The Belly Button Window Details

About Belly Button Window

The Semi-Regular Newsletter

Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, September 28, 1998

Party over, oops outta time!

Would the last expat in moscow please turn out the lights when he leaves. Thanks.

Mom!  What happened to your house?

Mother Russia on a good day
The party crew winding down after a long night
One more for the road
A fine sample of the Expat Brain Trust in action
Party time in the good life
Oh no!  No more girls' night out with Wayan!
A sad goodbye
One of the multitude of beautiful people
Her beauty is crisis-proof
The pain of reality shocked the shit out of Mike and I
No, not back to the West!
The men living the life
The party is still on!
Hey!  I was out here first!
Not a good day to be a teller
The sensuous, succulent, sexual Mother Russia that has sustained, stimulated, and satisfied me for the past sixteen months, is no more. In her raw thrust across the chaotic void between the stagnant communism of her past, and the striving capitalism of her neighbors, she has fallen short. Now, she clings to the edge of her desires by her fingertips, with the weight of her past, pulling her back and down, into the chaos only a lawless Russia can produce.

I am stunned, stupefied, and saddened by her quick decent into her present position. At the opening of the summer, all was beautiful, all was happy, all was well. As the summer progressed, the activity increased. We all worked more, played more, lived more! July witnessed the grand peak of summer, with Moscow reaching an amazing crescendo of movement. Then, as summer faded, so did the sun, the warmth, and the organization of Russia.

August came in with a furry, a blunt instrument of destruction, it did not spare a soul. First, with swiftness unknown before, it destroyed Russia's domestic banking industry. Next, the national currency fell to the blows, and then the government, fighting to the end, succumbed to it all. There we were, without banks, money, or a government, then my company merged with another, and all hell broke loose.

Now I sit here, on a train to Finland (again), going north to get out of the rain. The hard rain of bad news, empty store shelves, and personal disappointments. I am beside myself, with frustration, aggravation, and depression. What has happened to the country that I love so? Where has she gone? What is this empty shell that I am left with? When will her beauty return? And if I may dare ask: will it ever return?

I am a lost soul now. I feel so fortunate to have known the Russia of the summer, and her memory will be with me forever. I am also fortunate that my passport is blue, with that single-headed eagle on the front. I can do this; I can take a train to Finland to get out of the rain.

Others, my friends and colleagues, are not as lucky. Now, more than I have every felt it before, there is a desperation among the Russians who have tasted the decadence of the west. Like a blind man who sees the light, they do not want to go back into the darkness they knew before. The eternal darkness of endless Russian winters spent without the warmth and light the western way of life can bring.

Can I even begin to comprehend what my Russian brothers and sisters feel? Can I dare to know what life under careless Czars and Politburos was like? Life in a country where leaving your house can be a life changing event, and rarely a positive one at that? Where the very act of writing this web page would have given me a one-way ticket to hell? Where people had thick steel doors, not for protection against thieves, but the men who drove black Volgas and took your loved one away at 2am.

Now imagine that world ending, and that you are free to walk the streets, even criticize the men in the black Volgas, to their faces, and leave your country at will. One day you see, for the very first time in your life, a VCR, a camcorder, a pair of Nike's. And then you own these things, these material possessions that your parents, and their parents before them, had only dreamed of owning. You take vacations in Italy, Japan, and America! You see Dallas, not as a TV show, but with your own eyes. Your very soul tastes freedom for the first time. Can you even imagine?

Now, try to imagine this whole dream, desire, and reality come crashing down around you? I have seen sadness now, true, to the soul, sadness. I want to cry with them. I can feel the sadness, the pain, and the end of the dream.

Its over, it's all over.

Business Week November 16, 1998


By Patrica Kranz

Not so long ago, Eric Jayaweera and his compatriots balanced 80-hour workweeks with nightly drinking and dancing stops at Moscow's clubs. An American, Jayaweera, 29, was a researcher with investment bank MFK Renaissance, a big player in Russia's high-flying financial markets. He mingled at the Jazz Cafe with Russian rock stars and leggy models from Red Star Agency. Lesser guests paid a $500 membership fee, but Jayaweera merely flashed his Renaissance business card at the doorman. "Money didn't matter at all. Morale was sky- high," he says.

No more. On Sept. 11, Jayaweera was let go, and three days later, he was back in New York. MFK Renaissance is crashing along with Russia's markets. And it's far from alone. Virtually every investment bank, accounting firm, and real estate brokerage in Moscow is slashing staff. Entrepreneurs are closing shop and going home, multinationals scaling back. "Our world has been turned upside down," says Buck Wiley, 32, who left Moscow in October after five years as an investment adviser. Some 25% of Moscow's 40,000 expats are gone. The rest are in shock, their euphoria at working in an exotic boomtown replaced by anxiety over the future.

The remaining expats cope by partying hard. The Jazz Cafe, Chesterfield's, Papa John's, and other popular bars are still crowded. Many foreigners feel their days are numbered, and they're trying to make the most of the time left. Camaraderie has become the key to survival--drinking with friends beats drinking alone. The markets are so dead that still-employed bankers and brokers, who once worked until 10 p.m., now take off at 4 p.m. to work out at trendy Gold's Gym.

To be sure, there's some frenzy in the merriment. It's unnerving to be invited to three going-away parties a week. Vinlund, a moving company, says orders to move foreigners back home tripled from August to October. "We're getting as good at saying goodbye as Clinton is at saying he's sorry," says one still-employed American. The expatriate exodus is so swift that the My Place Cafe is trying to drum up business by giving 40% discounts to those who vow they'll be in Moscow for at least six months. Wiley hosted his going-away bash at a down-home bar where bare electrical wires hang from exposed-brick walls. The owners had planned a posh club but lost all their money when the ruble crashed in mid-August. They opened the half-finished club anyway, calling it the Crisis Club.


For Wiley and other expatriates, the past two years were heady. Boris N. Yeltsin's reelection in July, 1996, gave a sense of long-awaited political stability. Foreign investment boomed. Foreign bankers, brokers, and consultants crowded into Moscow. MBAs in their 20s did million-dollar deals. The stock and bond markets boomed, with everybody getting dizzying returns. Expats moved into company-paid $4,000-a-month flats with views of the Kremlin and bought fresh caviar by the kilogram at black-market prices.

"Expats had it all--well-paying and interesting jobs, jet-setting European lifestyles, the stimulation of having some of the most dynamic people in the business world around us constantly, and a social life dictated by our work- hard and play-hard personalities," says Jessica Adelman, 23. When the markets were booming, there was a big demand for expats such as Jessica, who spoke Russian. Adelman worked in Moscow's pharmaceuticals and real estate industries for two years until returning to Washington, D.C., in October.

Cracks started appearing last fall, with the financial crisis in Asia, falling oil prices, and doubts about Russia's commitment to reform. The stock market sank. Government debt ballooned, and ruble reserves plummeted. On Aug. 17, the government issued the coup de grace: It defaulted on its domestic debt, devalued the ruble, and prohibited Russian banks from making payments on foreign loans. Western banks and investors lost billions. The default put old guard, Soviet-style bureaucrats back in power. The expat party is over; the Communist Party is making a comeback.

Of course, it's hard to feel too sorry for the hotshots who came for easy money and, in some cases, "easy" women. Says one investment banker: "There were a lot of overpaid, sub-30 millionaires running around Moscow. All of a sudden, they got wiped out." For many young men, Moscow had been a fantasy come true. They considered young Russian women more exotic than American females and to be untainted by tHe women's liberation movement or religious scruples. Many hung out at the Hungry Duck bar, notorious for its ladies' niGht, when young females got sloshed on free beer and jumped onto the bar for an impromptu striptease.


But others were dedicated Russophiles with a sense of mission: They thought they were helping Russia become a "normal" country with a democratic system and rule of law. Now, their dreams are shattered. The new Russia seems just as corrupt as its tsarist and Communist predecessors. "We knew it was a hoax when officials devalued the currency to buy their banker friends a little more time to get their money offshore," says one American banker. "We were naive," says Wiley. Even die-hard supporters of reform lost faith when Anatoly B. Chubais, a key leader, admitted he lied to the International Monetary Fund about Russia's budget as a ploy for more money. Adds Adelman: "The Russian crisis exposed Russian capitalism and the Russia of the '90s as nothing more than one of the most ubiquitous phenomena in Russian history--the Potemkin village."

Young entrepreneurs, too, are shattered. Stacy and Rick Komendera, both 28, came straight from Tulane University to Moscow in 1992. They formed their own company, USA Apteka, to sell Western over-the-counter medicines in Russia under their own label. Annual growth exceeded 20%--until this August. They had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of medicines to Russian distributors on credit. When the ruble crashed, the value of these receivables plummeted 30%. On top of that, many of the distributors are asking them to give further discounts or write off the debts completely. "In three weeks, we saw all of our five years of hard work disappear," says Stacy. Now the couple is deciding whether to start over or head home.

Russians take a more blase attitude. A people who have endured more than their share of crises, they have a word for the combination of depression, melancholy, nostalgia, anguish, and boredom being experienced by many expats: toska. Moreover, they--and some expats--see an upside. Rents are dropping. Restaurants and clubs are cutting prices. "The crisis thins out the expat herd to those people who really care about Russia and are not here just to party. It's still wacky, with a melancholy feel," says Earle W. Pratt III at management consultant A.T. Kearney Inc.

Like Camelot, Moscow had its shining moments. For me, it has been the beat of a lifetime. I have covered coup attempts, Russian robber barons, and the rise and fall of Russia's tumultuous capital markets. Never again will I get scoops from people I meet dancing in a club at 3 a.m. I, too, grieve for the loss of a way of life. But even more, I'm angry at the Russian elite for wasting the past seven years. They blew a unique opportunity to create a better life for all Russians. Capitalism, even democracy, are now discredited concepts. Unwillingly, I have become as much a cynic as the average Russian. Yet like many expats, I have a love-hate relationship with Russia. At the first signs of a recovery, many of those who fled to London and New York will be back. Expats call it the boomerang syndrome. After Moscow, life in the West is too boring.

The New York Times Dec 7, 1998

Nightlife Continues After the Iceberg

By Vijai Maheshwari

Regulars from Moscow's nighttime demimonde call it 'Kafe.' Mick Jagger, who popped in four nights in a row while here on a concert tour this summer, referred to it simply as 'Jazz.' By whatever name, the Jazz Kafe, which is Russia's trendiest nightclub, seems to be one of the country's few crisis-proof businesses.

The mighty banks whose gleaming ziggurats dominate the Moscow skyline are half-empty these days. Both the ruble and the once-bullish Russian stock market are in free-fall, and Western business executives are rushing for the exits of one of worst emerging-markets disasters of recent years.

But at the ultra-hip Jazz Kafe, the economic meltdown and the onset of a cold, harsh Russian winter is just another conversational ice-breaker. 'What crisis?' said Boris Lifshits, a young entrepreneur, who was guzzling a $10 Corona. 'There is no crisis until the Jazz Kafe empties out.'

Young women in tight-fitting designer clothes shook their Wella-conditioned hair all around him, to the beat of stomach-twirling acid jazz in the intimate lounge-sized club, which occupies the basement of an academy of jazz near Moscow's Tretyakov Art Gallery. Men in retro leather gear or Hugo Boss jackets mobbed the bar for drinks costing more than the average monthly pension. It was early on a Friday evening in November, just days after Russia asked the West for emergency food aid, but the club was more packed than the Moscow metro at rush hour.

Outside, clubgoers without membership cards - which can cost as much as $500 - shoved each other in the sub-zero temperatures, hoping to get past the doormen. On the street behind them stood more Mercedes, BMW's and French-made Cabriolets than at a Russian mobster's funeral.

'There's a small group of people who are going to party, no matter what,' said Sin Lazarovich, 32, the Jazz Kafe's co-manager. 'Where was Coco Channel doing during World War II?. Not sitting home and sulking.'

Mr. Lazarovich, a Serb who was a club promoter in Belgrade during the late 80's and moved to Moscow two years ago, said the ruble's nose-dive has not 'wrecked the high,' of the so-called Golden Youth, the sons and daughters of the former Communist elite. They constitute a signifigant part of his clientele. (For several months after the club opened last year, foreigners were barred because they were not considered stylish enough.)

In Moscow today, young models are still being given new cars by their flush boyfriends. or 'sponsors,' as the men are known here. 'Someone handed his girlfriend the keys to a Cabriolet the other day,' Mr. Lazarovich reported.

Around 5 A.M., the party swung into high gear. A lissome young woman climbed onto the mini-stage near the bar and began undressing in an impromptu striptease. Revelers crowded around and jousted with one another to peel off her clothes, while the deejay pumped up the volume. Some of the men shoved American $100 bills at her, chanting 'davai, davai,' - 'more, more.' Within minutes there were three near-nude women on stage, and the tension had reached such a peak that when someone popped a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, the crowd let out a collective shriek.

'When things like this stop happening, I'm out of here,' Christophe Charlier, a French-American banker from the brokerage house Renaissance Capital, said. His company has laid off 30 percent of its work force, but he is hanging onto his job. 'The quality of life has not changed yet,' he maintained.

The Jazz Kafe is not the only night spot that's been twisting and shouting its way through Russia's financial crisis. A new disco named Gallerie, decorated with naugahyde couches, a granite-topped bar and prints of the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, is buzzing on weekends, attracting a cocktail of models, bohemians, bankers and 'biznismen.'

It's a sharp contrast to the disgruntled lines that snake around banks that have declared insolvency, or harried shoppers at the markets counting their kopecks. Most of the men at Gallerie - Russians, except for a smattering of foreigners - dress in dark European suits and seem to have money to burn. 'No one knows what they do, and no one asks,' said Victor Gelman, a young television producer, taking in the scene. 'They're making money somehow, and that's enough.' It is these shadowy men - a potpourri of Russian and foregin yuppies, children of the elite and mobsters - who are subsidizing Moscow's Saturday night fever.

One concession to hard times has been the scrapping of cover charges at many clubs. And this has encouraged the newly unemployed, with no offices to report to the next day, to come out to party, especially on weekends, dancing until the metro opens at 6 A.M.

'I was fired from the advertising company I worked for a few weeks ago,' said Masha Kuznetsova, who was at the Jazz Kafe dressed in a tank top, navel ring and tinted pink glasses. 'So what? I'm not going to stay home and eat sausages, am I?' She maintained that Russians are whooping it up even more now that the Russian Titanic has hit the iceberg.

'It's our Russian soul,' she said. 'We turn to vodka in times of crisis.' With shots of vodka promoted at a post-crisis discount of $1 at many clubs, the revelry actually seems to have gone up a notch. Call it the last days of Pompeii. At a recent bash in a raw, plaster-strewn space that was to have been an upscale cigar bar until funds ran out, actors dressed as bums and panhandled the crowd, while models handed out papyrosi, cheap handrolled cigarettes. 'Our mood and the mood of the economy are not necessarily in sync,' said Masha Repina, an anchor with the Russian television station NTV, who was at the Jazz Kafe. 'Moscow was getting boring for a while; now its exciting again,' she said.

The Jazz Kafe has had no need to adopt an anti-crisis theme; it continues to be Moscow's hottest club a year and a half after it opened. Some compare it to Studio 54 in its heyday. The designer Alexander MacQueen held a private party there the night before mounting a show of his fall collection for Givenchy in a Moscow Metro station last winter. The Pet Shop boys have drifted through on visits. There was even a sighting of Leonardo Di Caprio during a recent trip to Moscow.

The Serb managers, Mr. Lazarovich and a fellow Belgrade transplant, Vladimir Ostojic, work the crowd, handing out membership cards to the bold and beautiful of Moscow. They recently branched out to open a cafe and fashion boutique near Red Square, despite the hard times. Even more gilt-edged than the Jazz Kafe, it features uniformed waiters and a high degree of Euro-snobism - no beer and no American-style coffee are one the menu.

The intent is to make 'Dorian Gray envious,' boasted Mr. Lazarovich. Not to mention the masses of Russians struggling to survive. But for the few Muscovites who have made the Jazz Kafe the focal point of their lives, they are in no mood to scale back yet.

'These people can't go back to drinking around the kitchen table,' said Mr. Gelman, the television producer. 'They might have lost their jobs, but they haven't lost their social status. And that's more important for us.'

Washington Post October 20, 1998

The End of Innocence Abroad In Russia, Jobless Young Americans Face Economic Reality

By Daniel Williams

MOSCOW: They no longer sit at computer terminals watching gleefully as stocks skyrocket or woefully as they crash. Their cellular phones have fallen silent. They rarely take wild nights out anymore at dance havens called Bells or the Hungry Duck, or swig beer at Rosie O'Grady's. They're scanning the globe for new opportunities.

London, maybe, or New York, now that their Moscow world has died.

They are the scores of young foreign professionals, many of them Americans, who abruptly lost their jobs during Russia's economic collapse. Their despair, of course, pales beside the gloom of Moscow's fledgling middle class, which saw a dream of stability and prosperity vanish. But the demise of the Generation-X go-getter is nonetheless a landmark that has laid bare the thinness of Moscow's entry into global capitalism.

For a time, ambitious foreign businesspeople could come to Moscow, land a job in international business, win a good salary, perhaps live in a luxurious apartment and ride in a chauffeur-driven car. Their youthful swagger and bacchanalian zest for nightlife added a dash of color to the Moscow landscape.

It was all a mirage, some veterans concluded. 'I have to consider that my life for the last three years was unreal,' said Kristen Burton Steiner, director of equity research at Epic Russia, an investment banking firm that folded last month. 'The growth here was not based on fundamental soundness but infectious sentiment.'

Steiner's Moscow career was typical of the experience of many Americans who came during Russia's stock market boom. She arrived in 1994, part of the second wave of foreigners to hit Moscow. It was a more experienced and better educated group than the first wave, which consisted in part of the 'expat loser,' who, as the joke had it, could hang out a sign that said 'Will Speak English for Food' and find work.

Ann, educated, smart, and gone.

Steiner, 35, had worked in the United States, studied business in France and saw opportunity in Russia. After three years of economic chaos, the ruble had begun to stabilize and investments flowed into the country. Corporate headhunters sought her out. She held four jobs in three years. 'The more experience you got, the more job offers came,' she said.

The first tremors of disaster emanated from last fall's East Asian financial crisis, although the brokerage industry in Moscow seemed to be in a state of denial. 'The party line was, if you didn't have exposure in Asia, you were fine,' recalled Rebecca Baldridge, a colleague of Steiner who joined and got fired by Epic -- only a few weeks after being laid off by Rinaco Plus, an investment firm.

As this spring's steady decline turned into summer's free fall, gloom struck the foreigners along with layoffs and sudden company closures. 'Everybody was cutting back by 20 percent or reducing salaries by 40 percent,' Baldridge said.

Of 101 companies surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce, more than a quarter have laid off workers -- mostly in retail and investment businesses. 'In some ways, the business community feels it has been hit by a neutron bomb and we have all been irradiated,' said Scott Blacklin, president of the chamber. 'We all live day to day, but in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, some are going to die.'

Corporate headhunters say demand has plummeted in just about every business: investment banking, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, chemicals. Some executive search companies have started to offer retraining programs to replace their shipwrecked primary business.

'We're snowed under with resumes from job applicants. Many are well qualified. But right now, for instance, I have only two clients looking for personnel. I used to have hundreds of requests,' said Natalia Toumashkova, who owns the Acapella agency. She is offering a new consulting service -- not on how to hire but how to lay off employees.

Foreigners, like their Russian counterparts, faced the problems of having lost money in Russia's banks, which have refused to pay off depositors despite frequent promises and steps by the government to pump rubles into the accounts. Several foreign charities report having their accounts frozen in Russian banks. Stanford University closed its five-year-old Moscow campus because, with banks closed, it was unable to find a way to pay for supplies, rent and services.

The Depression-like atmosphere has even begun to infect a nightlife that earned the city a reputation as a hedonistic expatriate heaven. The Starlite Diner, an all-night hamburger place once full of foreigners with their briefcases and Russian models with their long legs, now offers a 'crisis menu' to keep customers coming.

Some bars and discos have closed. The Hungry Duck, home to marathon happy hours and sweaty amateur strip performances, cut prices; Chesterfield Cafe, heavy on tequila and billiards, reduced its hours. You can get into Papa John's bar and disco free by saying the password, 'I'm a friend of Papa.'

The turnabout seemed unimaginable a year ago, when Russia's stock market was the world's fastest-appreciating, and Russian officials barnstormed the United States promising investors guaranteed returns. 'This is the end of the world as we knew it,' said Steiner. 'There were lots of nights spent at home with brownies and drink. Lots of my friends have disappeared.'

Steiner said she is committed to staying in Russia and believes she can hold out while looking for a job at least until January. Baldridge has heard there might be something in London, but worries that because investors are pulling out of Third World countries from Asia to Brazil, her services might be unmarketable. 'It's discouraging. I feel all I worked for has crumbled,' Baldridge said. 'Does anyone really want an expert in emerging markets?'

Moscow Times December 8, 1998


By Jean MacKenzie

I'm becoming a bit of a downer at parties. While I used to adhere to at least some of the rules of politesse, I now have an unfortunate tendency to sit in a corner delivering dire pronouncements on the state of Russia. Soon I may have to stop watching television or reading newspapers altogether, which may put a crimp in my journalistic career. But the idiocy floating around these days is getting to be just too much.

The parliament voted to put the statue of the architect of the Red Terror, Felix Dzerzhinsky, back on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad. The communist State Duma speaker wants to bring back labor camps; people are freezing to death in Kamchatka and starving to death in Ulyanovsk. Lawmakers are calling for the death of the Jews, democrats are being slaughtered and the oligarchs are too busy trying to cover their assets to do anything about the dire state of the economy. What a country.

At an early Christmas gathering last weekend I spread doom and gloom along with the eggnog. There were a few neophytes there - you can always tell them by the bright eyes and innocent smiles, the earnest comments on how 'interesting' Russia is.

'Relationships are so much more real here,' said a young Brit called Angus, still in the first flush of infatuation with Moscow. 'In London or in America, people smile and talk to you, but they don't know you. Here it is so much deeper.' I remember with an inward wince saying this sort of thing myself, years before being mangled by my all-too-'real' entanglements with Russia.

There was Fedya, a slick operator and New Russian wannabe who somehow managed to get me to take him to the States for a month, buy him a new wardrobe, a VCR and a stereo, and who then dumped me on our return because Americans were 'too materialistic.'

Almost as 'real' was my brief fling with Venya, a self-proclaimed great writer, who spent weeks chatting me up, and, just when things were getting interesting, absconded with my car.

Then there was my close friend Nadya, who calmly assumed I would be willing to smuggle $15,000 to New York for her, and showed up at my house with the cash five minutes before I was to leave for the airport. The relationship suffered grievously when I declined.

I sometimes feel like I'm dragging my friendships around like Jacob Marley's chain, and it was all I could do to keep from rattling my burden and shouting 'repent' at poor Angus. But I just smiled noncommittally,nobly refrained from dumping my eggnog and my cynicism on his head , and went in search of another victim.

I found one in the person of a young American lawyer, who tried valiantly to defend Russia from my bitter onslaught. 'But it's such an ancient culture,' she insisted. 'It's like China, or India.'

Ancient? There was almost no literature here until the 19th century. And whatever culture the country managed to accumulate has been systematically destroyed. Russia has been periodically reinventing itself since at least the time of Peter the Great, throwing out the old to impose the new. How do you hold on to culture in that environment?

She tried again: 'But the Communists.' Oh, no, not that again. What would we do without the Communist scapegoat? The Communists were not conquerors or invaders. They did not materialize from Mars to victimize a helpless population. The Communists were Russian, and the nightmare system they created was merely the embodiment of the twisted dreams of the lowest rungs of the Russian narod, or people: revenge on anyone who was better educated, better dressed, better off.

Remember the Russian 'Robin Hood' in Yaroslavl? He burned down 25 'New Russian' cottages, because he couldn't stand the rich, and is being heralded as something of a hero. I can't quite understand what destroying so much property did for the area's poor.

It's like the old anecdote about simple Vanya, who catches the magic golden fish. The fish says, 'Put me back and I'll grant you one wish. But whatever you ask for, your neighbor will get twice as much.' Vanya thinks and thinks, then says 'Oh little golden fish, please poke out one of my eyes.'

The lawyer looked at me, shook her head, and said, 'So, you've been here for 10 years. Why?' I sputtered, shook my head, and was silent. Why, indeed? 'Because it's interesting,' I burbled. 'Because relationships are so much more real here. And the culture.'

My chain rattled faintly in the distance.

Johnson's Russia List, 17 Sep 98

Battle Fatigue: Fed Up and Fearful, Western Executives Bail Out of Russia

By A. Craig Copetas

MOSCOW -- Neil Burchell is a chaos manager. His job: to navigate grocery giant Del Monte Foods Inc. through the riptide of Russia's economic maelstrom.

'The rule for success and survival in this environment is to trust nobody, believe nobody and realize absolutely nothing is predictable,' says Mr. Bruchell, Del Monte's exhausted managing director in Russia.

If his prescription for a healthy business built on suspicion, fear and loathing sounds bewildering, your company probably doesn't belong in Russia these days. Even before the country plummeted into financial turmoil last month, Western business success here could only be created by executives who had the chutzpah to guide their companies through one of the world's most chaotic markets -- one plagued by systemic corruption and trapped in a twilight zone between those who barter for cabbages and those who run hedge funds.

Yet the very Western executives who are equipped to handle the job have also become casualties of the country's current fiscal dysfunction. Emotionally and physically drained, executives like Mr. Burchell are now succumbing to battle fatigue. They are cutting their losses and, in many cases, running.

'There's still excitement to help rebuild Russia, but the real talent is tired and scared of the corruption,' says Nathalie Behar, chief Russian strategist at executive-recruitment firm Russell Reynolds Inc. 'There was always a very shallow pool of executive talent that understood the cultural mechanics that contributed greatly to the meltdown. Now they no longer want to live here -- no matter the money.'

That spells serious trouble for Russia at a time when the country desperately needs all the economic help it can get. With the country in default and its banking system in tatters, the need has seldom been greater for seasoned managers who can generate business in an economy driven more by rumor than by reality.

Yet Ms. Behar and other recruitment specialists are finding few talented takers. 'I have a perhaps $650,000-a-year package to manage a Western firm in Russia,' explains Ms. Behar, who has in the past filled senior management posts here for such multinationals as Coca-Cola Co. and Proctor & Gamble Inc. 'The salary is payable anywhere in the world, and the client absorbs all school fees, quality housing and as many trips out of the country as the candidate would like.'

What Ms. Behar is looking for are a few good executives like Charles Bausman, a 34-year-old veteran of the Russian management wars. But Mr. Bausman is heading in the opposite direction. Mentally exhausted and 'emotionally alienated' after 11 years of running businesses in Russia, he's leaving Moscow for Manhattan, he says, because he feels like Lawrence of Arabia: 'I've been riding with the Bedouins for too long.'

Mr. Bausman's gallop through recent history here has been both wild and successful. An American who speaks fluent Russian, his adventure began in 1988, as a consultant to many of the foreign firms seeking to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev's era of glasnost and perestroika. Since then, Mr. Bausman has advised everyone from former Russian Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov to the DeBeers diamond conglomerate.

He also launched closely held Post International, a highly successful cargo company that each month ships more than 10 metric tons of express mail and commercial goods out of Russia. But a few days before Russia's financial crisis erupted, Mr. Bausman sold out to his Russian partner for an undisclosed profit and bought a ticket home. He suspects a 'huge exodus' of foreign executives will follow him by the end of this winter.

'Westerners hang on too long in Russia,' Mr. Bausman says. 'They get tired of slogging away.'

Much of the exhaustion, he maintains, stems from the helplessness of seeing delinquent activity erode Russia's economy. 'There's just a huge underworld of corruption,' he says. 'It can't be quantified in a ledger book, so our reaction is to act like it's not a contributing factor of consequence. ... Sure, there are success stories, but there was a more powerful surge of dishonesty that overwhelmed the success and caused the crisis.'

If that sounds exaggerated, just listen to Michael Mears, a Russian business historian and former director of the U.S. Commerce Department's office in Moscow. 'It's politically incorrect to come right out and brand Russia a corrupt society,' he says. 'The result has been a parade of Western economists and businesses either unable or unwilling to change the character of Russian business and government.'

These days, the ranks of the unwilling are swelling. 'I'm just tired of the system,' says Peter Martin, chief executive of Peter Martin Associates, a U.S.-based consulting and public-relations firm for media clients in Russia since 1990. 'Many of us tried to break the criminal pattern, but the government and the Russian private sector never offered any rewards for zero tolerance of economic crime.'

Of course, somebody has to do the job of building Western business here, no matter how distasteful. 'Deal with it,' advises Thomas Shannon, vice president of the global strategic consulting firm Bain & Co. 'Corruption remains an unfortunate reality of this market.'

The trick, Mr. Shannon suggests, is to 'outsource the corruption.' That's exactly the advice that Bain's 20 consultants give to clients. 'We suggest that Western companies take on a Russian partner who can handle all the black activity,' he explains.

That kind of brutal realism, Russian experts say, may be the only antidote to a contagion that has plagued Russia ever since Peter the Great. 'The chaos caused by corruption is systematic and as natural as breathing in Russia,' says Jonathan Sanders, a noted professor of Russian history and a founder of the Harriman Institute of Advanced Russian Studies at Columbia University in New York. 'Western financiers mostly failed to incorporate endemic corruption into their business plans.'

The trouble, of course, is that the unpleasant business of outsourcing corruption often leads to a moral 'churn' inside Western executives -- and a resulting rapid turnover of personnel. When an executive realizes that blackmail and payoffs are a conventional component of business here, 'then the executive wants to leave Russia,' Mr. Shannon explains. 'He's tired, burned out. But the head office -- which sees Russia as the largest untapped market in the world -- makes the institutional decision to send the next guy in and see what he can make of the situation, and the cycle starts all over again.'

Del Monte's Mr. Burchell isn't ready to pack his bags just yet. But he is putting his operation on hold and has instructed his London office to warehouse all products destined for Russia. 'They have a shelf life of one year,' Mr. Burchell says. 'I hope that will be enough time.'

Like most Western executives working here, Mr. Burchell is unwilling to divulge many details about Del Monte's Russian operation. But he does acknowledge that he's having trouble attracting top talent to the country at a time when they face 'losing over 50% of their salaries to devaluation, the specter of nationalized industry, bankruptcy, capital control, exchange-rate control and hyperinflation.'

Not all of the emotional churn among Western executives here involves corruption per se. Some of it flows from the visceral feeling that the West's willingness to bankroll Russia was itself immoral, like paying off a blackmailer. Just ask Bob Brown, a Nebraska-born representative for U.S. scientific instrument-maker Transgenomic Inc. who lives in the southern Russian city of Saratov.

'Russia looks to default on over $100 billion -- the largest single credit loss ever taken by the international banking community,' Mr. Brown says incredulously. 'Don't tell me the West didn't know this was going to happen. Our conventional wisdom was to write off any loss as payment on the peace dividend for Russia's nuclear disarmament. Well, enough of that: It was blackmail.'

Some of the churn flows from old-fashioned fear, too. Anxiety and underworld threats, says Ms. Behar of recruitment firm Russell Reynolds, have made Western executives nervous about forcibly reproaching the Russian government about corruption and compelling lawmakers into enacting enforceable anticrime legislation. 'The fear of government complicity in the mafias is but one of the reasons executives don't want to come to Russia,' she says. 'These issues matter intensely, and their impact on one's professional and family life is paramount.'

'I can negotiate anything,' Ms. Behar adds. 'But I can't negotiate fear.'

That fear has helped Lee Timmins build a thriving business. As vice president and managing director of Texas-based real-estate developer Hines International, Mr. Timmins is busy building walled and guarded upscale communities. By the end of 1999, his firm expects to have 685 rental homes, priced from around $80,000 to $144,000 a year. 'I have three rules on doing business in Russia,' he says. 'Concede the fact you'll make big mistakes; life here costs money, and accept brain damage.'

Fear has also sent Western firms with interests in Russia scurrying back to the drawing board to find a more workable management model, says David Bechhoffer, a vice president at Bain and specialist in emerging markets. 'Crisis management, strategic management -- you name the system, it's been thrown out the window,' Mr. Bechhoffer says. 'Global business is data-driven, analytical in approach. At the end of the day, people are rational. Nothing is rational in Russia.'

Or perhaps it just follows a logic that most Westerners can't grasp. 'Western businessmen would have made far fewer mistakes had they ... spent more time studying Russian literature than they did Russian stock-market reports,' says distinguished Russian author Solomon Volkov.

Mr. Volkov's point is well taken, says Julie Rasmussen, the president o the Russian division of Mary Kay Cosmetics and a graduate of the Harriman Institute. 'It's absolutely critical for managers to understand Russian culture, but more often than not they're clueless,' says Ms. Rasmussen, who heads a firm of 230 employees whose salaries depend on 65,000 women freelancers networking cosmetic sales throughout the former Soviet Union.

'The IMF now tells us it just found out about corruption. Please!,' Ms. Rasmussen declares. 'You just don't come here unless you understand and thrive on Russian chaos. Otherwise, you get eaten alive.'

Boston Globe October 5, 1998

Russia's Middle Class Falls with Ruble

By David Filipov

MOSCOW - Amid the carnage caused by Russia's economic collapse - the billion-dollar losses incurred by foreign investors, the worldwide shock waves and the deepening domestic turmoil - lies a less obvious, but no less significant, casualty: Moscow's middle-class dream.

Tens of thousands of urban, upwardly mobile Muscovites suddenly have found themselves out of work, and more are set to follow. That is far more important to the mood of the country than the foreign adventurers who have lost their well-paid jobs and the high-flying oligarchs who have watched their financial empires crumble.

The people who not long ago provided a ray of optimism in this long-suffering country have suddenly fallen under a deep spell of gloom.

"I felt so confident; I knew would happen tomorrow; I could make plans. ... I could afford more and more," said Natalya, 25, an executive at a public relations company that was booming weeks ago but now is about to go bust. "I got so used to it that I still cannot accept that this is no longer the case."

Even before the crisis, Russia did not have a middle class in the American sense of a stable, prosperous majority. Crime, corruption, political squabbling and bureaucratic inertia have sapped efforts to reform Russia's economy and have left much of the country no better off than they were under communism.

But what Russia did have, especially in Moscow's booming economy, was a gradually growing class of young professionals who subscribed to many of the values of the middle class in Western countries.

These Russians found work at private companies that were prohibited in the communist system, but which flourished after the Soviet collapse in 1991. They earned salaries that allowed them to spend their money in ways that were unavailable to all but a few elites under communism.

Unlike generations of Muscovites before them, but like their counterparts elsewhere, these Russian yuppies had hard evidence that with professionalism, hard work and dedication anyone could write their own ticket to a better life.

They dreamed of a Russia one day integrated with the league of stable, prosperous democracies, and they saw themselves as a big part of that future. Many Western policy makers and commentators bought into that dream, predicting the inevitable expansion of Moscow's middle-class values to the rest of the country.

But the dream vanished on Aug. 17, the day the Russian government, facing bankruptcy, devalued the ruble and defaulted on its foreign and domestic debts. The ensuing panic froze the country's biggest banks, instantly wiping out the savings of millions of people, halting business across nine time zones and bringing in a government that is toying with the idea of bringing back the state-controlled economy of the past. Moscow's optimistic young generation of professionals was left its first taste of failure and an uncertain future.

'It's a very important psychological defeat. We thought we were the masters of our own destiny," said Lena Porman, 28, whose job as an importer of fine French wines dried up overnight as the plunging ruble made imports too expensive. "We thought everything we dreamed of was just around the corner. Now it's hard to say what will happen."

Porman had a plan that was based on the idea that people would always pay good money for someone who could tell a $2,000 bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1961 from an ordinary Bordeaux. She saved and invested wisely, or so she thought, until her earnings disappeared on Aug. 17. She thought she would soon be able to afford a new apartment, and someday start a business of her own. And Porman, like a dozen other young Muscovites interviewed for this story, firmly believed that Russia had a stable and irreversible market economy.

They thought so because Moscow's economy boomed despite the street fighting in 1993 and the war in Chechnya, despite the wage and pension arrears suffered in most regions outside the capital since 1995, and despite the recent political instability caused by President Boris N. Yeltsin's shaky health.

"We are used to having a sick czar, to hearing gunfire, but this is totally new," said Sergei Lysakov, 24, the deputy editor of Russian Financial News, an agency that supplied business news to financial companies working in Moscow. Right now, most of those companies have shut down, and Russian Financial News is likely to follow them. Lysakov was making $1,500 a month, over five times the official average Russian wage. He just bought a new apartment, which he has spent most of his money on furnishing. Now, he faces unemployment, or, if he can latch onto a job, a huge pay cut.

This comes as a shock to people whose lives have only improved over the past few years: people like Stas Ivashkevich, 27, who steadily worked his way up from the housekeeping department at a Moscow hotel in 1993 to assistant manager at a new Holiday Inn that was supposed to open outside the capital this year. Now the project has been put on hold, and Ivashkevich's job is in doubt.

"We are used to living freely and having money, we are used to the idea we can go to the store and buy jeans," Ivashkevich said. "It's hard to imagine standing in line for toilet paper."

There are no toilet paper shortages in Moscow yet. But other certainties he has grown accustomed to have disappeared in the crisis, such as a steady paycheck. Ivashkevich's employers are paying him only a portion of his salary. Most companies that have survived have begun cutting staff and slashing salaries and benefits - a practice no American middle-class workers would stand for.

But few Muscovites who have jobs dare challenge their employers. One reason is that most professionals are paid a portion of their salary under the counter, as part of employer schemes to avoid payroll and income taxes. Another reason employees keep their grievances to themselves is the uncertain job environment.

An estimated 200,000 professionals have been laid off in Moscow, and indications are that more layoffs will follow. At a recent job fair in the capital, securities analysts and auditors who had been pulling down salaries in the mid-five figures lined up for work in factories, the city bus system or in other state-owned entities that offered wages of about $100 a month.

Anyone who has a job spends his time worrying how long he will keep it.

"It's the waiting that gets to you," said Oksana Pevnaya, 21, an accountant with the struggling Russian oil major, Yukos, who was recently laid off. "After a while, you don't work. The last month, everyone was waiting for the bad news, drinking a lot of coffee and thinking about being unemployed."

Pevnaya got the ax on Aug. 27, 10 days after the crisis began, when her whole department was called to a meeting where their boss gave them the news.

In a way, she was lucky. Some of the firings over the past few weeks have been much messier. One brokerage announced firings by reading the unlucky employees' names over an intercom. At another firm, workers checked their voice mail to find a message notifying them that they were unemployed. The news magazine Itogi reported that often, workers have shown up at their jobs to find their offices sealed shut.

Merciful as it was, Pevnaya's firing put a damper on her plans for this fall to get married to Maxim Nechayev, 21, a sales manager at the Moscow office of German consumer goods giant Bosch/Siemens. So far, Nechayev still has his job - Russians have rushed to buy consumer goods as their faith in the ruble evaporates. But his plans to seek a career in a multinational auditing firm are on hold. So is that big honeymoon, and the apartment the two hoped to buy; instead they will squeeze into her parents' apartment. And the big victim is the young couple's belief in the stability of their young lives.

"It turned out to be an illusion," Nechayev said. "You can't trust the government, you can't trust the banks. Nothing will ever be the same."

Moskovskiy Komsomolets 2 October 1998

'Abortion Victims' Anamnesis of the Middle Class

Article by Yelena Yegorova:

  • Date of birth: 1995-1996
  • Quantity: about 30 million persons--as a rule, urban dwellers.
  • Professional composition: top managers, bank employees, small and medium-size business owners, ordinary functionaries, 'shuttle traders,' journalists.
  • Income: between $270 and $2,000 a month per family member. Almost 80 percent have savings in banks.
  • Distinguishing signs: mobile telephone, car--Skoda, Opel, or DEU (that is, between $10,000 and $20,000), famous Western brandname quality clothes.
  • Abilities: vacations abroad, visits to restaurants, educating children in private schools, attending gyms and fitness centers.
  • Complaints: high income taxes, weak legislation in the area of small and medium-size business, lack of bank--and most important, mortgage--financing.

Such is the patient's medical history. And the diagnosis is simple: After 17 August, the patient is more dead than alive. Bankrupt banks have buried the money and the possibility of paying off clients from other cities. Potential customers have been left without work and untied funds. Skilled managers and workers have been fired. But the worst part is that nobody seems to be planning to treat the middle class. The anticrisis program being prepared by the government does not contain a single word about those who only half a year ago were honestly working, getting regular salaries, paying taxes, and symbolized the democratic well-being of the country. They seem to have been forgotten.

The middle class has decided to engage in self-treatment. A new political party, which could be headed by Yuriy Luzhkov--and nobody else--intends to register in Moscow as early as December. At least, it was to the Moscow mayor that the movement's organizers-- representatives of small and medium-size business--intend to turn for support.

In Russia, the middle class and its role in public life have always been referred to with a certain deal of irony. Now, however, the skeptics will have to have second thoughts: By the most modest estimates, the new party can count on the votes of more than 30 million voters!

Will Russia survive without a middle class? In what situation have thousands of skilled specialists found themselves at work and at home in a country ravaged by ignorants and paralyzed by crisis? Final Analysis of the Victim

The debate over whether Russia has a middle class ended before having really started... Sociologists, politicians, and journalists were not destined to exercise their eloquence anymore. Since 17 August, the question of the Russian middle class can be considered rhetorical. It might be more productive to discuss, for instance, whether there is life on Mars...

Some call it abortion. The Kiriyenko government killed an unborn child, they say. It was already breathing, jerking its arms, and kicking. The parents were busily preparing for the happy event:

For instance, this summer Gaydar held an international conference on the topic 'Formation of the Middle Class in Post-Communist Russia,' and Yeltsin said a few encouraging words in his message to the Federal Assembly. Faraway relatives were hurriedly buying gifts: The Gallup Institute conducted an extensive study of the demand for imported consumer goods. The best yogurt from Bavaria, Aunt Asya's bleach, Huggies pampers, and hundreds of other goods were flowing to Russia, equally unneeded by the very rich and very poor, but essential to the newborn middle class.

Actually, there is also another opinion. According to data from Boris Nemtsov's information server (!), this summer 42 percent of surveyed Russians already unquestionably considered themselves middle class. And since it is so, who said that there is no such notion in Russian reality? It is another matter that for a number of reasons our middle class was terribly far removed from the Western standard.

Let us start from the fact that we all came from 'April Theses' and 'Anti-During.' A bank employee, a 'shuttle trader,' a public relations agency man, a journalist, and a secretary all have behind them the same unfinished road to the Communist future. We went to the same schools, equally disliked farina cereal and first grade counselor Lenka, and our only property was a Sever refrigerator and a Vyatka washing machine. That in the end one started work in a bank and the other selling Turkish consumer goods in the street, and that by their income level they both can be considered middle class, is nonsense in the eyes of the Western system.

In developed countries, a baby born in a middle-class family, as a rule, himself becomes a representative of this social group. Money is passed on through inheritance, as is the lifestyle: an automobile, piles of clothes, vacation trips, going to gyms and parties. The mandatory condition is not only education and a job bringing in a certain income, but also real estate, which can be purchased on credit. In short, in the West the middle class is a much more complex notion than in Russia, where it was decided to measure everything by the presence of money in one's wallet. On the other hand, this was indeed the only way to bring to a common denominator a commentator in the culture department of a major newspaper and an auto mechanic.

And although sociologists argued over what monthly income guarantees unquestionable inclusion in this category (Goskomstat [Stat

Enter your email for Belly Button Window updates: