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Russian Middle Class Sprouts, and Buys

By Wendy SloaneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1995


IN 1992, a year after Soviet communism ended, Natasha Gomberg had her heart set on owning an American doll. Her mother, Irina Yanovskaya, had inherited a 1964 Sears catalog, and after weeks of thumbing through it, the toddler fell in love with a blond beauty in the toys section. Even the doll's foreign-sounding name sounded exotic: Barbie.

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Not wanting to deprive her daughter of something she wanted so badly, Irina set out to find an affordable Barbie for Natasha. But money was hard to come by in those days, and genuine Barbies from America were considered a luxury for most Russians.

Natasha got her heart's desire, but at great expense: The doll cost 164 rubles, almost two-thirds of Irina's 300-ruble salary as a chemist at the Institute of Elemental and Organic Compounds at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

''That Barbie cost a lot of money,'' Irina said not long after she purchased the doll, sitting with her husband Mikhail Gomberg in their Moscow apartment. They were eating cake with sweet homemade jam, a luxury in those days when sugar could only be bought with ration coupons. ''But when I was a child, I dreamed of owning one.''

Today, little Natasha is the proud owner of four Barbies and one Ken. The once-grand sum of 164 rubles, which was once enough to buy a child's dream, is now worth about three United States cents. And Irina and her husband, who for years wanted to leave Russia, now plan to stay.

Irina and Mikhail, intellectuals who came of age in the years of stagnation under Brezhnev, are typical of Russia's emerging middle class.

Russia's transition from communism to capitalism has divided many people into the opulent rich, with their BMWs and Mercedes Benzes, and the poor, who sell bread and vodka on the street to make ends meet. But a middle class is also emerging, people like Mikhail and Irina who are making it despite the odds of political instability, ethnic strife, and inflation.

''The future will judge us, of course. Most of our friends have left, and I get the feeling sometimes that we're the ones who emigrated,'' says Irina, a bespectacled brunette who goes by Ira for short.

Andrei left to study in the US in 1991. The family is Jewish, and his parents feared a renewed wave of anti-Semitism after a tutor told the family that Andrei would be barred from university because of his faith.

Andrei entered Long Island University on a full scholarship after receiving outstanding exam scores. His plane ticket was bought with money his parents borrowed from friends, and his living expenses were paid for by a distant relative. This fall, he begins graduate studies at New York University.

His parents are confident that he plans to return home after completing graduate work, however, even though his grandparents emigrated to Boston recently.

''Andrei loves Russia and is proud to be Russian,'' says his father, Mikhail. ''He'd never settle in the States. Whenever he has pictures taken in New York, he insists on wearing a small badge with a Russian flag on it.''

Meanwhile, his parents' plans to join him have been scrapped. ''If we are physically threatened, we'll leave,'' Ira says. ''But unless that happens, we're staying here.''

Fewer nights on the town

At first glance, the family today appears to live quite well. But changes in Russia have also forced them to adjust their own lives, affecting everything from where they live, to what they wear, to how they spend their free time.

Unlike many of their peers who also stayed behind in post-Soviet Russia, Ira and Misha, as he is called by his friends, have managed to continue working in their fields.

Ira still works at the same institute, and Misha is still employed at the Semashko Moscow Medical and Dental School, where he has been working for more than 10 years as a dermatologist and where many of his patients are dancers at the Bolshoi Theater.

By Russian standards, their income is more than adequate. Ira makes only 101,000 rubles ($20) monthly at her institute. But she gets another $100 a month supervising a project conducting chemical analyses for foreign companies by express mail, and another $100 from a Soros Fund grant designed to help scientists here continue working in their fields.

''For a Russian scientist, my earnings aren't bad at all,'' Ira says. The average monthly Russian salary is the ruble equivalent of about $100. Pensioners and people who are employed by the state often receive much less.

''The collapse of Soviet science has been one of the saddest consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not all scientists can keep working in their professions,'' Irina says. ''But I am still a professional doing what I love to do.''