Pay up or be cursed on the road to Elephant Trunk farm: Out of Russia

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TAMBOV - Two Gypsy women rushed up as soon as we joined the long queue for petrol. They had spotted the yellow 'K' number plate on the car. It designates Korrespondent. It also designates easy hard currency extortion. The Gypsies got to the point quickly with a blunt ultimatum: cough up or be cursed. One started banging on the roof of the car, the other jerked at the handles of each locked door. Then came the crescendo. They flashed mouthfuls of gold teeth, swirled around in the dust and squealed threats of gruesome accidents awaiting us on the road ahead. It was a terrifying performance, though not that different in its intent from the more plodding rituals of Russia's ubiquitous traffic police, the Gosudarstvenaya Avto- Inspectsiya.

Our driver, accustomed to encounters with greedy policemen, thought it prudent to pay off the Gypsies too.

The free market often works like this in Russia. You pay not to get something you want but to reduce the risk of getting something you definitely don't want - in this case a barrage of crazy curses threating head-on collisions and worse. More often than not, Adam Smith's invisible hand carries a gun. Or a police badge or an arsenal of mumbo-jumbo incantations.

The drive from Moscow to Tambov was supposed to take six hours. It took ten. The Gypsy curse was blunted but not defused. To be fair, there were other mishaps too. The main road was closed for repair. The driver forgot to bring a map. Nor were the road signs much help. They had been designed along the same lines as old Communist Party slogan boards: transfixed by noble goals in the distance, totally indifferent to immediate tasks crying out for attention. There were dozens of signs guiding us to Simforopol, more than 500 miles away on the Crimea, others pointing the way to Chelyabinsk, 600 miles away in the Urals. But there was barely a mention of Tambov or the dozens of other relatively nearby towns scattered across the bleak, black earth of central Russia. Slabs of concrete bearing the names of collective farms paraded the same bankrupt fantasy: 'Road to Communism'; 'Progress'; 'Karl Marx'. And what to make of 'Elephant Trunk Resurrection in the name of Lenin'?

Tambov itself merits at least a footnote or two in the history of real events. It was the scene of a bloody peasant revolt during the 1917-1922 civil war and home to Rachmaninov for nearly two decades. Its reputation today though is an unhappy one. It is best known for having produced some of Russia's most brutal hoods. The more ambitious have left to join gangs in St Petersburg and Moscow. Those left behind congregate in an underground vault just off Sovetskaya Street. A young woman in a miniscule mini-skirt serves warm beer imported from Minnesota and greasy mutton dumpling to muscle- bound young men in crinkly polyster track suits. They are not athletes. A sign in gothic script above the entrance outside reads 'Old Tambov Cafe'. For most residents, though, the cafe represents the new not the old - and helps explain why nearly 60 per cent of the region's population voted against Boris Yeltsin's reforms in a referendum in April.

Tambov is not a place that inspires faith in the future. But nor does it stir nostalgia for what came before. Its premier hotel, the Tolna, built as a celebration of Hungarian-Soviet friendship, ranks among the world's worst, in the same league as Tanzania's Hotel Uhuru and other relics of let-them-starve socialism. The rooms are filthy, the staff surly and the restaurant - probably mercifully - continues the great Soviet tradition of closing at meal times. The only guests seem to be young thugs in leather jackets and American missionaries offering free Bibles with fake-leather covers. A fat bleached-blonde at the reception tells everyone else the hotel is full.

It was hard to believe her. Still more implausible, though, was a local garage owner who insisted he was the victim of political persecution. Tambov police were after him, he claimed, because of his support for Mr Yeltsin and local democrats. We met late at night in his car at the back of the hotel. Anywhere else, he said, would be too risky. Bodyguards watched from a second car parked nearby. He kept a gas pistol in his glove compartment. As a pair of mangy dogs howled in the mud outside, the garage owner moved on to the issue that really interested him: how to find a foreign partner? He had met a few American and English businessmen, he said, but could not understand why none had ever come back to invest in his car repair shop or in the luxury holiday resort for hare hunters he wanted to build outside town: 'Maybe they are a bit afraid of the political situation.' If only that were all. But if anyone is interested, he left his name, address and telephone number.