Mary Dejevsky: The old Soviet traditions still endure in Russia

It is possible to live in a colourless world of shared flats and a state of near-idleness

Tuesday 04 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Just outside the capital of Lithuania is a satirical theme-park of the Soviet era, and I was half-minded to drop in, for old time's sake, en route to the Russian elections. With hindsight, though, an excursion to the Baltic States to experience a replica of the Soviet past would have been overdoing it; so much of the real thing lingers in the Russia of today.

In the past seven years, I have travelled in many parts of Russia. Almost everywhere the changes since communism fell at the end of 1991 are astounding. Village stores that once had only a few tins of smoked fish and a limited range of cigarettes and vodka, stock a selection of goods that would put some London corner shops to shame. Country people, as well as townspeople, dress infinitely better than they did: winter clothing – solid boots, quilted coats, woolly hats – is available and affordable.

Village houses have new roofs, new carved window frames and solid new fences. Everywhere churches have been restored. Towns and cities have sprouted impressive new buildings; many are banks, but hotels and shopping centres have also developed apace. You can patronise a Benetton or a Mango in places few non-Russians have ever heard of. Russian-owned concerns have proliferated, and you can pick up Russian ready-meals at small supermarkets from Vyborg to Vladivostok. Queues are a thing of the past, save for buses to new housing in distant suburbs. The public drink of choice is no longer vodka, but fruit juice. The birth-rate last year was the highest for a quarter of a century.

And yet ... last week I visited Voronezh, a provincial city I know well from my time as an exchange student. In this growing city of 1.2m people, much looks transformed. Facades are restored and private shop-fronts liven everything up. In the 1970s there were not enough cars to form a traffic jam. Now Voronezh has a rush hour all its own. The old wooden houses have gone, which is a pity, but they had no sanitation, and the river banks are now favoured territory for builders. Water views are worth something – which in Soviet times they were not.

With more frenetic building is in train, the changes have made life easier and more pleasant for very many. But they are nowhere near complete. Old ways have proved tenacious, even after the rationale for them is long gone. At a material level, the infrastructure – roads, transport and utilities – are as neglected as ever. Conditions at the covered market remain primitive. In terms of what could broadly be called ethics, initial improvements have stalled. Even in the new commercial sector, there is an enormous amount of slacking. Much is still decided by nods, winks and handshakes. Add the labyrinthine bureaucracy, and the opportunities for higher-ups to exert financial and political pressure over underlings, remain legion.

Like many former government operations, the hotel where I stayed is still a gravy train for the staff. Guests are still barked at for minor infractions, and the credit-card signs are for show. The hot water supply is capricious; the paper napkins are chopped into four to economise, as in Soviet times.

If Voronezh were uniquely retrograde, Russians could ridicule it. But for every Moscow or St Petersburg there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Voronezhes. And even in the two leading cities, change is not as deeply rooted as sometimes seems. In fact, two distinct Russias exist side by side. It is possible, just, to live entirely in a colourless Soviet world of works' canteens, public transport, shared flats and a state of near-idleness that passes for – poorly – paid work. It is also possible, at a price, to live exclusively in the new Russia: living in a European-standard flat, driving everywhere in a private car, shopping out of town and – probably – working in the new economy.

The trouble is that the two worlds seem not to be vying so energetically for precedence as once they did. They interact less and less. And it is not just a matter of generation. It cannot be taken for granted that old ways will die out with the last impoverished Soviet pensioner. Incivility, fear and opportunities for corruption endure in a world of comparative plenty.

After two decades of upheaval, it may not be surprising if people need a breathing space. Oil and gas money has staved off the sort of national economic emergency that might have forced further change. But some of the brightest and best in the new Russian establishment detect dark clouds on the horizon. As things are going, Russia will not be able to use its oil and gas money to best advantage; it will not have the manpower, the expertise or the necessary attitudes.

This does not mean that Russia's revival is over. Last year's growth rate was a creditable 8 per cent. But it does mean that the next President will have his work cut out if he wants to complete the defeat of the Bolshevik revolution. It was facile of Westerners to believe that this could be accomplished overnight. Slaying the hydra of Soviet mores, with its perverse incentives, undemanding comfort zone and terror of ingenuity, is a task for more than one generation.

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