Russia: Revolution of the Well-fed, Well-dressed and Well-informed

Posted February 13th, 2012 at 10:45 am (UTC+0)

In Moscow, last weekend, this couple would have been sculpted in ice. But marble is the medium in Odessa, Pearl of the Black Sea. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At 8pm Friday night, I decided to close up shop in VOA’s Moscow office and fly to Odessa, Ukraine, for the weekend.

Moscow’s weekend forecast was -30C, my trip to Central Asia had been cancelled, and the Black Sea sounded like a good mid-winter break. I did not have an airline ticket, but I knew the schedule.

Three hours later, at 11 pm, I was buckled into a window seat in a nice, new Boeing 737, and rolling down the runway at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport.

What transpired in those three hours gives an insight into a central problem facing Prime Minister Putin as he tries to hold on to middle class support this political year — in the March 4 elections and beyond.

Putin is a victim of his own success.

The 20 and 30 somethings who chant “Russia Without Putin” have no real memory of the chaotic 1990s, much less the gray, repressive communist years before that. Putin’s promise of “stability” may be music to the ears of the older generation. But, to Russia’s younger generation, it sounds like stagnation.

Back to Friday night.

After throwing clothes in a bag, I walked to the Aeroexpress office at Kievskii Railroad Station. Painted bright red and white, these clean and modern trains now serve Moscow’s three international airports. The definition of express means that they leave on time, arrive on time, make no stops, and cut straight through Moscow’s notorious and unpredictable traffic jams. The only people who drive to and from Moscow airports these days are first time foreign visitors and Muscovites who suffer from severe cases of car attachment disorder.

At the station, I fed 590 rubles ($20) into a ticket vending machine. Tap, tap, tap on a touch screen. The round trip ticket was in my hand, and the change in my pocket.

After a century of neglect, the 1904 beaux arts style Bolshaya Morskaya building is under renovation in the heart of old Odessa. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Minutes later, I was seated in the train, rolling to Vnukovo International Airport, 30 kilometers west of Moscow. Clean and quiet, the train was a rolling reading room, allowing me to catch up on back newspapers and check email on my mobile phone.

Thirty five minutes later, at 9:35, I was at the station riding the escalator into the new steel and glass terminal.

With 85 minutes to take off, I make one mistake. Faced with going left to “International” or right to “National,” I gambled that the airport administration was stuck in “old think,” classifying Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, as a domestic destination.

Wrong. But the courteous guard at national section allowed me to go the wrong way through his metal detector to walk to the international section.

At the international section, I went to ticket sales office and asked to buy a round trip ticket to Odessa. At 70 minutes to take off, she was running my Visa card, charging me 9,774 rubles ($328) for a round trip ticket – about 2 percent less than the internet price. (At the same time, I was juggling a telephone call from my oldest son, James, calling from Ohio to tell me about his job interviews).

While running up my charge, the ticket agent discovered that the man before me, wearing a distinctive green shirt, had left behind his Visa card. Without any fuss, an Aeroflot attendant came out to the ticket counter, and reunited the passenger with his Visa.

Ticket in hand, I went through the customs x-ray machine and checkpoint. The customs officer asked me if I was carrying a lot of cash. I said no, realizing at that point that I was embarking on an international trip with about $41 in Russian rubles. I knew there were plenty of ATMs in Odessa.

Built in the 1890s, Odessa's Bristol Hotel went through the Soviet ear as the Red Hotel. After an extensive renovation, it reopened last year. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Now 45 minutes before takeoff, I checked in for the international flight.

Boarding pass in hand, I was off to passport control manned by a Russian border guard in a glass booth. She looked at my American passport, looked at me, and then gave me a big smile. She was encouraging me to smile, like in my passport picture. (If Russian border guards are coaching Americans on their smiles, what is the world coming to?)

Another airport security check with x-ray machines. Ten minutes to boarding time, I was threading my way through a gauntlet of stores selling duty free liquor, perfume and silk scarves. Modern Russian airports increasingly are trips to the shopping mall.

With five minutes to spare, I called two hotels in Odessa on my mobile phone. I picked the cheapest one, reserved a room, and told them it would a late check in.

A few minutes later, I was in the jet, looking at a large lady sitting in my window seat.

The steward intervened and diplomatically explained to her that my seat was 22F, and her seat was 19A. No shouting, no hysterics.

Settled into my seat, I heard the tell-tale clink of large bottles going into the overhead. It was the man in the green shirt. He had used his recovered Visa for last minute shopping at the duty free.

“Vodka?’I asked.
“No, “ he replied. “They have plenty of that in Ukraine. This is whiskey.”

Wheels up for the Black Sea, three hours after locking the door to my office.

Why does all this spell trouble for Prime Minister Putin?

James Brooke with Odessa monument to Ludwig Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, the international language that once was popular in multicultural Odessa. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Let’s go make a quick trip back 20 years ago to my first flight internal flight in the Soviet Union, in September 1991, for The New York Times.

A Times assistant had to make the trip with me to a grey, bleak Moscow airport, leading me through a bewildering travel bureaucracy: bizarre Soviet stations of the cross that could only be satisfied with a series of permits and stamps, to allow a foreigner to take an internal flight in the Soviet Union.

The upside was that the ticket to Tbilisi cost $12.

The downside was that there was no guarantee that the old Tupolev jet would leave anywhere near on time. Also, at the destination, rival gangs were cruising the streets of Tbilisi, holding Kalashnikovs through open windows of their Ladas.

In Moscow, the most depressing feature in the airport, was the men’s room. The stench would have stopped a horse at 20 paces. I took a deep breath, and hustled in to answer nature’s call. The odor stemmed from broken plumbing, partially fixed by rags tied around pipes. Facing the sinks, sat the washroom attendant, a woman whose large frame spilled over the edges of her stool. In the corner, hunched a downcast boy, presumably her grandson, his head shaved to combat lice. A Dickensian orphanage would have been a step up.

Fortunately, many urban Russians under 35 don’t know what I am talking about.

Their conception of the Soviet Union is a hazy collage of nostalgic memories passed on by grandparents and modern fantasy video games about world domination.

In 1991, there were probably 20 restaurants in Moscow that accepted credit cards. Last year, there were 70 million Visa cards in use in Russia.

In 1991, there were no ATM machines and the only mobile phones were car phones for the Communist Party elite. Last year, there were 225 million mobile phone accounts in Russia, a country with a population of 142 million.

Millions of dollars was spent in 2007 on gold leaf to restore the rococo interrio of Odessa's 1887 Opera and Ballet Theater. But, Saturday night, a Row 12 ticket to the Mozart-Salieri concert cost only 80 hyrvnia, or $10. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In 1991, the number of Russians traveling outside of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, was in the low thousands. Last year, 10 percent of Russia’s adult population took international flights outside of the former Soviet Union. The majority went through modern airports like Vnukovo.

For middle class Russians under 35 years of age, this is the only reality they know.

“For them, the 1990s are already a myth, almost on the same order as the time of Ivan the Terrible,” Valerii Fedor, director of VTSIOM, a leading polling company, says in the current issue of Le Courier de Russie, a French fortnightly here.

This is the Kremlin is trying to cope with: revolution by the well-fed, the well-dressed, and the well-informed.

Now Russia’s new middle class wants more. They want private sector, consumer-oriented efficiency extended to public life. They want transparency, honesty and the rule of law.
For a decade, Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, the architect of the soft authoritarian system he called “sovereign democracy.” Then on Dec. 27, three days after 100,000 people demonstrated against Putin, the Kremlin sidelined Surkov into a non-political post.

Surkov, a history buff, must have recalled the words of Maximilien Robespierre, who said, as he faced the guillotine in 1794: “The Revolution devours its own children.”

Instead, Surkov, the architect of modern Russia’s political system, noted ironically to a reporter: “Stabilization devours it own children.”

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James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 responses to “Russia: Revolution of the Well-fed, Well-dressed and Well-informed”

  1. Vilchjo de Mesao Arizono, Usono says:

    One correction – Esperanto is a REAL language.

  2. Bill Chapman says:

    I’ve never seen that statue of Zamenhof before, so thanks!

    Esperanto is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Esperanto works for me! I learned it in my late teens, and I’ve used it in speech and writing in about fifteen countries over recent years. As a planned auxiliary language, it is easier to learn and use than national tongues.

  3. Gennady says:

    1. Recent poster with PM Putin botoxed face declared that “The great country needs strong leader”. State TV channel didn’t spare millions dollars earned for selling-off natural wealth to trumpet about feats of his forthcoming presidency:diving to some bottoms, flying fighter jet or wretling. Is he actually that strong, aged 60, with the average life expectancy for men 59-63? Have his 12 years in absolute power demonstrated land-slide achievments? Has Russia become an economic tiger with flourishing science, health care and public education? Isn’t his country fast dying-out, aren’t 2 million orphans and homeless children?
    2.During the 12 years with the spy-master at the helm there appeared a feeling of stability. Dut the cost was unbearable with dozens high-profile murders and maims of outspoken journalist, blasts of apartment houses, Litvinenko poisoning and Magnitsky death.The investigations mired in a dead-lock. The press was gagged, Internet activists have been harrassed, opposition faced obstacle to win wider audience, the phones of opponents have been tapped with intimate video recording for the YouTube. There are dozens political prisoners and numerous examples of violation of basic human rights.
    3. There were obvious unacceptable things. With economic growth stagnated all 12 years are lost, when in 2008 before the crisis struck Russia just regained 1990 year level of economic development. The BRIC countries race to new economic heights but Putin’s Russia.All 12 years spread of corruption was peak high and showed that Russia shouldered Nigeria and is at the bottom of the global rank.State of scietific research , public education and health care became unacceptably low.Young people after universities face bleak future in street stalls and hairdresser saloon.
    4. As a citizen of Putin’s Russia, I belong neither toInternet activists, nor to any political movement. This didn’t save me. Starting from December the 22. 2011 my access to prepaid Internet was severely hindered. Without any obvious reasons. T was the first casuality in the Internet war launched by the Kremlin against Russian people.At the Provider’s office I was promised the Internet would resume work right after antiPutin’s rally. As the Internet resumed its work my computer was DDoS attacked and I was unable to post to some particulat website.During one and a half month there was a close correlation between interruption of the Internet access for me and intensity of political actions in Russia. After 6 years of reliable service without any reason federal Internet Provider JSC”Rostelecom” switched off me from Internet of February. The next will be switching off my phone line, confiscatinf of the computer, cutting my throat. Operators at the office declined to hint to any political or legal reasons. There was no warning or ruling of law court or my threat to national security. There is an opinion that access to the Internet is a basic human right. But not in Putin’s Russia.
    5.By the unilateral withdrawal JSC Rostelecom as a war elephant in the Internet army collaborated in supresing basic human rights. The reason for the vendetta were my sayings in “Russia Watch”. Under Mr.Putin the Russians have no rights to question authorities, to comment or express an opinion. I can’t enjoy the basic human rights as the free assembly (clause 31 of Russian Constitution), to get truthful information apart of the State TV, to get decent health care, primary or secondary education. Imagine that your business depends on whims of some Putin’s Internet Provider. Personally I hope to survive without the Internet. But many businesses in XXI century will surely perish. It’s one more reason for flight of capital from Putin’s Russia.

  4. Janneke says:

    Russia is not a constitutional state yet (I am a citizen of). The rights of citizens are not being taken into account by the state administration, I hope it will be changed somewhen.

    Nowdays, what one can see today in Russia: who has more money, that person has more political, juridical and other rights there.

  5. Janneke says:

    mr Brooke, thanks for the article!



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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