David Hoffman: Moscow Correspondent, The Washington Post
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JIM LEHRER: Now a foreign correspondence, our new series of conversations with correspondents from American news organizations about the places and stories they’re covering. Elizabeth Farnsworth has tonight’s.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And with me is David Hoffman of the Washington Post, who has served as the paper’s Moscow correspondent since 1995. Thanks for being with us, David. Is Boris Yeltsin as much in control and as vigorous as he seems?
DAVID HOFFMAN, Washington Post: Very much so. He’s got a big head start on the second term. He’s put young reformers in charge–two guys, especially, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, very active young reformers, very ambitious. We don’t know what the result will be, but we “do” know that Yeltsin has already crossed the big hurdle in securing democracy. They had an election last year. 65 million people voted twice within two weeks. I think that’s a big statement. Nobody in the system now wants to go outside the democratic process. The bad news is there are a lot of holes left, a lot of things left unfinished.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, there’s no rule of law. There’s no respect for the law. A lot of laws don’t exist yet. Also, there’s no civil society, the thing that keeps people in touch with their rulers. There’s nobody answering the phone at city hall when citizens call. And that’s part of democracy too, not just electing somebody but actually making it work.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, something happened today. Boris Yeltsin rejected a law that was passed by the duma having to do with religious freedom. Tell us about that.
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, it was an excellent sign that Yeltsin is in control, and I think on the right track, because here was a law that would have restricted freedom of religion. It would have created two classes of religion, one essentially free and one restricted. And Yeltsin says this does not comport with our Constitution; I veto it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You know, I–in reading your articles from Russia, the theme of change is just omnipresent, change in every field, political change, economic change, and a sense of people’s lives as being very dislocated by these changes. Is this evident everywhere you look, or do you have to go out and really make an effort to find the evidence of this kind of change and dislocation?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, it’s amazing because the Russians are extraordinarily patient and I think industrious and adaptable in all this turmoil that surrounds them. Here’s a country where nuclear physicists, men who are at the cream of their scientific achievement and their careers, are making $50, getting rations every month, standing in line for bread, mathematicians who’ve become locksmiths.
So there’s an overriding sense of humiliation. And people are bearing it, and many of them are trying to adapt. There are also enormous changes around them. You find grandmothers selling raw chicken on the street corner and whizzing by them fancy Mercedes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How–tell me other ways that people are adapting. If people are making this small amount of money, if they’re making such a low salary, how do they survive?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, it’s very interesting. One way they survive is to have little garden plots. And this summer, as we speak now, people were out furiously trying to keep their gardens growing before the first frost, which comes earlier in Russia, because these little garden plots, maybe 3 percent of the total land mass of this huge country, produce a quarter of their food.
And they sock it away in their cellars. People are finding ways to adapt. I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t think it’s happy. I think they feel humiliated, but it’s extraordinary how hard they work at it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why are salaries so low?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, this huge inflation after the Soviet Union collapsed, and when that inflation came down, it cost–it created a lot of debt. People are paid their salaries months late, and they’ve never received any serious money for their work. One reason is that the government is going through a process of wringing out that inflation and trying to meet these IFM standards for becoming a normal market economy.
It’s very painful. It’s really not the fault of the people now, but it’s the fault of this history that they brought with them, this centrally-planned economy. Turning it into a free market is not easy or quick.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We hear in this country so much, and, in fact, you’ve written about it, the new capitalist class, people who–some reporters have referred to them as robber barons. What do you see? I mean, when you’re say in the streets or out in Moscow, what do you see of this new capitalist class?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, they ride around in caravans, you know, armored Mercedes and several Cherokee jeeps following them, lights blaring and guns bristling, because they all have their own little private armies to protect them. They’re also extraordinarily rich, and they flaunt it. And there’s a huge amount of what you’d consider sort of 1920’s Chicago kinds of–ways of dressing and ways of behaving.
But I have to say they also are the new power–one of the new power centers of Russia. Seven or eight of these big bankers, we call them oligarchs. Maybe that’s too nice a word–robber barons. They’re buying up newspapers, airlines, oil companies. They are beginning to create a structure for Russia. It’s not a liberal free market economy like we think of. It’s actually much more of a European or even South Korean economy, with several huge conglomerates, monopolies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With criminality involved or not? I mean, we hear a lot about banditry, but is that something totally separate?
DAVID HOFFMAN: No. Criminality has infiltrated all aspects of Russian business and commercial life, unfortunately. There are people that would like to get rid of it. I think ultimately it’s going to take these oligarchs.
It’s going to take the power structure, itself, to come to some conclusion that this is–these lack of a rule of law makes it impossible to track foreign investment, makes it difficult to do business, but right now it’s everybody for themselves. It’s a “winner take all” economy and the rules don’t exist, except the rule of the gun and the rule of the use of force.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about outside of Moscow? Is it different outside? I know you’ve traveled a lot.
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, Moscow is a state unto itself. It’s a booming capital, where casinos stay open all night, and it doesn’t resemble Moscow of the end of the Soviet era at all, but the rest of the country is actually desperate. People are in despair. You find whole towns where this boom town mentality has not spread. It’s a great puzzle to a lot of people. Why hasn’t this spread?
Why don’t the Russians have, for example, okies who pull up roots in the provinces and come streaming toward the prosperity of Moscow? It’s not happening, and it’s a big puzzle. There are signs in some other cities–Nisninograd–St. Petersburg–of prosperity taking hold, but frankly there’s just too much to spare in the provinces.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Overall–I mean, I know it’s hard to make a generalization, but I’m going to ask you for one anyway–do you get the sense that people are optimistic or pessimistic about what’s happening to them?
DAVID HOFFMAN: People are cynical and pessimistic. And I think actually a very small number of them are beginning to adapt and to change and change that attitude. There’s a middle class in Moscow. Those people are optimistic. There’s a very small number of people who’ve made it to an upper class. They’re optimistic.
There’s a large number of people to whom the words “democracy” and “free markets” mean chaos and confusion and disorientation and humiliation. And it’s very, very important, I think, that we understand that they don’t view these words and these values in the same way we do. They haven’t seen the results. It’s only five years, and that’s not enough time. It’s a warped, sort of imperfect period for them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how important is it that Americans know about this? The Cold War is over; we’re not threatened in the way we were by Russia at all. Do you still think this is a really important story for Americans to be following?
DAVID HOFFMAN: It’s very important and for different reasons than in the past. You’re right. This is a weak state, and in its weakness is the threat. The threat isn’t any longer. In a Cold War we’ll have an exchange of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but Russia today is so weak it’s sort of like a blender without a top.
Things are spinning around so badly inside something is going to pop out. And I think a lot of people worry nuclear proliferation, chemical weapons proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons, even pollution, which is getting worse and worse, I think Americans should care about that, because one day one of these hazards, if not kept inside the blender, is going to pop up, and it’s going to be dangerous.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, David Hoffman, thanks so much for being with us.
DAVID HOFFMAN: Sure.