TIME TO GO: Members of an opposition movement hung a banner on the roof of a
building opposite the Kremlin, reading "Putin, walk away", on February
1. The banner was taken down by the authorities several hours later.
At 8pm Friday night, I decided to close up shop in VOA’s Moscow office and fly to Odessa, Ukraine, for the weekend.
Moscow’s weekend forecast was -30C, my trip to Central Asia had been cancelled, and the Black Sea sounded like a good mid-winter break. I did not have an airline ticket, but I knew the schedule.
Three hours later, at 11pm, I was buckled into a window seat in a nice, new Boeing 737, and rolling down the runway at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.
What transpired in those three hours gives an insight into a central problem facing prime minister Putin as he tries to hold on to middle class support this political year — in the March 4 elections and beyond.
Putin is a victim of his own success.
The 20 and 30-somethings who chant "Russia Without Putin" have no real memory of the chaotic 1990s, much less the grey, repressive communist years before that. Putin’s promise of "stability" may be music to the ears of the older generation. But, to Russia’s younger generation, it sounds like stagnation.
Back to Friday night.
After throwing clothes in a bag, I walked to the Aeroexpress office at Kievskii railroad station. Painted bright red and white, these clean and modern trains now serve Moscow’s three international airports. The definition of express means that they leave on time, arrive on time, make no stops, and cut straight through Moscow’s notorious and unpredictable traffic jams. The only people who drive to and from Moscow airports these days are first time foreign visitors and Muscovites who suffer from severe cases of car attachment disorder.
At the station, I fed 590 rubles ($20) into a ticket vending machine. Tap, tap, tap on a touch screen. The round trip ticket was in my hand, and the change in my pocket.
Minutes later, I was seated in the train, rolling to Vnukovo International Airport, 30 kilometres west of Moscow. Clean and quiet, the train was a rolling reading room, allowing me to catch up on back newspapers and check email on my mobile phone.
Thirty five minutes later, at 9.35pm, I was at the station riding the escalator into the new steel and glass terminal.
With 85 minutes to take off, I make one mistake. Faced with going left to "International" or right to "National," I gambled that the airport administration was stuck in "old think," classifying Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, as a domestic destination.
Wrong. But the courteous guard at national section allowed me to go the wrong way through his metal detector to walk to the international section.
At the international section, I went to ticket sales office and asked to buy a round trip ticket to Odessa. At 70 minutes to take off, she was running my Visa card, charging me 9774 rubles ($328) for a round trip ticket – about two per cent less than the internet price. (At the same time, I was juggling a telephone call from my oldest son, James, calling from Ohio to tell me about his job interviews).
While running up my charge, the ticket agent discovered that the man before me, wearing a distinctive green shirt, had left behind his Visa card. Without any fuss, an Aeroflot attendant came out to the ticket counter, and reunited the passenger with his Visa.
Ticket in hand, I went through the customs x-ray machine and checkpoint. The customs officer asked me if I was carrying a lot of cash. I said no, realising at that point that I was embarking on an international trip with about $41 in Russian rubles. I knew there were plenty of ATMs in Odessa.
Now 45 minutes before takeoff, I checked in for the international flight.
Boarding pass in hand, I was off to passport control manned by a Russian border guard in a glass booth. She looked at my American passport, looked at me, and then gave me a big smile. She was encouraging me to smile, like in my passport picture. (If Russian border guards are coaching Americans on their smiles, what is the world coming to?)
Another airport security check with x-ray machines. Ten minutes to boarding time, I was threading my way through a gauntlet of stores selling duty free liquor, perfume and silk scarves. Modern Russian airports increasingly are trips to the shopping mall.
With five minutes to spare, I called two hotels in Odessa on my mobile phone. I picked the cheapest one, reserved a room, and told them it would a late check in.
A few minutes later, I was in the jet, looking at a large lady sitting in my window seat.
The steward intervened and diplomatically explained to her that my seat was 22F, and her seat was 19A. No shouting, no hysterics.
Settled into my seat, I heard the tell-tale clink of large bottles going into the overhead. It was the man in the green shirt. He had used his recovered Visa for last minute shopping at the duty free.
"Vodka?" I asked.
"No," he replied. "They have plenty of that in Ukraine. This is whiskey."
Wheels up for the Black Sea, three hours after locking the door to my office.
Why does all this spell trouble for prime minister Putin?
Let’s go make a quick trip back 20 years ago to my first flight internal flight in the Soviet Union, in September 1991, for The New York Times.
A Times assistant had to make the trip with me to a grey, bleak Moscow airport, leading me through a bewildering travel bureaucracy: bizarre Soviet stations of the cross that could only be satisfied with a series of permits and stamps, to allow a foreigner to take an internal flight in the Soviet Union.
The upside was that the ticket to Tbilisi cost $12.
The downside was that there was no guarantee that the old Tupolev jet would leave anywhere near on time. Also, at the destination, rival gangs were cruising the streets of Tbilisi, holding Kalashnikovs through open windows of their Ladas.
In Moscow, the most depressing feature in the airport was the men’s room. The stench would have stopped a horse at 20 paces. I took a deep breath, and hustled in to answer nature’s call. The odour stemmed from broken plumbing, partially fixed by rags tied around pipes. Facing the sinks, sat the washroom attendant, a woman whose large frame spilled over the edges of her stool. In the corner, hunched a downcast boy, presumably her grandson, his head shaved to combat lice. A Dickensian orphanage would have been a step up.
Fortunately, many urban Russians under 35 don’t know what I am talking about.
Their conception of the Soviet Union is a hazy collage of nostalgic memories passed on by grandparents and modern fantasy video games about world domination.
In 1991, there were probably 20 restaurants in Moscow that accepted credit cards. Last year, there were 70 million Visa cards in use in Russia.
In 1991, there were no ATM machines and the only mobile phones were car phones for the Communist Party elite. Last year, there were 225 million mobile phone accounts in Russia, a country with a population of 142 million.
In 1991, the number of Russians travelling outside of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, was in the low thousands. Last year, 10 per cent of Russia’s adult population took international flights outside of the former Soviet Union. The majority went through modern airports like Vnukovo.
For middle class Russians under 35 years of age, this is the only reality they know.
"For them, the 1990s are already a myth, almost on the same order as the time of Ivan the Terrible," Valerii Fedor, director of VTSIOM, a leading polling company, says in the current issue of Le Courier de Russie, a French fortnightly here.
This is what the Kremlin is trying to cope with: revolution by the well-fed, the well-dressed, and the well-informed.
Now Russia’s new middle class wants more. They want private sector, consumer-oriented efficiency extended to public life. They want transparency, honesty and the rule of law.
For a decade, Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, the architect of the soft authoritarian system he called "sovereign democracy." Then on December 27, three days after 100 000 people demonstrated against Putin, the Kremlin sidelined Surkov into a non-political post.
Surkov, a history buff, must have recalled the words of Maximilien Robespierre, who said, as he faced the guillotine in 1794: "The Revolution devours its own children."
Instead, Surkov, the architect of modern Russia’s political system, noted ironically to a reporter: "Stabilisation devours it own children."