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A rotten, decaying nation

Russia's problems are usually presented as highly dramatic. In reality, things just get steadily bleaker
"BLACK THURSDAY" August 13. Russia was once more "on the brink", as Western news editors put it. But stock market panic, set off by talk of a possible rouble devaluation, evoked only a deeper than usual weariness in the majority of non-share-holding Russians, who for months if not years now have been watching their country collapsing a little more each day.

Certainly, a devaluation would hit poor Russians hardest of all, making their already meagre wages and pensions worthless. And yet, why panic when, as it is, miners, doctors and other workers have been surviving for months without any wages at all, when people regularly faint from hunger in trolley buses, when neighbours are reduced to stealing cabbages from each other's gardens to feed their children?

Laughter is all that Russians have left to keep them going. Everyone in the Moscow region guffawed at a local news item over the weekend about a man who was caught stealing not cabbages but potatoes from other people's allotments. It was a life and death matter, for the gardeners would have been depending on those potatoes to survive through the coming winter. Enraged, they stripped the thief naked, tied him to a tree and took turns to whip him with nettles. He was reported to be recovering in hospital with 95 per cent nettle stings to his body.

But despite the brave face they put on things - telling jokes about the mafia, which now has the real power, in the way they used to tell jokes about Kremlin leaders - Russians are really crying silently to themselves. They inwardly howl when they see shops filled with food they cannot afford to buy; they weep as they sit at home on rainy days because they have not got any shoes to go out in.

"There comes a point with suffering when you can't react anymore," said one friend, who was a star of the concert platform when the arts were subsidised in Soviet times and is now just another of the vast army of hidden unemployed. "You have no more tears to cry. The mind shuts off. You walk around like the living dead."

The Soviet Union officially broke up in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev signed Russia over to Boris Yeltsin. Arguably, it was already falling to pieces behind the facade created by Leonid Brezhnev. Or perhaps the moment when Russia really collapsed was 1917. Whatever, this is how the slow-motion, day-to-day deterioration looks today and it is a very physical process.

In the port of Vladivostok, where power cuts are routine and drinking water has to be brought in by tanker, residents are going about exterminating rats because there is a scare that the bubonic plague, not seen in Europe since the Middle Ages, is being carried in their fleas.

The local governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, is suffering from pneumonia because, according to his doctors, he lives in "unsanitary conditions". Think about that. The governor is a relatively privileged man. He lives in the country mansion where in 1974 Gerald Ford met Mr Brezhnev to discuss arms control. If the mould on the ceiling (shown on television) is enough to affect the governor's lungs, what must conditions be like for ordinary workers living in "communal" flats, where two or three families share the same apartment?

In Moscow, in the ultimate symbol of collapse, buildings simply fall down. True, a gas explosion caused the latest tragedy in which a nine- story apartment block folded like a pack of cards, killing seven people. Gas explosions happen on a more or less weekly basis because Russians cannot afford to pay their bills and, when they get cut off, tap illegally and incompetently into the gas supply system. But on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street in the city centre, whole buildings have twice subsided this summer just because heavy rain finally undermined their crumbling foundations.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a likely presidential candidate in the year 2000, overspent the city budget on the World Youth Games in July. Among the things that Muscovites got for their money were paintings of what looked like ice-cream cornets (they were supposed to be Olympic flames) on the asphalt all along the main roads. So there are fewer resources now to improve the housing stock.

Human rights were also abused while the Mayor put on a show for the visiting athletes. From my Samotechny Lane column on the foreign pages, readers may already know about Lydia Ivanovna, a pensioner who was tricked out of her flat by criminals, ended up homeless but recovered when Yugoslav builders gave her a hut in which to live. Along with other "social undesirables", she was arbitrarily swept out of town for the duration of the games. When the last races had been run and all the medals had been won, the authorities dumped her back on the streets, where she discovered her hut had been destroyed. Police told her: "It's your problem now. But if we catch you wandering about, we'll jail you for six months."

Nobody will help to house Lydia. The buck will be endlessly passed among officials with petty power but no responsibility. This is how human rights are really violated on a mass scale in Russia. It is not that victims get a bullet in the back of the neck any more. It is that in a country that is still really two countries (like Switzerland for the Kremlin bosses, like Hell for everyone else), a person can waste his entire life in corridors, waiting to appeal to indifferent, corrupt bureaucrats.

The politicians are above it all. Once elected, they cease to care until the next election. President Boris Yeltsin, supported by the West ("always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse") has squandered the years when equitable reform might have been achieved, so that the very idea of democracy is discredited. Only now is Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko bringing in measures that should have been a priority five years ago, such as taxing the rich who have robbed their own country.

And still the West fails to understand Russia. Most of the time what the media demands is chirpy little stories about Russians triumphing over adversity. Then occasionally, as last Thursday, when George Soros created a sudden hysteria with an analysis that only helped him to make $107 million through currency speculation, Russia is "on the brink" again.

The truth is rather different and does not lend itself to conventional news coverage. Russia is slowly sinking, rotting, decaying. The picture is bleak, bleak, bleak, with hardly a redeeming feature, although no one day is really any bleaker than another.

Of course, things will eventually change. Nothing stays the same for ever. The number of blackshirts saying openly that the West is trying to break Russia with its financial aid and that the country needs a "strong hand" and "ethnic purity" makes me personally fear the rise of fascism.

But like the collapse of the country, it will probably not happen dramatically, overnight. It will be creeping and insidious, like rising damp.

Helen Womack, a freelance writer, has lived in Moscow for 10 years.