Russian Middle Class Sprouts, and Buys

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.

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.''

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.

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.''

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