Living change under Boris

Moscow: The Beautiful and the Damned
April 27, 2001

This book ends just as a new chapter in Russia's post-communist development begins. Vladimir Putin appears fleetingly as Boris Yeltsin's last prime minister; otherwise the book should be read mainly as an impressionistic account of the reign of Yeltsin, Russia's first president.

The author, a journalist based in Moscow, has worked in Russia since the early 1990s. He speaks Russian and obviously has a warm sympathy for the people. Through a series of interviews, Russian citizens reveal how the dramatic changes that have occurred in Russia in the past decade have affected their lives.

The opening chapter is a useful account of how the optimism created by the failure of the attempted coup of August 1991 went sour as hopes for western-style democracy were supplanted by the disappointment engendered by the advent of crony capitalism. But not everything was lost: as Nick Holdsworth points out, "fear has gone", and that must be the biggest single achievement of post-communist Russia, with most of the credit going to Mikhail Gorbachev, but not a little, too, to Yeltsin.

Two chapters deal with the winners and the losers who emerge from the past decade. In general, it is those who managed to cope not only with change but also with the novelty and challenge of making choices that made good. Those unable to adapt to a life in which there is no moral or ideological guidance nor any material safety nets to provide security, have, the author says, been the losers.

The device of letting people speak for themselves allows us to peer into the lives of citizens and catch glimpses of wider society. But one is left with the feeling that beyond these individuals, who are all members of the intelligentsia or, at least, the educated, there are other social types who rarely find their way into western reportage. Where are the women who sweep the snow and chip away the ice on Moscow's wintry streets, and the female workers one sees in dungarees and headscarves, high on scaffolding, plastering the buildings that are being restored everywhere in the Russian capital? How have the bomzhi (people of no fixed abode) come to reach, in Gorky's phrase, the bottom of society? Moreover, as the title implies, this is a book almost entirely about Moscow and those who live there. Yet, as the author is first to admit, Moscow is far from a typical representation of the biggest country in the world.

For the business person about to embark on a stint in Moscow, for the student going on a visit or for the inquisitive tourist, there is much that will interest and inform. The writing is lively and accessible, although the language can be too purple and journalistic at times ("broad-shouldered be-suited guys with fists like hams"), and rather too many careless typographical errors, especially when transliterating from the Russian, have slipped in. Nor, judging by the footnotes and bibliography, was much attempt made to use primary sources to give context to the often-fascinating interviews. Still, for anyone wanting to capture the flavour of Yeltsin's Russia, this is a good read.

Peter Frank is professor of Russian politics, University of Essex.

Moscow: The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in Russia in Transition

Author - Nick Holdsworth
ISBN - 0 233 99679 6
Publisher - Deutsch
Price - £9.99
Pages - 262

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