Chelyabinsk: Russia's Thriving Capitalist Class

On the other side of the economic spectrum from struggling pensioners are those who have thrived under Russia's new capitalism. In 1995, we met Sergei, an engineer who already fit that description. He and his wife Lyuba had a beautiful apartment in the city center, as well as several credit cards -- a real rarity back then. When we met them, they had recently returned from a vacation to Italy.



26-year-old Masha (l) and 21-year-old Anya are part of a new generation of Russians. (David Hillegas)

At that time, Sergei earned a good salary as director of a private company, and Lyuba stayed home to take care of their daughters, 16-year-old Masha and 11-year-old Anya. I knew the girls would be grown up now, but I wasn't quite prepared for the statuesque beauties -- both of whom speak excellent English -- who appeared on Monday night to pick David and me up for dinner.

Anya drove us in her black Land Rover to Sergei and Lyuba's new apartment, and when we walked in, I looked around in wonder. It was bigger than any other apartment I'd been to in Russia, and immaculately decorated. Lyuba was making dinner, and while we waited for Sergei to come home, we surfed the web on their high-speed Internet, flat-screen computer and played with their dog, a Chinese Crested Powder Puff named Busya.



Sergei and Lyuba took advantage of the new Russian capitalism to make a comfortable life for themselves. (David Hillegas)

Now that their daughters are grown, Lyuba works with Sergei at their company, Informpravo -- he's the president and she's the director of finance. The company, which supplies legal information relating to computer and technical issues, has 170 employees and serves dozens of big clients, including government agencies. The couple earns a very comfortable living; in her words, "We can afford to buy what we want."

This includes a new country home, where the couple now spend most of their time. Located beween two lakes 90 kilometers outside Chelyabinsk, the brand-new house was built to resemble a castle, with a giant banya and gazebo in the rear yard. It's not pink (like the castle we saw in Listvyanka), and from the photos I've seen it's quite tasteful for a castle. But wow, it's a castle.

As they did in 1995, Sergei and Lyuba both say that the money they make hasn't changed their lives significantly. "In the Soviet Union, we felt like everything was fine," Sergei told us on Monday night. "And now we feel like everything's fine. We had a small apartment back then, but we were always happy and had people over."

Lyuba adds, "We still have the same circle of children, family and friends as before. We've had the same friends for 25 years. Even without the country house, the swimming pool and whatever, we still have normal relationships with people."

As for the "girls," they've lost whatever minute traces of leftover Soviet-ness they might have had in 1995. Cosmopolitan, well-traveled and self-confident, they're part of a new generation of Russian young people who appear to be at home in the world in a way their predecessor generations were not. It will be interesting to see where the next ten years takes them.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 18, 2005; 10:01 PM ET
Previous: Chelyabinsk: Life as a Pensioner | Next: Chelyabinsk: A 'Gift' for World War II Veterans

Comments

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Lisa, please don't be discouraged by the absence of comments from readers of this newspaper.
This was a fine piece.
It's just a plain fact of life that Americans are far more interested in Russian failures than in Russian successes.
I hope you'll keep writing about both.

Posted by: oleg | October 21, 2005 12:15 AM

That is an excellent point, but there may be a reason for it. Russian successes tend to underline the failures of others. Also, quite often, what the Russians consider to be successes are viewed as failures by others, and vice versa.

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 21, 2005 01:56 AM

Artem, Canada might have made you a bit more profound than people like myself can grasp. Either that, or what you're saying may very well apply to any other country on Earth.
So, if you describe New Orleans(or depressed areas of Vancouver, BC), then I'm with you...

Posted by: oleg | October 21, 2005 04:31 PM

Hahaha, don't worry, no one has ever been able to fully understand much of what I say, the fault of that is largely my own.

I meant that certain structural/institutional characteristics unique to Russia that are often thought of as arcane or incomprehensible in the West, are actually pretty good ideas, when divorced from the ideological stigma that is attached to (and often attached by) the system which produced them.

Take the Soviet education system, for one. Western economists will expound the virtues of the western education system ad nauseum, but their arguments only remain valid only so long as the education (ei, learning/understanding) one actually receives remains a tertiary goal of the "education system;" lagging behind the goals of political and economic advancement, etc. Further, this goes to the place, priority and level of integration the society at large chooses to give to the education system, which, naturally, impacts the internal structure of that system.

Systemic priorities of the Soviet-style education system (when it functioned) were flipped, arguably providing more access to actual "learning," than its western counterpart, which focused more on "advancement." Internal structural differences of the two systems support this argument: the western system is essentially a mini-model of the market system and therefore subject to forces and restrictions that are not native to education.

Cheers,
Artem

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 21, 2005 06:55 PM

In the concrete even, however, I was referring to the emerging class of the "new Russians," or the Russians of comparatively little education, but enormous personal resources attained during the collapse of the Soviet Union due to their innate understanding of the market economy, or simply their good luck.

Whether or not this is a good thing is a moot (open) question. Money allows those who have it to impose their own social agenda on the rest of society. I would much rather have that agenda imposed by someone who grasps its significance and possesses the intellectual tools necessary to make informed and thoughtful judgments rather than by someone who doesn't, and doesn't care.

Cheers,
Artem

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 21, 2005 07:06 PM

In the concrete even, however, I was referring to the emerging class of the "new Russians," or the Russians of comparatively little education, but enormous personal resources attained during the collapse of the Soviet Union due to their innate understanding of the market economy, or simply their good luck.

Whether or not this is a good thing is a moot (open) question. Money allows those who have it to impose their own social agenda on the rest of society. I would much rather have that agenda imposed by someone who grasps its significance and possesses the intellectual tools necessary to make informed and thoughtful judgments rather than by someone who doesn't, and doesn't care.

Cheers,
Artem

Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 21, 2005 07:08 PM

I've been reading your blog irregularly, catching up on the episodes I missed whenever I happen across it. For me it is like an extension of my own experience. I first went to Russia in 1959, when I spent a summer working as a guide at the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park. I spent another six months there in 1962--1963 working in another USIA exhibition, and have been back on business three or four times, the last time in 1987 or 1988. I've been to Leningrad, Novgorod, Kiev, Riga, Tbilisi, Tashkent, and Samarkand. Of course, the last five aren't even in the country now. That country no longer exists, and neither does Leningrad!

All of my memories are of the Soviet Union: White-lettered losungi on red banners (Vpered k Kommunizmu!"), three-line shops, trying to find oranges in winter, Radio Armenia, underground jazz festivals, delivering laptops to refuzniki. All gone, and poputnogo vetra im na spinu.

Posted by: DLB | November 1, 2005 01:54 PM

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