December 1, 2010 at 19:31

Everyday life is still a case of Russian roulette

Everyday life is still a case of Russian roulette

After pausing to marvel at St Isaac's cathedral, a visitor walking to the world-renowned Hermitage museum in St Petersburg passes a drab building offering "the history of political police". Inside is a fascinating glimpse, through documents, weaponry, photographs and other relics, of how lives were controlled, regimented and crushed from Tsarist times to the Cold War.

It seems an odd aspect of the past to make a fuss about. But it is easy to sense, when encountering the stern faces and bossy demeanour of some older residents of this striking city, that many feel regret at the passing of well-ordered days when people did as they were told and foreigners were objects of deep suspicion.

Nearly 20 years after the Soviet Union was dissolved, the people of the Russian Federation have much to contend with, but also great reason for self-satisfaction.

There are niggling problems with troublesome former Soviet republics. Those on modest salaries complain about prices in the shops. But Russia features high in terms of both purchasing power and economic clout.

Yet the financial benefits pouring from generous resources of oil, gas, coal and metals have brought their own problems. "Our problem is not money," whispered a St Petersburg businessman. "It is corruption."

A glance at celebrated locations in Europe shows how far Russian influence has extended. From Chelsea Football Club, owned by Roman Abramovich, to luxury hotels on the French Riviera, individual Russians flex bulging economic muscle.

But at home, not everyone is doing quite so well. The Georgia Daily website would be expected to adopt a critical line, but is hardly alone in drawing attention to widening social inequality and disgruntlement over the failure of incomes to keep pace with the cost of living.

And there remains the feeling that for a lot of ordinary people, and even the go-ahead middle classes, the scourges of corruption and bribery cast a dim light on the Putin era.

A poll by the Levada research institute, conducted in the summer, found 37 per cent of respondents regarded the failure to tackle the problem as the most serious failing of Vladimir Putin, now prime minister after two terms as president (an office to which he may return in 2012). A further 24 per cent blamed him for doing insufficient to disempower billionaires.

Conversely, the Russian Federation is also seen as using all the apparatus of the state, and more than a hint of unconventional action, against its perceived enemies, who happen to include certain of those billionaires.

In the pro-human rights St Petersburg Times, read mainly by English-speaking expatriates, a columnist listed pro-Putin elements among suspects in the savage beatings of the campaigning journalist Oleg Kashin.

Alexander Lebedev, owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers in London and a strong critic of the Russian government, has accused the authorities of threatening to ruin his National Reserve Bank by sending police and investigators to raid its Moscow headquarters.

In theory, the action was part of an investigation into the affairs of Rossiisky Kapital, a bank rescued by Mr Lebedev in 2008. But the UK press reported his suspicion that officials may have wanted to discourage him from using his Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, to cover plans by the whistleblowing site Wikileaks to disclose documents about "despotic" regimes.

If the travails of bankers and journalists seem detached from everyday life, Russians may look to tourism as one obvious source of the sort of income that does filter down to ordinary people.

Given the rich cultural assets and the natural attractions - more than 20 World Heritage Sites - it is no surprise that interest from foreigners has soared since the dying phase of the Soviet era. Those with a sense of romance and adventure can now do it by train from the Mediterranean - Nice to Moscow takes just under 50 hours.

But much more could be achieved in the sector. The Knight Frank consultancy estimates average occupancy of four and five-star hotels in Moscow, during the second quarter of this year, at just 58 per cent compared with 85 per cent in London, 75 per cent in Paris and even 66 per cent in Warsaw. There is a shortage of more affordable rooms but some hoteliers cite expensive, time-consuming visa obligations: a three-day trip to St Petersburg for two, at £750 (Dh4,370) for flights and hotel, cost a further Dh1,450 for visas.

Once there, tourists seem to enjoy what they find. Russians can be warm and inviting. If babushkas and their menfolk do rue communism's demise, they are outnumbered by a younger breed: those who are not only eager to speak to visitors in their own language but also - if another Levada survey reported by the St Petersburg Times is correct - have little or no knowledge about the repression and suffering of their country's Stalinist years.

Tags: Corruption, National reserve bank, Novaya Gazeta

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