Out of Russia: Wages of capitalism: a salary paid in pork pies

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Russian television ran a funny programme the other morning exposing charlatans. One group of gullible villagers, apparently, had believed a man who told them that walnuts were rational beings because when you crack them open, you can see that they have two little brains. Yes, indeed, the silly season is upon us, that time of the year when sensible people go off on holiday, genuine news dries up and broadcasters and journalists must make the most of eccentricity.

All well-ordered, peaceful societies have a silly season, or as the Americans call it, a cucumber season. But the summer tranquillity which has fallen over Russia (if you discount the latest hijacking in the Caucasus) is somehow too good to be true and foreign correspondents cannot quite bring themselves to relax.

We know from experience that quiet here often precedes a storm. After all we were just settling down to writing about the wacky and the offbeat in August 1991 when a coup was attempted against Mikhail Gorbachev. And last summer was a nervy time as Boris Yeltsin and the old Russian parliament geared up for their violent confrontation in October.

Less than one year ago a civil war, albeit a brief one, was raging on the streets of Moscow and now Russia is like a calm sea. Is it really calm to its depths or is something churning just below the surface?

Mr Yeltsin would have us believe that life here really is becoming more or less normal. He says political conflict is over and a measure of stability has been achieved. His Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, points to falling inflation as proof that the economy is regaining its health.

Some Russians agree. For example, Vadim, who is doing well in a small private computer firm, says he and all his friends have long since lost interest in arguing about politics and now just want to work hard, create wealth and live comfortably like middle-class people in the West. Alexander, a newspaper editor, says Russians are not nearly as poor as official statistics suggest because they are all doing jobs on the side that bring in a reasonable income. Sergei, a shop manager, is a little disturbed by the gangland killings which have made Moscow seem like Chicago in the 1920s but he says this is only a phase. Soon the mafia will legitimise their businesses and become respectable.

To hear Vadim, Alexander and Sergei talk, Russia will soon be like Canada, a big, prosperous country with a lot of fir trees, and the world can stop worrying about it.

But others have their doubts, Alexander Solzhenitsyn for one.

When the great writer returned to Moscow last week after a two-month train journey through the provinces, he painted a picture of growing desperation. Whole communities were dying as the result of state enterprises closing, he said. Farming was a disaster. And qualified people such as teachers and doctors were 'on their last legs'. They were working out of duty but how much longer could they go on earning a pittance?

New bankruptcy laws have so far only been applied in a few cases but if, in the autumn, the government brings economic reality home to lame-duck industries which are now working half-time, then Russia could see a growing army of unemployed. People like Mikhail are at risk. He has worked all his life in a Moscow factory producing medical equipment. At the moment he goes into work three days a week and, instead of earning money, for some bizarre reason gets paid in pork pies. His diet may not be very varied but at least he is eating.

Ruin also looms for 5 million people who have invested in the MMM pyramid scam. The government warned them it was dodgy but the victims are as likely to vent their wrath on their political leaders as on those who have swindled them.

I am enjoying the summer, of course, but somehow I think it will be a long time before Russia becomes a safe, boring place which is just one long holiday for journalists.