An improbable and unsinkable hope

Despite failed dreams and heavy burdens, Russians look ahead

January 03, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- By the time Boris N. Yeltsin relinquished the presidency on the last day of 1999, the magnificent promise of his decade had long since tarnished into dreary, everyday despair.

The president, who had assumed office in 1991 assuring his people of prosperity, had failed at his great task. Life had grown worse. And as Yeltsin resigned, he asked forgiveness, sounding as if fate had ordained Russia's eternal suffering.

It was a bitter end to the 1990s, a sad welcome to 2000 and the wide future beyond. Or it would be, except that more and more Russians have stopped looking above for help and have started looking within. They are changing their own lives and, some distant day, they will change Russia's as well.

Improbably, as one setback after another darkened the national prospects during the past two years, life has grown ever brighter for 10-year-old Yevgenia Slivkina, known as Zhenya.

Two years ago, Zhenya lived with her parents, Yelena and Nikolai, and their two dogs, in one 12-by-16-foot room in a communal apartment. An article in The Sun shortly after Christmas 1997 described the boundaries of Zhenya's life, the family's poverty, the tiny corner that Zhenya could call her own.

Zhenya was dreaming then of the New Year, when Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus, arrives with toys for good children. Zhenya was hoping for a ballpoint pen, a thick notebook and any toy at all. Her parents reminded her no child could have everything.

Her mother, who had worked in a laundry before Zhenya was born, was jobless. Her father, a poorly paid electrician, was working as a gypsy cabdriver.

They had little but each other, and they made that more than enough.

Today, Zhenya and her parents, known as Lena and Kolya, are a family transformed, looking ahead to the next century with confidence, satisfaction -- and a new color television.

"I feel rich -- almost," Zhenya says.

"If Mama bought a washing machine, then we would be rich."

By most measures, life has grown steadily worse for Russians in the past few years. The gross domestic product dropped nearly in half in the 1990s, making it 10 times smaller than the United States' and a fifth the size of China's.

Prices have grown steadily higher, with much of its food costing as much as in the West, although incomes are pitifully lower. Many pensioners receive less than $20 a month, and a teacher or doctor does well to earn $100.

But there are families who are surmounting all odds and improving their lives.

Determined to get ahead, Kolya put the household on a near-impossible budget of $10 a day for food and household expenses.

They shared an apartment with two other families.

A family of four, including a teen-age son and daughter, lived in the 12-by-16-foot room next door.

An elderly woman lived in the other room.

The three families shared the bathroom and small kitchen.

Then, last spring, a near-miracle occurred.

After 10 years of waiting, the family of four got their own apartment in a distant Moscow neighborhood.

Zhenya's family -- waiting 15 years but lower on the list because they have only one child -- acquired the vacant room.

Now they have two rooms and share the bathroom and kitchen with only one other person.

"Fifteen years in one room," Lena exclaims. "I don't know why I didn't lose my mind."

Now the parents use one room as a combination living room and bedroom, and Zhenya has the other room to herself, her bedroom the size of what had been their share of the apartment.

It might as well be a mansion, rather than two little rooms in a five-story, shabby building known as a Khrushchevka because it was built during the rule of Nikita S. Khrushchev 40 years ago.

"I was in such a small corner," Zhenya says, pinching two fingers close together. "Everything is changed."

Also last spring, Lena got a job cleaning the apartment of a foreigner.

The extra money means regular milk and juice for Zhenya, meat for more meals and new clothes.

The long years of scrimping have paid off. The family bought a tiny log cabin in the country, where they spend weekends in the summer.

The cabin has no electricity or running water, and Kolya and Lena worked hard to repair it, but they could afford the $3,800 price, and it gave them a new world of greenery and fresh air.

"Zhenya was always sick before," Lena says. "Now she hasn't had even a sniffle."

This year, Zhenya's wishes grew large.

She asked for a Barbie doll, a stuffed animal, a game and a vase, and Grandfather Frost indulged her with those once-unimaginable luxuries.

Two years ago, Zhenya was in a program training Olympic gymnasts, working out every day after school until 9 p.m. Lena and Kolya took her out of the program last year and enrolled her in a school for the arts, where she studies ballet.

Lena, driven by the idea that Zhenya must have a good education above all else, was worried that her daughter would find herself at 15 sorted out of Olympic competition and with no real preparation for life.

Lena is hugely satisfied with the new school.

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