Rouble-speak now rules the airwaves: Out of Russia

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MOSCOW - The morning show was always a bit rinky-dink. No one ever phoned in; the host kept playing the same few bars of the same scratchy Four Seasons; reception was often terrible. But every morning I would listen. Moscow's Open Radio had an irresistible formula: mainly news and in English. Early morning is no time to puzzle over Pushkin.

All that was before I went on holiday. I woke up on my first day back in Russia to this: a high- pitched Russian woman ordering me to put my money in a company called Olga, to plan my next vacation through a firm called Sputnik and to buy a new computer from Electro-Servis - Open Radio had become Otkritoe Radio. A small island of English had sunk beneath a rising sea of Russian. Sad but also very encouraging. Also very simple: the free-market has finally started to kick-in.

The Five-Year Plan collapsed under the weight of its own follies. The Soviet economy mutated into unnatural and ultimately unsustainable forms. It sometimes seems as if Russian capitalism might not fare much better.

When Open Radio started in March 1992, foreign diplomats and journalists in duty-free Volvos were considered high-rollers. Where they spent their money mattered. Advertisers needed to talk to them. Open Radio, joined later by Radio Maximum and Radio-7, had to speak English. Today, the language of money is Russian. Diplomats are shabby riff- raff next to Russia's nouveaux riches. Also downgraded are foreign journalists, now separated from hoi-polloi only by the yellow K that marks the car of each Korrespondent.

Few Moscow biznesmeny looking to boost sales need bother much with foreigners anymore. 'Broadcasting to the foreign community was a noble and fine mission. It brought us lots of friends,' said Nurlan Urazbayev, general manager of Open Radio, 'but, when it came to money, we deprived ourselves of advertisers targeting the Russian community.' No more. Money - and with it Russian - has prevailed.

Sometimes the battle seems to be going the other way. The best newspaper for news is in English - the Moscow Times. English-language labels and signs are everywhere, despite repeated decrees by Moscow's Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, back in Moscow after 20 years in the West and two months on a train across Siberia, has become a one- man Academie Russe, thundering against the contamination of English with as much quirky vigour as the 'Immortals' ruling the roost at the Academie Francaise in Paris.

Another writer, the punk fascist Eduard - better know as Eddie - Limonov, has joined the National-Bolshevik Party in calling for a boycott of Snickers, Marlboro and all the other imported goods that refuse to adopt Russian names and make life so difficult for the Bolshevik Chocolate Factory, the manufacturer of Tu-134 cigarettes and other bastions of Soviet-style marketing.

But they miss the point. The Russian language is not on the defensive. It is winning. Moscow's English-speakers number only 100,000. Nearly 10 million in the capital speak Russian. The ratio was little different when Open Radio started up two years ago. Another part of the equation, however, has changed. 'In terms of money,' said Mr Urazbayev, 'things are very different now.' Wealth is no longer concentrated in foreign hands. The balance of privilege has shifted - and Open Radio has canned its breakfast show.