MOSCOW DAYS: Russians pack up their roubles for a package of fun
Monday 05 May 1997
We were in Alanya, on the southern coast. Like the cocktails on sale in the outdoor bars along Ataturk Street, the main boulevard, it is a potent cultural mixture - an Islamic community (prayers ring out from the mosques as the sun sets) cross-bred with a wild eastern town, and yet unapologetically Western, with fish 'n' chips 'n' beer.
Its identity crisis was on view on the news stands: copies of postcards showing thonged female backsides sat next to German-language copies of the Koran. This is where the men and women who run Western Europe's giant industrial engine come to relax. And so, in increasing numbers, do Russians.
Being a snob at heart, I will admit to some apprehension when my wife signed us up for a week-long Russian package, albeit for a remarkably low price. I saw dingy rooms; nights interrupted by vodka-crazed singing; food poisoning; compulsory tours of shopping centres. My prejudices hardened just after we had arrived. No sooner had our Ilyushin-86 taxied heavily to a halt than one of our party, a young woman, started vomiting. She was so drunk that she could barely walk off the aircraft.
The outlook darkened further once we had found our rep, standing amid a crowd of others, flourishing their signs. "This is a completely capitalist society," she explained in Russian, as we drove down the coast in a minibus, awkwardly clutching bunches of carnations, a gift from our hosts. "You have to pay for everything. They'll be charging for the air next." A Georgian, brought up in Soviet-controlled Tbilisi, she had been shocked to discover that nowhere in this cultural capitalist desert could she buy a tape of Mozart's Requiem.
But snobs should not prosper, and now I know that I was wrong. Our fellow holidaymakers were calm and quiet. These were not the so-called "novii Ruskii" - new Russians with so many ill-gotten wads of money that prices have lost all meaning. Our co-travellers were members of Russia's small middle class - travel agents, middle-ranking businessmen, white collar workers - people who knew what value meant, and who were determined to get it. Yes, they quite liked the hotel's vast pool, its terraces overlooking a private beach, its tennis court and casino. But they weren't afraid of speaking out if something wasn't up to scratch.
Sacha, a 25-year-old manager from one of Moscow's handful of McDonald's outlets, was with his wife, also a McDonald's employee. On our first day, he appeared with a hand-written list detailing his complaints and queries, which he presented to the rep. Though large, his room had no sea view; there were, he said, only three hot courses at the evening buffet, whereas the last time he visited Turkey his hotel had many more. And so on. "My wife and I have decided to spend our money now," he explained. "We could stay at home and do nothing except save. But who in Russia knows what tomorrow holds?"
I usually don't much like quibblers, the kind of people who insist on dividing restaurant bills precisely. But Sacha made his case pleasantly. He is not rich, it was evidently not easy to afford a holiday, and he knew he would soon be returning to a penny-wise existence in Moscow.
Historically, Russia has always had trouble building a middle class. They are the foundation stone for the establishment of a sound market economy, law and order, and liberalism in a way in which the super-rich, the criminal classes, and the overwhelming multitude of impoverished Russians can never be.
By politely demanding value for his rouble, Sacha and his ilk are what Russia needs right now - even if the Turks think they're fusspots.
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