Russia teeters on edge of hope

The Moscow shops are stuffed with luxury goods but the crowds are reluctant to buy as Russia pins its future on men from the past
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The Independent Online
IN THE West, it might pass without comment as a vaguely upmarket shopping centre, but in Moscow, the marbled Manege Square underground mall, laid out on three floors just outside the Kremlin walls, remains an extraordinary apparition.

It houses everything from high-street retailers such as Mothercare, Next and Benetton to glitzy boutiques and the super-expensive Versace. And while crowds still throng the mall, few are ready to do much shopping, as Moscow reels from the cataclysmic upheavals which have turned Russia upside down in recent weeks.

In a children's clothing shop, assistants sit around chatting, waiting for a customer who might actually want to buy something. None does. "Before, we were never off our feet," one said. "Now, at least we are learning how to relax."

Some visitors have themselves photographed in front of the huge neo-classical statue at the centre of the mall. Others, such as Lidiya, 54, and her daughter Natalya, who are visiting Moscow from the northern port of Arkhangelsk, simply come to gaze. "For us, it is a museum," Natalya said.

Theoretically, a more prosperous economy could be on the way. It would keep the shop assistants here a little busier, and give Natalya and Lidiya a chance, but at the moment its prospects do not look good. The approval on Friday of the former foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, as the new Prime Minister went through almost smoothly, at least by Russian standards. But as many questions remain as ever about where Russia is heading.

Yesterday's Russian headlines were divided. There was talk of Russia's "new superman", and of "Primakov's triumph".The daily Kommersant talked more wistfully of "the end of an epoch", while Komsomolskaya Pravda said the government changes marked "time going backwards", with the return of characters from "long-past days".

The charge is fair in the light of some of the appointments. Mr Primakov's team includes the former Soviet central banker (and supporter of the 1991 coup) Viktor Gerashchenko, who actively stoked hyperinflation in the early 1990s, and is to chair the central bank again. Yuri Maslyukov, the Deputy Prime Minister likely to take over the economy, is another reminder of the past, having formerly run the Soviet state planning organisation, Gosplan.

Russia sometimes throws up the most unlikely heroes. But even with that caveat, Mr Gerashchenko and Mr Maslyukov do not make a very likely dream team. Anders Aslund, an economist closely associated with Russian economic reform for many years, said the arrival of Mr Gerashchenko and Mr Maslyukov was "absolutely awful, worse than anything in the past seven years".

Theoretically, the gross differences between rich and poor will be addressed by the new government. In practice, Russia looks set to fall still further into the morass.

At the huge open market near the Luzhniki stadium in western Moscow, the collapse of the rouble and the economic panic stations of recent weeks have had a typically dismal effect. The odd youngster whizzes past happily on a brightly coloured skateboard while the women who stand at the entrance to the market forlornly display a single leather jacket or a bunch of plastic bags for sale. They are depressed or angry, or both. Many once had decent jobs, but since the crisis began in earnest last month, even their market earnings are sharply down. "We can't sell anything," one said.

The usual suspects are blamed for everything that has gone wrong. "It is all the Jews. They run everything," another woman said, as her companions nodded fiercely. There is a blanket rejection of all politicians, including even the far-right Vladimir Zhirinovsky ("he's mad") and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov. "When you listen to them on TV, they all sound lovely," said one lady. "But it's just a circus. They all just promise."

The daily Izvestia said the formation of the new government made it "possible to beat down the flames of the political crisis that has flared up - but not to put out the fire". It is hard to disagree. The Communists are still calling for impichment of the President - so there can at least be a transatlantic symmetry of politics, if not of prosperity. But the chances of a coherent and workable economic policy being implemented seem slim.

Paradoxically, amid all the obvious pain of the not-quite market reforms that Russia has introduced so far, and with all the chaos of recent weeks, there is still loyalty to the idea of continued change - even among those who seem steeped in pessimism. Many Russians over 40 reject everything that has happened in recent years: they feel that there is no future, and give the impression that they want to draw the blanket over their heads and wake up back in the USSR. Younger Russians, even when they have no money and profess no hope, continue to hint at belief in a different future.

At Patriarch's Ponds, a tree-lined square around a small lake, and one of Moscow's few inner-city oases of tranquillity - young Muscovites gather nightly to drink, chat and strum guitars. Few have anything good to say about the changes that are taking place, but unlike their parents, none wants to turn the clock back. Andrei, 24, feared that the "Russian swamp" would continue to swallow up all attempts at change. But he and his friends categorically rejected nostalgia for the sometimes more comfortable (and certainly more predictable) Soviet world their parents grew up in. "There would be nothing to strive for," he said flatly. Ira, a shop assistant who (like so many millions in Russia today) has not been paid for months, was bleak in her assessment of the current crisis and unenthusiastic about Mr Primakov.

Like many of her compatriots, she had no expectations that things would get better, yet she remained convinced that there could be no looking back. "I don't find the charms that people talk about [in the old Soviet Union]," she said. "It would be simpler to live like that - but I wouldn't want it. Now, there's a dose of adrenalin. And something has to change."