Russians speak about their lives


DAVID WEBER toured Russia for a month in June and took the opportunity to talk to ordinary Russians about the changes that have occurred in their country. Here we present a sampling of the interviews.

Anatoli Basmanov, cook

Anatoli Basmanov is the cook in the restaurant car on the Siberian railway, which has suffered a decline in passengers during recent years. The changes have made it harder for people to afford the train, and when they do use it, they avoid the restaurant car because it's too expensive. Instead, they buy foods from villagers, who come out and sell their products whenever the train makes a stop.

Anatoli and his few co-workers have taken advantage of the new conditions and they sell juices, mineral water, caviar, wine, Stolichnaya vodka, Bounty and Snickers bars from the restaurant car. It's all available to whoever can make the trek through the 20 cars that make up the Trans-Siberian. In June, 5000 roubles (roughly US$2.50) would buy a bottle of vodka.

Anatoli is big, bald and blue eyed. He's been working on the Trans-Siberian for three years and on trains for 12.

What did you do before you worked on trains?

I had my own restaurant in Novosibirsk. I still live near Novosibirsk, the city of scientists, with my parents.

How do you decide what to make for people to eat?

I have a cookbook of recommended meals. It has 350 recipes, including soups, hot and cold dishes, meat and fish dishes. The recommended portions are smaller than for a restaurant, and prices change a lot during the year so sometimes it is difficult for us to get good supplies. The book is the 13th Moscow edition, which came out in 1990.

Where did you learn to be a cook?

There are special courses in Novosibirsk, for people who want to be cooks. They take six months to complete.

Do you get time off when the train ends its journey?

We stop for eight or nine hours at the terminal station, which allows us some rest before we go back. Annually, I have one month's holiday, which I spend in Novosibirsk. Before, I would have gone away, but it is too expensive now.

How much are you paid?

It depends on how many clients visit the restaurant car during the trip. The restaurant car is a franchise. During one month, approximately 80,000 roubles.

Is that enough to live on?

In Moscow it would not be enough, but in Novosibirsk, prices for everything are much lower. I am getting about as much money as I always have on the railways.

How have the economic changes affected your life?

I think things are better for me. Things would be more difficult for large families, but I have a small family and things are better. I get more money for myself.

How can you be getting more money if fewer people are using the restaurant cars

From the restaurant, we sell products to the passengers. We were not so interested in that before. The things we sell to the passengers make their trip more comfortable, and we can make money. We were not allowed to make money this way before.

You can make more money in many ways, all you have to do is use your brains.

How have the political changes affected your life?

It has not changed my life. I live the same way as before, I do the same work.

Would we have been allowed to talk about politics like this 10 years ago?

Yes, we could have. I would not have had any problems discussing politics then, or now.

Have you always been able to criticise the government?

In public, no. It would have been very stupid to criticise the government in the square, for instance. But to you I could always be frank and honest.

How do your parents feel about the political and economic changes?

Life became more difficult for them. Everything is changing, prices are growing while pensions lag behind.

For them, the old system would have been better. They miss their former life. The people on pensions are in a very difficult position as the government will not give them enough support. If they do not have a family, or children to support them, life becomes very difficult.

Oleg Yakovlev, army officer

Oleg Yakovlev, 26, is a captain in the army. He was born in Chelyabinsk, near the infamous (formerly secret) uranium plant known as Chelyabinsk-65. Oleg is he has a wife and young son. They live in Ulanude, in the Buriat Republic.

Oleg remembers and loves the stronger position of the old Soviet Union. Like most of the young Russians I met, Oleg believes his nation should regain control of the republics which have broken away, but he is not interested in eastern Europe.

Oleg is passionate about his country and goes to pains to make every point clear. He asked me more than once about my earring, because he had never seen a man wear one before. He didn't believe me when I told him that people wear them in their noses and nipples too.

How and why did you become an army officer@

I graduated from a military school in the south of Russia.

My father was an officer, and so was my older brother. I grew up with this, and I never thought it would be different for me. I was brought up in a patriotic atmosphere. We used to sing the national anthem in my home.

Do you feel tied to Russia or the old Soviet Union?

Being a military man, I prefer the Soviet Union. The whole world respected us, but were not afraid of us, and that is something to be proud of. The soldiers have always been defenders, and I hope the people in the West know that we never had plans to attack other countries. They should not have ever feared us.

What about Afghanistan?

By chance I did not have to go there. I was a student at school, and many of my friends went to fight in Afghanistan before they finished school. Some did not come back.

It is not clear to me why Russians were in Afghanistan.

How has the Russian army changed?

For the worse, like all life in Russia. The image of the officer changed very much with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It used to be a great honour to be an army officer for the Soviet Union; now the great country has disappeared into smaller parts. And all of the former republics are trying to attract soldiers.

How do you feel about cutbacks in the Russian armed forces?

All military agreements were made in favour of the USA, including disarmament. The Russian government broke down the army and left soldiers with no home and no money. I am not against cutting down the army, but the government should have thought about the ordinary military man. We should cut the military school intake, because a lot of the students are being trained for nothing.

Help for former students is still under discussion, but there has been no result. The army will still exist, and I will find my place in the army, but you must remember we are a peaceful people. We must defend the country.

How do you feel about the condition of Russia today?

This is a painful question for any Russian.

Before, Russians lived in safe, secure surroundings and they could plan a future. Now we must wait for the new generation to come to power. I am an optimist, but I think it will take a long time, not two or three years. I do believe in the new renaissance in Russia. I believe in and will never betray Russia. I am a real patriot.

The future depends on leaders who, unfortunately for us, change their minds all the time.

Marianna Kisselova, interpreter and tour guide

Marianna Kisselova has been an interpreter for 20 years and has worked mainly as a tour guide.

Interpreters and guides are among those who had greater opportunities to learn about life outside the Soviet Union, and outside Russia today. Thoughtful, strong and not without a sense of humour, Marianna says the rot had set in in the USSR by 1980, and it went downhill from there.

Where do you live?

I live in Moscow, the city in which I was born. I lived for a year in Canada, where my husband was working as an engineer in electronics. He was invited there as part of a joint venture. That was six years ago.

What was your education to become an interpreter?

I graduated from the Moscow Teachers Training Institute, the English Department. So by my profession, I am a teacher of English and of French. Shortly after the institute, I became a tourist guide. Later on, I became a teacher for a while, but most of the time I have been involved in tourism.

Have there been changes for tourists coming to Russia?

Formerly, it would have been impossible to visit Russian people in their homes; now it is not. It used to be rather difficult for Soviet people to visit foreigners in their countries, now it's quite easy to go to other countries on invitation, or by any other way. Immigration became much easier. The openness, the freedom — we can feel it, and I believe life has changed for the better.

I think this is the greatest of achievements of recent years, and you can see it in literature, the arts and the relationships between Russians and foreigners, and between Russian people too.

What other changes have you seen in the last five years?

There are many positive and negative changes. For the positive, I have just explained that I feel quite free. I can express myself openly with you or anyone else about problems and say what I feel. Formerly I would not do that. I might conceal something, but I would not lie. I would just prefer not to discuss certain subjects. Working in tourism, it would not be "welcome".

Would your personal safety have been at risk if you did talk about bad aspects of the Soviet Union?

No, I would not have been at risk. I've never been a member of the Communist Party. There were some rules. I was not supposed to give a home address, I was not supposed to invite tourists home, or go out to bars with them in the evenings. I was supposed to always stick to the program.

Were any other of your personal wishes or freedoms restricted in any way?

Opportunity is something strange for Russian people. They have been directed from their childhood. Things were guaranteed, and that was good, but people did not have the right of choice. Many people of my generation cannot accept the new way of life. They are used to the old system, being told what to do, and now they don't know how to behave.

As far as the economic system of this country, I think it is in a chaotic state, but there are positive features. Privatisation started, and a lot of private businesses opened especially in the service industries. New restaurants and even factories operate quite perfectly and you can see that things have changed for the better in this way.

Travel agencies, if you compare today with before, you would see a great difference in the attitudes of employees. We can make up unusual itineraries, and such incentives have changed attitudes. Formerly we only had moral incentives.

Many factories have closed recently, and that is obviously a negative feature. The former economic links between the republics of the USSR are no more. Formerly we got raw materials from the republics quite easily; now we have to pay large amounts of money for them. Many smart people are leaving state enterprises and starting their own.

And unemployment has gone to a very high level. Officially, it is over 4 million people, but "potential employment" is 9 million people, which is 12% of the working population. It is hard for our country because we did not have unemployment before. As far as living standards are concerned, formerly everyone's income was more or less even. Nowadays there is a big gap between the rich and the poor.

But this year, compared with last year, things are improving a little. The number of people living below the poverty level became half of last year's amount. The prices of some products fell, mainly locally made products.

The young businessmen are doing very well, but laws to protect those who don't do well, they lag behind.

What do you have to say about the popularity of Zhirinovsky?

He produces a very unpleasant impression. He's a very educated person and a good speaker, but his ideas are absolutely crazy. If he was to become leader of this country, it would be the most tragic event in our history. But I don't think it will happen. The Zhirinovsky group polled so many votes because the Russian businessmen and intelligentsia did not bother to vote. They stopped being interested in politics and were very disillusioned by the government. The people who came to vote were elderly people and pensioners who were ready to believe in any strong politician.

I think it will take at least 10 years for the real changes to come in this country. When the younger generation comes into power, real radical changes will take place. Yeltsin, or any other person in power now, they are from the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They say they have changed their ideas, but I don't believe that.

Your flat in Moscow has now been privatised. What does that mean to you?

It means it has become my own property. I can sell it, if I had somewhere else to live. The price of my flat would be about US$15,000. Many people are selling their flats or exchanging their flats, and making money on that. There are many rich people who are buying these flats now.

Before, my daughter would have had no right to inherit my flat if she did not live with me.

How do you feel about the republics breaking away from Russia?

I think it is very good. I think that at least Slav people should form a sort of United States, the Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians who have the same roots and religion. Not that we are a religious country any more, but we live the same traditions.

Do you think the intelligentsia will take a different and active role in politics and economics now?

Yes, definitely, but there is an obstacle right now. Formerly, research work was funded by the government, and now they do not do enough in this respect. Many research workers have stopped to go into business. The pay for research workers has become too small to survive on.

The intelligentsia is a thin layer of the population. But cultural traditions here are very strong. The concert halls are full, the theatres are full. Russians are still very much interested in music.

If you take the young businessmen, five years ago when the American culture first began to penetrate this country, they were interested in American music. Nowadays they have become saturated, and they have come back to their native roots. Even in the most prestigious cars, you will hear Russian music playing.

Also, American films were always shown before, and young people would go to see the westerns. But now they are tired of American films. The best American films have never been shown here; they are evidently the cheaper ones.

We have many great Russian film makers, and good Russian films, but they do not get shown here. They are bought by someone from abroad.

Are you hopeful for the future?

Yes I am. I am sure it will take some time to work out; it will not happen tomorrow.

I see positive changes already. I feel the young people are very optimistic, active in business and becoming active in political life. Some three years ago, young businessmen opened their businesses and they were interested in accumulating their own capital and buying cars and houses. Now they have all these and they are trying to do something for society.

Formerly, young people wanted to leave the country because they saw no opportunities here. Nowadays when I talk to young people, their mood has changed. They prefer to stay in Russia and work in Russia.

Older people are disillusioned because they remember the socialist times as a paradise because many things were done for them. I'm sure if you talked to a pensioner, they would tell you something very different to what I am telling you now.