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February 7, 2000
Russia 2000: Back to the Future

By Don North

As Russia staggered into the year 2000, the view from Moscow was cold and bleak.

Amid sub-freezing temperatures, a nasty wind blew a stinging sleet across Red Square. Underfoot, black sooty slush made walking miserable. Despite Moscow's five-lane boulevards, traffic grid-locked bumper to bumper, turning a half-dozen-block drive into an hour of frustration.

Any computer-assisted endeavor was tedious. Immigration authorities labored through passport checks. Registering at a Moscow hotel was an ordeal. It wasn't hard to see why the U.S. Embassy was so nervous about the Y2K computer bug that all "non-essential" personnel were sent away on vacation outside Russia.

Some Russian journalists joked that it might have been better for American diplomats to experience the annoyance of electrical blackouts -- or loss of heat -- because those frustrations were endured daily by many Russians. There was also dark humor about the safety of Moscow if the Y2K bug did infect the country's computer systems.

"Moscow is one of the healthier places to be if something really big goes wrong with the nuclear arsenal, since it's far more likely that a Russian rocket will be let loose than an American one," wrote Adell Karian in the Russian Journal prior to New Year’s.

"Russian rockets aren't directed at Moscow, but in fact Washington, D.C, precisely where many of the U.S. Embassy people on 'authorized departure' from scary Moscow will be safely ensconced."

As it turned out, the Y2K bug did not provoke an accidental nuclear war. But that was one of the few bright spots.

During my December visit, the besieged ruble was at a record low exchange rate of almost 27 rubles to the dollar. An International Monetary Fund loan of $640 million, approved last July, was in limbo because of the IMF's concerns about Russia's brutal assault on the rebellious southern province of Chechnya.

Boris Yeltsin was back in the hospital with pneumonia, again. Some Muscovites found Yeltsin's frequent medical stays preferable to his public appearances when his age, frailty and history of intoxication made him a constant risk of further humiliating the Russian people.

On New Year’s Eve, the ailing president gave what many considered a wonderful holiday present by resigning and turning over the presidency to his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin.

The new president promptly granted Yeltsin immunity from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed. Putin then cashiered Yeltsin’s controversial daughter and Kremlin adviser, Tatyana Dyachenko. The move was seen as consolidating Putin’s front-runner status in expected March presidential elections.

December's parliamentary elections already had given Putin a boost when his allies registered a surprisingly strong showing. Putin's success appeared to come from public appreciation of his hard-line military assault on Chechnya and the military defense of long-held Russian territory. 

While an iron fist against Chechen separatists was popular, the prospects for a clear-cut military victory looked less promising. Headlines in the English-language Moscow Times screamed that 250 Russian soldiers died in a single battle with the rebels, shattering the widely held myth that the Russian Army was taking few casualties in its fall-winter campaign against the tough Chechen guerrilla fighters.

"I would trust maybe only a quarter of what is said about Chechnya,” said Igor Shmelyov, a 20-year-old grenade launcher in a hospital with leg wounds. “They said Gudermes was taken without casualties, but it was there my Ural truck was blown up and my two fellow soldiers killed."

Despite such occasional disclosures, the Russian Army controlled battlefield news from Chechnya with a thoroughness that would be the envy of U.S. Army officers who inflated the body counts in Vietnam or cordoned off press coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

But press censorship cannot conceal all the signs of decay. Not far from Red Square, a well-dressed mother and daughter huddled in a doorway, begging for a few rubles and embracing each other against the cold. A block later, a young Army soldier in winter uniform politely asked for a few rubles to get home while on leave from the Chechen front.

These were the visible victims of a sick and shrinking nation. Their desperation put a human face on the academic research of Professor Murray Feshbach at Georgetown University who foresees an appalling start of the new millennium for the Russian people. Feshbach projects a decline in the Russian population from 149 million in 1990 to a possible low of 131 million in 2015 as poverty, malnutrition, pneumonia, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS take a grim toll.

Though some Western optimists claim the Russian economy has turned the corner, the reality on the ground points to continuing decline. Nearly 40 percent of Russians earn incomes below the official subsistence level of 787 rubles ($30) per month and outside investors still suffer heavy losses on their investments.

In December, a court ordered the bankruptcy sale of the Chernogorneft oil company, a move that apparently made the half-billion-dollar investment by British Petroleum Amoco worthless.

While many Russians shivered, the so-called "oligarchs" or "robber barons" were scavenging for the last easy gains. In the past three years, Yeltsin's economic "reform" policies allowed these thieves to strip Russia's wealth and transfer it to foreign banks. The money went to buy villas on the Riviera and other luxuries, while destroying what could have been the foundation for civilized capitalism in Russia. [See iF Magazine, March-April 1999.]

Many political observers believe a Putin administration in 2000 will look more like Mikhail Gorbachev's pre-capitalistic perestroika than the free-wheeling days of Boris Yeltsin.

Some even link Putin, a former KGB officer, to the opportunistic Kremlin looters who protected themselves in those last days of the Soviet Union by shifting about $5 billion from the government treasury into secret international accounts.

During those turbulent perestroika times, Putin was based in Dresden, East Germany, where he was an economic spy tasked with stealing the West's technology. He also managed the flow of Western investments after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But Putin remained an obscure bureaucrat until last summer when Yeltsin suddenly named him prime minister. With his tough handling of the Chechen crisis, his popular approval ratings soared into the 60-to-75 percent range.

"Putin personifies the hopes people have that things can be changed for the better," said Alexei Grazhdankin, a director of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research. "People don't want miracles, they just want order, and Putin has given the impression that he is providing order."

Though Putin's public speaking is lackluster, many Russians find his simple, clipped phrases to be refreshing and no-nonsense. The "oligarchs" like him because he has promised not to redistribute their privatized government property. The Army likes him because he raised the military budget and gave the generals a free hand in Chechnya.

Nationalists like him because he talks tough to the West. Resentment against the West is strong in Moscow, with 41 percent telling pollsters that the West is trying to turn Russia into a Third World country. Though Western financial organizations have poured billions of dollars into Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse, fewer than four percent of Russians think the West is trying to help them become a civilized and developed nation.

Putin was buoyed, too, by the public attacks on his rivals from the oligarch-controlled press and by the windfall profits from rising oil prices that added unbudgeted billions to Russia's federal coffers. The money gave Putin more maneuvering room than some of his predecessors enjoyed.

Ironically, Putin might be helped, as well, by the peculiar Russian cynicism about government. Yevgnia Albats, a Moscow-based political analyst, maintains that the key to understanding today's Russia can be found in two words -- tufta and khalyava -- coined in the vast Stalinist system of prisons and labor camps.

Tufta was camp slang meaning counterfeit or a swindle involving selling poor-quality goods. Khalyava means satisfying demands on someone else's account.

In the camps, there was a daily work quota that prisoners were required to fill to get a ration of bread and soup. To survive, a prisoner needed to give the appearance of doing more work than he did. That was known as "getting khalyava." Only those who mastered the techniques of tufta and khalyava met the quotas and earned the meager allotments of food.

But tufta and khalyava could not have continued without a social contract between prisoners and camp commanders, who, in turn, bribed their superiors. Millions of Russians outlived the camps and brought these skills back to the larger society. Citizens applied similar rules within the Soviet state-controlled economy.

The famous Russian saying became, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." Perestroika, the abrupt switch to a market economy and the rise of crony capitalism, only deepened the culture of gulag survival skills and the cynical attitude toward authority.

Ms. Albats thinks those Soviet-era instincts help explain the meteoric rise of the "firm-handed" Putin. In the eyes of many Russians, principle takes a back seat to results.

A misstep in Chechnya, however, could bring Putin's popularity crashing back to earth. Although the Army has regained Grozny, Russian casualties seem certain to rise as the Army moves to crush pockets of rebel resistance in other strongholds. Harsh winter weather -- accompanied by pneumonia and other illnesses -- will be another danger for Russian troops.

In the first Chechen war from 1994-96, poorly trained Russian troops stalled outside Grozny. The Chechen rebels then inflicted heavy casualties and dealt the Russians a humiliating military defeat. The war won Chechnya de facto independence, though technically it remained part of the Russian Federation.

The war resumed in August when Chechen forces invaded another Russian province, oil-rich Dagestan, to the east. If Chechen forces could gain control of Dagestan, they would have access to the Caspian Sea and make Chechnya a far more viable nation. But the loss of Chechnya and Dagestan would cost Moscow two more chunks of its dwindling territory.

The struggle between Islamic Chechnya and Russia dates back centuries. Located in the northern Caucasus mountains, Chechnya was caught between rival powers, czarist Russia and Persia, before succumbing to Russian control in 1859.

During the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Chechens revolted against Moscow's domination. Chechen rebels battled both the White Russian army and the Bolsheviks.

After the Bolshevik victory, the rebellion was put down and Chechnya was absorbed into the new Soviet Union in 1920. Under dictator Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union forced Chechens into collective farms and discouraged their traditional Islamic religious practices.

During World War II, Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and relocated many inhabitants to Central Asia in 1944. They were not allowed to return until 1957, as Soviet leaders acknowledged excesses of the Stalin era.

Amid the chaos of the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s, Chechnya rebelled again and declared itself an independent state, a status challenged by Moscow.

In 1994, Yeltsin ordered a full-scale invasion. The capital of Grozny fell to the Russians, but rebels continued a hit-and-run war that earned them a reputation as vicious guerrilla fighters. The first Chechen war claimed an estimated 40,000 lives and drove 300,000 Chechens from their homes.

Finally, in August 1996, the Chechen rebels dealt a devastating blow to the ill-trained Russian forces. Yeltsin's national security adviser Aleksandr Lebed agreed to a cease-fire that granted the Chechens almost complete autonomy but delayed a decision on independence until 2001.

Outside their home region, Chechens also became notorious as ruthless organized-crime operatives. Chechen gangs were among the most feared in Moscow's extraordinarily violent underworld.

In September 1999, Chechens quickly became the prime suspects after a series of bombings leveled low-income apartment buildings in Moscow and killed more than 300 people. Though there was no clear evidence implicating the Chechens, the explosions and the invasion of Dagestan enflamed Russian passions for a crackdown against the Chechen rebels.

Then-prime minister Putin dispatched a 100,000-man Russian force to surround Grozny and to unleash barrage after barrage of rockets that kept Russian casualties relatively low but took a high toll on Chechen civilians. The war made 200,000 Chechens homeless.

The onset of winter weather, however, gave the Russian troops a taste of the hardships that the invading armies of Napoleon and Hitler had experienced. Bad weather slowed Russian Army movements and made supply routes more vulnerable. The Chechens began counterattacking.

Other rebel forces dug in inside the city of Grozny and withstood the Russian seige until early February. Neither side showed much regard for the fate of an estimated 20,000 civilians trapped in the beleaguered city.

Western leaders decried the Russian tactics. President Clinton warned that Russia would pay a high price if it continued to inflict heavy civilian casualties. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said Russia was acting in a "ham-fisted" way.

In Moscow, however, the Western criticism fell on deaf ears. Russians were quick to point out that many Serb civilians died during NATO's two-month bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. The Kremlin also has cited Chechen terror tactics as justification for the Russian Army campaign. Moscow noted, too, that its forces have dropped leaflets offering civilians protected escape routes from Grozny.

But Russians also fear the fierce Chechens known for showing little mercy. After one battle outside Grozny, the press reported that 50 captured Russian soldiers had their throats slit. But official Russian sources denied the account.

Aside from the miserable weather, and economic despair, Moscow still amazes a foreign visitor. Like residents of other northern capitals, such as Ottawa and Helsinki, Muscovites shoulder about life with a stoic boldness and a brisk pace. They dress for the weather and fortify themselves with delicious food from the Ukraine or spicy Georgian specialties.

Even black Beluga caviar is affordable, at least for tourists. A splash of searing Stolichnaya vodka on the throat after coming in from the cold warms the soul and can be had for less than $2 a bottle.

Below the noisy, horn-blasted, grid-locked streets is the more serene world of the Moscow subway. Clean and efficient, the subway costs only a few rubles and takes you rapidly to most parts of the city.

You also can get good seats at orchestra center for the Bolshoi ballet theater for about $40. I attended “Anyuta,” a ballet based on Anton Chekhov’s 19th-century story, Anna on the Neck.

It’s a tale about a beautiful woman from a Russian village who marries an insufferable schoolmaster in hopes of helping her destitute family. Anyuta attracts the attention of wealthy generals and politicians and is encouraged to have affairs by her greedy husband.

Her family, however, is declared bankrupt and on a frosty New Year’s Eve is turned out into the street as Anyuta and her fancy new friends pass by without noticing. Chekhov’s vision of sympathetic characters caught in hopeless lives is popular again in a Russia, a nation the feels cast off without a moral rudder.

Some young Russians sitting near me at the ballet wore expensive imported fashions, while millions of their countrymen went hungry. “Yes,” said a Russian friend, “these times have made of our daughters whores and our sons into gangsters.”

At night, Red Square and the onion-shaped towers of St. Basil's Cathedral remain one of the world's great Kodak moments. In the freezing air, the bright Red Stars sparkling on the fir trees proclaimed bravely the Year 2000.

My Russian friends declared, with determination, that life will get better in the new millennium. The millennial celebration reminded me, too, that Russians have the same hopes for a good life as those of us in the West.

We indeed have become the “global village” envisioned by my late friend and college professor, Marshall McLuhan. Though he died in 1980, McLuhan foresaw the revolutionary changes in media.

“I don’t approve of the global village,” McLuhan stated. “I say we live in it.” McLuhan stressed that the “global village” would not be a tranquil place. “The more you create village conditions, the more discontinuity and division and diversity,” he said. “The global village absolutely insures maximal disagreements on all points.”

Yet, despite misgivings, McLuhan was optimistic. In saying “Happy New Year” to my Russian friends, I recalled my favorite McLuhan quote:

“I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth.”


Don North is a veteran war correspondent having covered more than a dozen conflicts dating back to the late 1960s and the Vietnam War.


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