"Russia on the edge of the abyss," read a recent headline in the Seattle Times. For most Russians, wrote Times contributor Lara Iglitzin, "this is a familiar, if stomach-churning crisis: an economic downturn of dizzying speed that is accompanied by political paralysis . . ."
So what is it like to live and work in Russia during such seemingly desperate times? Thanks to Seattle Pacific University alumnus Andrey Ivanov and e-mail technology, Response offers a firsthand account of the reality behind the headlines. Response writer Connie McDougall "talked" with Ivanov via e-mail about conditions in Russia's capital.
A native of Russia and a 1997 SPU graduate in business administration, Ivanov lives in Moscow and works for the American company, Arthur Andersen Worldwide.
I've been reading about the serious problems in Russia. What is it like for you there?
Things are not good in Russia right now. Dollars are hard to come by these days. My salary is in rubles, but because it's pegged to a dollar amount, I have not personally lost too much yet. I am comfortable, but it still hurts to see others who are not. It's becoming a reality when a pack of butter costs as much as some people's salary. I know people on the more prosperous end who didn't lose all their pennies, though they have lost all their savings invested in government bonds.
I can't say the same thing about most of the country. No one in my family can support themselves. During one week in August, prices went up 100 percent. At the same time, salaries stayed the same. People rushed to stores and markets trying to get things at that day's prices. Exchange rates went up 100 percent. Several big commercial banks bellied up. I can't open an account with a Western bank because they're not authorized to serve individual customers.
The biggest problem for companies is the plague of non-cash payments. This is when factories pay with what they make. If you make fridges and sell them to a company, the latter may pay you with cars or concrete. This is what 85 percent of the country lives with.
The best money these days is dollars kept at home.
For now you have a good job and some security it seems. What do you do for Arthur Andersen and what are your hopes for the future?
I work as a business analyst. It's an entry-level position but my responsibilities are greater because of the skill and knowledge received at SPU. It turns out that what I studied so extensively at SPU -- business administration -- is one of the hottest things in Russia right now. In ten years, I see myself as a working professional, happily married with children. I would like to take root here because this is my country.
How did you decide to attend SPU? What are your memories of the University?
Thanks to SPU alum Andy Bishop [Class of 1966], I came to Seattle Pacific. I've had the honor of knowing Andy since 1993 when I met him at an outreach at the Black Sea. Later, it turned out we went to the same church in Moscow.
I liked the quality of the education at SPU. I enjoyed being in a small school and close to what a city can offer. I love the Christian attitudes shown by coworkers and classmates. Those are the things you normally take for granted but you learn to treasure once you begin to miss them.
How did you become a Christian? As a Christian in Russia, do you think religious tolerance continues there?
In 1993, I became a Christian when I attended a course on world religions. The professor happened to be a pastor of a church in Moscow. Part of the class was to compare the Book of Romans with a major book of some other religion. I chose a comparison with the Upanishads of Hinduism. That drove me to realize that if there is a God, it certainly is the one the Bible talks about.
The rest was a matter of time to accept, believe and trust. . . . I believe because I believe, not because I understand or know everything.
I don't know of any hardcore persecution of Christians here, at least not in Moscow. At the same time there are challenges, as always: Consumerism, financial difficulties and tight schedules for some of us make it harder to focus on God. But each of us is trying to stay on track.
I'd like to know more about your background. Where are you from and how did you grow up?
I grew up in Moscow. My parents divorced when I was eight and I was raised by my mother and her parents. By the age of 15, I was like a "greenhouse kid." I didn't know anything that was beyond what was presented to me by my parents. Going to community college at age 15 was a shock.
Another shock was being drafted into the military. I was sent to Novaya Zemlya Island. I was in Air Defense, responsible for organizing document flows in the division headquarters. Being raised in a loving family and being the only child, it was hard to be away, and to be immersed in an all-male military environment.
You may have heard of widespread harassment toward young soldiers in Russia. Personally, I did not experience that, but I saw enough that by the time I was released, I forgot how to smile or laugh. My eyes were dead still. I didn't believe or trust anyone. It's been seven years since I got back, but I am still working on becoming the person I used to be.
With the acceptance of Yevgeny Primakov as Russia's prime minister, a confrontation within the government seems to have been averted for now. Over the long term, what do you think will happen in Russia?
I'm not in a position to make predictions, but I can name key facts of success: a strong and active president with a vision; a strong prime minister who gets things done; a parliament which thinks of the country first and then of political differences.
I think Mr. Primakov suits every faction in the parliament. He is undoubtedly smart and knowledgeable. We'll have to see how he shows himself as a prime minister.
The major blow to all of us is loss of trust in the government and banking system. That will be hard to heal. In many cases, it's the mentality that has to change. It'll come eventually.