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Russian Middle Class Sprouts, and Buys

(Page 2 of 2)

Misha, a soft-spoken man who wears a gold Seiko watch and has a Motorola pager attached to his belt, which was a gift from his patients, earns 600,000 rubles ($120) monthly at Semashko, and another roughly $200 delivering lectures and visiting private patients. While he recently attained an American Express card, he still drives a clunky Zhiguli, or Soviet-made Fiat.

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Misha may not soon be able to afford a Western car. But he is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and president of the Lion's Club chapter here, and works closely with a Western pharmaceutical company. Those contacts make him eligible for a host of perks outside his regular earnings.

In the past few years, Misha has traveled widely on business, including five trips to the States and visits to Singapore, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and Thailand. ''In Austria, the firm paid for us to stay at a nice hotel, go to good restaurants, and take taxis everywhere,'' he says in his crisp button-down shirt and tie.

Advantage of rent control

At home, Misha and Ira try to take advantage of Moscow's cultural life, and when they have extra money they prefer to spend it on theater tickets.

They rarely eat out as most local restaurants have soared beyond their budget, but occasionally they visit a cheap Chinese restaurant where two can feast for about $10. Ironically, it's located on the premises of the former Exhibit of Soviet Economic Achievements.

In a country where families of four sharing two rooms is the norm, their accommodations are considered nothing less than palatial. Their central Moscow apartment is a high-ceilinged flat with a nice-sized kitchen, large living room, a library with 150 bookshelves, and four bedrooms, including one for Ira's mother, Mariya, who retired as a chemist seven years ago and lives with the family.

Ira and Misha spent a year and a half wheeling, dealing, and wading through the Soviet bureaucracy in order to get permission to rent the apartment, originally a dilapidated communal flat that housed three families.

They ended up enticing the original tenants to move out by offering them each an apartment of their own, which meant giving up Ira's small flat and dividing another flat of her family's into two.

Almost half of their yearly income went into revamping the place, which had fallen into disrepair following years of neglect. But the work paid off: A multi-room apartment in central Moscow these days can easily sell for several hundred thousand dollars after it is privatized.

For the past few months, however, the family has been forced to live elsewhere. Their apartment is once again under renovation, thanks to two fires in the building - including one started by homeless people who celebrated Christmas by roasting shashlik, or shish-kebabs, on the roof - left the ceiling and walls of their flat severely water-damaged.

Misha and Ira have been able to stay for free in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow that belongs to friends who emigrated before they were able to sell it. They don't know when they will be able to return home: As the government chose to hire unskilled illegal aliens to do the repair work, in this case from Ukraine, the hammering and plastering has dragged on for months.

Leaving the city, they say, was a welcome respite. Their apartment is next to a major train station, which over the past few years has become a transit center for refugees fleeing violence in former Soviet republics.

But even though the neighborhood has become dangerous - they lost antique jewelry, paintings, and electronic equipment in a burglary several years ago - they are loathe to move.

Low rent

Because rent is largely still subsidized, Misha and Ira's rent is only $16 a month. After Babushka Mariya contributes her $50 monthly pension and Natasha kicks in the $7 monthly she gets in child allowance from the state, the family has a disposable monthly income of roughly $600. That leaves more than enough for food, says Ira, who oversees most household duties, as in most Russian families. While they can't afford daily delicacies such as caviar (a patient recently gave them a whole jar), they eat well.

Other necessities such as clothing and shoes are usually sent to them by friends and relatives in the West, who still believe that nothing can be bought in Russia, although these days the shops are full.

''Earlier, if I saw winter boots for sale on the street, I would buy them regardless of whether I already owned boots or not, so they would be there when I needed them. But now that I have everything, I'm not interested in anything,'' says Ira.

''When we lived under Brezhnev, I always told my mother, I don't understand how they can choose what to buy in the West. Here it was always very easy,'' she laughs.

''You went to a store, stood in line, and bought whatever was on offer.''