A Russian Summer by Stefan Bruder.

Stefan has spent the summer in Moscow, where every day brings
a new misery in a country in a state of seemingly unstoppable decay.

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"We will always hope life will become better. It's simply got to." With these words, Alexej sums up his feelings for the country he's learned to love and hate. Why I had wanted to travel 20 hours up north to Archangelsk on a bumpy train like this "just to see who people live ", he cannot quite understand. He formally shakes my hand goodbye as drizzling rain and a cold Siberian wind sweep over the platform. Then we go our own way and the crowd around the railway station swallows us up like we had never stood there. Welcome back to Moscow! With the little money Alexej once earned as a translator in the army he couldn't make ends meet any more, not with a family to feed. That's why he does casual work in Moscow while his family stays some 700 miles behind in faraway Severodvinsk. This naval port for nuclear submarines, and thus a theoretically still-closed place to foreigners, has become a casualty of its own making.

With the end of the Cold War, the military hive off many of its staff. Unemployment is endemic, the pay for those who stayed extremely low and sporadic. Since my return to Moscow I started seeing things a lot differently. Beyond the fairytale-like Kremlin and touristy Red Square, but above all beyond the capital, life has always been a bit more complicated for ordinary Russians. I tried to understand how difficult it must be for them, the pensioners for instance, who often have to live on less than 700 rubles (approximately 20 Pounds) a month. "These are difficult times", a sentence I so often got to hear from people of all walks of life. "Yes, the economy is slowly recovering, but no, stability is missing. We don't know what's happening tomorrow." Silent heroes are those who keep working in the public sector for between 1000 and 2000 rubles a month simply because they have a vital job to do, the doctors, teachers and all the untold.

Indeed, on a larger scale, the past few weeks I spent in Moscow have become somewhat of a symbol of this rapid decline in morale, the pride of an entire country. An 'extraordinary' string of events, a chain of 'unfortunate' tragedies riddled the lives of Muscovites this summer. What the Russian media initially labeled "Black August" soon had to be extended to September as well. Let's take a brief look back: In early August, a bomb blast ripped through a crowded underground walkway near Pushkinskaja metro station, leaving seven commuters dead and scores of injured. The usual suspects: "Chechens, of course", as the authorities, hurriedly aired their suspicions. And thus, badly-copied wanted-posters of a "Caucasian"- looking man were promptly stuck up in every underground station. The chase was declared open as "southernly"-skinned people -tourists and locals alike- were even more rigorously checked up on their ID papers. In the media, comparisons to the 1998 bombing of several Russian apartment blocks were quickly being drawn up on. What then served as justification to move back into rebel Chechnya to fight " terrorists" (and not to avenge a fatally-lost 1994 -96 war, of course) didn't seem to come all too inconveniently this time either. But the police were soon forced to concede that the latest, still-unresolved terrorist attack might well have been a gangland crime. But at least 'something' was being done, as TV viewers were nightly reassured.

While public shock soon turned to anger, sinister rumours made their rounds among the odd ones out as to whom all this was playing in the hands and why. And some questions, many fear, are better left unanswered. Less than one week later, on August 13th, Russia's newest nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk, sank in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 sailors on board. While the Russian public was provided news on the tragedy the 'Chernobyl style' in terms of information policy, the government blamed a so far unidentified object for the disaster, a foreign sub or a mine. The theory that the tragedy could have been the result of a training exercise gone fatally wrong was strongly denied by the Kremlin. The public outcry would have been unthinkable, thus the theory impossible. Among the more critical media voices, the Moscow Times called the devastating loss by its name, blaming the government for the completely under-funded, badly-equipped and poorly-paid army. It concluded that "the Kursk disaster was yet further evidence of our own fallibility", and sharply criticized President Putin for his delayed reaction in accepting foreign help. " Putin has robbed those 118 men of four days." When the President was to be asked live on CNN in his so far most agressive interview one month later during the World Summit in New York about what had really happened to the Kursk, Putin smiled coyly and said: "It sank."

The next disaster didn't wait for long as a sheer speechless country yet had to confront another misfortune. On August 27th, Moscow's famous 1771 feet-tall Ostankino TV tower caught fire, killing two fire fighters and a lift operator as their lift plunged to the ground. Thick clouds of smoke were widely visible above the Moscow sky, steaming from the second-tallest free-standing structure in the world as the one pride of Soviet engineering was burning for hours. Live pictures were transmitted throughout the world while the fire brigade stood by helplessly. What's more, with all state TV channels knocked off the air for days in most parts of Moscow, the tower has come to symbolize all that has gone wrong with Russia. A sarcastic, if telling joke soon was to be heard in the fire's aftermath: "From a government statement: The Ostankino TV tower collided with a foreign tower, if American or British still has to be established." The current affairs magazine 'Itogi' summed up the Moscow mood at boiling point, pasting its front cover with the question "What's next?" But no one knew and no one dared asking...

As for the events in Chechnya, or the so-called "anti-terrorist measures" that were never officially meant to be a war, people have become tired of asking for the current death toll. Why should they? They know that "everything is under control and that the war will soon be over." Putin says so, and even Yeltsin said so in 1994 when it all began. Putin has to know. After all, it was him who planned the latest war in Chechnya. By the way: the city of Kursk, hometown to dozens of the 118 dead sailors, tried to steer their soldiers clear off the latest madness in the northern Caucasus by sending them to the Marines instead. But now, they, too, have perished. In the meantime, summer has turned autumn and relative calmness has settled again in the Russian capital. Deep-hanging clouds have transformed Moscow into a melancholic gray of concrete housing estates and pot-holed tarmac. Fallen birch leafs cover the wet benches in Gorkij Park. Most tourist have left Russia to report again of elegant theatre performances and delicious Georgian wine served in fancy Moscow restaurants. For most Russians -like my landlady- this summer indeed wasn't all too different from previous ones as she was far too occupied with more mundane questions like " Will my money pay for next month's rent?". As for politicians, they don't interest her. "They come and go." Only the admiriringly-patient Russian soul seems to remain the same. People live on, they always will. After all, "it will become better again. It's simply got to."

Stefan Bruder 10. 2000

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