrical wire will." Nothing so wistful and foolish as "Be happy," but certainly "Don’t worry."

On this particular day, I had done my best to adopt the local attitude and, steeling myself against earthly concerns (and responsibilities), I opened the newspaper to read the day’s bad news. It was bad, alright. At least as bad as the day before, maybe worse. All seemed right with the world. My eyes drifted from one horror to the next, and I accepted each and every tragedy with equanimity, mumbling, "Yep. That’s the way it is. Mm hmm."

But then I saw the tiny story buried in the back: "Dog Commits Suicide." It seems that a collie in Pushkino near Moscow had taken a fatal leap from a ninth-story window after having an unusually bad day. My air of resignation was shaken. Everything is not alright, I thought. Since when did the heartbreaks and miseries of the human condition include the suicide of man’s best friend?

In memory of that dog, that he not have died in vain, I bring to the readers of ON PRINCIPLE true stories from the heart of Russia. They are mere snapshots of a larger and many-sided reality. But they faithfully represent real obstacles to building a healthy democratic civil society in the Russian Federation.

Making Democracy Work

Sergei Mavrodi recently was voted eligible by his fellow legislators to take his seat in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. And why not? After all, he had won the October election fair and square . . . well, sort of.

Mavrodi is the president of the financial company MMM. His company, you may recall, made news last year by running a pyramid investment scheme that collapsed, taking the life’s savings often of thousands of already impoverished Russians with it.

If ever there was a bought election, this was it. Mavrodi’s public platform had three key planks: First, election to the Duma would give him parliamentary immunity from prosecution for the pyramid swindle. (He was released from jail in early October pending trial.) He could then return to his financial ventures and once again make life better for his investors. Second, if elected, he and his Duma colleagues would legislate a government bailout of MMM, once again making life better for his investors. And third, if elected he would take ten million dollars from his company’s holdings and spend it on improvements in his district.

Now, it is reported that in Mavrodi’s district of Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, 24% of the electorate hold MMM shares. Only 25% of the electorate voted on election day. And Mavrodi received 27% of the vote. You figure it out.

Unfortunately, the victory celebration of Mavrodi’s electors/investors turned into a bottle-throwing riot as Mavrodi marked his election by announcing that MMM had just crashed again.

Building a Middle Class

She employed her skills as a professional interpreter and, along with help from her sister living abroad, saved an amount of money unthinkable a few years before. Back then, when Russia was a Communist state, making money made one an enemy of the Soviet people. In practice, this meant that anybody with something useful to sell could try to make a profit in Russia as long as they weren’t Russians living in Russia.

But those were the bad old days. Her dream was no longer a source of despair and even guilt: to build a winterized dacha for her husband and herself on a modest plot in the Russian countryside outside Moscow. She signed a $20,000 contract with a builder, giving the contractor half of the money up front on the promise that work would begin immediately. Three months later, with the work not begun, she insisted that work commence, or that she be
reimbursed her $10,000, with interest. The contractor responded that there would be no reimbursement, but that work would indeed begin — for an additional $25,000.

She worked out a compromise. For something less than the $25,000 requested, the contractor would build the basement and foundation, and she would hire local carpenters to do the rest. As the project neared completion, she again did the formerly unthinkable: she took her case to court, suing the contractor for bilking her of her hard-earned savings. As the wheels of justice slowly turned, her new dacha, still vacant, burned to the ground. And then came the phone call, with the ominous voice warning her that what happened to her dacha would next happen to her if she pursued her claim. She took her tape of the phone threat with its admission of arson to the police, who quickly determined that there was not enough evidence for further investigation.

Honing the Rhetoric of Reform

In his year-end press conference, Russia’s Economics Minister, Yevgeny Yasin, attempted to inspire confidence in the government’s financial strategy with a message of hope and responsibility. With all its good intentions, somehow it just didn’t have the right ring: "If we manage to impose strict financial discipline and achieve financial stabilization, 1995 will be the hardest year. It will be as hard as we had hoped 1994 would have been."

Unharnessing the Spirit of Enterprise

Alexander Khodayev was elected by his 12,000 employees to be director of the Lenin Farmin Olkhovatko, a very fertile land in the Voronezh region of Central Russia. The farm’s business is raising bulls. Khodayev knows his bulls. He even writes poetry about them.

Under Soviet rule, it didn’t much matter whether companies like the Lenin Farm were productive because of the state subsidies that paid the bills. But all that has changed. Like so many other Russian companies, the Lenin Farm has been granted its freedom from the state, freedom to be in charge of its own fate. For years, the farm bought baby calves, selling them to the local butcher, Myaskombinat, when they were nine months old and weighed 400 to 500 kilograms. The problem is that Myaskombinat pays the Lenin Farm only 50 rubles (a little more than a penny) more per kilogram of bull than the farm paid for the calves, making the farm’s solvency a losing battle. On top of that, Myaskombinat is broke, its colossally inefficient refrigerators no longer refrigerate, and it is not able to pay Alexander’s farm what it owes. By last November, his farm was nearly a trillion rubles in debt.

But suddenly a savior appeared, in the form of a Moscow company that bought nearly a sixth of Alexander’s bulls for three times Myaskombinat’s price. "Not only that," says Alexander. "They actually paid me." The next day, Alexander paid off the farm’s debts and made plans to open his own butcher shop.

The killing of the dream of Alexander, the farm-manager-turned-entrepreneurial-spirit, began a few days later. The local newspaper reported that some of the bulls that Alexander sold to the Moscow firm had a final destination of Lebanon. Alexander knew nothing of that. No matter. The consequence of Alexander’s bypass of the local butcher, the news story concluded, was that "the people of Lebanon won’t die of hunger, but we will have to go on a vegetarian diet." The mayor of Voronezh said of Alexander’s efforts, "What he did was animalism. It was a classic example of a few getting rich at the expense of the majority."

"I thought I was doing something right for a change," Alexander says. "Next thing I know, I’m a pariah." The Voronezh region’s governor hastened to impose a quota on all regional farms, requiring them to sell their products locally unless or until the regional quota was met. That the more efficient farms would now be required to make up for the failings of the less efficient, that the impoverished condition of the local economy made such a requirement a recipe for agricultural inefficiency and failure, that Russia’s new constitution asserts the right of citizens to sell the fruits of their labor to whom they please — none of these considerations could be permitted to derail the reimposition of state controls over agriculture.

Heads rolled: the local mayor, the police chief, the local customs supervisor, the head of the regional farming department, all for failing to stand in the way of those bulls on their trip to the Mid-East. As for Alexander, the regional government told him that despite the damage to his reputation, he still, after all, retained his freedom of choice: he could either resign as farm director or kiss his retirement pension goodbye.

Rumor has it that the federal government in Moscow has ordered that the quotas be removed. As for Alexander, he says, "Next time, I’ll give my meat to Myaskombinat and let it rot. I’ve had enough."

Restoring a Shattered Culture

This past October, a gallery in Moscow unveiled a photo exhibition by an American university professor. The professor and her exhibit were brought to Russia for a year by the United States government as part of an academic program to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." According to a Moscow newspaper’s half-page story devoted to the exhibit’s opening, the exhibition consisted of 50 large photographs of classical paintings. The paintings, part of the collection
of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, had one thing in common, the presence of female nudes.

Photographs of art aren’t the usual stuff of art exhibits, in Moscow or anywhere else. But the American professor’s exhibit was different. A Russian painter attending the opening praised it as "art about art," which he said was "not discussed here yet." What made it art and not merely pictures of art was the way in which the photo artist had severed the heads from the female bodies. She had literally lowered the viewers’ sights onto the bosoms found on the world’s most revered canvasses. According to the news story, the point of the exhibit, titled "Metropolitan Tits," was to indicate that "the way men paint women is the way men think of women."

Of course, the mutilation of the beautiful female images found in the Metropolitan Museum was the photographer’s work, not the artist’s. "The way men paint women" didn’t make it onto the gallery’s walls. Nevertheless, something of the professor’s attempt at enlightenment got through to at least one Russian viewer. The painter Ivan Churkin studied yet another pair of breasts and mused. "It is interesting to think about the feminist problem of breasts being everywhere," he said wryly. "We were not so familiar with that problem."

"Nothing good ever happens in this country," a Moscow writer said the other day. He added with a knowing Russian smile, "That’s what makes it so interesting."

Bradford P. Wilson is on leave as Deputy Director of the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University. He is spending the 1994-95 academic year in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar at Moscow State University.