Average Russians' livelihoods begin to improve

March 18, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In this dark season of murder and corruption, a quiet but unmistakable counterflow is gathering strength: Real savings for the first time are ticking upward, real income is up, legitimate work is on the rise.

In that undramatic way, a little bit of normality has come to Russia.

Alexander Belogolov, a 46-year-old telephone engineer, embodies this unheralded trend as well as anyone. He is, first of all, not a businessman, entrepreneur or slick trader of any sort.

He's not a "new" Russian, with a BMW and a padded suit. But the changes in his world, unspectacular yet profound, are the kinds of developments that -- in sufficient strength -- would mean genuine progress here.

Mr. Belogolov is a power-supply engineer with a newly privatized, highly successful spin-off of the nation's telephone monopoly. Life for him is marked by the stimulation of an interesting and evolving job. When he looks to the future, and weighs hope against despair, he comes down, after some thought, on the side of hope.

Mr. Belogolov reports for work at a musty, old laboratory in a white-brick St. Petersburg building where a sign bearing hammers and sickles still proclaims: "To success in labor!" He has worked inside that building 16 years.

It used to house the local headquarters of the Ministry of Telecommunications. Now the building serves Rostelecom, which was carved out of the ministry as a private company, providing international and long-distance phone services, in September 1993. Its stock shares, which were distributed to employees and managers and sold on the open market, have risen in value faster than those of any other legitimate business in Russia.

There is nothing exciting about Rostelecom, but its privatization happened to coincide with the modernization of international phone links in a country that has been starved for decent communications, and where newly emerging businesses have sent demand soaring.

It's a solid company -- itself an extraordinary accomplishment here. And among its 35,000 workers are solid engineers and technicians like Mr. Belogolov.

His most recent accomplishment is the invention of a device that helps protect the company's phone lines from the interference caused by power surges.

Given the choice of selling his shares in January, when the quoted price began to falter somewhat, Mr. Belogolov opted to hold on.

"I decided not to sell," he said. "I hope our company will be a rich company. I don't know that it will be -- but I can hope."

When the old Soviet system was up and running, the future was not something people like Mr. Belogolov needed to worry or hope about.

This is not to say that life was dull, or immobile. Mr. Belogolov, the son of a physics teacher, was born in Siberia, moved as a child to Krasnodar, in the Russian south, and took his first job in Archangel, in the far north. After a divorce he found work in what was then Leningrad in 1979, where he married his second wife, Svetlana.

But there was a certainty to life, and the certainty seemed immutable. Goods were scarce, prices were frozen, everything was shoddy, nobody prospered, nobody starved.

"There was a very interesting Russian word: 'dostat,' " said Mr. Belogolov. "It means not only to buy, but to find the place where you could buy."

And it didn't matter whether you were an ordinary person looking for new shoes or the Ministry of Telecommunications looking for new switching equipment. Finding what was needed was the primary occupation of life -- and repairing whatever you had found came a close second.

Providing decent phone service was way down the line.

But starting with Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) of the late 1980s, all that was immutable just crumbled away.

Today Mr. Belogolov works for a successful private company instead of the ministry. He deals with high-quality Danish and British equipment, and he is furiously trying to re-learn English. You can't do business without it, he says matter-of-factly. Where once only a few people did real work, now everyone on the staff has a responsibility to work.

When Mr. Belogolov came to Leningrad he made 150 rubles a month. Today he brings home 700,000 rubles, or about $155. His wife, an engineer with the local phone company, earns the same amount.

Of course it's not enough money. But he's noticed that for the firsttime he makes more than his next-door neighbor, a worker in a dinosaur of a factory, and that he gets paid on time, which really sets him apart.

With their 14-year-old daughter, Zhenya, they live in a snug, three-room apartment far from the historic center of St. Petersburg. They have a car and a house in the countryside, where on the long days of the northern summer they can gather raspberries and whortleberries, and later on go hunting for mushrooms.

Mr. Belogolov complains about what he sees as Zhenya's poor schooling, and about crime. It's shocking to see what has become of a city as cultured as this one, he says.

He declares that there will be no major improvements in Russian life for at least two more years, and he sighs at the thought of his low salary -- and then begins to laugh at himself as he realizes that the supper table before him is laden with heaps of caviar, bottles of Armenian cognac, and enough sparkling wine to make anyone feel well off.

It's the Russian paradox. Be stoic when things are bad. At all other times, complain. For Russians like Mr. Belogolov, the time for stoicism is long gone.

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