Waiting for the Good Life to Show Up in Russia

MOSCOW — Moscow.--When foreign soap operas debuted on Russian TV recently, Mexican soaps won the ratings war hands down. "Santa Barbara" along with "Dallas" brought up the rear.

"It's not the American way of life that attracts Russians," explains art critic Yuri Bogomolov, "it's the results" -- wealth and comfort. And that's a pity, he thinks. "Heroes of American soap operas are always fighting to improve their well-being, while Russians prefer the Latin American approach of waiting for gold to rain down from the sky."


Nowhere is that ingrained hostility to individual risk-taking more evident than in the Russian countryside. On a recent visit to a village near Sergiev Posad, the men and women I met reminded me of 19th-century serfs.

With a shrewdness worthy of their peasant ancestors, these villagers scheme over how to steal from those who "own" them -- once the communist collective-farm boss, now the new democratic authorities. Sharing their scarce vodka freely among themselves, they are quick to denounce their more entrepreneurial neighbors as "kulaks" (fists) -- the same name revolutionary soldiers used for well-to-do peasants before they executed them in 1917.


Victor, a 54-year-old skilled carpenter, could no doubt make it on his own. But he prefers selling expensive construction materials from the back door of the state factory where he works. On the weekends he builds dachas -- country homes -- for wealthy Moscovites. The good pay he earns slips through his fingers. "If I don't spend it on vodka, my neighbors will think I've turned kulak," he jokes.

At local parties, villagers refer to themselves as "we Russians" -- not in pride but to distinguish themselves from "those enemies" responsible for the hard times. Mumbles 35-year-old Yuri, a former policeman who now works in a military plant, "Wait, we'll show them." By "them" he means "anybody who's behind all this" -- owners of private shops, the government, maybe Jews, maybe "blacks" (non-Europeans) coming from the Caucasus and Asia.

Not long ago such sentiments exploded in a pogrom against prosperous merchants in a village near Yaroslavl some 100 miles to the north.

A similar envy and distrust of the competitive drive is evident in the cities as well. Less than two years ago, Moscovites, for example, saw themselves on the threshold of a new frontier. Today, many hanker instead for the old order. The phrase in vogue is "returning to Russian realities."

Many intellectuals are rereading 19th-century philosophers to find confirmation of a "special Russian way." The far right newspaper Den' (Day) drums home the message that Russia is superior in ways that a degenerate West simply can't see and urges maximum penalties for those who would argue for changing traditional Russian ways.

"Today's yearning for a strong hand and strong methods is nothing more than a sign of the failure of individualism to take hold, an inability of people to take charge of their own lives," observes philosopher Leonid Ionin.

Even one-time dissidents now see South Korea, not the United States, as a model for Russia's shift to a market economy.

Some Western-oriented liberals argue that this way of thinking is just a phase that will pass with the next generation. But will it be that different?


President Bush sent a Barbie doll to a Russian girl who had complained in a newspaper that she had never seen a Barbie doll in her life. Now thousands of kids have started sending similar letters to the same newspaper.

"Don't criticize us for having no pride," wrote one girl. "When grown-ups are waiting for Western humanitarian aid rather than working hard themselves, why can't we stretch out our hands?"

Lev Yelin, an editor of the Moscow weekly New Times, wrotes this commentary for Pacific News Service.