Russia's New (Middle) Class Struggle A Building Block of Democracy, White-Collar Workers Feel Blue. the High Life Ends. Resumes Flow

Article excerpt

The worst of Russia's financial panic appears to be over. But T.G.I. Friday's is keeping its "anti-crisis menu."

The restaurant still offers smaller portions and prices pegged to the dollar because many customers have not returned a month after the ruble collapsed.

Russia has seen food lines, hyperinflation, and a collapsed currency before. But this crisis has knocked not only the poorest but the new middle class.

The lost patrons of places like T.G.I. Friday's had tastes for things American beyond Cajun chicken. They embraced a capitalist mentality after the Soviet Union's demise in 1991.

They opened bank accounts instead of hiding money in closets. They vacationed in Spain, wore designer jeans, and read computer manuals in English. They started businesses, chatted on mobile telephones, and ate in fashionable restaurants.

Although found mainly in big cities, they were an important step in Russia's transition to democracy.

Now they're broke. Their bank accounts are frozen, and they're worried about losing their jobs.

The ruble has rebounded somewhat, a political power vacuum has been filled with a new prime minister, and Muscovites are no longer hoarding food. But the middle class is making new plans.

"I think about making lifestyle changes now that I'll spend more money on food," says Alexei Burtzev, who epitomizes the twentysomething business class whose very existence is endangered.

The computer-software company Mr. Burtzev started two years ago has seen turnover fall from $12,000 a month in July to $3,000 now. He is thinking of laying off one of his 10 employees. He frets about losing access to funds as his bank goes bankrupt and having to cancel a trip to America.

Dozens of shops, cafes, and kiosks have closed. Discos are empty on Saturday nights, or closed temporarily. Recruitment agencies report streams of jobless bankers, humbly shuffling in with resumes looking for work.

The biggest victims are from the sectors that arose from the ashes of communism - bankers, insurance salesmen, travel agents, advertisers, stockbrokers, accountants. …


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