Moscow's tooth-and-claw capitalism sends a chill down the spine

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The Independent Online
The Russian poet Alexander Blok once wrote about "feeling ... a great noise of the wind - a continuous noise, probably from the collapse of the old world". That was in 1918, a year after the Revolution. But there is another kind of noise which you feel rather than hear, and that is the creative earthquake of a new world rising out of the ground. And you feel it in Moscow today.

I have felt it only three times before. The first time was in Hamburg in the 1980s, touring the gigantic new harbour for international trade. The second time was on my first sight of the London Docklands project under construction, and the third was when I watched the building of the new Berlin. It's a physical feeling, an awe verging on terror which comes from the spectacle of monster capitalism given its head and allowed - for a moment - to use all the raw creative strength in its body.

Now that force is in Moscow. In one sense, it is chaos. The timeless, peeling grey of the Moscow streets has given way to glaring lights, mad advertisement hoardings promoting sex and power in primary colours, building sites draped in green netting. The old facades are being redecorated, but it's hard to see them for the permanent stampede of traffic: the fuming little Ladas barged aside by new German limousines or Japanese warlord landcruisers with smoked windows and roof sirens.

With the buildings come the new monuments. The city already lives in the shadow of Stalin's wedding-cake skyscrapers, posted on each horizon like sentries. Now Tseretelli's statue of Peter the Great rises to meet them, the biggest single piece of kitsch on earth. Halfway up this bronze ziggurat of junk, decorated with twelve metal Russian ensigns, stands a ten-times-lifesize effigy of Peter clutching the wheel of a Hollywood galleon.

Where did the money come from for Peter, or for the colossal cathedral of Christ the Saviour being completed nearby to replace the one blown up by Stalin? Where does the money for the whole Moscow transformation come from, in a country whose meagre living standards have collapsed? Asking this sort of question is a waste of time, like trying to sort out clean wealth from laundered Mafia billions. "Applying the term 'criminal' in Russia is a matter of taste," reflected one foreign diplomat. "I can't spend my time washing my hands after shaking them."

This is primitive capitalism erupting, as callous and erratic as it must have been in Chicago in the 1880s. Protection rackets are routine. Even the "John Bull Pub" received a payment reminder in the form of an anti- tank mine, while the murder rate among bankers varies from 10 to 20 a year.

But shares in the top 50 companies have risen by 140 per cent so far this year, and the business pages read like war reporting. The day I arrived, Novolipetsk Steel (employing 50,000 people) held its AGM. Heavies in red armbands tried to stop a gang of new, greedy investors reaching the platform to oust the old Soviet management - which in turn was being defended by a rival gang of speculators based in London. Fortunately, all shareholders had been stripped of their guns and mobile phones at the gate. Meanwhile, the scientific workers from a nuclear power station near Smolensk were marching on Moscow, in their red laboratory gowns, because they had not been paid for months. Some were walking barefoot. Their shoes had come apart, and they couldn't afford new ones.

It seems impossible that anybody can claim to be in charge of this surreal carnival. But Russia is less anarchic than it seems, and there are signs of emerging order. President Yeltsin is alive, if not particularly well, and his curiously assorted team - super-rich financiers, clever young meteors, solid old veterans of Soviet times - is struggling forward with the reform programme. There have been heavy budget cuts, and a new tax system is due to be laid before the recalcitrant Duma (parliament) this autumn. The bankers feel bullish, but the politicians wonder how much more the Russian people can take.

I was in Moscow with the press party accompanying Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, on his first visit to Russia. The business he did was useful, if not sensational: mending fences with the offended Russians after the arrest of Serbian war criminals, discussing an agenda for the new Nato- Russia Joint Council, preparing a treaty for common action against organised crime and the drugs trade, discussing the Know-How Fund's help in building the organs of civil society. Equally important for him was getting a sense of the personalities trying to steer the wild horse of Russia. In less than two days, hurtling from meeting to meeting, we studied some interesting faces over Mr Cook's shoulder.

There were the heavy, affable features of Yevgeny Primakov, the Foreign Minister, who took over the KGB in 1991 and led the new External Intelligence Service. There was Yury Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow, tubby and vastly self- assured. His style was more Sovietic: the immense polished table, the clumps of gleaming mineral-water bottles, and the mob of local media trained to record his every word and gesture. There was Colonel-General Koleshnikov, a veteran Soviet policeman who is Deputy Minister of the Interior. Asked about organised crime, he baffled us by replying placidly that there were no gangsters in Russia.

Then, in the Parliament building, we met one of the new hopes of Russia. The young Boris Nemtsov, deputy premier in charge of economic reform at the age of 38, kept Mr Cook waiting. When he hurried in, clad in a blazer and clutching a cheap plastic folder, we saw a rumpled, handsome fellow with black curly hair and slanting eyes. Until this March, Nemtsov was governor of Nizhny Novgorod and made the city and region a model of clean administration and fresh experiment. He summoned the Know-How Fund to help him, especially in land reform; this left him with a taste for British practicality, and now he is impatient to get more Russian managers trained in Britain and expand trade. That meeting went well.

As we walked up to the Russian Parliament, the "White House", I remembered the last time I was there. This empty, windy forecourt of grey marble was crowded with busy human beings then, rushing loaves of bread, cartons of cigarettes and duplicators into the building to withstand a siege. The silent roadway at the back of the building, with its ornamental bridge, was being torn up by hundreds of men and women building barricades of cobbles with their bare hands. On that flight of stone steps near the railings, I met and talked to a young Czech photographer who was crushed by an armoured personnel carrier a few hours later.

It was August 1991, the days and nights of the failed coup d'etat which was meant to restore Stalinism but which brought Boris Yeltsin to power. The coup collapsed but - as I still think - it came very close to succeeding. Only the handful of people who went down to the White House with Yeltsin to stand unarmed against tanks made the difference - at first a handful, but then hundreds and finally thousands.

Last week, looking out over the traffic and the building cranes of Moscow, it was hard to remember how it was then. A Russian woman I knew, who was among the defenders, said afterwards to me: "A few good, brave people saved Russia!" She was right. We know what they saved Russia from. But what Russia did they save? Feeling around me that immense and uncouth heave into the future which is Moscow today, I could find no answer.