The Soviet paradise where a moral majority still rules

<preform>Swearing is banned, nightclubs close at 10pm, and Valentine's Day has been replaced by a wholesome Christian festival. Andrew Osborn </b></i>reports from Belgorod, a Russian town where the values of the 1950s live on</preform>
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The Independent Online

The young, headscarfed woman glares fiercely out from the billboard, her finger to her lips. Below, her message to passers-by is stark and somewhat menacing: "Swearing isn't our style."

The young, headscarfed woman glares fiercely out from the billboard, her finger to her lips. Below, her message to passers-by is stark and somewhat menacing: "Swearing isn't our style."

Welcome to Belgorod, a medium-sized Russian town 400 miles (650 km) south of Moscow, where austere Soviet values are still, miraculously, intact. As the nightclubs, restaurants and shopping malls of the capital embrace Western hedonism with gusto, Belgorod is trying to recreate a strictly ordered world which most Russians have forgotten existed.

In Belgorod, a public outburst of foul language is punishable by an on-the-spot fine ranging between 500 rubles (£10) and 1,500. The size of the penalty depends on which neighbour overheard the obscenity. Foul language in front of a child, naturally, carries the highest price.

At the town's nightclubs, such as the Art Studio, dancers and clubbers must - by law - limit their numbers on the dance floor to no more than two people per square metre. Sweaty group love-ins are banned and clubs are, in any case, ordered to shut down at 10pm. Disc jockeys are constrained to abandon modern play-lists in favour of a set quota of traditional folk songs for the enlightenment and edification of punters.

St Valentine's Day, which carries obvious dangers of licentious behaviour, has long been replaced by a wholesome celebration of the town's Christian youth.

Anyone under 18 is subject to a 10pm curfew in winter (11pm in summer). The owners of discos and internet cafés are routinely fined for "harbouring" minors after those hours. Given the long list of rules, regulations and restrictions, it comes as no surprise that Belgorod, with great fanfare, recently elected a traffic policeman as its "model citizen".

The main architect of Belgorod's social planning is Pavel Nikolaievich Bespalenko, an adviser to Yevgeny Savchenko, the region's somewhat authoritarian governor.

Sitting beneath a sober portrait of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, himself a stickler for discipline, Mr Bespalenko, the town's regional head of youth policy, is happy to defend a way of life that, to Westerners, seems rooted in the mores of the 1950s . His eyes light up as he describes the Belgorod vision.

"We're working on an ideal of a young person. They are patriotic, sporty and healthy, respect the motherland and their parents and know the history of their country."

This is, says Mr Bespalenko, all about improving people's quality of life, injecting a sense of religion and spirituality, promoting strong family values and making the populace understand that they must love and respect their country. In fact, he admits, his policies amount to a bit of good old-fashioned social engineering.

Although Mr Bespalenko accepts that people can be trusted to make their own moral choices, he believes that the state should play a role in the moulding of the individual. "It's important that a person feels the government is worrying about him," he says. "We must create a decent environment, an environment that people deserve. It's our duty. Plants don't grow if you don't water them and it's the same with people. They need help."

Thus, parents are held accountable for their children's conduct. The fines for breaking the curfew, swearing at school or general anti-social behaviour are heavy. In order to ensure that standards are maintained, the police keep 30 per cent of fines. The rest is ploughed into the regional budget.

Amazingly, most townspeople, even among the young, do not seem to object to Mr Bespalenko's role in their lives. "It's all good," says an 18-year-old girl called Ira. "I've got nothing against it at all. I just wish they'd ban smoking too."

Other youngsters do mutter darkly about the music they are forced to endure. DJs are instructed to play "highly artistic compositions of Russian and foreign classics, folklore, pop and bard music," and are supposed to have completed their secondary education - and be familiar with Russia's laws on culture.

The music must be morally uplifting. Courses are being organised to help Belgorod's DJs improve their qualifications and cultural awareness. Sound levels are also capped at 120 decibels. But few adolescents are prepared to complain in public, risking the wrath of Mr Bespalenko and his colleagues.

It is similarly difficult to find an openly hostile adult. For most, it seems, Belgorod's "model citizen", the now deceased traffic policeman, Pavel Kirilovich Grechikov, is an inspiration.

"Pavel Kirilovich was the most honest guy that ever lived," enthuses Yevgeny, a taxi driver. In the middle of a roundabout on a particularly bleak stretch of road, stands a bronze monument to Grechikov. Known as the "unbribeable" copper, the traffic policeman is portrayed next to his motorcycle and sidecar, with a whistle in one hand and a baton in the other.

"He even fined his own wife for jaywalking once when she was crossing the road to buy his dinner," says Yevgeny. "He never took bribes either. Never."

In the absence of a popular revolt, Belgorod seems set to become a lesson in manners and decorum to the rest of Russia. During a tour of the town last week, Belgorod appeared to be an ideal setting for a very Russian version of The Stepford Wives. The streets were unnaturally clean. Drivers, unlike in Moscow, happily give way to pedestrians. Young mothers strolled around the town centre pushing prams past the immaculate statue of Vladimir Lenin, which still has pride of place in front of the government headquarters on Revolution Square.

Beaming faces on giant posters looked down, instructing citizens to be proud of a town "of rich earth and kind people". The town's beautiful green and white cathedral was a a hive of activity.

A steady flow of young women and office workers dropped in to church during the course of the day to light candles beneath the icon of their favourite saint and say a short prayer.

Mr Bespalenko, who had a damascene conversion of sorts when his 10-year-old son told him to "piss off", an incident he puts down to his playing too many violent computer games, is satisfied that the authorities' efforts to reform Belgorod are beginning to pay off.

"In the beginning it was tough," said Mr Bespalenko. "But now my own child tells me that kids are starting to swear less at school. Playgrounds and yards have become quieter and we've shown people that it's not fashionable or attractive to swear. There are other words you can use. People need to understand that they are responsible for their actions."

Swearing, he added, is an outlet for negative energy. According to research which has found its way to Belgorod, Japanese scientists have proven that people who swear a lot undergo chemical changes in their bodies - in a bad way. "It's a vicious circle. First a girl swears with her friends, then she swears at her husband and then at someone in the street."

The town authorities are delighted that their experiment in social engineering means that Belgorod is insulated from the decadence of Moscow. In the council's brave new world, Moscow, and Muscovites, are looked upon with horror and disdain.

One widely used poster encapsulates the sentiment. On one side, a smiling father plays with his children in a green meadow while his wife picks flowers. The gleaming spire of a Russian Orthodox church can be seen in the distance along with nice, new, well-built houses.

On the other side is Belgorod's vision of Moscow: Piles of money, ripped dollar bills, and dark forbidding streets filled with sinister-looking villains, half-man, half-beast. Each is looking for a victim, probably one from Belgorod.

Predictably, the Orthodox Church supports the council's punitive stance on anti-social and dangerous behaviour. In the gentle semi-darkness of Belgorod's 19th-century cathedral, Father Nikolai, a black-robed octogenarian cleric, explains that, from what he has learnt of discotheques outside Belgorod, their effect on the soul is corrosive.

"I've never been to a disco in my life," said the cleric. "And I don't know exactly what goes on there, but nothing good, that's for sure."

As for St Valentine's Day, outlawed by the local authorities, Father Nikolai states witheringly: "It is not an authentic feast day, it's artificial." Mr Bespalenko agrees. "It's all about advertising and greeting cards. That's all. Russian people like holidays but we gave them something different instead: The Day of Orthodox Youth." This year, in an apparently acclaimed 14 February production, an allegorical rock musical called The Master, about good and evil, was performed.

After listening for so long to happy citizens and evangelical politicians, it was a relief to finally come across some voices of dissent, albeit muted. One resident, who would only speak on condition that he not be named, said hypocrisy is rife in Mr Bespalenko's model town. "The police who impose the fines should start with themselves because they never speak without swearing," he said. Others talk of widespread corruption, accusing the police of being too keen to enforce the ban because they get to keep 30 per cent of every fine. There are also rumours that nightclubs, when the police are looking the other way, are cranking the volume and turning a blind eye to breaches of the space regulations on the dancefloor. Are Belgorod's many rules and regulations an excuse for the unscrupulous in positions of power to make a quick buck?

Viktor Odenets, a Belgorod police officer, admits he and his colleagues are not beyond reproach. "Of course we swear ourselves, like in every country. But if you're telling an anecdote over a few beers, well, it's not serious is it? If you're swearing between yourselves then there's no problem. The problem arises when you insult someone else or when a passer-by, a mother or a pensioner, is affected."

For Belgorod, Mr Odenets's words amount to a startling admission of human frailty. His honesty is refreshing. But the headscarfed woman in the poster, which first appeared as a warning against loose talk in the Second World War, would certainly not approve.