Out of Russia: Vladimir plays the bagpipes

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - I met a gloriously eccentric Russian this week who is completely out of step with the post-Communist ethos that life is all about making money. Vladimir Laser, a Jewish musician, is so obsessed with Celtic folk tradition that his colleagues in the early music ensemble in which he plays guitar and bagpipes call him 'Highlander'.

While other Russians worry about how to buy commodities for roubles, re-sell them for hard currency and avoid paying tax, Vladimir wants to get a pattern so he can turn some tartan into a kilt. He has a sporran which he made by cutting up a briefcase and adding strips of sealskin. He will wear the outfit when performing Scottish ballads.

I hated to inquire how he makes a living in these times of rampant inflation. I assume he is either desperately poor or he has a private income.

Igor Maslov is more a spirit of the times. He was studying philosophy but there seemed little future in that so he gave it up to become an 'estate agent'. He spends his time trying to match up foreigners who want accommodation in Moscow with Russians whose only way of making ends meet is to let their homes for dollars, and move back with their parents or to their dachas out of town. Both the potential tenants and the landlords see Igor as a shark. But, says Igor, 'I'm only trying to make a good salary so I can live a decent, normal life.'

How much Russian society has changed since Mikhail Gorbachev's era of perestroika and especially since Boris Yeltsin's market reforms. In the old days, Russians did not dare to speak their minds in public and they were prevented from enriching themselves above the level of the average, but the state guaranteed a standard of living which left them free to have a good time.

Except for Communist careerists, work was a low priority for Russians, below family, friends, hobbies and fun. The Party ruled and the people had a party. Russians went through the motions of doing a job, saving their energy for evening gatherings around the kitchen table where they would play guitars, sing, recite poetry, argue over theology and drink into the small hours, because it did not matter if they turned up late and hung over for work next morning.

These days Russians get together less often, either because they cannot afford to invite guests or because they are too busy doing second and third jobs to supplement meagre incomes. When they meet, the conversation rarely strays from the overriding theme of prices. Whereas a guest from overseas would before have been roped in to translate the words on a Western record, the visitor is now likely to be asked to arbitrate in a dispute on a reasonable price for a refrigerator. What has become of the Russian soul?

It has not died, of course. It is just in shock. Russia is going through a painful period similar to that in Britain when Margaret Thatcher came to power. As in Britain 10 years ago, hippies are having to move over for yuppies, while the new Bohemianism of our 'caring 90s' is a thing of the future for Russia.

Russia's yuppies are young. Teenagers who should, one would have thought, be getting a good education, stand for hours at crossroads selling soft drinks to drivers. These kids, who often earn more than their parents, are starting at the bottom of a hierarchy of young biznesmeni (some would say mafiosi) whose aggressive enterprise is leaving the older generation standing.

However, some people who were young and let their hair grow in the 1970s are succeeding in the 1990s. Valery Baranov and Lyudmila Maltseva belonged to a group of drop-outs (from the point of view of the state) who took undemanding jobs as caretakers to concentrate on painting and writing poetry. Now Valery has cut his shoulder-length locks and gone into finance while Lyudmila has become a publisher of whatever the people want to read, including pornography.

Perhaps the Russians, who have a reputation for being lazy, will turn out to be as hard-working as the Germans or the Japanese. But I suspect they will loosen up again as soon as economic circumstances allow. My friend Tamara cannot wait for that moment. A few weeks ago she announced that she was sick of people sitting around at her house discussing the price of sausage and the rate for the dollar, and invited everyone to attend a 'musical salon'. Despite her warning that no food or drink would be served because she had no money, about 30 guests turned up to sing, play and listen. It was just like the good old days.

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