Scientist by day, tiler by night

Steve Crawshaw reports on how the Russian elite moonlights to survive
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The Independent Online
"ONE DAY, when I was leaving work, somebody came up and asked me: 'Excuse me, is this the Kometa Institute?' And I said: 'I don't know.' I'd just come out of the building - and I had to pretend that I didn't know where I was. It's funny, isn't it? Those were the rules."

Vera, who works at the elite research institute, is remembering the good-bad old days. Until a few years ago, the Kometa - entrusted with developing the Soviet response to Star Wars - had no sign outside. It was, like many of Moscow's most privileged addresses, a Non-Place.

Now, everything has changed. Today's parliamentary elections in Moscow mean that everything is up for grabs: victory might go to the Communists, the nationalists, or even (at a pinch) the reformers.

Meanwhile, though - beyond the Zhirinovskys, the generals and the quasi- reformers of this world - the fate of Vera and her Star Wars colleagues gives, in some respects, a clearer idea of what might lie ahead. The news is bad, but not necessarily disastrous. Certainly there is more entrepreneurial spirit than most outsiders or Russians have ever allowed for.

These days, the elite position and excellent opportunities are just a fading memory. The financially-strapped Kometa seeks joint ventures with Western partners, to keep itself going. More importantly, for those who work there, it cannot pay its staff. The Kometa scientists have not been paid in full since the end of last year. In that respect, the Kometa - a huge and unremarkable Soviet block, just down the road from the main Moscow car factory - is typical. Tens of millions of workers, all across Russia, have grown used to receiving their pay late, or not at all. By the time they are paid (if they should be so lucky), inflation has radically eroded the value of what they receive.

Even when Vera and her colleagues are paid, the salaries are modest. Vera gets $90 (pounds 60). Her boss, Yura, gets $120; his boss, Arkady, $160. This is fairly typical pay in Russia. Even living frugally, it is barely enough. Remove some of the pay packets - in May, for example, none of the three received acopeck - and the question arises: how is it possible to stay alive?

Answer: a needs-must spirit - which has little to do with politics, and still less to do with elections. The colleagues have organised a building firm, renovating apartments and offices in building-boom Moscow. Those scientists who have skills use them; less versatile ones stick to the manual basics.

The three colleagues go to the institute every day. And then, after work, they go to work. When we meet, Arkady is wearing a bureaucrat's brown suit. "My workclothes are waiting for me, at the site. At first, they laughed when I arrived in my suit. But now, everybody is used to it." Arkady is to tile a bathroom after work; Yura will lay a parquet floor.

The building work guarantees earnings far higher than the institute can pay: at least $500 a month. The firm is almost legit. It has headed notepaper, giving phone numbers at the institute; its address is Arkady's home.

Another woman in their office sells newspapers. Arkady remembers: "The first time I saw her, she put her papers in front of her face, so I would not recognise her. Now, nobody thinks anything of it. It's just the way you live, isn't it?"

Arkady is wistful about the easier circumstances of the past. "I had prospects - and all that has gone. This won't finish in 20 years. I don't know if it will finish in my lifetime." Vera points out: "My son says that we were happier before. We saw more friends. Now, it's work, work, work." Yura is bitter about his own fate but hopeful for the next generation. "We knew our future. Now, nothing is known - and we're not ready for that. I tell my son that things won't just come to him, he'll have to fight for things - but in a good sense. For him and his friends, there are more opportunities. For them, life will be very different."

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