Pyramid scheme

July 14, 2004

AT MOSCOW'S Bolshoi Theater this season, management pulled an old ballet out of the musty archives and gave it a brilliant and giddy revival. Called The Pharaoh's Daughter, it's a confection about an English explorer in Egypt and a sandstorm and a desert tent and an opium pipe and dreams of antiquity and river gods.

The Soviets had yanked it from the repertoire in 1928 because they thought it lacked any redeeming artistic value. Now it's a big hit, a perfect bauble in these dreamy and artless times.

Moscow is awash in money. Huge new megastores and movie complexes line the highway in from the airport. Coffee shops and cafes and coolly elegant Italian restaurants are sprouting everywhere. Outdoor terraces jostle for space, offering pricey vantage points from which to while away the long, northern, light-filled evenings. The Russian edition of Forbes magazine reported this spring that Moscow has more billionaires than New York. The editor who printed that news, Paul Klebnikov, was shot dead outside his office just the other day.

Money is power and power has little to do with the law. Income from oil exports is flowing in. There's so much money that not only the billionaires are grabbing it, but a genuine middle class, with comfortable cars and nicely redone apartments and vacations in Greece, is burgeoning in Moscow, though nowhere else in Russia. Yet it is a nearly universally held belief that life in the capital is being lived on the edge of a financial bubble, one that must inevitably burst. There was in fact a short-lived run on the banks last week.

The response among ordinary people is not one of anger or action and certainly not political activism. Paying too much attention will get you killed, like Mr. Klebnikov, or at least in a defendant's cage, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who's on trial for tax fraud, because, from the Kremlin's point of view, he made too much money - and money is power. No, the response among ordinary people to the certitude that this prosperity must end is to go out and buy better toilets and bigger televisions and comfier couches while they still can.

Russians are profoundly cynical about politics, and this serves President Vladimir V. Putin's purposes very well. If people are fed up with politics but have the money to worry about putting a new roof on the country dacha, they're likely to leave the politicians alone. The occasional terrorist bomb on the subway spreads just enough fear to keep the naturally anarchic Russians in line.

No wonder, then, that an escapist ballet about romance along the Nile - with really nice costumes - would be so popular. Russians these days aren't looking for transcendent meaning. They're looking for ways to avert their eyes.

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