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Can the good times last? Back in the ex-U.S.S.R.: The gap between Russia's newly rich and its poor is huge and growing as many Russians learn to work the system.


MOSCOW -- A defining moment in today's Russia comes shortly after midnight. That's when local programming goes off and television stations begin airing a show called "Armchair Shopping."

It may not be as frantic as American home-shopping programs. But the pitch and merchandise offered are no different.

Welcome to post-Communist Moscow! If the drab Soviet Union was one extreme, today's highly commercialized atmosphere seems to be another one.

Stores are full of necessity items and luxury goods that Russians have long starved for. But except for vodka, hardly anything appears to have been produced in Russia. Instead people with expandable income eat at such temples of American consumerism as McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut and read Russian editions of Playboy, Penthouse, Good Housekeeping -- and Soldier of Fortune.

A street vendor even peddled watches that had an outline of the United States on the dial and this legend (in English): "The Land of Promise."

Can this bacchanalia last?

Probably not. Many political experts predict that the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation will benefit from a backlash in December's parliamentary election. They say it may even take the majority of 300 seats in the State Duma, the lower house, with other left-wing parties.

While many young people like the new system's values and hucksterism -- codified in such television programs as "Twin Peaks," "Dynasty" and "Baywatch" -- older people tend to have more reservations, particularly retirees and others on fixed incomes.

The gap between the newly rich and the poor is huge and growing. When Hugo Boss opened its first store in Russia, it featured $3,000 sealskin overcoats and $2,464 sheepskin jackets. More than 400 shoppers crowded the boutique the first day, spending money as if there were no tomorrow.

"If a person has the means, he will certainly dress up," the German store's manager explained. "Maybe he won't have his own apartment or house, but he must have a car and clothes."

It's only money

Many of the newly rich are bribe-takers or on the fringes of organized crime. To this crowd, money seems to have little real value. Cover charges at several Moscow nightclubs exceed $100 (in dollars, please) and the city's top prostitutes are said to demand $3,000 a night. When the Clinton administration recently announced plans for a new design for $100 bills, the biggest concern was voiced by the Russian government, which feared old bills might become worthless.

The majority of Russians are not rolling in money but are trying to survive from one day to another. Since older -- and dissatisfied -- people tend to vote, the theory is the Communist Party can mobilize its supporters to the polls, while the numerous but badly fractioned reform parties may not be able to do so.

Knowing it has to appeal to broad sections of voters, the newly constituted Communist Party tries to navigate through some tricky ideological waters.

"Our slogan, 'He who will not work will not eat,' is a quotation from the Apostle Paul," the party's leader, Gennady Zyuganov, told a recent news conference. "Religious beliefs are no obstacle to joining our party."

Yet even as the party pays lip service to the market economy, it pays homage to past leaders, including Lenin and Stalin but not Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

This apparently has helped it solidify its support among the former Soviet Communist Party's activists and rank and file.

For many, the system works

Despite much criticism, it is clear that surprisingly many Russians are able to use the vagaries of the post-Communist economic system to their advantage.

Millions of Russians are able and can afford to visit foreign countries. While the number of American tourists visiting Russian plummeted by 51 percent last year, to 56,296, nearly twice as many Russians traveled to the United States.

Among other countries favored by Russians are Turkey (close to 600,000 last year), China (338,000), Poland (280,000) and the shopping paradise of the United Arab Emirates (153,700).

Domestically, this year has brought about a modicum of economic stability. Skyrocketing inflation rates appear at least temporarily to have been tempered. Awesome problems still exist -- particularly in restarting the country's idling factories. But even Anders Aslund, a Swede who resigned as the Russian government's economic adviser in 1994, accusing Kremlin leaders of having "no economic sense whatsoever," appears placated.

"The main thing is that now a market economy already exists in Russia," he declared in Moscow recently. "That was the main goal and it has been achieved."

Antero Pietila, a Sun editorial writer, was the paper's Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988.

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