A Russian Journey

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KRASNY MAI, Russia - The little wooden houses sit dark and modest under a gray summer sky, their shelves heavy with the cut-glass champagne flutes, vases, bowls and tumblers that hold the inhabitants prisoner.

Nearly everyone here works for the Krasny Mai - Red May - glass factory. They work, but most haven't been paid for five years. Instead of money, the factory doles out cut glass every month and a loaf of bread every day. Too poor to leave town, the people stay and work and dream of freedom, held in bondage by their cut glass.

Russians know servitude well. The czars enslaved them for centuries, then communism arrived to prolong their captivity. Today, despite freedom and education, life remains a misery for many people of the villages and small towns. They feel little different than the serfs of old, bound now by the laws of the economy instead of the state.

Two centuries ago, a member of the gentry with a social conscience drove along the road that passes Krasny Mai, taking notes on what he saw. He turned his reporting into an impassioned polemic demanding social reform. Every Russian knows his name - Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev - and his book, "Journey from Petersburg to Moscow." The Communists proclaimed him the first revolutionary, requiring every schoolchild to study his book.

Radishchev ignored the two grand cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Then, as now, they hardly reflected the true Russian condition. In the 18th century, city noblemen traveled in fancy carriages, ate their oysters on fine porcelain and gossiped in French. Ninety percent of Russians were serfs, bought and sold by their masters, trying to feed themselves by working the land at night and on Sundays.

The barons of today - the new elite enriched by grabbing up the post-Soviet spoils - travel by Mercedes, eat their caviar on fine porcelain and gather on the French Riviera. More than half of Russians live well below the poverty level. Even the better-off, who live in the cities, have mostly achieved only a sort of genteel poverty.

Today, Radishchev would surely notice the people of Krasny Mai. Many of them stand, dejectedly, on the shoulder of the highway connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow, trying to sell their glass.

"Certainly this isn't freedom," says Zoya Ivanova, 64. "No one has any money. They can't leave. We have to keep working. If the factory closed, there would be no hope at all."

Once, they were hero-workers who created a potent symbol of Soviet power. In 1937, they produced the 1.5-ton red glass stars that sit atop the towers of Moscow's Kremlin.

Ivanova had a job cutting glass until about 10 years ago, when her hands gave out. Then she worked as a cleaner in the factory. Now, she says, the average worker earns about $17 a month - paid in cut glass at retail value.

"Life was better once," she says. The factory could support a town of 12,000. "Now we're going back to Radishchev's day. Who can say we're anything but serfs?"

Radishchev visited 24 settlements, reporting on the way serfdom corrupted peasant and master, the way the system tied landowner to government and serf to land. He spoke of harsh laws and capricious punishment, corrupt judges, burdensome taxes and suffocating censorship, prostitution and venereal disease. He could have written much of his book today.

His journey was as much philosophical as physical. Though written as one trip and published in 1790, he actually worked on the book over 10 years. It reflected several trips, including one made after 1773, when rebellious peasants swept through eastern and southern Russia, murdering landlords and burning their estates.

Radishchev, born in Moscow in 1749, grew up on his father's country estate in central Russia and was sent to the Petersburg court as a page. In 1766, Catherine the Great dispatched him to Germany to study at the University of Leipzig. He returned, educated in law, languages and the French philosophers, dreaming of liberty and equality.

The reaction to his book was immediate. Catherine accused him of fomenting revolution, sentenced Radishchev to death and ordered his book burned. Only 18 copies of the original survived in Russia. Two weeks after sentencing him, Catherine commuted Radishchev's term to 10 years of exile in Siberia After the empress died, Catherine's son pardoned Radishchev, and he returned home in late 1797.

Appointed to a commission to revise the legal code, he began talking once more of liberty, equality and freedom of the press. "Didn't you have enough of Siberia?" a colleague demanded. It was 1802. Despairing of change, Radishchev killed himself. He was 53.

His book lives on, and so do his observations. Today's traveler can easily make the 424-mile journey in a day, but Radishchev urges otherwise: "The slower you travel, the farther you'll get."

The Departure

"Having supped with friends, I took my place in the post chaise. As was his custom, the driver urged the horses on to the utmost, and in a few minutes I was outside the city."

Thus Radishchev describes the beginning of his trip. Today in St. Petersburg, Nikolai Ivanovich Yarov, a 58-year-old epidemiologist at the city's respected Pasteur Institute, finishes breakfast of tea and buckwheat porridge and puts on a camouflage jacket, uniform of the Russian man heading toward adventure. . Outside, his carriage awaits - a boxy and well-worn 9-year-old Zhiguli, the ubiquitous Russian car.

Yarov, a retired navy doctor, has a wife who works as a dentist, a grown daughter and a comfortable apartment on a beautiful street. He is also poor enough on a combined pension and salary of $122 a month that he is eager to enter service as a weekend driver.

He drapes the seatbelt across his chest, taking pains to make it look as if it is fastened while scrupulously refusing to actually do so.

We are under way, passing the grand St. Petersburg hotels, a busy McDonald's, chic cafes, a shoe store with a sale on Hush Puppies. Even on discount, one pair would cost Yarov a third of his monthly salary. The elegant city begins to segue into high, gray, deteriorating apartment buildings. They give way to green fields lined with birch trees. Women, their heads wrapped in kerchiefs, men wearing caps, are bringing in the hay, armed with the rakes and pitchforks of old.

The landscape persists to Moscow, interrupted by clumps of wooden houses, high-tension wires, the occasional rambling factory and, here and there, a city. There's even a village named Radishchev.

Yarov complains of his asthma, and lights another cigarette.

Sofiya

"A few kopecks, Master, for a drink?" Although such exactions are not legal, everybody pays willingly to avoid vexatious travel regulations. Twenty kopecks served me well."

A driver at the post station has confronted Radishchev with a thinly veiled demand for a bribe so he'll be able to get horses. A kopeck is one one-hundredth of a ruble and in those days the sum was a handsome tip.

Yarov, of course, quickly becomes acquainted with the modern equivalent when he makes the mistake of sliding slowly through a traffic police checkpoint instead of coming to a full stop.

The peeved policeman motions sharply with his black and white baton. Negotiations ensue, resulting in an exaction of 20 rubles. Today, that's about 75 cents. In two centuries of bribery, inflation has visited the highway.

Lyuban

"Tremble, cruel-hearted landlord! On the brow of each of your peasants I see your condemnation written."

Radishchev comes upon a serf, plowing a field on a hot Sunday. Six days a week, the peasant works in his master's field, though lackadaisically, Radishchev observes, because he gets no profit or thanks. On Sundays and evenings, he works to feed himself and six children. "If a fellow isn't lazy," he tells Radishchev, "he won't starve to death."

Lyuban was nearly 300 years old when Radishchev's carriage rumbled through. This weekend, the village of 14,200 people is celebrating its 500th anniversary.

People here have jobs now, in a furniture factory, at the hospital, in the local palace of culture. And nights and weekends, they work furiously to feed themselves.

"Life is going on, there's progress," says Irina Ivanova, a 23-year-old maternity nurse and mother of a 10-month-old son. "But we're obliged to work for ourselves every spare minute."

Right now, the maternity home is closed for lack of business - Russia's birthrate has been plunging precipitously in the post-Soviet years.

"Under socialism things weren't that good either," says her cousin, Marina Rumyantseva, 30. "Now, we're hoping they'll get better."

Rumyantseva, a singer who organizes concerts at the House of Culture, earns $25 a month and has a 10-year-old son. Her husband, an engineer, earns $44. Wearing a stylish black suit - her only one - Rumyantseva is all freshness, youth and optimism. Her mother, Raisa Aleksandrova, stands next to her, looking worn at 59, wearing mismatched jacket and dress.

Aleksandrova remembers that only a few years ago, she had to make regular trips to St. Petersburg in search of food or clothes. Now, you can buy anything in Lyuban from Coca-Cola to a suit made in Turkey - if only you can find the money.

Outsiders have trouble understanding how Russians can live on so little money when food and clothes cost nearly as much as they do in the West. "We use most of our salaries to buy food," Rumyantseva says. "We have to plan and save to buy clothes."

In small towns, rents are modest. She and her husband pay $5.50 a month for their tiny two-room apartment. Their building doesn't have telephones. Their utilities cost about $3.50 a month. The town doesn't provide hot water in the summer. They can't dream of owning a car. After expenses, they have $60 a month for food and clothes.

They stay alive because, like most Russians, they have been allotted a piece of land 60 feet by 60 feet. On this earth, they grow most of their food, with some to spare.

"People here are very good," Ivanova says, "only poor."

Out on the highway, a bright yellow house catches the traveler's eye. Though houses in the countryside are often decorated with fretwork, this one is covered with fussy, intricate designs, and it's in perfect repair.

Yevgenia Petrova, 71, and her grandson, Misha, 13, stand in the adjoining potato field, picking off the Colorado beetles that voraciously eat the leaves. Petrova's husband died 10 years ago, and now she lives with her son, Anatoly, 48. The two men built the house 23 years ago, culling the wood from a nearby forest after a storm.

Anatoly, who graduated from Radishchev High School, once worked in the local wood factory but saved his money and four years ago rented a small general store. Today he has three, allowing his family to live far better than most, with a car, frequent trips to St. Petersburg and a television antenna that pulls in numerous channels.

"He can do anything," his mother says proudly. "He's very industrious. He can do construction work, welding and electrical work. And he doesn't drink."

Anatoly's sobriety is unusual in the countryside, where many generations have endured long winters and bleak lives locked in the embrace of vodka. "Drunk in the morning, free all day," Russians cheerfully say to this day.

Life has never been easy here. The Germans took Petrova prisoner during World War II and used her as a slave laborer. Everyone nearly starved in the post-war years.

Perhaps the future will be kinder to her grandson, a grinning tow-head blessed with an industrious and lucky father. Misha is captive only to American cartoons dubbed into Russian and Titan Wrestling tuned in by the tall antenna on the house.

His fingers are blue-black from picking berries. And his T-shirt proclaims his world view: "California Sun," it says.

Chudovo

"Hope, which follows man in his extremity, now gave us strength, and we encouraged one another as much as we could."

At the Chudovo post station, a friend tells Radishchev about being part of a group caught on a lake in a storm. Their boat is nearly shipwrecked, but when one of the party makes land and tries to get help, the local authorities refuse to act - their commander is asleep. The men urge each other on, and they miraculously escape death despite the indifference of the officials - a metaphor for an uncaring czarist government.

More than 200 years later, Yevgenia Grebyenova, 68, and Yevgenia Nosova, 72, sit on a bench at the side of their narrow street in Chudovo, contemplating their own indifferent officials.

"We worked all our lives," says Grebyenova, "and we don't even have a decent pension."

Grebyenova wears a white kerchief, tied peasant-style around her head. It's a warm evening, but she wears a sweater over her faded dress. She remembers going to work on a farm at age 7, after the secret police came for her father and took him away at the height of the Stalinist round-ups, when anyone could be guilty of anything. She remembers, some years later, hiding from the Germans.

At age 55, she retired from her job of 23 years in the local plate-glass factory down the street. Now the factory makes glass insulation. A German company owns it. Grebyenova doesn't mind, despite the war.

"Maybe if ours owned it, it would be much worse," she laughs. "We have shares and they pay us dividends - 60 rubles a year." That works out to $2.33. Her pension is $32 a month. Her son visits to help with the potatoes planted around her house and to cut the wood.

"I don't have anything to look forward to," says her friend Nosova, who is wearing her dead husband's suit jacket. "My health won't be getting any better."

The future lies at the other end of the street, where Cadbury has built a chocolate factory. "The newspaper says they pay good taxes," Grebyenova reports. "Now our pensions arrive on time. There used to be long delays."

The street sign nailed to the side of her house comes in Russian and English: Bournville Lane, reminiscent of an English village.

"The signs are very beautiful," Grebyenova says, "and you can see them from a distance. They don't fade, either."

The road winds back to the highway, past traditional wooden houses and the five-story, crumbling apartments built in the Khrushchev years of the late 1950s and early '60s. A few stores are now painted in Cadbury purple.

On the highway, a vision of the future appears, mirage-like: a gas station with a convenience store. Diet Coke, Lays potato chips or microwaved hot dog, anyone? A sparkling little pre-fab building offers clean-as-a-whistle pay toilets. A new motel advertises a sauna. Can this be Russia, where the most reliable roadside toilet is a hidden spot behind a bush?

Novgorod

"The ancient saying, 'Who can stand against God and Great Novgorod?' may serve as proof of its power. Trade was the cause of its rise. Internal discord and a rapacious neighbor brought about its fall."

Radishchev meditates on the rise and fall of Novgorod, which dates to the year 859 and became the center of a powerful religious and political empire. Novgorod was ruled democratically, and it had close trade ties to the West.

This section of Radishchev's journey infuriated Catherine the Great more than any other. Radishchev describes the destruction of the city in 1471 by Ivan the Terrible, who came from rival Moscow. He laments that might prevails over right. And he has some nasty words for Ivan and the despotic system he created - for Catherine and the other czars to inherit.

Today, Moscow is as jealous of power as ever. And, after all these centuries, says Mayor Aleksandr V. Korsunov, Novgorod still harbors dreams of trade and close ties with the West.

"The spirit of our ancestors has been preserved," the mayor says firmly.

In the last year, Novgorod has done the impossible by creating attractive conditions for investors in a country notorious for keeping foreign businessmen at bay with smothering bureaucracy and rapacious corruption.

Here, the city and district have passed laws forgiving all local taxes until a businessman recoups his investment. Big-time bribery and extortion have been suppressed.

"If we have problems," says Andrei Komov, director of a German company called Sommer Novtruck, "we call the mayor or his deputy, and they solve it. They set up a department to support business. If we need help finding supplies, they help us do it. I haven't heard of this happening anywhere else in Russia."

The company builds tractor-trailer bodies and containers, and business has been improving. "Now is a good time to come here," Komov says. "Wait, and it will be too late."

Valdai

"This town is famous for the amorous inclinations of its inhabitants, especially of its unmarried women. Who has not been to Valdai, who does not know the Valdai painted wenches? The bold and shameless Valdai girls stop every traveler and try to kindle his passion in order to exploit his generosity at the cost of their chastity."

Today, says Police Major Yevgeny Naskov, there is little such shameless behavior among Valdai's young women. Residents of this town of 32,000 would recognize them, and it would be too embarrassing. The painted wenches who stand on the highway near Valdai trying to kindle the passion of passers-by come from the neighboring Tverskaya district, he says.

Driving along the St. Petersburg-Moscow highway in the evening, it seems as if there are prostitutes scattered along the entire 424 miles. Close to Moscow, young women stand in groups of half a dozen, lining up and preening while drivers, making their choice, shine their headlights along the row.

But not Valdai girls, at least not in Valdai.

"I should say Radishchev was very lucky to find them here," Major Naskov says.

Torzhok

"Let anyone print anything that enters his head. If anyone finds himself insulted in print, let him get his redress at law. I will close with this: the censorship of what is printed belongs properly to society, which gives the author a laurel wreath or uses his sheets for wrapping paper."

Radishchev comes upon a young man heading to St. Petersburg to ask permission for a printing press and discusses at great length the harm that censorship has imposed on the country.

There is no censorship today, declares Oleg I. Vishnyakov, editor of the Torzhok paper, Vestnik. The only thing is, the paper gets money from the local administration, and when the mayor or governor wants to place an article in the paper, of course the editor acquiesces.

He does so, he says, even though the articles usually aren't true.

"We know that in reality things are quite different than the way they are describing them," he says. The paper never criticizes the mayor or governor, though Vishnyakov says he can get by with a few complaints about education or social services.

Recently, the paper went after the hospital because of its long lines and fees for services that are supposed to be free. The administration ignored the article.

"We never got any answers," Vishnyakov says. "There is no one who can oblige them to respond."

Radishchev, who looked to America as an example, would be disappointed. He wrote:

"The State of Delaware, in its Declaration of Rights, says: 'That the liberty of the press ought to be inviolably preserved.' The State of Maryland uses the same language."

Mednoe

"Twice every week, the whole Russian Empire is notified that N.N. or B.B. is unable or unwilling to pay what he has borrowed or taken or what is demanded of him."

So Radishchev begins his description of an estate auction, serfs and farmland up for sale because of bankruptcy. Such failures were common at the time, when dissolute owners lost their holdings to gambling debts or poor management.

Today, poor management of latter-day estates - big state farms - is as common as ever. Only today, when the 12,000-acre farm that once supported Mednoe fails, no one bothers to bid.

"They tried to declare the farm bankrupt," says Aleksandr Semyonov, walking along the roadside on his way to cut hay, "but no one would buy it. We're all working, we just don't get anything for it. Maybe if someone buys us, we'll have something."

Tver

"Superficial luster may grow dim, but true beauty will never fade. ... Shakespeare ... will be read until the human race is destroyed."

Radishchev's mind turns to the state of Russian poetry and literature, which he determines to be in decline, and he complains that writing about themes such as liberty is prohibited. He laments the limits on the Russian intellectual.

Alla Monakova, 22, has just graduated with a degree in literature from Tver University. She's selling books in the city's main department store - it pays better than writing or teaching. And Shakespeare, she says, is very much in demand, especially "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet."

The great Russians - Tolstoy, Chekhov and others - are also sought after, even though many intellectuals worry about the cheap romances that sell so well and shoddy, second-rate American movies that fill up the airwaves. But such cultural concerns hardly dominate daily conversation. The quality of life does.

"Serfdom is gone, but in other ways we are going back 200 years," Monakova says. "You see the same poor, haunted people. People are of no value. They are sad, living one day at a time, thinking about how to eat today."

Gorodnya

"A levy of recruits was the cause of the sobs and tears of the people crowded together there."

Radishchev watches the village's serfs sobbing as sons and husbands are sent off to the army, fulfilling military service for their masters.

When she talks about her only child, Sasha, being taken by the army at the end of May, Nadezhda Yevdokimova also starts sobbing.

"I would give anything to keep him beside me," she says, reproaching herself for being too poor to pay the bribes that would have protected him.

Yevdokimova, 41, lives on the third floor of a shabby five-story building in the village of Gorodnya. Her apartment looks old but clean; outside, the stairwell stinks of urine and cabbage.

She is terrified that after six months of basic training, her 18-year-old Sasha will be sent to the war in Chechnya. She feels as betrayed and helpless as the peasants wailing in this village 200 years ago.

"It costs one thousand bucksov to keep him here," she says, putting the American expression "bucks" into proper grammatical form by adding "ov" at the end. "To earn $1,000, I'd have to work more than three years without eating or buying anything."

As a saleswoman in a store, she earns $25 a month, but hasn't been paid the last three months. Her husband works at the local chicken enterprise as a tractor mechanic, earning $18 a month. Last month, he was only paid $9.

"It's exactly the same as in Radishchev's time," Yevdokimova says. "We are tied here just like serfs. Maybe there are those who are masters of their fate, but I don't know any of them."

Klin

"I walked up to him and placed a ruble in the beggar's trembling hand."

The beggars so common in Radishchev's day disappeared in the Soviet era. Now they are back, the young, the old, the sick, out on the streets looking for money.

Pull into the modern post station - a McDonald's appears as Moscow nears -and two small boys run up asking for money before you have time to order a Big Mac and chocolate shake.

A beggar stands outside the Church of All Mourners nearby - today it's rare to find a working church without attendant beggars. Aleksandr Yegorov, 50, says people who go to church are kind and give a beggar money.

"The Communists spoiled the country morally and in other ways," Yegorov says. "Now it's the same as 200 years ago. That's not good, either. But I think when the children grow up, things will improve."

Chyornaya Gryaz

"Here I saw another fine example of a nobleman's arbitrary power over the peasants. A wedding was taking place. But instead of a joyous procession, one could see only grief and despondency."

Then, a landlord was forcing two peasants to marry. Not so today, no, not at all. Sasha, 22, and Tatyana Lovygin, 21, are all smiles and champagne toasts on their wedding day.

After waiting for an hour in a line of brides, grooms and guests that stretches down a corridor and out to the parking lot, they are about to enter the Wedding Palace in Zelenograd (Green City), a town that was built next to Chyornaya Gryaz (Black Dirt) in 1958 as the new administrative center.

The Wedding Palace consists of a few plain offices in the back of a squat, five-story yellow brick building, also home to the prosecutor and a sports school. Sasha wears a light gray suit, Tatyana a long white wedding gown. She carries pink roses.

As they enter a spare, wood-paneled office room, a string quartet starts Lohengrin's wedding march. A registrar waits behind her simple wooden desk. A philodendron decorates the room.

"Your mutual consent gives me the right to register your marriage," the official announces. "I declare you husband and wife."

After kisses and photographs, they are dispatched across the hall, to watch their ceremony on instant video replay.

Then, Sasha swoops up Tatyana and carries her down the crumbling cement steps. They stand about in the parking lot, drinking champagne out of plastic cups in front of a borrowed Audi, which is adorned with two golden rings and a spray of flowers.

"They'll be happy together," says a friend Sasha Zharov, who graduated with them from the Electronics Institute. The cost and scarcity of apartments require them to live with her mother, but they've already bought their own sofa bed.

A guest offers champagne to a visitor, who declines because she's driving.

"I'm driving, too," the bearer of champagne announces, "and I'm drinking."

Zharov laughs.

"Russia has changed," he says, "but the people are still the same."

Our version of Radishchev's "A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow," translated by Leo Wiener, was published in 1958 by Harvard University Press.

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