Magazine article The Nation

'It's the Twilight Zone out There.' (Moscow Diary)

Magazine article The Nation

'It's the Twilight Zone out There.' (Moscow Diary)

Article excerpt

During five weeks in Moscow, I was endlessly reminded that "Russia is a country in transition." But, as my friend Leonid insists on asking, "to what and to where?"

Even the many, mostly twentysomething Americans who work in law firms, investment banks, foundations and other transplanted institutions can't have escaped the dissonance. In the former Communist Party headquarters, representatives of United Way teach Russians how to do volunteer work, while across the hall 500 chanting members of the Soyuz (Union) movement demand the restoration of the Soviet Union. Outside our apartment, homeless women pick through garbage, while the Ford dealership around the corner does a thriving business. Elsewhere, a 10-year-old boy tells his American playmate that he wants to be a racketeer when he grows up. The local bookstores display My Father, Lavrenti Beria and How to Give Erotic Massages with equal prominence, both titles selling briskly. And at a stylish Moscow restaurant foreign patrons, jumpy from too many tales of gang shoot-outs, duck for cover at the sound of a car backfiring.

Far more than the Russian mafia, though, political polarization and economic troubles are pushing the country to the edge. Russia's deathrate soared by 18 percent in 1993, with infant mortality, heart disease, accidents, suicide and alcohol abuse all up. Anatoly Lukyanov, the last speaker of the Soviet Parliament, one of the accused August 1991 coup plotters and now the eminence grise of the large parliamentary Communist opposition, told me of despair and hunger across the industrial heartland: "Entire cities have come to a standstill." His account is confirmed by other, less politically motivated travelers. Meanwhile, Anatoly Chubais, head of Yeltsin's privatization program, admitted that only 3 to 5 percent of Russians now have enough money to buy up denationalized enterprises. Financial indicators hailed by many Western observers obscure more than they reveal. "How can the West welcome a low inflation rate," a Russian economist asked, "when production has fallen by 42 percent since early 1992?" In many factories, workers haven't been paid since January.

Things are unraveling, so it's no mystery that nationalism has become the most potent idea in Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky is only its most flamboyant exponent. In fact, while politicians commonly called themselves "democrats" two years ago, most now prefer the term "patriots," and from militant nationalists to placid liberals I found broad support for reintegration of the Union. To be sure, conceptions differ. Many speak of a loose, voluntary confederation - with close economic and military ties - that would include Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and several Central Asian republics. At parliamentary hearings in July, politicians who rarely agree on anything - including Gorbachev, leaders of the 1991 coup attempt against him, and Sergei Shakrai, a former Yeltsin aide who helped draft the documents abolishing the Union - all said reunification was inevitable. But how to facilitate it? Only those with ideological or institutional ties to the old order continue to insist that any new Union include all fifteen republics. "If it's a broken plate, it can never be as it once was," said Sergei Baburin, a young, popular and iconoclastic nationalist deputy. "We want to try to piece it back together in a new way."

Reintegration with Russia featured strongly in the Ukrainian and Belarussian presidential campaigns in July. Down went the two men who with Yeltsin had abolished the Union in December 1991, Leonid Kravchuk in Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich in Belarus - a signal of the popular belief that close relations with Russia can solve domestic economic problems. But unlike Western press reports, Yeltsin cannot find consolation in all this. He is now in a lonely and potentially precarious position - "the last liquidationist," as one Russian pundit put it.

If and when some kind of new Union comes about, official U. …

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