NOVOSIBIRSK, RUSSIA — CUTTING through mountain ranges, vast swamps, and dense forests, the Trans-Siberian railway spans more than 6,000 miles and seven time zones.
But the seven-day trip from Moscow to the Pacific port city of Vladivostok also seems like a journey back in time.
Soon after leaving Moscow's environs, tangible signs of Russia's radical economic reform begin to fade from view.
By the time a traveler reaches the heavily industrialized cities of western Siberia, life appears to have hardly changed since the days when the Communist Party enjoyed a monopoly on power.
Considered an engine of progress a century ago, the railroad now moves through cities where conservativism prevails, and where there is widespread resistance to the transition toward a market-oriented economy.
When it was being built in the late 19th century, the architect of the project, Count Sergei Witte, a former Imperial Russian prime minister, envisaged the Trans-Siberian railway as a key instrument for modernization. The railroad, he believed, would help push Russia into the 20th century by linking industrializing European Russia with the resource-rich regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Change is anathema
To build the railway, however, Witte had to overcome stiff opposition from influential circles in St. Petersburg, the capital, where rapid change was considered anathema. Opponents feared the railroad would cause a migration to Siberia that would have harmful political consequences, Witte said in his memoirs. "The idea, far from receiving support, met with hidden opposition of a kind appropriate to the mentality of the days of serfdom, of the Middle Ages," the count wrote.
Ironically, conservative ideas similar to those prevalent in St. Petersburg in Witte's era now are deeply entrenched in the cities and towns along the Trans-Siberian route. The result is widespread resistance to the radical reform policies of acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's government, which is struggling to implement the market-oriented changes needed to make Russia competitive in the 21st century.
"We're against the trial and error methods" of Mr. Gaidar's government, said Vitaly Mukha, the chief administrator of the Novosibirsk region, which is 2,000 miles and two days by train from Moscow. "We're for gradualism and we prefer a step-by-step method so the people can grow accustomed to change."
The attitudes and atmosphere among the 2 million residents of Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest city, are typical of the region. Local leaders, such as Mr. Mukha, say with pride that they remain "philosophically Communist." Factory directors, meanwhile, seem mired in the secretive methods that characterized the Communist era. Some managers still refuse to disclose such trivial details as the total area of their factories, saying such information is classified for military reasons.
And the name-change mania that swept the major cities in European Russia following the demise of Communism has yet to touch Siberia. Streets in Novosibirsk, for instance, still bear the names of disgraced Communist luminaries. In addition, slogans popularized during the Communist era, such as "Glory to the working people" can occasionally be seen on billboards in the Siberian city. Such slogans disappeared from the streets of Moscow years ago.
Officials all over Siberia play down the significance of the street names and slogans, saying they are in no hurry to change them. The money needed to make the changes, they say, is better spent on social welfare programs. No scourges in Siberia
To many residents and officials in the heartland, a go-slow approach is considered more of a virtue than a detriment to change. They cite the fact that many of the scourges of the reform era - crime and ethnic strife in particular - have largely bypassed Siberia. In Novosibirsk, for example, people generally don't remove their windshield wipers when they park their cars - a common practice in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where petty theft is rampant because of a shortage of spare parts.
Given Siberia's conservatism it is not surprising that radical reform is having a tough time taking root. In the eyes of many Siberian officials, the responsibility for the problems caused by reform is mostly Moscow's.
Administrators in Siberia bitterly complain that Mr. Gaidar doesn't properly comprehend the situation for those living beyond the Ural Mountains. The remoteness and harsh climate makes it impossible for Siberia to move as fast as European Russia on reform, they explain.
"If Gaidar persists in thinking he knows everything and tries to control everything, he won't remain in power long," Mukha said.
Because of Moscow's lack of understanding, reform's harsh effects have hit the people of Siberia harder than perhaps anyone else in Russia, many say. Western Siberian officials are especially critical of the government policy of restricting credits to industry. Though the policy has been eased greatly in the last month, it has nonetheless caused a devastating drop in production in such western Siberian industrial centers as Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Krasnoyarsk.
Given the high concentration of factory workers in the region's cities, some officials express fear the industrial collapse will lead not only to mass unemployment, but also labor unrest.
In eastern Siberia, which is covered by the enormous forest known as the taiga, the government's intention to carry out a rapid privatization program appears to be more of a concern. "The degree of readiness of the people of Siberia is not high," explained Viktor Makarov, vice-chairman of the Irkutsk region's legislature. Rapid privatization could cause disruptions in agriculture, a sector that already has difficulty in producing enough to meet the needs of the local population because of a shortage of a rable land, Mr. Makarov added.
Opposition to the government's tax policies appears to be equally distributed throughout Siberia. Officials gripe they don't have enough money to deal with the effects of the economic crisis. Local administrations, they add, keep only about 40 percent of the tax revenue they collect, with the rest going to fill Moscow's coffers. "This ratio isn't satisfactory to us because most problems must be solved on the local level," said Makarov. Cash shortages
As for the people, most complain of a drastic shortage of cash. In an era of galloping inflation, payment of meager salaries to industrial workers has been delayed for months at a time because of Moscow's inability to print and distribute enough money, factory managers say. And for entrepreneurs, already hard-pressed to succeed in a region hostile to free enterprise, the cash shortages is having a stifling effect. "This shortage of money is making it very difficult for us," said Tamara Kolbina, a clothin g vendor in Novosibirsk. "We earn barely enough to buy food."
Despite their conservatism, many in Siberia say they support a market economy in principle. But the disorder created by radical reform requires that immediate changes be made in the government's program, they add. Moscow appears to be heeding the signals being sent from the regions. Recent ministerial appointments in Moscow have gone to people who seem intent in slowing the pace of reforms.
But simply slowing the pace of reforms may not do the trick, warn some Siberian officials. "It's not the speed of reforms that matters, it's the direction," said Sergei Murayev, a deputy in the Novosibirsk regional legislature.
"Everywhere else, the market is understood as leading to the growth of the economy, but here it has only caused recession," continued Mr. Murayev. He said more emphasis should be placed on social welfare measures, adding that if reforms continue to batter the population, the chances of a market economy ever taking hold in Russia will be greatly reduced. "It is highly possible that people will begin to see reform only as a destructive force, and thus they will never support it."