When I was in Russia as the Financial Times correspondent, from 1991 to 1996, I liked to think that the reformers who worked under the protection of Boris Yeltsin were good, and their opponents were bad. The story I told myself, and my readers, was more sophisticated than that, of course; but if you had to strip it down to its essentials, that was it. These were my guys.

When I was in Russia earlier this summer, I went to the launch conference of the reformers’ new party, Pravoye Delo (Just Cause). It was held in the Hall of Columns in Central Moscow, next to the Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin had lain in state after his death in 1953, and outside which hundreds had been trampled to death under the feet of the hysterical crowds who had turned up to mourn the passing of a terrible state god. Sviatoslav Richter in his autobiography describes being yanked out of a concert he was giving in Tblisi, and put on a plane carrying wreaths from the Georgian Communist Party to Moscow. All other flights out of Tblisi were grounded by fog, but the pilot had his orders. On arrival, Richter was driven straight to the Hall of Columns, shown an upright piano and told to play as the mourners filed past the open coffin. He began by playing Bach, only to be hissed by some in the crowd, for favouring a German composer. He tried some Tchaikovsky, only to be interrupted by a military band, which played the Death March over and over again. He carried on with the Tchaikovsky, hoping the March would not be for him, too.

No fear of a crush on the Saturday chosen for the conference, though perhaps a thousand people had turned up and the hall was full. To stare down from one of the galleries was to be reminded that in the early Nineties the liberal reformers had gathered a diverse following. They were all ages; young men in good suits and old ladies in faded print dresses. There were several quite senior Army and Navy officers, smart and self-conscious in their dress uniforms. An old man sitting beside me in the gallery looked sternly at my notebook, then asked if I was a Western reporter. When I said I was, he began to talk about his enthusiasm for Pravoye Delo, but added that there were ‘too many Jews’ in their ranks. Perhaps noticing my Western flinch, he added, in the same stern manner: ‘I am not an anti-semite! My wife was Jewish, and we were always close.’ His eyes moistened, and he turned away a little, saying: ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ There were lots of media, the cameras and interviewers seeking out the stars, wanting to know what their game was now, and did they have any chance?

They don’t have much. What they have are the old tunes of the early Nineties – reform, anti-Communism, liberalisation – which now grate on many Russian cars because they have produced so few rewards for the many and so much corrupt wealth for the few. Alexander Yakovlev, the great liberalising force of the Gorbachev years, thanks to his brief in the Politburo – Ideology – took the podium first. His limp is one of the rare memories nowadays of the Great Patriotic War. The Communists and nationalists who grew to hate him in the late Eighties were always slightly inhibited by it. I did a long interview with him in 1995, when he was completing a gentle descent from power by serving as chairman of the main TV channel. I’d asked him about his time as Ideology Secretary when, as Alexander Tsipko recounts in his 1992 book, Is Stalinism Really Dead?, he would sit in the vast office occupied for so long by the Stalinist Mikhail Suslov, and talk to young staffers like Tsipko about the inherently evil nature of Communism. He chuckled at the memory and said in response to a query: ‘Yes, Gorbachev believed that too, in some moods. But he was inconsistent, and he was a Leninist much longer than I was. In some ways he remains one. But’ (face darkening) ‘you’ – by which he meant the Western media – ‘ruined him by flattery! He was too easily flattered.’

In the Hall of Columns, he spoke again about the evil of ‘Bolshevism’ and about its success in tightening the grip on Russia of an inert but powerful bureaucracy which choked the life out of independent initiative. People hated that bureaucracy, he said; they had hated it before the Bolsheviks, during Bolshevik rule, and after the Bolsheviks; Pravoye Delo could, indeed must, become the anti-bureaucracy party, carrying on in new conditions the struggle he had begun in the Eighties, with the erratic support of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It was a fine, well-applauded speech, but out of touch with the times. When the big figures of contemporary liberalism took the microphone, you could see only too clearly the huge burden under which they labour to establish themselves as a popular force. Boris Fyodorov, the former Deputy Prime Minister for Finance who went on to form his own party, Forward Russia, gave a speech which was implicitly critical of the rest of the platform, for not knowing what was popular and not putting it before the people. A few days earlier, he had said he might not go to the launch, that he was more interested in running for the job of governor of the Moscow Region, and that although Forward Russia was now part of Pravoye Delo, it was a conditional rather than an absolute merger. Irina Khakamada, the only woman with a leading role in liberal politics, gave a rousing little talk, which was rather more about Khakamada than it was about the new coalition. Yegor Gaidar, Prime Minister in the early days of the first Yeltsin Government, appealed directly to the Russian President to support the Prime Minister he had just appointed, Sergei Stepashin, against the intrigues of the big businessmen who plot and manoeuvre in the Kremlin corridors over the composition of the Cabinet, putting ministers in place on the express understanding that they further their commercial interests.

It was the pervasiveness of corruption and its acceptance as a dominant force in political and public life that I found most dispiriting. Taking advantage of the power of office is more common than not, as the modern morality tale of Jonathan Aitken reminds us. But Chinese corruption has been accompanied by dynamic growth, Indian by a liberalisation of the economy and the development of some highly advanced technology. In Russia, corruption chokes growth and the few efficient parts of the state left over from previous times have withered away. I heard several times the following new anekdot. An Indian minister takes a visitor back to his lavishly appointed villa. His visitor, unable to contain himself, asks how he can afford such a palace on a modest state salary. The minister takes the visitor to the picture window and points to a gleaming new bridge across a distant river. ‘See that bridge?’ he asks. Then, sweeping his arm about the room, he says: ‘Ten per cent’ The visitor has exactly the same experience with a Russian minister in a much more lavish dacha, but when he is asked, ‘See that bridge?’ he scans the landscape to no avail. ‘No,’ he finally says, ‘I can’t see it.’ ‘That’s right,’ says the Russian minister. ‘One hundred per cent.’

Those who sat on the Pravoye Delo platform promised to do away with all that when they come to office. Corruption was a Soviet disease – contrary to what the present generation of Russian patriots likes to think – and the reformers believed the market would wash it away. The first Government had half a dozen young radicals in or just under the Cabinet, who refused even those privileges to which they were entitled as high government officials. An adviser to Anatoly Chubais, the first privatisation minister, told me with a kind of awe that he refused to use a Government apartment (he had come to Moscow from St Petersburg), preferring to sleep in a friend’s flat.

I visited many of the reformers in their often sumptuous offices, and heard story after story ‘off the record’ about the corruption of the others. The stories sometimes agreed with the compromat (‘compromising material’) now being circulated to the Russian and, in a few cases, foreign media on almost everyone of note in the political and business world, sometimes with a covering note stating that the material was drawn from the researches of the state security services. The allegations include murder, drug-running and the transfer of billions of dollars in state funds to foreign, mainly Swiss, bank accounts.

Only one reformer still possesses real political power. Anatoly Chubais, sitting with his usual impassive half-smile on the podium, gazing out into the audience, remained in government or high in the Presidential administration until 1998, when he took a gilded parachute to become head of the main electricity utility. He has kept the President’s ear – and that part of his attention tuned to the liberals in Russia, and much more important, to the demands and concerns of the international financial institutions and the main Western Governments, the American above all others. In a trip to the US last month with the banker and former trade minister Pyotr Aven, Chubais told Larry Summers, the Treasury Secretary-elect, that the West should get behind Stepashin, the former Interior Minister and security services chief, and now Prime Minister, since he was the only candidate for the Presidency who would continue reforms and be open and responsive to the West.

That might, or might not, be right. The main Presidential candidate, who has been running for the past year, is Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow. Yeltsin’s people, and the liberals, make him out to be a kind of mafia boss with nationalist leanings who hates the West: the compromat now being prepared apparently includes at least one alleged contract killing. But the people making the allegations are themselves the subject of equally lurid allegations. The Presidential circle is now tightly drawn round Yeltsin, his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and the two businessmen who handle the family finances: the well-known Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, who is very little known, but is said to be more powerful than Berezovsky, his one-time patron. Pyotr Aven told me that Abramovich was ‘the most charming man you can imagine; if he wants to charm you he will do so, even if you don’t want him to. He has charmed Tatyana completely.’

The keynote speech at the Pravoye Delo convention was given by its leader, Boris Nemtsov, the former First Deputy Prime Minister and Governor of Nizhny Novgorod. Nemtsov is 40 this year, tall and handsome, and a great ladies’ man: indeed, Fyodorov had told me that the best way to win votes would be to put a big picture of Nemtsov on posters and call the party ‘Women of Russia’. The first time I interviewed him, in 1992 when he was Governor of Nizhny, he ignored my outstretched hand, grabbed the attractive protocol officer who had taken me to his office and began fondling her in a corner. She seemed pleased. His aide watched this for a short time with the air of a man unfazed by his boss’s enthusiasm, then said: ‘Boris Yefimovich, Mr Lloyd wants to ask you some questions.’ Nemtsov reluctantly disengaged himself, and greeted me in a friendly fashion, inviting the protocol officer as he did so to ‘come back later’, while winking at me. He was Bill Clinton without the need for hypocrisy; for him, as for all Soviet men of his generation, the West is synonymous with (among other liberations) sexual liberation, and he behaved like Hugh Heffner or Richard Neville.

His playboy aspect means he is dismissed as a lightweight by those who claim to know what is serious in Russia; but he gave a pungent and rousing speech. ‘The trouble we have in becoming popular,’ he said at one point, ‘is that a lot of Russians still believe that everything was wonderful in Soviet times, and also believe that this lot’ – a sweep of his arm to include the platform party – ‘ruined it’ He warned that the turmoil in and around the Government, and the manoeuvres to put ministers in place who will look after the wealth of the ‘state businessmen’, was jeopardising the Constitution. It was a reminder of how fragile the liberals believe the ground on which they stand to be; and a pointer to their dependence on Yeltsin, both because he promoted their cause in the early years of his rule and because, for them, the order guaranteed even by a Constitution as skewed towards Presidential power as the present one is an absolute necessity. As Yeltsin declines and his family steeps itself further in corruption, they fear that nothing of the order established in 1991-93 will survive and that if it does not, neither will reform, and neither will they. So all they can do is to rally behind the man Yeltsin nominates as his successor, who may or may not be Stepashin, and hope that the same tide of money and media manipulation which returned Yeltsin for his second term in 1996 will carry a man whom few know or care about, and wash him into the Kremlin. Except for brief periods, reform in Nineties Russia has been sustained by the President against an anti-reformist Parliamentary majority and, on most issues, an anti-reformist public opinion.

After the conference, I drove out of Moscow to visit two friends, who are very much New Russians. Nina is a successful businesswoman, and Dmitry a successful artist. They are great Anglophiles (though Dmitry speaks no English) who have built a mock-Tudor villa in dacha-land, near the old dacha settlement of Nikolina Gora, where many academics and scholars still have their summer homes. They served good black caviar and good wine in the garden, and showed me round the high-tech house. Dmitry paints in two styles: one with great swirls and daubs of thick oils, giving him a Turneresque quality; and another, precise and vivid, for commissioned portraits of Russians, mostly New Russians. He gets a lot of money for both. Nina, a dowdily dressed researcher at the Academy of Sciences raising her daughter on her own when I first met her, now has a high income by any standards, and dresses stunningly.

Yet the conversation over the blinis and caviar was grim. They had prepared to leave last August, when the rouble crashed, Russia defaulted on its debt and the Soviet apparatchik, Yevgeny Primakov, was appointed Prime Minister. They had gone to Prague, where it is relatively easy for Russians to live, and looked over some apartments.

‘What did you expect?’ I asked. ‘Another Bolshevik revolution?’

‘You never know,’ said Dmitry.

‘No, no,’ said Nina. ‘Not that, but a cracking down on the New Russians. They always have something on us; it is always like that in Russia. You don’t pay all the taxes there are because to do so would ruin you, and you get away with it until they want to destroy you, and then there are so many instances where you broke the law.’ Russia is not a law-driven state; it is a state where the rulers still hold the people hostage. It will not change, and it may get worse with the next President.

Around their Tudor dacha in the village of Aksino, about fifty kilometres from Moscow, were other signs of the New Russia. Big stone villas, often with little Kremlin-type towers on the corner or even onion domes over the roof, were everywhere, some half-finished, abandoned at the time of the crash. There were high walls round them, and security lighting; big Mercedes and BMWs surged about, driven by crewcuts with muscles straining at the sleeves of their suit jackets. The collective farm, which had been the basis of the village, looked unkempt, its fields untended. The farming sector is a disaster in Russia now; farms are bankrupt everywhere, yet with no law which gives security of land-ownership and with huge hostility to private farmers, there is nothing waiting to replace the collective system. A few entrepreneurs are going into agribusiness; one of the largest has founded a dairy business, with milk, cream and yoghurt now widely available, in bright Tetrapak packaging. It is one of the benign effects of the 1998 crash that imports suddenly became hugely expensive, and import substitution has, in a feeble way, begun to happen.

Feeble is the word. Towards the end of my stay, I went to St Petersburg and met an acquaintance, Valery Sokolov, who runs a charity for the homeless based on a newspaper modelled on the Big Issue. Valery was going to the town of Tikhvin, about 240 kilometres north of the City on the Neva, to meet a priest, Father Alexander, who was also doing charity work with the homeless. I invited myself along. We roared up to Tikhvin in a ten-year-old Volkswagen driven by Yuri and Alexei, two friends of Valery. Both seemed slightly hyped up; I wondered if they were on drugs. They drove like demons, scorching over the bad roads with a total lack of concern for the suspension or our spines. We overshot the town, screeched around and barrelled into it, passing on the outskirts an incongruous life-size model of a MiG mounted on a metal column.

There was time to kill before our appointment with Father Alexander. We strolled about the town in the late-morning heat. The Peterburgers, Valery included, were loudly scornful; they had told me several times that I should prepare myself for the shock of seeing a decaying provincial town where the locals were ‘simple people’. We walked through the meagre street market, where women at stalls or squatting on the pavement sold cheap items to picky, suspicious people with plastic bags. The Peterburgers would lift things from the stall, hold them up for inspection, laugh, then throw them back again. The stallholders looked at them dully, or smiled hopefully.

We asked for directions to a café, and were sent to a hut on one side of the market. It was surprisingly well stocked and clean, with three women behind a refrigerated counter in which there was a plausible display of cheese, sausage and other foods. My companions asked for the menu; there was a choice of meat, fish, salami and omelettes. They began asking one of the women about the dishes in exaggerated detail – ‘But how will it be cooked? With what vegetables? How many potatoes?’ – and laughing at her replies. By now I was sure I was the intended audience for this display of metropolitan sophistication, but I did not want to see the show.

One of the staff, a handsome woman with an Oriental cast to her face, who had been standing a little way away behind the cold counter, stepped forward. ‘Why are you asking all these questions?’ she said sharply. ‘Do you think we’re stupid here? Do you think this is a town where people know nothing?’ My companions had the grace to look embarrassed and now tried to make light of it all.

‘No, we were only asking about the way your delicious meals are served!’

‘There’s nothing wrong with our food,’ said the woman. ‘We all eat it and we haven’t died of it. There’s no call for you people from Leningrad to mock us. People here welcomed me when I arrived from Vietnam and they behaved well towards me. You should behave well towards us!’

It was a golden moment for me, but acutely uncomfortable for my friends. Here was the provincial manager of a little flyblown caff in a dump miles from anywhere, the daughter (presumably) of a Soviet soldier and a Vietnamese woman, who had given them hell in a clear, steady voice, without histrionics, and shamed them into silence. I tried to think where in Russian literature – Chekhov, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – such a confrontation might have occurred and decided it could have been almost anywhere. Encounters between more or less evil metropolitan sophisticates and innocent provincials or simple peasants are a stock feature of 19th-century Russian literature. What was unusual was the woman’s insistence on her civil (as opposed to moral – morally she would always have been the superior) equality with the men from what Dostoevsky called ‘the most abstract and contrived city in the whole earthly sphere’.

The equality which the manager had invoked was something from the Soviet era. The power that eventually suppressed the snobbery which Tolstoy, for example, had represented and disliked in almost equal measure was much more formidable than metropolitan disdain, of course; but one of the things that seventy years of Communism had in common with the same period of capitalism was a rejection of the rights of the masters.

‘Thank you very much, good bye,’ I said loudly to the manager as we left, trying to deepen the shame of my companions. ‘Goodbye, thank you,’ she said, with the same firm dignity, a doughty guardian of her awful cuisine. I remembered my mother’s favourite story of how, when she was a driver in the Wrens during the war, she had refused to run private errands for the officer she was assigned to drive, because it was a Navy car, running on Navy petrol. ‘I just said, “No, I will not, sir. It’s not my job and it’s not the correct use of the car.” And oh! He was furious, but he could say nothing. I was within my rights.’ So might the manager of the café retell today’s story to her friends: ‘They were furious, but they just ate their food without any more sarcasm and crept away like beaten dogs.’

The rest of the town was wretched. As we left the market, a young, handsome man, blind drunk, lurched out of a booth, clutching a confused bundle of objects which included a lot of old newspapers, a sack of flour and a bottle of beer. Unseen by him, the bottle of beer was sliding through the newspapers and working its way free. He made a convulsive grab at it as it fell to the ground, and in the process his filthy nails ripped open the flimsy bag of flour, whose contents began to pour out into the spreading pool of beer on the pavement, fizzing into a foul mush. He lurched over it like the young Toshiro Mifune, drunk before the warrior he wishes to ape in Seven Samurai. Some children nearby, playing in the dirt, laughed raucously. As he stumbled off, the flour was still pouring down his ragged trousers. He was remarkably good-looking, with dark blonde hair (matted and greasy), high cheekbones (the stubble rising up their slopes) and a mouth that would have looked classically proud were it not for the slobbering. In the West, he (or someone else) would one day have realised his market value; here, he was destroying himself, staggering back to a noisome apartment with the remnants of a bag of flour which (I imagined) his mother had asked him to buy – and no beer.

Tikhvin had been a one-plant town, but its monstrous electrical plant, named after Kirov, was now more or less defunct. Drunkenness was one consequence; another was the row of beggars outside the church in which Father Alexander preached; yet another was the man in his thirties, stout and well dressed, who stepped out of an Audi saloon and, attended by two bodyguards, distributed notes to the row of beggars before entering the church to genuflect and cross himself, forehead to stomach, right to left shoulder, over and over, in front of the iconostasis.

Father Alexander was, after all, some thing of a saint. He had set up a hostel for the homeless, and had made it work by the strict application of discipline. One of his helpers was Volodya, once ‘town drunkard number one’ (as he airily confessed), now number-one rooter-out of drunks from Father Alexander’s hostel. Volodya said we should come and see Tikhvin Monastery; we followed him, expecting a ruin. It was a revelation. Behind high, crumbling walls and tall trees lay an open patch of ground which might once have been the fields tended by the order, but which had been turned into the Kirov plant’s football stadium – now overgrown. Beyond the field stood a collection of buildings of various ages, all of great beauty. The Cathedral of the Transfiguration rose at one end; its core was 16th-century, with parts added in successive periods up to the late 19th century. Inside, the central chapel had been restored, and there was scaffolding up to the frescos on the ceiling (though no one on it): renovation had been started, and might be resumed. The iconostasis was new and rather gaudy, but the frescos in the vaulted corridors leading to the chapel were four hundred years old. The disciples were frozen in attitudes of sorrowful piety, the invariable expression of Orthodox iconography. It was cool and quiet. Outside, a priest had hitched his cassock up to his waist and was directing workmen, who were clearing some ruins. I asked Volodya what had happened to the monastery in Soviet times. ‘It was a museum ... I think,’ he said. ‘I never came here. They played football here, but I never came. I was town drunkard number one, me! But Father Alexander saved me from that. And if I can be saved, it can happen to anyone, believe me.’ He stomped away, still with his old drunkard’s walk, leaving us to roar back to the Metropolis, with the story of a reformed drunkard to contradict, briefly, the reality of a country where the top is corrupt and insouciant and the rest inert, hopeless, too weary to revolt.

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