Russian beasts

November 2, 1994

By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — In Russian cities these days, the number of animals is increasing steadily. But to put this down to an improvement in the state of the environment would be risky, to say the least. The animal life in Russian cities consists mainly of rats, mice, cockroaches and other less than appealing creatures.

Bedbugs and cockroaches have always been irksome features of life in Russia. In the 19th century, Western travellers marvelled at how the quantity of these insects increased when the Russian frontier was crossed.

But recently, there have been big changes. In addition to the small black or dark brown cockroaches that are so familiar to Russians, there are now huge reddish-brown creatures. Their advent has nothing to do with the rise of Russian nationalism and the "communo-fascist red-brown horde". Observing these new denizens of Moscow's kitchens, experts identified them as Mexican cucarachas.

Their arrival is one of the results of reform: the internationalisation of the market, together with free entrepreneurship, is enriching the world of Russian nature. Tropical cockroaches, together with other exotic insects, have been brought to this land of snows by small traders, the so-called "shuttles" who ply back and forth between Russia and the sources of cheap consumer goods. To everyone's astonishment, the cucarachas seem to have adapted well to life in Russia, sitting out the fierce winters in heated city kitchens.

The traditional Russian cockroaches are not standing still either; the forces of evolution have kept them up with the times. Beneath a flood of household chemicals, white cockroaches have appeared. They are semi-transparent, and sometimes covered with reddish spots. Exposed constantly to insecticides, these creatures have developed a high level of immunity.

Every day, new preparations guaranteed to kill insects and rodents are advertised on television or appear on store shelves. But foreign insecticides are rarely of much use against Russian cockroaches. The Japanese preparations are completely powerless, and the German ones are only slightly more effective. The most dependable cockroach- killer is still the old Soviet brand Dikhlofos. This suffers from a drawback, however: it knocks people off their feet as well.

Rats set up house near commercial stalls even in the centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. According to official statistics, there is one rat in Moscow for every human resident, and no fewer than 10 mice. The newspaper Centre-Plus published this news recently on its front page, next to a report on the steadily rising popularity of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. The only possible reason for this juxtaposition is that Moscow residents must love animals.

Meanwhile, the market economy is allowing Russians to acquire more exotic livestock as well. In Moscow pet shops these days, customers can purchase not only the traditional tortoises and goldfish, but also scorpions. And for just a hundred dollars, anyone who wishes can have an Egyptian crocodile, capable of growing to eight metres.

The rich indulge all sorts of odd whims. But as a rule, the pets chosen by well-heeled customers are conventional, if high priced. Guard dogs are especially popular as crime rates rise.

There can be problems even here. All Russia has heard the story of the pit bull-terrier that a few months back savaged its owner to death. While on a walk, the man punished the dog for attacking a cat. After taking the dog home, the owner went serenely to sleep, whereupon the four-footed friend tore out its master's throat and lay down next to the corpse. When police arrived, they took the dog into the yard and shot it, ignoring the protests of the widow, who was reluctant to lose a highly expensive animal.

Bred specifically for dog-fights, pit bull-terriers should never be kept in a house with people. But the wealthy "new Russians" rarely have much idea of the origins and purpose of various breeds, even when spending thousands of dollars to acquire them.

Meanwhile, appealing if humble puppies and kittens can still be bought on the streets for small sums. A wide variety of pet foods have now appeared in Russian shops, and television commercials urge owners to make sure their animals are correctly fed. The proper diet even for a cat does not come cheaply, if one takes into account the miserable wages earned by most Russians.

But even though keeping an ordinary cat can represent a serious financial problem for the family of a jobless engineer or of a teacher who has not been paid for months, people continue to care for animals. Despite all the trials Russians are forced to endure, we have not yet turned completely bestial.

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