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Russians' lament: 'We don't live, we survive:' Darwinism replaces communism, causing crime, deprivation.

MOSCOW -- Father Norman Meiklejohn, 64, spent the evening of March 9 in his flat at 7 Kutuzovsky Prospekt reflecting on how well his first seven years in Moscow had gone. The New Hampshire Assumptionist wondered if he now faced seven lean years.

Next morning three robbers bound and gagged him and stole a few thousand dollars he'd received to aid charities. "Don't call it a mugging; let's say I got 'roughed up,'" he said when I called later to ask how he was.

The priest, who is chaplain to some 500 foreign Catholics in the Russian capital, said the experience had taught him never to "put all my eggs in one basket." His casual retelling of a story that might have sent others packing illustrated for me a central truth on this, my third, visit to Russia since July 1989: Darwinism has replaced communism.

The survival of the fittest -- substitute richest, most powerful, best connected, Old Guard -- is highly visible. So too are the growing columns of poor who, set free now from the classless society, are waiting for economic "reforms."

Consider Augustina Leonidovna in St. Petersburg, an Orthodox Christian, who stood eight to 12 hours daily for 33 years at one machine, making military components. Retired, widowed, age 65, she had received a pension of 10,000 rubles (about $14) the previous month. (Russians today do not tell you how much they earn. With 1,500 percent inflation in 1992, they tell you how much they were paid last month and how much food and rent cost this month.)

Sitting in Leonidovna's one-room flat with its adjacent bath and kitchenette, I could see that the numbers don't add up. "How do you live?" comes the naive question from the West. "We don't live; we survive," she answers.

Despite her smile, Leonidovna said she feels bitter. "We spent our life and our health for the state. We expected to see the fruit of this in our old age," she said, speaking for millions of Russian pensioners, those most hurt by the galloping prices and the near-worthless currency.

Dialing the St. Petersburg equivalent of 911, once a free call, now costs 300 rubles. Those living on fixed incomes think twice before summoning help, Leonidovna said. Because Russian medical employees are paid so poorly, many specialists have left for private clinics.

Leonidovna has not been able to afford meat, milk or sour cream this year. She fears she will be unable to buy toothpaste anymore because all of it now comes from abroad. Still, she counts herself lucky, because her aunt, Evdokiya Petrovna, 76 -- who is visiting her -- owns a dacha outside of St. Petersburg. The two women survive the winter on vegetables they have grown and preserved.

Petrovna, with few teeth left, is not worried about toothpaste. Although her pension is only half that of her niece's, she stays optimistic. "I believe in God. He's our best hope," she said. The widow of a former Communist Party member, she's glad she now has the chance to practice her Orthodox faith openly.

It is dark when I leave. Leonidovna fetches a candle and guides me down three flights of blackened, musty stairs. In most apartment hallways, stairwells lack lighting because the bulbs have been stolen or never replaced.

But lights seldom dim for Russia's nouveau riche. Consider them in finest evening attire emerging from silver and gold Mercedeses outside Russia's choice nightclubs and casinos. Or by day in foreign currency shops, loading baskets with leather, fur and gourmet food items -- paying for their purchases with $100 bills or their equivalent in European currencies.

A Lutheran chaplain in Moscow related how a local man recently ordered eight Cadillacs for $800,000 in cash.

Reports in the Moscow press estimate that 15 to 33 percent of the economy is controlled by organized crime. These latest criminals -- by many accounts former KGB agents -- trade in drugs, oil, metals, art and military goods, including chemical and nuclear contraband. Recently, port officials in St. Petersburg seized a ton of Colombian cocaine.

Russian "narcos" are also said to be behind the latest heroin smuggling into the United States. Giant radioactive poppies grown in the contaminated fields around Chernobyl are being turned into heroin.

In such an atmosphere, with the prospect of unemployment and lawlessness awaiting many youth, consider Galya Dorofeeva, who gave up her job as a chef to stay home and watch over her son, Roman, 10, an honors student who has been studying English since he was 4. Like many people in their 30s and 40s, Dorofeeva, an Orthodox Christian, does not want to return to a pre-glasnost Russia. But she laments the behavior of many since greater liberty has been allowed.

"Of course people are freer now. They are freer to speak unpleasant and ugly things. They are more hostile, too. The youth no longer have any manners," she said. Only the solidarity of friends makes life livable in Russia, Dorofeeva said.

Love of family and a strong faith have also kept Sasha Lyolya, 32; his wife Irena, 28; and their daughter Elena, 5, hopeful despite many adversities. Chief among them is the cost of the 7,000-kilometer journey (seven days by train) to see Irena's family in Siberia.

Two years ago, the three Lyolyas could visit her parents for 500 rubles. Today the journey costs 65,000 to 70,000 rubles for each of them. Irena does not think she can afford to visit for at least five years. Sasha earned 16,000 rubles in March as a mechanic, while Irena brought home 12,000 rubles from her bookkeeping job with an artistic publishing firm. Much of the money goes for food.

The Lyolyas love art, dance and music. Sasha, a folk guitarist and singer, wanted to be a musician when younger. Each Saturday they attend an exhibition, concert or cultural performance.

Irena thinks the church has answers to the current economic hardship, the new materialism and criminality, but they are not direct answers, she said.

Her husband believes that the Orthodox clergy tries too hard to "make us believe that the West is to blame for all our ills and that Westerners want to control our minds." He recently came away from a U.S.-style evangelical crusade in St. Petersburg, believing that "if you are strong in faith, you need not fear these messages."

"We can't blame anyone for our state of affairs. It's our own fault and it's our responsibility for managing it," he said. Still, he thinks Russia should import a variety of technologies rather than any more Christian preachers.

Despite hardships, the Lyolyas hold hands and smile. In their tiny kitchen, they set out bread, butter, cheese, honey and preserves for their visitor. Sasha points out that Catholicism and Orthodoxy share "the main dogma: God's kingdom is inside your heart. It's so nice to realize that we're people of the same world and children of the same God," he said.

"The world is such a small place. I feel we live in the same house. ... Though we have polluted so much, still, in our suburbs crabs have begun to come back into our waters," he said. "I know it's a good sign. Crabs are survivors."
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Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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