Young, Russian, and upwardly mobile

Stability feeds the middle-class hopes of a new generation

Mikhail Sagyirian puts in long days managing the suburban fitness club that he half owns, drives a new Honda Civic, lives in a comfortable downtown apartment, and enjoys a modest taste of Moscow nightlife on weekends.

Millions of Americans and Europeans in his 30-something age group may take similar lifestyles for granted. But in post-Soviet Russia, a success story like this of hard work and law-abiding citizenship still has the ring of a fairytale.

"Ten years ago, if I saw some young guy driving a nice car I'd think he's either a bandit or a drug dealer," says Mr. Sagyirian. "But nowadays I think, probably he's just someone with a good job."

It's been a long time coming, but experts say that four years of relative stability and prosperity under President Vladimir Putin have encouraged a new generation to believe that a decent life can be earned through individual merit and effort. That's a radical departure in a country where the previous decade's winners often got rich through shady privatizations, corruption, Ponzi schemes, or outright violent crime.

"Today's up-and-comers are very different from those of the 1990s in that they build long-term plans," says Mikhail Tarusin, director of sociopolitical studies with the independent ROMIR social monitoring agency. "They are strongly motivated by a notion of personal success whose main component is career growth. They are aggressive in the best sense of the word."

Because these Russian yuppies are still too few in number and too isolated from the general population, it's early to tell whether they are just a statistical curiosity or the harbingers of a turnaround in Russia's post-Soviet economic difficulties.

While many honest, smart, and ambitious young Russians of a decade ago staked their best hopes on emigrating to the West, this generation has decided to stay put. Some, like Sagyirian, have been given a boost into Russia's tough business world by well-off parents. Others take on the increasingly sophisticated job market with just their brains, talent, and education.

The sobriquet "New Russians" stuck to the first wave of post-Soviet rich, and became synonymous with thuggish behavior and lavish bad taste in mansions, yachts, cars and vacations. They are still around, and continue to shock with their extravagant high jinks and let-them-eat-cake contempt for Russia's impoverished majority.

"In my circle, the thing people hate most is to be taken for a New Russian," says Olga Zaretskaya, editor in chief of Elle Girl, the Russian version of Hachette Filipacchi's international fashion and lifestyle magazine for teenagers. "We work hard, take out credit to keep up a certain material level, and aspire to look like Europeans."

Ms. Zaretskaya, who is in her late 20s and has a PhD in linguistics, spent many lean years working as a freelance researcher and journalist before landing the editor's job. She says most of her university friends are finding similar niches with big Russian and foreign firms. "You have to be well-educated and motivated, but the opportunities are out there nowadays," she says.

Sagyirian makes no bones about the fact that his father, a wealthy investment banker, lent him the money to go into partnership in the health club two years ago. But he helped design the modern facility, with a 75-foot swimming pool, massage studios, and well-equipped exercise rooms, and insists that it's just the beginning.

"I want to build a chain of inexpensive health centers that will be affordable for most people," he says. "So far in Russia we have only so-called 'elite' services, which are ultra-expensive and exclusively for the very rich. It's time to break out of that mentality."

Red tape and official corruption are ongoing business headaches, says Sagyirian, and his club has received one threatening visit from local gangsters. But he insists he's managed to solve those problems peacefully and legally.

"Things have changed from a few years ago," he says. "Today you can do business in a more or less normal way. You don't need to have a muscular guy with a gun standing behind you."

The ranks of the prosperous and upwardly mobile remain limited to a few large Russian cities. "In Moscow, this group is growing quite fast, but it must be pointed out that 70 percent of Russia's financial activity is centered in Moscow," says Mr. Tarusin. "As for the rest of the country, this growth is rather insignificant."

Zaretskaya says her staff is crammed with talented out-of-towners. "We have great people putting together our magazine who've all come from some forsaken provincial hole where nothing is happening," she says. "The opportunities exist, but they are mainly to be found in Moscow."

Polls routinely show that about 20 percent of Russians consider themselves "middle class," but this self-identification often bears little correlation to a Western-style income level, job description or lifestyle. The independent Public Opinion Fund in Moscow has tried to get at the question with a massive recent survey tracking urban adult attitudes to life. A middle class typically thinks long term out of a sense of stability.

Asked about preparing for the future, 44 percent said they made no plans at all, 35 percent said they planned only for the short term, while 19 percent laid some long-term plans. Based on this data, the agency's director, Alexander Olsen, says young, well-to-do, forward-looking people make up perhaps 10 percent of the population.

Still, "the phenomenon of successful young people definitely exists and is clearly growing," Mr. Olsen says.

In the polling, "what we actually found is three separate Russias," he adds. "One that lives in the past, one that survives in the present, as well as the one that looks to the future. And these three Russias do not understand each other."

Even as Russian yuppies taste the good fruits of their honest labors, the threat of another economic meltdown like the one in August 1998 still lurks. Before that sobering event, many sociologists and journalists had pointed hopefully toward a "rising Russian middle class" that held down normal jobs, drove foreign-made cars, used ATMs and vacationed abroad. But the banking collapse wiped out the savings of millions of Russians; ruble devaluation vaporized buying power; and many jobs failed to reappear even as the economy recovered.

"Those doing well today tend to be young people who became economically active after 1998," says Tarusin. "The majority of those who were thriving before the crisis have never regained their status."

Moscow's young professionals shudder at the recent past.

"I don't believe Russia's economy is built on stable foundations," says Zaretskaya. "It could all come tumbling down tomorrow, just as it did then. That's what makes me scared. That would be a disaster."

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