Back on the road, Kostya mulls the Russian condition. His eyes suddenly brighten.
"What would happen," he asks with morbid excitement, "if you gave our government the chance to rule your country for one year? Do you think our officials could succeed in destroying America in that short period of time? I bet they could. Let's trade places. We'll give you our government and we'll take yours. Your country would be ruined, and we'd be better off."
Kostya's view of corrupt, uncaring Russian officials could be lifted from the pages of Radishchev's. And, like most people, he suspects that anyone who's made big bucks in recent years must be a crookthat the money could only come from plundering Soviet assets or trading in air. Our last stop, two hours from Moscow, defies this stereotype.
Beyond a guard post down a long avenue of newly planted trees, 51-year-old Alexander Panikin has created a model farm with proceeds from his clothing business. There are orchards and ponds overlooking well-tended fields. He says he succeeded because he started early, in the '80s, before inflation hit.
"The sad thing about the Russian economy," Panikin says, "is that we produce nothing with value added. Making cheap tables and chairs, that's all very well and good, but we're lagging way behind where it counts. We basically produce raw materials, which depend on world prices. That's been fine of late, but if you look down the road, government policies spell doom for this economy."
This man is passionate about Russia and what it could be. He's created what he thinks a Russian estate should benot the cruel enslavement Radishchev condemned, or the subsidized misery of a soviet collective, but a profitable farm with a milk processing plant and a bakery, where workers earn a decent salary which is paid on time.
His manager, Alexander Litvin, a retired military officer, is clearly devoted to this man who he thinks can save Russia. He says Panikin is not one of those "new Russians," a dismissive epithet used for those who've made a killing and socked it away overseas.
"He's someone who wants to do something good for Russia," says Litvin. "That's why we love him. It's true that some are frightened of him, but you have to be strict, or you couldn't achieve this. When I first started to work here, there were bottles and cigarette butts everywhere. We cleaned it all up and issued a decree: If you get caught drinking on the job, there's a 1000-ruble fine. That's a lot of money. To start with, no one believed us, but now you won't find one bottle here."
Manor house on Panikin's estate. Click to enlarge
Photo: Rob Rand
Brick by brick, this businessman and gentleman farmer has conjured up a vision. There are formal gardens and a swimming pool, as well as indoor sports facilities and a guesthouse where Panikin entertains high-level officials.
As we drive away, Panikin's estate has left our driver Kostya speechless. He didn't believe there were Russians like this.
"He has achieved something concrete," says Kostya, nearly awestruck. "I respect him. Yes, I respect him."
With that, the journey to Moscow draws to an end. We hit urban sprawl that reeks of new money, the traffic grows more intense; the pollution starts to choke. The billboards multiply, advertising Italian kitchens and German bathrooms.
Moscow is the mecca of extremes and dreams, but dreams are no longer only for the residents of Moscow, or even St. Petersburg. When Radishchev made this journey over 200 years ago, he had a dream. It's been a bumpy, bruising trip, but if he were to do it again, he might just believe it could one day come true.
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