Out of Russia: Lure of money brought the music to a close

Helen Womack
Friday 20 May 1994 23:02

MOSCOW - Not all the casualties of Russia's painful transition from Communism to capitalism are as visible as the homeless beggars who daily confront rich Muscovites and foreigners with their acute material need.

My friends, Valery and Irina, (not their real names) are musicians. In Soviet times, I used to visit them regularly for their home was one of the warm refuges which made it possible for a Westerner to survive in the hostile environment of a Communist country. They were as poor as millions of other Russians but they were happy. My modest gifts to them were always appreciated and repaid ten-fold in hospitality. An evening at their flat would invariably end with a hearty sing-song around the piano.

A year ago, the music stopped. Boris Yeltsin's reforms had started to have an impact and Moscow was filling up with tantalising consumer goods beyond the reach of average wage-earners. One evening Valery and Irina were not their usual friendly selves. They said they were tired of having nothing and were determined to get rich. How could I, a Westerner, understand what it was like to be deprived? It was nice of me to bring them tea and chocolate and toys for their children, they said, but they wanted a car, good clothes and exotic holidays like the beautiful people in the adverts. They were going into biznes to get them. I wished them well and saw less of them.

In January, Valery turned up at my flat. He was thin and tense but, worst of all, the nails on his fingers, those fingers which had played Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, were bitten to the quick. The mafia was pressing him and Irina for repayment of a sizeable dollar debt.

The couple had got involved in one of the most dangerous activities in Russia these days, trading in property. This business, where the stakes are high and the risks even higher, is not for dilettantes with musical educations but for cut- throat spivs who are not averse to evicting an old woman from her flat in order to rent it out to a foreigner for dollars 3,000 ( pounds 2,000) a month.

Despite their lack of business acumen, Valery and Irina had made some money. But they had blown it all on alcohol. Then they had got into financial trouble. Valery described how men with guns had sat at their kitchen table discussing debt rescheduling.

At Easter I saw Valery again. He has been to hell and back but I think he will survive. I am less sure about Irina.

Valery is alone now, struggling to look after his children. He managed to clear the debt and was quitting wheeling and dealing to go back to what he knows and loves, music, even if that meant he would only be able to feed the youngsters on bread and potatoes. Irina has left him in disgust and gone off with a young hood who drives a fast car and can afford to pay for her growing drink habit.

Valery came to his senses in church. He said he felt so desperate he was compelled to confess his sins. He had not been to church before and was distressed to see the state of the building, only recently handed back to the faithful after decades of neglect under the Communists. He blames the Bolsheviks for destroying the moral fibre of Russian society so that people are now quite at sea in the tide of materialism sweeping the country. 'In the end, we need some guidelines,' he said. 'We must know that some basic things like lying and stealing are forbidden.'

He calls his wife a 'dead soul'. He does not blame her but says she is a victim. He hopes she will find herself again. But his main concern now is the children. 'I must teach them that money is not everything. I must make sure that they grow up human.'

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