The Indifference This Time

A Letter from St. Petersburg

April 04, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA. — St. Petersburg, Russia.--The biggest loser of Russia's current power struggle is the country's fledgling central authority.

Millions of Russians have simply given up on Moscow's leadership. They are concentrating on trying to make the ends meet under local administrations which affect their existence much more than quarrelsome national politicians far away.

This was evident last week in this energetic metropolis of 5.5 million people, the cradle of Russia's past revolutions and the country's second largest city. As President Boris N. Yeltsin and hostile paliamentarians manhandled each other in their confusing political duels, few people seemed captivated by the spectacle.

To a foreigner privy to receiving CNN in his hotel room, the difference between the political crisis in Moscow and the reality in the city that was once known as Leningrad was surreal.

While CNN breathlessly kept its worldwide audience abreast with the twists of the power drama in Moscow, most television sets in appliance showrooms, restaurants and other public venues here disregarded the live transmission from the Kremlin. Instead, they showed soap operas or other frivolous fare.

Similarly, shoppers filling Nevsky Prospekt, the city's celebrated thoroughfare, hardly paid attention to hawkers of some 300 different local newspapers, which spanned the whole spectrum from monarchist and ultra-religious to communist and national socialist.

The popular verdict seemed to be that members of parliament had damaged themselves and the legislature through their theatrics and verbal mutilation. No great enthusiasm was evident for Mr. Yeltsin. But he at least still appeared to be tolerated -- and often respected -- by ordinary people.

"The legislators have disgraced themselves," volunteered a 19-year-old teacher.

The lack of public interest in the standoff in Moscow was in sharp contrast to the national preoccupation evident under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, when work virtually stopped during Kremlin debates. It seemed quite remarkable because St. Petersburg is known for its progressive politics and has a reformist city administration under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Yet it is easy to understand. While politicians in Moscow were trying to destroy one another in endless mind games, St. Petersburg residents faced more immediate crises.

The city is a would-be disaster area. Several aging nuclear power plants built near downtown are a time bomb that may go off at any minute. The infrastructure is crumbling and a huge, costly dam barely completed by the Soviets to control periodic flooding is so destructive ecologically that it is now slated for demolition.

As for ordinary people, they are grappling with totally new experiences in their lives -- such as not having enough money for life's bare necessities.

Much of the Soviet Union's post-World War II life was characterized by people having money but nothing to buy. Now the situation has turned around, at least in St. Petersburg. Shoppers encounter a veritable cornucopia of food items and consumer goods. But they are outrageously expensive, even though they may appear to be dirt cheap to anyone translating the prices from dollars.

During the past year, the average monthly income in St. Petersburg rose from 1,264 rubles to 10,000. But prices of goods -- which are now liberalized and vary greatly among stores -- rose 120 times, according to press reports.

With a dollar now netting close to 700 rubles, a 90-ruble ice cream bar is a bargain for an American. At St. Petersburg's new Baskin-Robbins, a two-scoop cone is 800 rubles ($1.14), less than half the price in dollars that it would be in the United States -- but to the average Russians it may cost the equivalent of two days' pay.

Most Russians are not grumbling too much about such prices at privatized stores, however. After decades of scarcity, shops are at least full at last. As a result, long lines, which were the trademark of communism, have totally disappeared.

Far more trying for regular people appear to be the skyrocketing ticket prices for all modes of domestic travel. A round-trip airplane ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow -- once virtually free -- now costs an average resident's monthly income. For a Russian with access to dollars, it still costs only $14.

This disparity in buying power has elevated the dollar to something of a second currency -- but still in a surprisingly limited degree. Most sellers of sought-after goods, be they automobiles or computers, do not seem to mind being paid in rubles. (In contrast, landlords seeking tenants for luxurious apartments in the center of St. Petersburg prefer, or even demand, such "freely exchangeable currencies" as dollars and German marks).

Many people are visibly hard up. Beggars and street urchins are becoming a common sight; the life of many senior citizens is difficult.

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