Tempers rise at a Russian tea party: Economic reforms undermine intelligentsia

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The Independent Online
THE TEA PARTY took place early in the evening - so we could get home before curfew - in the antique-furnished flat of Tatyana Gridneva's son, Kiril Vyatkin, a specialist on Germany, and his wife, Dasha Vyatkina, a school teacher.

Tatyana, a classical singer, and her friends belong to the educated middle classes. The table was laden with ham and cheese sandwiches, biscuits, chocolate mousse cake known as 'bird's milk', vodka for the men and rum for the women. Apart from Tatyana, Kiril and Dasha with their four-year-old daughter Masha, the other participants were Sergei Vyatkin, Tatyana's husband and a retired military lawyer, Pavel Podlesny, an academic from the Institute of Europe, and Olga Golovkina, a pianist.

The conversation began with the group exchanging accounts of how they had spent the past week at home to avoid the violence. 'Most of the day I spent lying on the floor for fear of bullets coming through the window,' said Pavel, who lives beside the White House, where the furious battle with guns, tanks and helicopters was fought on Monday. 'At one point I thought the army might take over my flat to use as a base for their attacks.'

Our talk was accompanied by the low hum of Russian Orthodox Church music from the television as the evening news reported on the funerals of some of the victims, held on Thursday, a day of national mourning. 'This has been a terrible national tragedy,' said Sergei. 'It is a gigantic step back for Russia.'

'It was the worst battle here since the Second World War,' said Pavel. 'What possible joy can anyone find in it? And do you believe we can have free elections after this? Thank God the president at least had the decency not to claim a victory.'

'That speech really churned me up,' said Tatyana. 'He was giving his condolences to the families of the dead. But he gave the order to storm the White House, so he knew there would be victims. He might as well have sent his condolences in advance.'

I ventured the view that Boris Yeltsin had no choice but to use force after his opponents had rejected compromise, and especially after the armed attack on the Ostankino television centre on Sunday.

'But he caged those deputies in the Parliament,' said Tatyana, 'and he put them under such psychological pressure that they lashed out like tormented animals.'

''You'd never accept such violence in England or America,' Sergei said. 'That would be unthinkable. But it's all right for Russia.'

What about Mr Yeltsin's claim that he has saved Russia from fascism? Now it was the turn of Kiril, the expert on Germany, to become heated. 'That's nonsense. I don't see a risk of fascism here at all. Of course, there are extremist groups but they are a minority. The fascist movement in Russia is no worse than in other European countries. This slogan of fascism is used here only to blacken the likes of communists and socialists.'

Tatyana, whose father was a singer in the Red Army Ensemble and whose other relatives fought to defend the Soviet Union from the Nazis, said she became upset every time she heard Mr Yeltsin lumping communists and fascists together. ''This rhetoric is infuriating. He should get a new speech writer. When he talks about the red-brown threat, he means me]'

Sergei, a former Communist Party member who now regards himself as a social democrat and who wants to see support for the state as well as the private sector, said the president was alienating a whole section of society who recognised that communism had its faults, but who did not want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

'Of course Stalin was a tyrant, of course there was the law on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, but if I'm honest, I have to say that I did not experience the Soviet Union as a huge labour camp. It was not like that for me.'

'Yes,' said Tatyana. 'We were freer then, under Brezhnev. We saw the weaknesses of our leaders, but we laughed at them and got on with our professional and private lives.'

'And now you believe you aren't free?' I asked with some surprise.

'No, because I don't know where I belong. There is no order in society.'

'You mean the crime?'

'Not just that. There is complete anarchy here. We are completely bewildered.'

The Russian intelligentsia much prefers talking about love, death and poetry to discussing day-to-day problems or 'dirty politics'. Repeatedly through the evening, Sergei tried to trun the conversation round to 'eternal things'. But finally the group agreed to discuss their financial circumstances and how they are coping with market reform.

Everyone in this group, like most doctors, teachers, artists and academics in Russia who were once highly respected and comfortably off, now see themselves as impoverished and disregarded in the new enterprise culture, having to watch the less educated and 'scoundrels' flourish.

Kiril and Dasha between them have a monthly income of 90,000 roubles (dollars 90), which means they can afford food for themselves and their child, but that luxuries, such as a boat trip down the Moscow River, are beyond their means.

Tatyana remembers that when she was a music student she earned five roubles for a performance, and could buy a kilo of Swiss cheese, a litre of milk, 10 eggs and a loaf of bread with the cash.

Now, as a grade-one singer with more than 20 years' experience, she is paid 2,800 roubles for a concert, but this buys only one kilo of inedible sausagemeat. Whereas once she had to appear on stage 10 times to buy a pair of good shoes - 'lacquered, with bows and high heels' - now she must sing 20 times. Tatyana is beautifully dressed but she has not bought new shoes or a new dress for years.

Tatyana and Sergei, and Kiril and Dasha have privatised their apartments, but they have not used their 10,000-rouble vouchers to buy shares in former state firms. 'Mine is still at the bottom of a drawer,' said Tatyana.

The way privatisation has been conducted is one of the main complaints of this group. 'In the past, Soviet people lived quite poorly, but everything we had was in a common kitty. Now rascals are coming along and saying, 'This is mine' - but what about me? It's mine too, because I contributed to the state's wealth with my taxes and by accepting low pay for all these years.'

Tatyana said 'strange things' had gone on in Moscow's Oktyabrsky district where 'valuable state property' had fallen into the hands of 'opportunists', but she could not be more specific. She also accused politicians in Mr Yeltsin's entourage, including former state secretary Gennady Burbulis, of bullying and corruption. For that, she has grounds, because some months ago Mr Burbulis evicted her from a building that Moscow City Council had previously said she could turn into a music school.

'It is easy to criticise,' I said, 'but what would you do if you were president?'

Sergei dodged this question by saying he would rather be in the House of Lords, and everyone laughingly agreed that he would make a wonderful peer. But Pavel was prepared to suggest a programme. 'Mr Yeltsin may have taken Russia out of the political cul-de-sac it was in, but it is still in an economic cul-de-sac,' he said. 'Now the people don't have parliament to complain to, and they will focus all their anger on his government. If Mr Yeltsin does not achieve something in two months, Russians will say (rebel president Alexander) Rutskoi was right. The public mood changes very quickly. So don't rush to leave Russia. There could be more trouble ahead.'

According to Pavel, what Mr Yeltsin should now concentrate on is bringing down inflation, correcting the privatisation programme, bolstering social welfare and getting on with agricultural reform. 'When it comes to farming, he should take into account the different traditions of the regions. The Cossacks have one way. In the central regions, they like the collective system.

'If he does all this, then we can hope there won't be another revolution. But if he makes more mistakes, we will get a new revolution, and very soon. The government must learn its lesson. The opposition too. Anyway, let's raise our glasses and drink a toast to no more bloodshed.'

'You have your own ideas, so why don't you stand as a candidate in the elections in December?' I said.

'Ah,' replied Pavel, 'I'm 53. I'm a man between two epochs. What Russia needs is a new generation.'

(Photograph omitted)