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Russians trudge ahead as economy tanks once again

With oil wealth evaporating and international investments fleeing following the war with Georgia, Russia braces for more hard times.

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Sadskykh gradually pulled himself out of that hole. By the mid-'90s, he had a small shop in his native Volga city of Yelabuga, selling mainly foodstuffs and alcoholic drinks. "You could always sell vodka," he recalls. He had managed to buy a small flat and was paying down his debts when the 1998 crisis struck.

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"In a few days, my income in rubles became nothing, while my dollar debts ballooned," he says. "I closed down and went into hiding from my creditors. It all happened again: I'd been well off one day, a pauper the next."

The 1998 financial collapse derailed Maria Strizhevskaya's middle-class dream in a few dreadful days. Fresh out of university, she had gone to work as a marketing expert for the giant oil company Yukos, and thought she'd found her life's work. But the crisis hit, she lost her job as the company downsized, and her entire savings, around $1,000, evaporated along with the private bank she'd kept them in.

Ms. Strizhevskaya has since built a new career as a successful freelance journalist, but she knows it's precarious. "Lots of people I know are losing their jobs, and it's all the people in middle-class professions, like publicity, insurance, and consulting," she says. "I'm very concerned, but I think as long as I'm healthy, I'll find what to do. You have to go forward."

Roza Primbretova, an energetic woman with a perpetual smile, was educated as an engineer but went to work in late Soviet times for the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police. Thanks to her official job, she escaped the worst effects of the first crisis, but left the police force, with the rank of major, just as the 1998 crash was hitting.

"I'd had very high hopes that, with my education and experience, I'd land a great job [in the private sector]," she recalls. Instead, as the economy tanked, she wound up living with her sister in a crowded flat and taking on a series of menial jobs, including cleaner, dog-sitter, and vegetable packer in an agricultural depot. She became active in her church, a small Protestant group in Moscow, and says that gave her strength as she continued searching for a career.

"One day my pastor said to me, 'Roza, if you don't know what to do, why don't you do what you like?' " she remembers. "Well, what I like to do is travel, though I never had any money for it."

About eight years ago, Ms. Primbretova went to work for a Moscow travel agency, booking tours for up-and-coming middle-class Russians to exotic destinations, like Thailand, Egypt, and Spain. "Because we lived behind closed borders in the Soviet Union for so long, Russians have this huge hunger to see the outside world," she says. "As life began improving in recent years for average Russians, one of the first things people wanted to spend cash on was travel."

Last year, having saved up money and won many loyal customers, she started her own travel agency with a prestigious office in downtown Moscow. "Things were going very well, and we had a good summer this year," she says. "But it's suddenly fallen off, people just aren't booking all of a sudden. A lot of tour operators are on the brink of bankruptcy." But she adds: "I think the real crisis is in our heads. We just have to grow. I have faith that things will get better."

Life has also taken many twists since the last crisis for Sadskykh. Nearly a decade ago, he sold his flat, sent his family to live with relatives in the countryside, and set out to pay off his debts. He worked as a construction boss and a cleaner of oil storage tanks, and a couple years ago came to Moscow where he found work in a fitness club teaching a type of Tibetan yoga that he'd learned from books.

He's been so successful that he's set up his own business teaching yoga, and has reunited with his family. "Finally I've been able to pull my head above the water; I feel well now," he says.

But a shock-free life would have been preferable, he adds. "If only the country had been calm, and I'd been able to work normally since 1991, and build my business, that would have been the best," he says. "I'll bet I'd be a millionaire by now."