Chelyabinsk: Russia's Thriving Capitalist Class
On the other side of the economic spectrum from struggling pensioners are those who have thrived under Russia's new capitalism. In 1995, we met Sergei, an engineer who already fit that description. He and his wife Lyuba had a beautiful apartment in the city center, as well as several credit cards -- a real rarity back then. When we met them, they had recently returned from a vacation to Italy.
At that time, Sergei earned a good salary as director of a private company, and Lyuba stayed home to take care of their daughters, 16-year-old Masha and 11-year-old Anya. I knew the girls would be grown up now, but I wasn't quite prepared for the statuesque beauties -- both of whom speak excellent English -- who appeared on Monday night to pick David and me up for dinner.
Anya drove us in her black Land Rover to Sergei and Lyuba's new apartment, and when we walked in, I looked around in wonder. It was bigger than any other apartment I'd been to in Russia, and immaculately decorated. Lyuba was making dinner, and while we waited for Sergei to come home, we surfed the web on their high-speed Internet, flat-screen computer and played with their dog, a Chinese Crested Powder Puff named Busya.
Now that their daughters are grown, Lyuba works with Sergei at their company, Informpravo -- he's the president and she's the director of finance. The company, which supplies legal information relating to computer and technical issues, has 170 employees and serves dozens of big clients, including government agencies. The couple earns a very comfortable living; in her words, "We can afford to buy what we want."
This includes a new country home, where the couple now spend most of their time. Located beween two lakes 90 kilometers outside Chelyabinsk, the brand-new house was built to resemble a castle, with a giant banya and gazebo in the rear yard. It's not pink (like the castle we saw in Listvyanka), and from the photos I've seen it's quite tasteful for a castle. But wow, it's a castle.
As they did in 1995, Sergei and Lyuba both say that the money they make hasn't changed their lives significantly. "In the Soviet Union, we felt like everything was fine," Sergei told us on Monday night. "And now we feel like everything's fine. We had a small apartment back then, but we were always happy and had people over."
Lyuba adds, "We still have the same circle of children, family and friends as before. We've had the same friends for 25 years. Even without the country house, the swimming pool and whatever, we still have normal relationships with people."
As for the "girls," they've lost whatever minute traces of leftover Soviet-ness they might have had in 1995. Cosmopolitan, well-traveled and self-confident, they're part of a new generation of Russian young people who appear to be at home in the world in a way their predecessor generations were not. It will be interesting to see where the next ten years takes them.
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