Russian police pounce on profiteers

Click to follow
DOZENS OF important-looking men in suits and braided uniforms gathered to chat in a grand, high-ceilinged room with Russian landscape paintings on the walls. It looked as though it might be some interminable cocktail party. But this group was involved in crisis talk, not small talk.

In the Russian city of Tver, north-west of Moscow, officials and police chiefs are discussing with the provincial deputy governor how to cope with the upheaval that has turned Russia upside down in recent weeks.

The deputy governor of Tver province, Yuri Krasnov, insisted that "the situation is under control". But this crisis meeting in Tver, which will be repeated every few days until further notice, made clear that fears run deep.

To prevent things from getting out of hand, the city authorities have resorted to command economy methods to keep prices down. There is a phone line for citizens to report unreasonable price rises. The tax police are then dispatched "to put the frighteners" on offenders, in the words of one official. Retailers can be prosecuted for unreported profits.

Russia's departing Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, warned that impending social unrest meant that blood might flow. So far, the attempts to keep Tver and other cities tranquil have been successful. Tver region sells itself as "the soul of Russia". Certainly, most Russians would agree that their country consists above all of the various provinces. As one resident of Tver put it: "Moscow is in a different country." There is little of Moscow's conspicuous wealth to be seen.

In its very ordinariness, little has changed here in a decade. Nine years ago it was still Kalinin, named after one of Stalin's political leaders. This was at the height of the Gorbachev reform era. But, as one man told me in Kalinin in 1989: "Perestroika hasn't reached us here." There were queues for everything, there was nothing to buy, and the Communists were unshakably in control. Today, the former rulers are gone, though less demonstratively than in Moscow. The main street of Tver is still Soviet Street, the main square is still Soviet Square. A municipal board of honour, where photographs of dedicated Communist Party members and honoured workers used to hang, stands abandoned, with its letters missing.

Meanwhile, the shops are now full of Russian and imported goods in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The shopkeepers have begun to despair of keeping pace with currency changes. Instead of constantly changing all the price-tags, shoppers are expected to become walking calculators. The labels in one store simply declare: "Multiply by a factor of 1.6 the prices shown."

The shock of the successive price rises has left people reeling in Tver. Tatyana Kachanova, 33, a shop assistant, said: "Before, you could live on your salary. But now, we just don't know. I'm an optimist. I think things will revive." In some respects, the mood is less apocalyptic here than it is in the Russian capital, partly due to a greater supply of food.

Vladimir Kirillov, a newspaper editor, said: "People are more patient here. The majority have allotments, or have family in the countryside." As in Moscow, there were huge queues when the crisis was at its height. But the panic lasted only very briefly in Tver, in sharp contrast to Moscow. The price of bread was frozen by decree, and the amount of bread was increased: after one day, when the bakery was virtually stormed, everything returned to a kind of normal. Unlike in Moscow, most goods remained on the shelves.

In Tver, where Russian stoicism is developed to a degree, they are faintly contemptuous of the Muscovite tendency to make a drama out of a crisis. If the riches of Moscow are a world away, so too are the politics. What the two cities have in common is uncertainty - and a sense of being buffeted on unpredictable waves.