The Free Spirit

Reported by Reese Erlich, Producer, the Russia Project

REESE ERLICH: Bouncy, effervescent, twenty-two year-old Anna Berkut was our translator. She remembers the late 1980s as the best years of her life. She and her family enjoyed relative economic security and Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev was allowing unprecedented freedoms. Our group visited Georgia, one of the Soviet republics in the Caucasian mountain range. Anna fondly recalls the hospitality of the Georgians and their fierce independence.

ANNA BERKUT: In those days, Caucasian republics, they had their own type of communism because their traditions were very strong and that is why even the Soviet power couldn't ruin them. This tradition of co-hosting says that we went from place to place and they were feeding and feeding and feeding and feeding us.

[HOME OF HOSTS - UNKNOWN SPEAKER] Thank you for this incredible Georgian food and to the incredible kindness of our hosts.

The table is very interesting because it has several floors, several levels, of food. Because there is no place for us, for new food arriving.



Chicken? No, this is not chicken, no. This is katamir.

Chicken or chicken? Chicken. Chicken. "Chinin" [LAUGHTER] [IMITATION OF CHICKEN CLUCKING] Bach, bach, bach, bach. Oh chicken, okay. But Georgian chicken! [LAUGHTER CONTINUES]

ERLICH: Anna admired the strong sense of Georgian identity but such sentiment also laid the basis for fervent nationalism that split apart the old USSR and keeps Russia at war even today. Like most Russians, Anna longs for the relative ethnic peace that existed before 1991. The Gorbachev years also meant economic stability for Anna and her family. She was optimistic and free spirited.

BERKUT: In terms of social welfare I had no worries. I was absolutely sure that we would not die from hunger. Of course I was optimistic because even, it was just shortly after Perestroika we had the lines and so on and so forth but, first of all, I was not afraid [of] any hardships. You know I felt good when I overcame something, so that is why, why I'm simply not afraid. You know I was absolutely optimistic. I was absolutely sure that everything would be okay because for that time, for example, my parents, and even my grandparents, we were not rich but we lived quite a normal life.

ERLICH: When I visited Anna again in 1992, she had transformed herself. She managed a successful travel agency, but she had also lost her naïve, free-spirited ways.

BERKUT: You can't be so freespirited. And that is why, maybe you know, what you noticed wasn't quite right, because I tried to play this game.

ERLICH: Anna and some close friends had pooled their resources to start the travel agency. Then they published an alternative culture magazine and opened a very successful alternative rock nightclub.

[Rock song, Russian "2000" CD]

Soon however, what had started as a cooperative venture became something quite different. One friend became the boss and the others his employees. This was happening all over Russia, although in a slightly different way. When the government privatized its state-owned businesses, it distributed shares to workers, but a few rich entrepreneurs soon bought up the shares and became the new dominant economic class. Anna's director, like the other "neuvo riche," liked to display as well.

BERKUT: First he bought a Volvo then a Rolls Royce. It looked very nice. It was two colored like: dark chocolate with milk coffee. Of course we cheated our system. I am not sure how. I not know how, but I am sure that our director knew. He didn't pay taxes.


ERLICH: Soon rather large men with gold pinkie rings paid Anna's company a visit. The Mafia's omnipresent in the new Russia running protection racquets offering what they call a 'roof' for legitimate businesses.

BERKUT: When we started the nightclub, I knew for sure that we had the "roof" from Mafia. Even when we started a magazine. I was at the office when the Mafia people came to see what is going on because the magazine means advertising and means money and so it means we had to pay.

For our nightclub, we had to pay $3,000 a month. And we saw this representative of Mafia, of course, in our nightclub, and it was completely nonsense.

[Rock music from Nightclub]

The Mafia looked very strange. Red and purple jackets, so it was very, very fashionable among the Mafia. There was one person who was, as we say, like a wardrobe by size. He was oversized.

ERLICH: And the Mafia Don's brought their girlfriends to the club.

BERKUT: Of course they were prostitutes, it's obvious, but unimaginable. They were so well formed and long legged and long haired and everything. I don't know where they were grown. Really.

ERLICH: The nightclub and magazine didn't last long. Between the Mafia and extravagant spending, the whole enterprise folded. Anna—for the first time in her life—was unemployed. She later found work as a public relations manager for the Moscow office of a famous Italian clothing manufacturer. But, that too, failed. In the summer of 1998, Anna was appointed as editor-in-chief of a new culture magazine. One week later Russia went into its infamous economic crisis. She worked for several months, but the first issue never appeared.

BERKUT: I worked for free. It's so typical and common story. You are not protected by the law. You don't know how to make all these papers. We wait for several months, work for several months—say tomorrow. Tomorrow, tomorrow everything will be fine. Then when we understand that it will never be fine, we just say goodbye. If I received all the money that they owe me and didn't pay for different circumstances, I could be maybe a millionaire nowadays, really.

ERLICH: And that's been one of the greatest failures of Russia's new capitalist system, says Anna. Employers can refuse to pay back wages, and banks can collapse. Many police and government officials collude with organized crime. But the ordinary person can't get justice through the legislature or the courts. While people are freer to complain than during Soviet times, their complaints still aren't answered.

[Recording of musical saw]

These days Anna Berkut tries to make a living as a freelance magazine writer covering cultural issues.

BERKUT: We are in the Hermitage Garden, near three Moscow theaters. Events are taking place here which attract young hipsters, and today is one of the days of the festival, theater festival, which is incredible for Moscow.

ERLICH: The festival includes strolling musicians, like this man playing a musical saw.

[Musical saw playing "Rock Around the Clock"]

These days Anna's life is very tough. Without steady work, she runs out of money for food at the end of the month. Nevertheless, she's not giving up.

BERKUT: No, I am optimistic, in general, because we cannot live this way for years and hundreds of years. Enough is enough. And our history shows that there are very bad periods, but somehow some people still try to go ahead and break through and so on and so forth. So I think that in general, somehow, things will work out.

ERLICH: Are you still a free spirit?

BERKUT: Yeah, sure. Sure. That's maybe the only thing which helps me to live under all the circumstances

[Musical saw playing "Rock Around the Clock"].

ERLICH: For the Russia Project, I'm Reese Erlich in Moscow.

[Musical saw song ends]

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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