Don't like it at home? Try Russia -- if you dare DATELINE: MOSCOW


September 07, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Need a reality check? Russia is a good place to get one.

You feel abused by a summer that's been miserable, hot, dry -- unbearable, even, on the East Coast? Here, several foreigners were spotted wearing their down vests back in late August.

Russians say that summer officially ended Aug. 15. That depends on what you mean by summer. Even by Russian standards, the last few months haven't seemed summerlike.

During a two-week period in July, there was only one day without rain. Muscovites, desperate to pretend they have a normal climate, normally plunge into the water here numerous times in June, July and early August.

This year, many said they only found it warm enough to swim once.

Last winter, the first blinding snowstorm fell Oct. 11. The last one hit May 22.

All right, both were brief and the snow melted quickly, but really! Send some of that 90-degree weather Russia-ward -- heaven knows they need to absorb some heat to withstand what lies ahead. It only gets worse from here.

All over the United States, as schools begin a new year, teachers are once again reminded that their pay tends to be low. Russia began the new school year Sept. 1 and Moscow teachers are earning 60,000 rubles a month (that's now about $60.)

Across Russia, the average pay for teachers is 20,000 rubles a month. In some rural settlements, even 20,000 rubles is far more than what the average person earns. Some teachers' neighbors have started to demand that the teachers lose their free supply of firewood, since they're getting paid so much.

Prices have gotten out of control in the United States? A decent-sized chicken costs $7 at a Moscow farmer's market; a box of U.S. cereal costs $8, and on it goes.

Most people here fight the high prices by eating large quantities of bread and potatoes -- which they grow out in the countryside. This year, the rain has drowned all their potatoes. The flowers, however, are gorgeous.

Weary of having to make ends meet by taking on a part-time job? Until recently, Russians weren't allowed to hold extra jobs -- the government decided what they could and couldn't do.

Boris Rizhak, an air-conditioning engineer, tells of how he badly wanted to earn extra money several years ago to buy a bookcase for the family apartment.

He found a job as a night watchman, but wasn't allowed to accept it legally. So he signed up for the job in his mother's name, happily worked away for close to a year and bought the bookcase.

But now, in post-Communist Russia, his wife, Masha, says cheerfully, "we can work as hard as we want."

Had it with that Bay Bridge traffic? Russians returning from their dacha on weekends clog Prospect Mira for miles and miles every Sunday night. It doesn't take much to get them to turn nasty.

They flood over the grass on the side of the road, sending pedestrians and fowl flying. They zoom out into a lane of oncoming traffic, antagonizing other motorists into a spectacular game of chicken.

Be grateful for those hours idling at the bridge -- at least a head-on collision is not ordained.

Hard to park downtown? In Moscow it's impossible. So when drivers get close to their destination they bump over to the sidewalk and continue speeding along until they find a spot there. They'll park anywhere.

Your car's a lemon? You don't know citrus until you see Russian cars. They never work. They always stop in the middle of a busy highway, at which time the driver gets out and performs extensive surgery -- in the middle of the road. To drive successfully here requires the dexterity and steel-like nerves of an Indy 500 champion.

Sick of rushing to the airport, only to await a delayed plane? The other day, about 350 passengers at a Moscow airport got tired of waiting and surged out onto the runway, demanding anything with wings. They were promptly beaten up and back by riot police.

They had been waiting at the airport four days, and airport officials assured them they would have to wait several more. No complementary drinks were offered.

They were considered lucky to have a ticket -- and by the way, why wasn't anyone charging them rent to live at the airport?

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