What does New York look like, after so many years in Russia?
Reporter Sabrina Tavernise waits for an underground train in Moscow.
My life in Moscow was pretty much what it would be in America.
I drove to work every morning. I drank beer with friends on
the weekends. I shopped in grocery stores and ate out a lot.
But it's different being a reporter in Russia -- interviewing
was never direct. There were different levels of truth. You
always had to sort through what you thought was an outright
lie and what was partly true. One general rule of thumb was
this: come to a conclusion about what's really going on in a
government or business quarrel. Then step back. Think about
it ten times more cynically, and that will be the closest to
What was the key thing that struck you about working in
It was an amazing time in the country's history. Everyone's
world had turned upside down, and people became immigrants in
their own country. They had to scramble to survive.
How has that changed?
Tavernise talking on her cell phone next to Red Square in Moscow.
They're still scrambling. For the vast majority of Russians,
life is worse than it was in Soviet times. But I don't think
most people would choose to go back, though they remember the
past with great fondness. They miss feeling like a great superpower,
and they've had to swallow this bitter pill of being weak. But
the young folks who didn't grow up with Soviet ideology are
Can you talk a bit about the big gap between rich and poor
in Moscow, and in general between Moscow and the rest of the
In Russia, as in America, the gap between rich and poor is
immense. But in Russia the poor, overall, are worse off. If
you live way out in the countryside, and you get sick, it could
be days before you get to the hospital. Not everyone has a car
and buses run on very erratic schedules. Everyone has electricity,
but not everyone has a phone. Life is exhausting, and even the
simplest of tasks can be very difficult.
Your report about the oligarchs makes Russia sound like
America during the era of the robber barons.
Very much so -- the wealth is huge, but very new, quite literally
nouveau riche. There's not a lot of elaborate and rigid etiquette,
the kind of mannered social structures you have in older economies
like England. That will eventually crystallize among the wealthy,
but right now there are few rules.
What are the biggest changes you've seen over eight years?
Tavernise riding the Moscow underground.
Things are settling somewhat. To make money now you still
have to be quite predatory -- but the difference is that if
you want to hang on to it, you have to gather around you people
who know how to manage your business. That's quite a new concept
in Russia. People are beginning to get better at the dull day-to-day
work of business. It's gone from a time when everything was
up for grabs and people grabbed it, to a time, now, when people
have to manage what they grabbed.
What do you see as the biggest problem facing the country?
Russia is not a law-based society. Simply, if you're big and
strong and have money everything is for sale, even justice.
The American idea of what was going to happen once the Soviet
Union was gone was impossibly romantic. The Americans thought,
here's this country that wants to be just like us, now at last
they get to be free -- all that needs to happen is we have to
write some laws.
Well, it may have worked sort of like that in Poland and the
Czech Republic, but Russia was too big and sprawling Russia
is still an Eastern place. People don't say exactly what they
mean. The government is this incredibly complex web of officials
who get bribed and the businessmen who bribe them.
After the big financial crisis in 1998 there was a real stepping
back and taking stockčand lot of disappointment. It's heartbreaking
for a lot of ordinary people who expected that all this stuff--all
the resources of the country -- belonged to everyone, It didn't.
But now there are people who have things to lose, so they're
beginning to want rules of the game. It's happening in some
sectors -- the oil companies in the mid-90s were run like casinos
and now they're just businesses. I think the idea of law will
become more attractive, as people try to consolidate their wealth.
Just a few days before the FRONTLINE/World broadcast, one
of the men you reported on, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested.
What does this mean for the oligarchs?
Tavernise waits to interview Yukos' CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The arrest of Khodorkovsky is definitely political. It's not
that everyone is so sure he's innocent. Maybe he is. But if
so, then so is every other tycoon. So why arrest him? Khodorkovsky,
in fact, had made dramatic improvements in his oil company -
hiring foreign managers, restructuring so that it ran more efficiently.
The arrest is basically a stop-sign for investors. That's
why it's baffling to me that Putin seems to have sanctioned
it. Why would he risk ruining his reputation as basically a
pro-market guy? The talks the company was having with ExxonMobil
and ChevronTexaco about a possible stake sale will presumably
be put on hold.
This arrest really tells me that it is still a very early
stage in Russian capitalism. The law, quite simply, is not the
main tool for ordering society. Law can still easily be trumped
by political connections and behind-the-scenes infighting that
is totally hidden from the view of the public.
You've always worked as a print reporter. What was it like
doing a story for FRONTLINE/World?
I can't say I love TV -- I don't enjoy being on view that
way. You know, I'd walk down the street and [the director] would
say no, do that again. It felt pretty affected. But the oligarchs
were quite open to being reported on -- I think some of them
had fun being on camera.
If you could go back and do other stories in Russia, what
would you cover?
I guess I wish I'd been able to write more about families,
the ways they're changing. Men at this point are much sicker
with alcoholism. Women still work, as they always have in Russia,
but the women who are the wives of the new rich suddenly get
to stay home, which is a new thing. For years they had to dress
up in drab Soviet outfits and go to work at the factory. It's
nice to finally get to be a princess.
What do you see for the future in Russia?
Russia's hope is definitely its young people. They are really
different than their parents. Those who were born after the
fall of the Soviet Union never saw lines -- the wealthy ones
have never ridden on the subway. There is more chance for them
to travel, to speak foreign languages, and to be part of the
rest of the world, than their parents ever had.
New Rich Are Living It Up, but Oligarchs' Children Wonder: How
Long Will It Last?" (July
Young, a Russian Enclave Is Too Much the Old Country" (October
Interview With Sabrina Tavernise
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