Apathy rules streets of Moscow

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - 'People are bored. There's been too much talk. If Yeltsin goes, what difference does it make anyway?' That was the view of Sergei, who sells chocolate and Coca-Cola from a kiosk on Novy Arbat, a few hundred yards from the parliament in Moscow, writes Steve Crawshaw.

Russia's newest political crisis has dominated world headlines. With Boris Yeltsin under threat of impeachment by the Soviet-era parliament, observers in Moscow agree this is the most serious showdown since the attempted coup of August 1991. Western leaders have made it clear that they believe the political battles in Moscow to be of enormous significance for Russia and the rest of the world. And yet Sergei's indifference is widely shared by Muscovites.

People scarcely want to think about the political earthquakes of the last few days. An elderly woman in a headscarf said: 'Don't even ask me. I don't want to think about politics.'

Novy Arbat is now filled with kiosks selling everything from tinned hot dogs and Twix bars to Chanel perfume and Italian shoes. On the pavement, men and women offer individual garments - an Indian sweater here, a Polish skirt there - that they have bought elsewhere and hope to resell at a profit. Volodya, a Russian visiting Moscow from Kazakhstan, said: 'People want to trade, not think about politics.'

Among those who can be bothered to choose, Mr Yeltsin is much more popular than his opponents, who would almost certainly slow the market reforms. But most just look the other way. Again and again, passers- by echoed the words of Nina Gura, a shopper on Novy Arbat: 'People just want to improve their lives.'

For the moment, at least, many see little connection between their daily lives and the trial of strength in parliament. A sense of fatalism has taken over, with many Russians arguing that things can hardly be worse than they now are.

On past form, Russians have only stirred in times of extremity. Some of the coup plotters argued, after the swift collapse of the 1991 attempt, that it had been a tactical error to bring tanks into Moscow. The tanks encouraged popular resistance, they argued; if there had been no tanks, people might have stayed at home.

In 1989, after the election of the first Soviet parliament to include radical voices, Russians were consumed with an interest in politics. Newspapers were fought over; the most popular (ie, the most liberal) newspapers became almost impossible to find. Russians sat around their television sets, listening and discussing furiously. During the first session of the 1989 parliament, the interest in the televised sessions of parliament was officially blamed for a temporary drop in industrial output of 20 per cent.

Those days are long gone; apathy is king. Crisis has come to be seen as a permanent condition. Perhaps the ultimate drama, the forced departure of Mr Yeltsin, might shake Russians out of their indifference, and remind them that even political wrangles - 'a lot of chattering', as one Muscovite said - can affect people's lives. But we have not yet got that far.