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Stress Of Freedom Takes Toll

Along a road that winds through forests and meadows, wealthy Russians speed to their country mansions in BMWs and SUVs with tinted windows, past sunburned men cutting grass with scythes and women sweeping gutters with homemade brooms.

Babushkas peddle buckets of potatoes and bundles of firewood by the road to add a few rubles to the family budget. But there are also garden centers offering Japanese maples, lawn chairs and hammocks — the trappings of yesteryear's capitalist decadence, now the must-haves of today's upwardly mobile Russia.

And all along the 40 kilometers (24 miles) of two-lane highway from Moscow to Zvenigorod, in what passes for suburban sprawl in The New Russia, garish new villas in red brick clash with tumbledown wooden huts, some built before the 1917 communist revolution.

Russia in the summer of 2001, year 10 of the post-Soviet world, is a panoply of raw, thrusting consumerism and newfound wealth jostling with age-old images of ingrained poverty.

In a country where the communist system allocated housing and allowed virtually no travel abroad, the billboards on the road to Zvenigorod trumpet the change: “Kottedzhi” (cottages). Package holidays to Greece. Japanese restaurant. Private school. Hugo Boss designer clothes. Fitness clubs.

Turn off the road and police may wave you back. That's where former President Boris Yeltsin, now 70, lives in a secluded dacha.

Take another turn, and you might come upon a brick mansion, abandoned in mid-construction, now infested with Russian children in shabby clothes, smoking cigarettes in the shadows.

It was 10 years ago, on Aug. 19, 1991, that Yeltsin hauled his linebacker frame onto a tank, faced down a coup by communist die-hards, and gave the world a defining image of the end of an era. The following Christmas Day, the 74-year-old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disbanded, and those 15 republics spun off on independent trajectories.

It was a cataclysm that changed the way the world works, and the aftershocks are still felt in sputterings of civil war from Chechnya to Central Asia, and in diplomatic corridors from the White House to Beijing.

Even now, stripped of its sister Soviet republics, Russia remains the world's largest country, only 13 percent smaller than the United States and Canada combined. But what was once a Communist monolith stretching across 11 time zones is now a jarring patchwork whose main contours are a thin layer of very rich people, a wide swath of very poor, and a vulnerable middle class. It's the opposite of the egalitarian society communism set out to build, and a very long way from the prosperous democracy Russia yearns to be.

It has been a wild ride, and it's far from over.

Just 10 years after 100,000 people heeded Yeltsin's call to defy the coup, many look back at the early 1990s as the high point of freedom and civil peace. Already by 1993, Yeltsin had turned to force, sending in the army to bring defiant lawmakrs to heel, then into Chechnya to crush a separatist rebellion.

Meanwhile, a few bankers and businessmen with government connections became fabulously wealthy. They snapped up villas on the French Riviera and stuffed money in offshore accounts.

The rich sent their kids to expensive private schools in Europe, filled their homes with crystal and silverware, hired servants and traveled with armed bodyguards.

The new middle class holidayed abroad, updated their wardrobes and renovated their apartments. The country was flooded with Western imports, clothes, TVs, cars, food, mobile phones, computers, cameras, beauty products.

But few people paid taxes, corruption ran rampant, and Western investors were turned off. The state soon ran out of money.

Nuclear submarines were shut down because the Defense Ministry couldn't pay its bills. Teachers, doctors and soldiers went unpaid. Pipes burst, factories rusted, winter killed. AIDS, tuberculosis and drug abuse spread.

By 1998, it was clear the Russian economy was living on borrowed time. That August the bubble burst. The ruble was devalued and thousands lost their money. Banks folded, businesses collapsed and Russia's credit rating sank. Russians were suddenly discovering the downside of capitalism.

Current economic development is uneven. Oil, natural gas and weapons account for most of Russia's exports and depend on the U.S. dollar staying strong. Russia doesn't manufacture much that the world needs.

The stress of these momentous transformations have taken their toll, particularly on Russian men. Their life expectancy was 59.8 years in 1999. In the United States it's 74.2. And the population is shrinking — by 3 million since 1993, to 145.6 million.

The average monthly wage is 2,200 rubles, or $78. Pensions are half that.

Since succeeding Yeltsin as president in 1999, Vladimir Putin has promised remedies, and he appears to have made some initial progress. The tax rate has been slashed to 13 percent, most workers appear to be paid on time, and Putin is resisting opposition from old-guard communists to support badly needed land reform.

But Russian liberals worry about their judo-loving president. He's a former officer of the KGB, the once-feared secret police, and extols it in public. He's accused of hounding opposition media, chided for allowing the new Russian anthem to revert to the melody of the old Soviet one. Human rights advocates say Russian tactics in Chechnya have become even more brutal under Putin.

All this seems a world away from Saidunmaro Rakhmatkhudzha as he coaxes his 200 head of cattle across the Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Shosse, the busy road to Zvenigorod, shouting “domoi, domoi” — home, home. But the white-bearded, 57-year-old cowherd is a vivid example of how painfully the Soviet breakup has affected ordinary lives.

He once worked for the water department in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Then the Soviet republic became independen, civil war broke out, and he lost his job. So he moved north to Russia to tend cows for an agribusiness.

Rakhmatkhudzha and his fellow herdsman, a Ukrainian, are among the millions of workers who have poured into Russia since 1991 from the former Soviet republics. Once they all had the same Soviet passports. Now they are illegal immigrants, underpaid and overworked, liable to be deported, tolerated only because Russia's shrinking population needs laborers.

“Things have calmed down in Tajikistan, but there is no money, so I had to come here,” Rakhmatkhudzha said.

He hopes to go home when the snow comes to Russia and the cows stay in their barns, owned by a nearby agribusiness firm.

The snow is some months away, and all along the road to Zvenigorod, sunshine bounces off newly painted churches. With the communists out of power, religion is enjoying a renaissance, and more than 13,000 churches have been built or rebuilt, says Alexy II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church

There seems to be no shortage of worshippers. Priests report more weddings and baptisms than in communist times.

Now the challenge is to rebuild the clergy.

“The biggest problem today is that the church exists in a country that was atheistic for so long. It's a very difficult period for us,” said Father Sergei, 45, who took his vows shortly before the Soviet collapse and is now the parish priest of Ivanovka, a village on the road to Zvenigorod.

“The church is suffering from anemia. A lot of people are spiritually not ready to be priests. There has not been a spiritual rebirth.”

Zvenigorod is the oldest town in the Moscow region. It withstood assaults by Poles, Napoleon's army and the Nazis. Under Soviet rule it stagnated. It has yet to flourish in the new Russia.

The roads are good, and the gas station on the way to town is a pleasant place to stop for coffee. Its very existence is a sign of progress. Ten years ago, there were hardly any gas stations in the entire area, and people waited in line for hours to tank up.

With its wooded hills and rivers, the Zvenigorod area is called “the Russian Switzerland,” but the comparison arouses scorn here.

“They call our region a second Switzerland. Only the prices are higher here,” said Slava Andreitsev, a 50-year-old construction foreman.

Just before noon, Andreitsev and a half dozen of his workers were sitting on benches around a picnic table drinking beer from plastic cups and vodka from the bottle. In Soviet times, public drunkenness meant arrest, fines, trouble at work, expulsion from school. Those days are over, but Andreitsev and his crew didn't seem very happy with life.

“In principle, there have been changes. But things stay the same,” Andreitsev said. “There is no hot water. My grandson is 1 year old. We have to wash all his clothes, diapers and things like that in cold water.”

There's not much to do in the RussiaSwitzerland, especially if you're not a rich New Russian.

The newsstand is out of newspapers by noon, leaving only an expired TV guide and an array of porn magazines.

At the Dzhekpot (Jackpot) restaurant the food is passable, but the main weekend attraction is striptease shows, where men and women stand in cages and undress — one of the more dubious fruits of post-communist liberalization.

At the market, closed because it was so filthy, the mood is glum, too.

“Nothing has changed since the 1990s. Nothing is better,” said Alexei Ivanov, who works at the market.

He was furious that the town's hot water had been shut off since May except for places like the local hospital, where wires hang from the walls and a snapping dog guards the cafeteria.

At the town hall, officials said there was no money for repairs.

At the grocery on Lenin Street, where sugar, vodka and cigarettes were rationed 10 years ago, almost everything was available, though not at prices affordable on that 2,200 ruble ( $78) average wage: a hot dog for rubles 45 ( $1.55), frozen shrimp for 80 rubles ( $2.75), a box of cat food for 70 rubles ( $2.41).

Although he's only 15, Yevgeny Ruzin showed a vivid knowledge of life under communism, and was glad he missed it.

“When I was little, people spent the whole day in line to get bread. They came, marked their place, went home and then came back. Buying bread took all day,” Yevgeny said, sitting with friends by a monastery in Zvenigorod.

Now “things are good. There's freedom,” he said.

But there are many who long for the simple certainties of the Soviet period, when living conditions for most were about the same, except for the ruling Communist elite.

A poll earlier this year by the Public Opinion Foundation said 79 percent of Russians now regret the demise of the Soviet Union, up from 69 percent in 1992.

Still, today's Russians choose their presidents, mayors, lawmakers and governors in elections deemed fair by international standards. Five major parties and many smaller factions sit in Parliament. When Putin was elected in March 2000, it was the first time Russia had ever changed presidents by a free vote.

And though they may sometimes look back fondly to the past, and grow cynical about the ability of politicians to solve their problems, and wonder why bother to vote, turnout in last year's presidential election was 65 percent.

Written By DEBORAH SEWARD © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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