Under Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russia has reclaimed its position among the superpowers of the world. Thanks to the country’s huge abundance of raw materials such oil and natural gas, the Russian economy is flourishing as never before. After a mere 18 years of capitalism, the January 2008 issue of Finans Magazine reported that there are currently 101 billionaires in Russia.
101 Billionaires portrays an entirely different segment of the Russian population. Far away from the glitter and glamour of Moscow, we find the impoverished Russians, victims of the ‘tough-as-nails’ capitalism with which Russia made its name immediately after the fall of communism.
Text: Travel notes Hans Loos.
As you go round the first roundabout in Asbest, you see a huge billboard that reads: “My city is my destiny”. Asbest is just one of the many towns in Moscow’s enormous hinterland. The residential areas have been built around the monstrously large factories, as if they were modern-day cathedrals. The factories were the social focal point of the town.
In the centre of Angarsk they call Cement Town a ‘no-go’
area. ‘Nothing more than junkies and thugs!’ they say of the suburb’s residents. If a fight is reported, the police do not attend to it. Everyone advises us not to go there, particularly at the weekend when there is a disco in the cultural centre.
While Katya chews wearily on a piece of chewing gum, a black Volga with tinted windows pulls up next to her. Yelena shouts and Katya immediately runs away from the car. The car does not contain clients but policemen looking for a girl to spend the night with for free.
‘They said I would get horny from it. They lay me down in another room where soft music was playing. I lay there with a towel over my eyes for a while, but I actually didn’t want to have sex. I was 12, I was still a virgin. I just wanted to chat and play games. Cards and stuff.’
His lungs are two bags of boiling mud. He says: ‘I know so many guys like me. I’m not afraid of anything. My life is over.’ Andrei just didn’t know that dying was such hard work. That’s why he swears by a shot of heroin. ‘But don’t think that death brings redemption, death is more trouble than living. It stinks.’
Taking photographs with a flash is not permitted. The feathers might fall out. When we surreptitiously try to do it anyway, the lights suddenly go out. ‘Sorry,’ says our guide. ‘A power failure.
You have to go now.’
Fifteen women are battling it out for the title “Best Female Striptease from the Urals”. Natalie steals the show. She crawls over the jury table and toys shamelessly with the male commission members. First prize: a holiday to Turkey. Second and third prizes respectively are an LCD TV and a sound system from an unknown Chinese brand.
The ex-commando is serving a ten-year prison sentence for killing two drug addicts. He will be released in two months. ‘He fought in the battle for Grozny. When he came back from the war he had a very difficult time. He couldn’t adjust any more. But with the leadership skills he’s developed in prison, he’s going to go far.’
In Russia it is relatively easy to take your baby to a children’s home. In many cases, it is drug or alcohol addicts who bring in their babies. This infuriates the director of children’s home number 1. ‘They should sterilize them. What kind of mothers are they? They keep drinking and taking drugs, even when they’re pregnant,’ she says.
My generation freed the motherland from the fascists. Afghanistan was different, the Afghans never attacked us. In addition, we didn’t win that war. The war in Chechnya is a civil war. Our boys there don’t have the support of the Russian people. Why did we bomb Grozny? They should have just let Chechnya go.’
‘Yesterday they showed a documentary on TV about how your spies are destabilising the Caucasus.’ Our spies? “As if you don’t know”, says the man’s
look. ‘Of course, Western spies! The West wants to prise the Caucasus away from Russia, in order to undermine the stability in our country.’
Last year a couple of villagers lost their sight drinking stuff with exactly the same label. It was on television. Dima and Edik decide to subject the cognac to a test on the spot and ask for plastic cups. Edik knocks the first one back. ‘Nothing wrong with it,’ he says in a pinched voice. ‘It smells like cognac,’ confirms Dima, mostly to encourage himself.