Ordinary Life in the New Russia

By Eleanor Randolph

Simon & Schuster -- 431pp -- $26

Stepping off the bus on a blustery winter day in the Moscow suburb of Stupino, a red-faced woman wobbles, then collapses to the frozen ground. Ignored by fellow passengers and the bus driver, she lies stranded in a crumpled heap on the frozen shoulder of the road, where we see her as we drive past. ``Stop the car,'' I say to my friend Paul.

Paul and another friend, Mike, grab her arms and lift her to her feet. As soon as they let go, she falls back down, and we realize she's drunk. We fetch two traffic cops from a nearby checkpoint. They ridicule rather than help her. Propping her up, they stand a few feet apart and shove her back and forth like one of those lifesize inflatable punching dolls that bob back up no matter how hard you punch. We drive off only after I extract a promise from one of them that they'll find shelter for her.

Disturbing scenes such as this are all too common today--though hardly unknown in Soviet Russia. The elderly woman is one of the legions left behind by economic reform. Millions like her drink to escape the dreariness of life on a poverty-level pension. And there's little help for them, since everyone else is busy looking out for No.1. Police are more interested in harassing victims and taking bribes than in promoting public safety.

In Waking the Tempests: Ordinary Life in the New Russia, reporter Eleanor Randolph of The Los Angeles Times catalogs dozens of such personal vignettes to help readers understand the enormous changes that have engulfed Russia in the past few years. Her descriptions of how average Russians are struggling with new freedoms help explain the appeal of Communist presidential candidate Gennadi Zyuganov.

Take Klara Gladkova, a 65-year-old retiree in Chapayevsk, an industrial city on the Volga River that contains a huge dioxin dump. After telling Randolph that her daughter recently got fired from a factory job, Gladkova says: ``Before Gorbachev, it was a good life. Under Brezhnev, it was better.''

Natasha Zvonareva, a 25-year-old teacher whose hair is already turning gray, bemoans the lack of stability. Before 1991, a teacher could rely on a steady salary. The school also provided benefits such as extra food, medical care, and vacations. Now, Zvonareva has to beg the principal for money. ``These changes, they are terrible,'' she says.

Voices such as these give the reader a more complete picture of Russia than can be obtained from the global media, which focus on crime and Kalashnikov-toting mafiya hit men. Randolph talks to Orthodox priests and conjurers, ballet dancers and businesswomen. She visits sex clinics and attends a murder trial. Many of these interviews date from 1991 to 1993, when Randolph worked in Russia for The Washington Post. But she has updated when necessary, using information gained in later visits.

Randolph skillfully analyzes the chaotic Russian scene despite a disclaimer in the prologue that she is ``looking at the life rather than analyzing the system.'' She helps readers identify which Russian problems can be blamed on Boris N. Yeltsin and which are a legacy of the past. This is particularly true in chapters on justice and education.

Westerners who come to Russia often are shocked at widespread cheating, contract-breaking, and tax evasion. As Randolph explains, disrespect for the law is embedded in Russia's history and inculcated in children at an early age.

Most Americans are law-abiding because they believe the laws are correct or because they fear they might be caught, says Randolph. ``Those two basic instincts--fear of prosecution and respect for authority--had been perverted over the years by [the] Russian state. Laws in the Soviet Union were a tool of the government....It was not a government or legal system that could engender much respect, but the citizen who obeyed did so primarily out of fear. When the fear was gone, so was the desire to follow the government's rules.''

In high school and college, students routinely take exams or write papers for each other because the value of friendship is far greater than any respect for the system. ``If someone asked you to help and you said, `No, I abide by the law,' you would be regarded as an outcast,'' one student tells Randolph.

Distrust of the system threatens to tarnish the election. Russian newspapers are full of stories about how both Yeltsin and the Communists are likely to engage in ballot fraud. Yeltsin has influence with vote counters in the Central Election Commission, while the Communists have stalwarts at each polling station who can stuff ballot boxes. No matter who wins, the victor will have little legitimacy in the eyes of many Russians. Where Westerners see democracy, many Russians see another government sham.

Such misperceptions make reporting on Russia a challenge. Every time I get off the plane in Moscow, I feel like Alice stepping through the looking glass. In a chapter on alternative medicine, Randolph describes the shock she felt when a highly educated Russian teacher told her that spiritualist ``healers'' could use newspaper ads to transmit evil spirits. ``That day, I learned what every foreigner learns over and over again in Russia: an outsider is always an outsider. I could observe, listen, ask and take notes, but I would never truly understand.'' Maybe not. But the voices in Waking the Tempests provide a window into a fascinating world.

By Patricia Kranz


Updated June 16, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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