What can we do? ask Muscovites

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The Independent Online
IF RUSSIA was on the edge of a social and political abyss, you would not have known it from the apathy of most ordinary Muscovites yesterday.

"Nu, shto delat?" (well, what can we do?) was a common response to news that Sergei Kiriyenko's cabinet had been dismissed, accompanied by a weary Slavic shrug.

Some were more articulate than others in indifference that amounted either to gross civic irresponsibility or the height of spirituality. "What do you do when you are living on top of a volcano?" asked Valery, a bearded maths teacher. "Maybe it will erupt in a hundred years' time. Maybe it will erupt tomorrow."

And that was what the residents of Samotechny Lane were doing - hurrying to the office, trading on the street, sweeping the gutters or sifting through the rubbish bins for edible scraps.

"Excuse me."

" 'Scuse me."

We both said it at the same time. Kiril was trying to sell me Russian pop tapes out of a bag at the same moment I was trying to extract a political reaction from him.

"Kiriyenko was set up," the young man said. "He tried to make the rich pay tax and devalued the rouble. Now (Viktor) Chernomyrdin returns and Kiriyenko gets the blame. If you ask me, it was a conspiracy from the start when Yeltsin sacked Chernomyrdin in the spring and brought Kiriyenko in to do the dirty work."

Did he feel sorry for the young Prime Minister of only four months, then?

"Nah, politicians are not worth pitying. Wanna buy a tape?"

Viktor, a lawyer in his forties, also felt that Mr Kiriyenko had been made a scapegoat. "He did not have enough time to solve our problems. But neither did he have time to make the terrible mess we're in now. If you're allotting blame, then I think you have to look further back in the past," he said, clearly referring to Mr Chernomyrdin, whose first term as Prime Minister lasted from 1992 until this March.

For every person who sympathised with Mr Kiriyenko, there was one who preferred Mr Chernomyrdin.

"Kiriyenko was a bright lad but he was too lightweight to lead a great country like Russia," said Leonid, a scientist. "Russia isn't Singapore, after all. Chernomyrdin has much more experience. It's clear now Yeltsin sees him as his successor."

But even more common was the attitude that all politicians were the same and a change of government would hardly make a difference to the impoverished masses.

"Everything is very unstable now," said Tamara, who supplements a pension worth $80 a month by sitting under a canopy, selling yogurt.

"Things won't get better. We can only hope they don't get worse," she said.