JUNE 13, 1996
The Presidential elections in Russia are coming on Sunday. Tonight David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Eleanor Randolph, national correspondent for the "Los Angeles Times," author of Waking the Tempests: Ordinary Life in the New Russia.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Eleanor, as Boris Yeltsin and other candidates crisscross Russia in advance of this weekend's elections, one might think from afar that we're watching a normal western style campaign but in your new book based on your reporting for the "Washington Post" you describe lives that are anything but normal. Tell us what you found from your conversations with ordinary Russians.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH, Author, Waking the Tempests: David, what really happened five years ago in Russia was that it was a society turned on its head. People said things like welcome to "Absurdistan." People had no roots suddenly. They, they were free to lose their jobs. They were free not to have medical care. So the whole concept of freedom that we carry so dear was terrifying to people, and it became instead of freedom and democracy and capitalism, it became chaos. And what you've seen over the last five years is a society trying to cope with this upheaval.
DAVID GERGEN: Tom Friedman of the "New York Times" was on this show earlier this year and from his travels around the world he concluded that the most likely conflicts in the future are not going to be between states but within states, between the winners and the losers, that the new world is throwing up all sorts of winners but many, many losers. And that's the sense I had from your reporting of Russia. There were a few winners on top but then lots and lots of people at the bottom.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: That's true. I mean, if you look at who is rich in Russia, the--it's, it's about the top 3 percent, maybe even less, the people who are surviving easily, that's maybe the top 10 percent, but still, what you see over there is just a society that's scrabbling at all times to survive.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Now, the winners, the young?
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: The young are the winners.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: And, in fact, the young men are probably the primary winners, and--
DAVID GERGEN: Under the age of 30 by and large?
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Under the age of thirty to thirty-five, right.
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Umm, women have begun to lose ground, and older women in particular have begun to lose ground. They, they were particularly fascinating to me, the babushkas. I--I went to Russia expecting old women who were like Baba Yaga, the Russian witch, who would come point at you and grab you if didn't have your child's mittens on or something like that. But what I began to realize is that these older women held the society together and they, they were the distribution system in the cities. They, they did the gardens. They brought in the food. They kept the lore alive. They kept--they would sneak the children off to, to church. They, they are the voice inside the home in Russia, and they're a very powerful voice.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, they're Mother Russia.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: They are the Mother Russia. They really are. An interesting thing is that Yeltsin has recognized this force, and he's begun using the babushkas in his television ads. He's got some very interesting ads that have older people talking about all the problems in the past and how Yeltsin is, umm, although he's not perfect and certainly he's not perfect, what they say is that they are willing to sacrifice for this future, and they are advising people to vote for Yeltsin. It's a very, very smart move, to go for the weakest.
DAVID GERGEN: That's interesting. Now, the babushkas or grandmothers, I guess--
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Right, sorry.
DAVID GERGEN: --they seem to be the swing vote in this election. And if he can win them over, he possibly, he can pull this out.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Well, it's interesting. He--he's got to--he's got to convince people that the most dangerous thing is disorder and that the Communists will bring disorder. And I know that there are lots of people in Moscow and I think probably here in Washington who think that Yeltsin succeeded in doing that. He's also got to get these young people out to vote, these people who have succeeded, who started these small businesses, or they're in these commodity exchanges, and things like that, who--he's got to get them to come out to vote and to convince their parents to vote for Yeltsin. This is the future.
DAVID GERGEN: Now you had a story about this woman, Yelana, that you knew, a personal story that I thought was a very simple story but it captured what was going on for so many ordinary people there.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Well, what I felt and what a lot of people felt that the Soviets had created the perfect mark and that when this capitalist society came in, that some people, the unscrupulous people, figured out instantly how to take, take possessions away from ordinary people. And there was this woman, I called her Yelana in the book. That's not her real woman. But she came to me one day and she said, umm, you know lots about how capitalism operates, tell me about this. My daughter, umm, has gotten a job with a western company, and, uh, the man says that she has to give him something for bonding, she has to give him something of value because it's such a difficult time, and so, anyway, I said to Yelana, what, what are you going to give this man for--and she said, well, the only thing we really have, which is a voucher, and so she said, is this the way it works, is this the way capitalism works, and I said, no. I said, you call your daughter right now. She doesn't have to give up the one thing that she owns that's worth anything to get a job. And so we tried to call. We picked up the phone. We tried to call. Of course, the phone didn't work. She got in a cab and rushed home and as she walked in the door, her daughter was standing there beaming, saying, mama, I got a job with this western company. And she said, where is the man who came to get you to sign the papers? She said, he just left, he's just left the parking lot. So, uh, the--they were tricked, and she said to me, umm, is this what your capitalism is, is this what capitalism--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: I said no, this is not capitalism; this is robbery.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah, but it helps to explain why from the western eyes it seems so peculiar that Yeltsin and the democratic reformers would be in trouble, helps to explain some of the protest vote that's out there against the democrats. Now, the losers, you talked about the babushkas and I guess the elderly certainly and children but I was specially struck by your description of what's happening to women. They are going backwards at a rate I don't think people in the West understand very well.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: That's one of the most distressing things that you see in Russia today. I mean, the--after World War II, women in Russia had to help hold the society together and in that period, the Soviets really built, their schools really built very strong women, and they encouraged women to be strong. And so through the Soviet period, you saw strong women, and what you've begun to see since 1991 is that women are among the first to be fired. And the reason is that there is no longer any demand that women be kept on their jobs. And so if they come in, they say their children are sick or they have problems at home, um, the owner of the bank or the--or the small shop just says, well, you're too much trouble, you know, I'll get a man and the man can work.
DAVID GERGEN: One often wonders in a society like this, which is going through so much chaos, what sustains society and I had the sense reading your book that you thought two things might sustain the Russians. One was their, just their endurance as people. They're used to suffering and hardship. But the other was their sense of humor. There was one like that you said was a recurring favorite among Russians about what they entered in the 1990's, and that line was "Gorbachev brought us up to the abyss and then we took the next step."
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: (laughing) That's right. Well, I mean, they have--it's funny--their sense of humor is--they love to make fun of the darkest part of their lives, and, and they do it so well. I mean, I said in the book about a man who's--who rented out an apartment and in front of the apartment there was a shooting about a year ago, a Russian and a Dagastani, and they had this shootout, and both of them were killed, and they're lying out there in the parking lot. And so he said, what should I do, you know, I have an American renting that apartment; maybe I should charge him more.
DAVID GERGEN: (laughing) One last question. If you go back to Russia in the next five to ten years, what would you expect to find?
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: What I would hope to find more than anything else is a society that's begun to have a rule of law, and you can see that they need to trust the law. And they need to trust the government. Right now, they don't have that, and, and they really haven't had that for a very long time. And so that's what I would hope for Russia.
DAVID GERGEN: Eleanor, thank you very much.
ELEANOR RANDOLPH: Thank you, David.
MR. LEHRER: To clear up some possible confusion from my introduction, Eleanor Randolph is with the "Los Angeles Times" now but was working for the "Washington Post" when she was reporting in Russia.