'Forget the vodka - just spend all your money'

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The Independent Online
THIS IS not about all-out panic, coups or tanks on the street. And it is not really about starvation, beyond a tragedy or two. The crisis sweeping through Russia is about survival, and that's a subject in which Colonel Oleg Koulakov is an expert.

A kind, rather formal man, the colonel has this week calmly watched his notional wealth shrivel like a weather-wrecked vineyard beneath the winds of an economic hurricane, a storm which has sliced the street value of the rouble almost in half.

Yet he betrays little emotion as he describes how the value of his three- month back-pay from the military has tumbled from $1,200 (pounds 740) - a veritable fortune for the average Russian - to about $700.

Why should he fret about that? After all, he never really expected to see the money in the first place. "When you have been wounded three times in Afghanistan, as I was, you learn not to worry about these matters," he said, sitting in his tiny, dank central Moscow flat.

Like most Russians, Col Koulakov, a professor of geopolitics at Moscow's Military University, is weathering this crisis because he lost trust in officialdom long ago. "That money was always lost. I never expected them to keep their promises, and they didn't. I know this country well."

Seven years of post-Soviet life - years which have been accompanied by the near- collapse of the military - have taught Russians to be highly suspicious, cautious and resourceful. They have seen four-figure inflation wipe out their savings. They have been ripped off en masse by crooked pyramid investments schemes and - in the view of many - by their own government, which promised them a share of the privatisation of the Soviet economy which turned out to be worthless. They have seen the rise of a tiny, criminalised, and horribly garish segment of society, who have gorged themselves on the unfair carve-up of Soviet assets, becoming instantly, monumentally, rich. They have seen the same people send the proceeds of their ill-gotten wealth abroad by the billion.

The 39-year-old colonel has seen all this, and has responded in a manner that typifies the small group of Russians who would be members of the middle class, if only market economics could take root long enough in Russia to allow such a category to develop. He dislikes what Russians call "kitchen-table complainers", those who sit around moaning about their helplessness over a bottle of vodka, something of a national sport.

He adopted a different strategy. First, he has spent whatever cash he had. Within the gloomy interior of his minuscule apartment glimmers an array of imported electronic goods, a big Panasonic television set, a twin-deck cassette-radio, a printer, a Toshiba laptop, and a fax-telephone. Not long ago he splashed out on a new Niva car, and a mobile telephone.

Second, he decided to supplement his income by working on the side. As a trained military interpreter, fluent in Farsi and competent in English, he took private students, doing translations, and interpreting for commercial clients. In the last three years he has built up his business to earn an average of $500 a month - no fortune, but at least enough to ensure he gets by in one of the world's most expensive cities.

When he bought all his foreign electronic paraphernalia his friends criticised him for extravagance. But his modern communications have helped him stay ahead in his second, private job. "A call can come in at any time of night, from someone saying 'get over here there's work to be done'." There is a price for all this; he usually works seven days a week.

It is a life that differs vastly from the kind of charmed career he could have expected as a senior officer in the Soviet armed forces when he was first picked out from the ranks as one of the brighter recruits. He would have had the panoply of privileges accorded the Soviet elite - a far larger flat, a low-rent dacha, a car, free food packages, access to the luxury- packed beryozka shops for foreigners. He would have lived in the style of a colonel working for a super-power's military machine.

He has, it must be said, been lucky. Thousands of other Russians wait patiently outside banks, anxious to get access to bank accounts, or to change roubles for hard currency. Importers - a burgeoning class of traders who now face ruin - have been hastily buying up goods because they could be relied on to keep their value better than the currency.

But Col Koulakov has no such worries. "Being poor is sometimes an advantage," he remarks drily. Despite everything, he would rather live in today's Russia than go back to the USSR. Freedom of speech, and travel, and association, matter.

Poverty will also save millions of others here from the immediate scourge of the rouble's collapse. They have long grown half their food, and have a lengthy tradition of barter and self-help.

The unpaid and under-employed strike and protest and march. Yet somehow most of them have so far got by, by turning to the land. Russians have a hardiness and resourcefulness that Boris Yeltsin understands, and has badly abused. In the coming months, as the country goes into both economic and literal refrigeration, those properties will be severely tested.