Frontline World

Moscow - Rich in Russia, October 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Rich in Russia"

The Oligarchs

Money, Power and Politics

Examining the Young and the Restless

Government, Population, Economy

Life in Russia Today and the Transition to Capitalism




Interview with Sabrina Tavernise
Reporter Sabrina Tavernise waits for an underground train in Moscow.

Reporter Sabrina Tavernise waits for an underground train in Moscow.
What does New York look like, after so many years in Russia?

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 the truth.

What was the key thing that struck you about working in Moscow?

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.

Tavernise talking on her cell phone next to Red Square in Moscow.

Tavernise talking on her cell phone next to Red Square in Moscow.
How has that changed?

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 more pliable.

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 country?

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.

Tavernise riding the Moscow underground.

Tavernise riding the Moscow underground.
What are the biggest changes you've seen over eight years?

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.

Tavernise waits to interview Yukos' CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Tavernise waits to interview Yukos' CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
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?

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.

"Russia's New Rich Are Living It Up, but Oligarchs' Children Wonder: How Long Will It Last?" (July 31, 2003)

"To Young, a Russian Enclave Is Too Much the Old Country" (October 8, 2003)

Interview With Sabrina Tavernise

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