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A Russian Journey

The Perils and Pleasures of Travel in Russia

Since Alexander Radishchev's days, Russia has experienced wars, famines, a bloody revolution, and, 10 years ago, a bloodless one. Throughout, the road from St. Petersburg to Moscow has stood witness—the villages and towns along the way are tenacious monuments to Russia's history.

Though now a paved highway, the St. Petersburg to Moscow road still follows every twist and turn of Radishchev's route. It's a good place to look at the state of Russia and its grasp for freedom and prosperity, issues that resonate today just as they did 200 years ago.

Radishchev visited 24 settlements in his journey documenting harsh laws, arbitrary punishment, burdensome taxes, and suffocating censorship. He chose this route because he said the two great cities—St. Petersburg and Moscow—do not reflect the true Russian condition. That's still the case.

Radishchev did this trip in a carriage with horses. We're doing it in a red Zhiguli. It's a 1989 version, so we hope everything goes okay. It took Radishchev between 4 and 5 days to do the trip—424 miles; we could easily do it in 24 hours. But as Radishchev said: "The longer you take, the farther you'll get."

The speedometer doesn't work, and the suspension has seen better days, but our driver, 37-year-old Kostya Vasin, is a master at the wheel. With tousled blond hair and clear blue eyes, he knows every bump of the route by heart. He's been driving it as a trucker for 13 years.

We pass grand St. Petersburg hotels and a busy McDonald's, and then the city begins to dissolve into gray, deteriorating apartment buildings. They give way to green fields and birch groves interrupted by clusters of one-story wooden houses and small towns. This is the Russian heartland.

We've only been on the road for a few miles and we've already been waved over by a policeman. Kostya says it's a document check.

"They'll always get you for something," he explains after it's over. "Some problem with your papers or with the car. Russian cars aren't Mercedes or Volvos. There's always something broken. It's better to pay immediately, because if you dawdle or look for a way out, you wind up paying a bigger fine."

Two hundred years ago, a driver at a post station confronted Radishchev with a thinly veiled demand for a bribe. It was the order of the day. According to Kostya, bribes are still the way things work. Further along, we're stopped again, this time for speeding.

"I was fined 300 rubles," he tells us, "but without a receipt I only paid 100. The government won't get anything. I'm happy. He's happy. That's the way it always is. I've never met a policeman who didn't take a bribe. Not bad work being a policeman. But they are always very careful. They invite you into their car as if to fill out the forms so it's just you and them, no other witnesses. By the way, they warned me there's another police check up ahead."

Though this is one of Russia's major highways, there are just three narrow lanes in each direction. Kostya has to maneuver around the potholes. With the recent return of private enterprise, services that disappeared under the communists have reappeared. Gas stations, motels, and some really quite decent eateries are modern versions of the inns Radishchev frequented.

Over homemade cabbage soup at Manya's Restaurant, Kostya describes the perils and pleasures of travel now.

"If you stop on the road somewhere between small towns," he says, "guys come up and demand money and you come to some agreement or else they will slash your tires or beat you. The question is how little you can get away with. But now there are truck stops. They won't touch you there. Now you can wash up along the way. In the past we would camp by a river, but now there are places with showers—even saunas."

Liuban-Little Wooden Houses

Off the highway, in a village called Liuban, we find a school named after Radishchev—the fact that he visited this hiccup on the road is a high point in Liuban's 500-year history. The village roads are rutted, even when there is a veneer of pavement. Potholes the size of small ponds are filled with water from a recent rain.

"It's a very little town," explains a 60-year-old Liuban English teacher, Nelly Lukyanova. "One musical school. The cinema is shown—no," she corrects herself, "films are shown. And most of all [there are] little houses, wooden houses."

Wooden houses with outdoor toilets and communal water pumps. The infrastructure is so fragile that a strong wind has knocked out the heat and electricity, yet again.

The school is chilly. Principal Galina Kudrina says the fervor of the early years of reform has dimmed.

"Wages are simply too low," says Kudrina. "If we had decent wages, there wouldn't be any problems. But with salaries the way they are, it's hard to maintain enthusiasm over the years. You understand: A teacher also wants to eat, to dress properly. And we all have families."

The 37-year-old Liuban principal doesn't want to go back to the way it was, but is clearly confused by the new reality. She misses the protective Soviet cocoon, where information was controlled and planes seemingly never crashed.

"The media shows so many negative things," she says, "not only for our country, but everywhere: some kind of catastrophe, something breaks down, something collapses. It's hard to bear, so we watch less television. It's hard to prepare kids for this new world when we haven't even adjusted. Everything is very difficult."


Proletary-A Porcelain Stand on the Road Side

In Radishchev's day, Russians lived off what they could forage in the forests or grow on their small plots and sell along the road. Back along the highway little has changed. Stands offer berries and mushrooms, fresh milk, and homemade cottage cheese. Near the village of Proletary there is suddenly a line of tables stacked with really ugly porcelain. It's made in the local factory. We pull over.

Wrapped in a parka to ward off the spring chill, a 30-something woman called Nadya is clearly relieved to see a prospective customer.

"You're only the second to stop today," she says.

As she wraps up a purchase, Nadya explains that the factory is in debt. It can't pay wages and compensates workers with china that they then have to try and sell. Nadya was in shock and embarrassed the first time she had to stand on the roadside, but after five years she's more or less used to it. In winter she might clear $10 in a month. In summer she can make $50, but it's not enough to live on.

She says her family survives by producing most of their own food. They have a small garden and some cows. She realizes how absurd it all sounds. They are too poor to move away (no one would buy their apartment) and too poor to stay.

Long before Marx or Lenin appeared, Radishchev debated how to have an effective yet humane economic system. He had no answer and wrote: "I went to bed with an empty head." Nadya lives in the hope that an investor for the factory will miraculously appear.


Chudovo-Cadbury Chocolate Company

An hour away, the city of Novgorod has been creating its own miracles.

Founded in the ninth century, this is the oldest city in Russia and an architectural jewel: Its bells were a symbol of democracy, enlightenment, and prosperity until Moscow's jealous princes sacked the city in 1471. Radishchev called this "might against right" and he mourned the fact Novogord could never be restored to its former glory.

But Novgorod's traditions were never entirely forgotten, and the city is proud to be in the forefront of reform again. Novgorod's progressive governor has created attractive conditions for investors—among them the Cadbury chocolate company.

Sheets of chocolate are cut into bars at Cadbury's new factory in the sleepy suburb of Chudovo. With its state of the art equipment, good working conditions and manicured lawns, the Cadbury plant rises like a mirage.

"We were joking: It's a bit like a spaceship in the desert," Managing Director Peter Knauer tells us.

The 43 year-old Knauer knows how difficult it is to make the transition from a communist economy; he's a former East German military officer. He lives in a trailer next to the factory where, for the past six years, he's supervised its construction and development. It's been a challenge, even with tax breaks and a sympathetic governor.

"The gap between modern manufacturing facilities like ours and the environment is huge," says Knauer. "And, this is a problem that the infrastructure in Russia is lagging well behind the investment coming into Russia. So, companies like ours have to understand that they must invest, not only in their own facilities, but into the infrastructure and the environment."

To meet its own standards, Cadbury had to establish environmentally effective waste systems, it had to completely revamp the local fire department, and, together with other foreign companies lured here, it anticipates investing in local schools so that future workers will be better prepared. And since there's basically nothing to do in Chudovo after hours, they plan to build some recreational facilities so skilled workers will want to stay here.

When Peter Knauer first started hiring, 2,500 people showed up for a handful of jobs. Igor Yermolovo, an experienced engineer, was ready to do anything just to get his foot in the door. He started in the stock room and is now in charge of technical development.

"It was my dream to have a job like this," says Yermolovo. " I love this job. I do like machinery, and metal. I can do whatever I want to do here. People in the technical department just love their jobs."

There is an elaborate security system throughout the plant. The man responsible for all this, Alexander Ovchinnikov, says there's a lot of organized crime in the area. It too is anxious to get a foot in the door.

"For foreign investors, it's a problem to defend themselves, their businessesm and their staff sometimes," says Ovchinnikov, "because some big guys, sometimes they try to involve you in some 'business.' And they directly threatened me a few times. They tried to be part of or business."

The threat, Ochinnikov explains, is "I'll hurt you, unless you bring me inside."

Cadbury now has 700 employees, and Director Knauer says Russians are beginning to believe they can make things better.

"The change is in peoples' mentality," he says. "People start to believe in change. They see change happen, and they start to believe that it's not impossible to change Russia into a modern country."

Novgorod-Women's Parliament

We leave this spaceship in the desert behind and head back to Novogord. Only a quarter-mile from the Cadbury facility, we pass one of the ubiquitous wooden houses with carved window frames.

An old woman draws water from a pump. Alexander Radishchev would feel right at home.

Conversations along the way seldom touch on politics. Kremlin intrigues may be the hot topic with the Moscow set, but the provinces Russians are fed up with political antics they consider largely irrelevant. They are much more concerned with their families, their towns, and their ability to make a living.

This hit home at the Women's Parliament in Novgorod. Despite the name, the parliament is really a kind of club where women study psychology, health, law, how to set up a small business, or how to work a computer. The women here hope to improve their job skills, or just learn. Irina Vazhnova, 44, expresses the palpable excitement of those gathered here.

"I am changing inside," she says. "That is clear. And I want my children to live a better life in this new Russia. An 'open society' isn't just a word … It's the desire of most people, and we will reach it, I think."

Two hundred years ago, Radishchev lamented the role society inflicted on women—whether "the false fashions and coy behavior" of the cities or the brutal servitude of the countryside.

Irina Borisova, a dynamic 57-year-old who founded the Women's Parliament, says Russian women are still victims of sex discrimination and confining tradition. A trip to the United States, where she met with American women's groups, shook her to the core.

"Russian women become pensioners at 55," she tells us. "The very word means 'the end of life.' But when I was in Iowa and saw active, engaged American women—some as old as 75, with their eyes still burning—I was inspired. I went out and got my driver's license. It is important for women to have confidence. For men it's more complicated. Russian men are destroyed by the age of 55; their health is shot from drinking."

Russians are looking for something to believe in beyond politics. Inspiration and consolation come in many forms.


Novgorod-Baptist Church

For some here in Novgorod, inspiration has been the Baptist church, which started in a private home, but has now moved to a brand-new, imposing brick building. Funded by Americans and Canadians, it is a carbon copy of a typical Baptist church in the United States.

The congregation has expanded from 20 to more than 500 hundred. Peter Hughes, from Roanoke, Illinois, is with an organization called the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International.

"We were helpful in advertising the need for monies for this church," says Hughes, "and the fellowship contributed a pretty good sum of money to build this church—$75,000 to $100,000, I'm guessing. There were times when we brought over $27,000 in cash."

Over the time Hughes and the FCFI have been working in Novgorod, they have seen the congregation change and develop as well as the physical structure of the church.

"Initially we had a lot of elderly ladies and children—one or two men, and very few young men. Now you have young men and families. It's tremendous, the change. And Anatoly is the dynamo. He's the leader; he's great."

Anatoly is Father Anatoly Korabel, the Baptist minister. He started in Soviet times when it was forbidden to proselytize or educate children in the faith. Now he has a Sunday school and a training program for new ministers. His goal is to open 35 Baptist churches in the Novgorod region, alone, but he says he continues to face opposition.

"Not every time freedom is freedom," says Father Korabel. "It looks like freedom, but it is not freedom. They don't want us. All the time they say that we are American church, not Russian church."


Gorodnya-Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church, which wields huge influence and sees itself as the bastion of Russian culture, contends no other import is as dangerous as that of so-called Western religions.

When Soviet religious restrictions were lifted in the 1980s, the Orthodox churches were besieged, but after the first wave of religious fervor, attendance has dropped off. The Orthodox Church resents and fears foreign competition for Russia's heart and soul and has tried to restrict its activities. Radishchev, who vehemently opposed any form of censorship, argued long ago this kind of attitude arrests progress.

In the small town of Gorodnya the orthodox priest Father Aleksei has no time for the foreign visitors—he says outsiders will never understand Russia or Russians. He attacks what he believes to be Western meddling in the spiritual and political life of his country—in response he is fighting back. This competition is what Radishchev would call this progress.

Father Alexei has started a church school to help feed, clothe, and educate the area's poor. This is not the traditionally authoritarian and fatalistic Orthodox Church, which has often seemed more comfortable restoring cathedrals than people's lives.

Father Alexei's charges are not only learning prayers, old-church Slavonic, and church history. They are also being prepared for a competitive world, and, despite his anti-Western sentiments, that includes learning English.

From the front of the church's classroom, a teacher calls on students to read the roles of Tom and Aunt Polly. The text the school children have memorized is from the most American of writers: Mark Twain. They act out the moment when Tom Sawyer manages to dupe his pals into painting the fence.

"Tom! Tom! Where is the boy? Tom!" Aunt Polly calls out.
"Here I am!" he replies.
"Oh, you've been to the closet!" she scolds him. "What is that? What were you do there?"

The teacher starts to correct her, but Aunt Polly corrects herself—"doing there"—almost simultaneously.

Across the street, Dr. Galina Stepanovna is the local pediatrician who looks after the health of these children. She is also one of Father Alexei's most devoted parishioners. She's seen it all. Under the Communists she was assigned to the Soviet Arctic for 25 years; when medical funding dried up in the early '90s, she moved here.

Her middle-aged husband died, and she thought there was nothing left to live for. Father Alexei gave her hope, and she says the church here has responded to the social earthquake.

"These families have learned how to take care of themselves now," she says. "I tell their neighbors don't give them anything for free. Ask them to help you, so they understand what responsibility is. In the village, the attitude in the past was: Get what you can for nothing. People understand they have to work."

With that this tiny imp of a woman leads us to a bluff overlooking the nearby Volga River. The wind is strong, and the waters run clear and blue. On the ridge she skips and spins exuberantly like a young Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Galina Stepanova has faith in God and man.


Valdai-A Rough Night

Two hundred miles into the trip, we reach Valdai—one of the few places where Radishchev is not a hero. He wrote that all the local women were prostitutes. If so, they have moved on to greener pastures, but closer to Moscow they line the highway preening for business.

Valdai, a town of about 20,000, is now famous for its lakes and aspires to be a tourist haven, but it has a long way to go. The streetlights are never turned on, apparently to save electricity. And then there's the Hotel Valdai. Radishchev was treated to baths and the comforts of so-called "lustful monsters" who stole travelers' money, health, and valuable travel time. We were treated to a Soviet confection of chipped white brick.

The unsmiling staff seemed surprised if not downright upset to have foreign visitors. With a new willingness to please permeating Russia these days, it was a shock to find Soviet-style brusqueness. You have to pay a fine if you fill in the complicated registration form incorrectly. Payment for the room is demanded in advance. The curt explanation is: "Russians live day by day."

It was a rough night. The Valdai hotel had long since shut off its hot water and heat, and the room was freezing. And then suddenly in the wee hours, there was this noise.

A check of the door dispelled fears of an intruder, but the noise continued. It was loud. It was downright raucous!

Telltale nibble marks in a box of oatmeal later revealed it had been the scratching, gnawing assault of a Russian rodent.

Morning came too quickly or not quickly enough depending on how you look at it. The receptionist, resigned to trouble, asked, "What are your complaints?"

She wasn't going to do anything about them, and it became clear why the hotel demands money in advance. When competition hits this town, and it's coming, this hotel will be history.


Valdai-The Effects of Drinking

At breakfast the other guests were also bleary eyed but their problem wasn't mice. A number of men and women wash down their eggs with shots of vodka to work off their visible hangovers.

Later outside the hotel, Kostya, our driver, points to two men staggering along the sidewalk with something in their arms.

"They've got the back part of a television set and they're taking it to sell as scrap metal to get some money for vodka" He explains with disgust. "They stripped it from their apartment. Look at them … they're all blue under the eyes."

The men, somewhere in their late '30s are in rags—their faces puffy and disfigured by years of drinking. Kostya says he's seen it a million times. Essentially you tear down your apartment bit by bit until there's nothing left, all for a bottle of vodka.

Just as it was in Radishchev's time, alcoholism is Russia's curse—sociologists speculate its roots are frustration and despair—serfdom, socialism and the social upheaval of the past 10 years have all played their parts. It's estimated a Russian is six times more likely to die from alcohol-related illness or accidents than an American.

At a children's home in Valdai, most of the kids have been abandoned or removed from their families because of the effects of drinking.

There are 50 kids here, ranging in age from three to 18. Thirteen-year-old Yana softly sings along to the tape of a pop tune called "You Will Forget Me."

These children are the casualties on the front line of Russia's decade-long effort to create a market economy. Officials estimate there are as many as half a million kids now living in orphanages. The bare living room is sparkling clean. The kids are well fed and adequately clothed, but, like Yana, they have one wish.

As Yana tells me how much she wants to go back home, the deputy director, Ludmilla Petrovna sadly shakes her head. There is no chance.

The children are all from the Valdai region. Until four years ago they would have been shipped somewhere else, but those facilities are now overburdened for the same reasons. Valdai has had to build its own orphanage.

"I would like many things for these children," says Petrovna, who works there. "Good books, so when kids come home from school they would be something to read; we need sports equipment, and of course computers. Also, we have no transportation to take them anywhere."

Though desperately short of funds, the underpaid staff is devoted.

"It's like a narcotic." Says Petrovna. "I can't leave these kids. I know each of them. Even in some cases what they are thinking and what they dream about."


Valdai-American Influence

Like many Russian towns, Valdai has hooked up with a "sister community" in the United States, in this case: Canyon City, Colorado. Valdai clearly hopes to benefit from American experience and, bluntly, from its financial resources. Canyon City has come through. It is sponsoring a family crisis center, the first of its kind in the region.

Thanks to this sister-city system several people from Valdai have had the chance to visit America over the past few years. One of these is English teacher Valentina Fedotova.

"We are patient, and we hope for a better life. It will be better, but it will take time."

Lest we think everything about Russia is grim, Valentina introduces us to the Smirnov family. Liuba, a gangly 15 year-old with an irrepressible attitude to match her brains, is her top student. She's already plotting how she can escape what she calls "boring old Valdai."

"I want to find a good man," she says, "a Russian. I want a very good man in Moscow or St. Petersburg; I don't care."

"Not Valdai?" I ask her.

"Not Valdai!" she says laughing at the absurdity of such an idea. "There are no good men in Valdai."

"There aren't?" I say.

"All drunkards," she replies matter-of-factly and we laugh with her.

"It's true," she says. "All the good people—who have money, of course—go away to Novgorod, Moscow, St. Petersburg, other big cities. They don't stay in Valdai."

The teakettle announces it's time for dessert. The Smirnovs, highly skilled computers specialists, live in a comfortable three-room apartment with evident signs of success. Yet four years ago this family had nothing.

Like many we've met along the way, these Russians had to leave their home in a former Soviet republic: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Estonia, and, in the Smirnov's case, Kazakhstan. Liuba says life in newly independent Kazakhstan became impossible because of economic decline and growing anti-Russian sentiment.

We had to move," she said. "We didn't want to, but we had to. It was very hard. We didn't have a flat, enough money to live, and … my parents didn't have work."

They rebuilt their lives from scratch. Though Liuba's father Aliosha drives an ancient car, she sports a new set of braces, and the family has a computer, as well as access to the Internet. For Radishchev, contact with the rest of the world was hard to come by. Censorship and limitations on travel extended through the Soviet period. Now the world is at Liuba's fingertips.

"I know the English chat where I can talk to people from many countries," Liuba tells us. "We talk in English, and of course this is very good practice for me"

Liuba arrives at the site where she checks her email.

"When I am on the Internet for many hours," she says and giggles, "a big bill comes to us, and I have to make my time little. Of course I want to be on the Internet everyday but I can't unfortunately."

Liuba says her father cries when he sees the big bill, but Aliosha Smirnov denies his beloved daughter very little. She is just one of two students in her class of 30 with Internet access, but access to Western culture extends beyond cyberspace.

Although Liuba would prefer the Spice Girls or Ricky Martin, her parents' tastes run to Frank Sinatra. During our visit, the Smirnov family treats us to their rendition of "Strangers in the Night."

Sinatra is rated the most popular singer in all of Russia, and everyone in the family knows all the words.


Vyshny Volochok-A Crisis of Population Decline

We've been on the road for a week, and we've covered about 200 miles, which puts us about half way to Moscow. Kostya, the driver, just pointed out a rainbow in front of us. Perhaps this bodes well for the rest of the journey.

Having just said that, the car's broken down. We appear to be overheating. Luckily, Kostya can fix anything, especially his own Zhiguli, so we have our fingers crossed.

To pass the time while Kostya works on the car, we listen to a tape of folk songs. Radishchev wrote: "He who knows the melodies of Russian folk songs must admit there is something in them which suggests spiritual sorrow."

The source of Russian melancholy has long provided writers with food for speculation. Kostya's current melancholy is not a subject for metaphysical debate; it is bad Russian engineering and shoddy spare parts.

We limp to our next destination, Vyshny Volochok.

This was a marvel of commerce for Radishchev, but apart from some beautifully restored churches and monasteries, Vyshny Volochok has seen better days. When you ask anyone about life here, one of the first things they mention is the low birth rate. In the last few years the population has shrunk from 75,000 to about 60,000, and by all accounts it's likely to continue to drop.

Svetlana Sorokina, a teacher at the local school, says that on salaries of less than $100 a month, Russians simply can't afford to have more than one child now.

"I would love to have more children," she says, "but I couldn't support them. Higher education has become expensive."

The population decline has become a national crisis. The government has warned that if it is not turned around, the economy will soon be affected and Russia's status in the world further threatened. The decreased average life span has accelerated the problem.

Outside the local theater on Lenin Street—its name hasn't changed—brides, grooms, and guests wait in a line that stretches down the sidewalk to a parking lot.

Katya, a store clerk, is in a long white gown with flowers in her upswept hair. This 20-year-old can expect to live until she's 72, but her groom, Alexei, being a Russian male, can only expect to live until he is 59. While this is a great deal better than in Radishchev's day when the average Russian died at 30, it is worse than it was under the communists, just 15 years ago.

After waiting impatiently for an hour Katya and Alexei are finally ushered inside where, in a brief ceremony, they are pronounced husband and wife.

Alexei says the registrar wished them "peace, happiness, and lots of kids."

The champagne flows, and to the chants of bitter, bitter, bitter the bride and groom kiss… and kiss, and kiss. The longer the kiss, the sweeter the champagne will be and—it's said—the longer the couple can hope to live. They then go to a party at Katya's parents' small apartment, where they will reside for the foreseeable future. There's not much room for lots of children.

Kostya, by now our regular commentator, is struggling to bring up a son in a cramped one-room apartment in Moscow, and he scoffs at official coaxing to have lots of children.

"Who knows what will happen in the country, what prices will be?" he asks. "There's no confidence in the economy. Everyone is afraid to have kids. We could all suddenly have nothing."

We get back on the road. At one of the shiny new gas stations, Kostya stops to fill up the tank. When he gets back, he's fuming. The pumps were rigged, and he was cheated of several liters of gas. He has a solution:

"You know red square," he says, "the place there where the Tsars used to punish people? If you were to take just one person who takes bribes—someone from a high position, a big cheese. If you were to condemn him to death and show the execution on television, so the whole of Russia could see, the next day theft and corruption would stop. Show what happens if you take bribes. Otherwise, in Russia, there will never be order."


Tver-A New Generation of Law Students

301 miles into our journey, we reach the picturesque city of Tver—a provincial hub with exquisitely restored 18th century buildings painted in pastels of green, pink, and blue. There's a good new hotel, and a boulevard named after Radishchev. No wonder, for it was in Tver that Radishchev wrote one of his most impassioned passages—a plea for what he called "the priceless gift of liberty." For Radishchev, the law was "a divinity," which, if impartially and humanistically applied, would guarantee truth and justice.

There's a large university in Tver, and law is now the most popular program. A student-run law clinic offers free consultations.

On this particular morning, an elderly Russian gets advice on how to pursue his pension claims in court. The idea of community service is new—supported by American grants—and the students get invaluable experience.

But Ivan Baranov, one of the law students, suggests that Western influence can also erode Russian ideals.

"In Soviet times," he says, "children should ask that I want to be cosmonaut. But nowadays we hear that we want to be a criminal. Children telling us we want to be a criminal because the criminals are the rich people. The system of values changed. It has really changed because, influence from the West, we got not the best. We got all the bad."

Two hundred years ago, Radishchev wrote that the law was unable or unwilling to protect Russians citizens, forcing them to take it into their own hands. Sergei Vasiliev, a third-year law student, says this remains true now.

"As for police and prosecutors," Vasiliev says, "I can say for sure that people don't respect them, because they think the police and prosecutors only follow the interests of high officials and of the government. And sometimes they think they take bribes."

Professor Ludmilla Mikhailova doesn't have much good to say about the judiciary either. She is enthusiastic about this new generation of law students, but, as long as Soviet-era judges fill the bench, she says, there is little hope for real change, because they are poorly trained, ill-paid, and without any support.

"Judges don't even have enough money to obtain copies of new laws being issued," she says, explaining the gravity of the situation. "There are no stenographers in the courts, just a secretary who takes notes. She can easily miss key details, or what she writes can be completely inaccurate."

Given this resounding condemnation, the obvious question is: Why are so many young people in law school? Unlike Radishchev who eventually committed suicide in despair over Russia's inability to reform, Vasiliev is an optimist.

"I want people to respect the law," he says, "and I think in the future they'll understand the usage of law is necessary in their life, and they can protect their interests only by respecting the law."

The challenge of dragging this country into the 21st century is most poignant in the villages and farms that Alexander Radishchev would immediately recognize.


Maximtsevo-Failing Collective Farm

Like the others we've seen along the road, one village here is indistinguishable from the next, each nothing more than a collection of weather-beaten wooden houses and crumbling barns. No longer slaves to tsars or totalitarian soviets, rural Russians remain numbingly poor. In the village of Maximtsevo, the collective farm is too poor even to go bankrupt; no one wants to bid on it.

A dairy worker is roused from a drunken stupor. All that's left here are a few cows, the feeble and the elderly. Eighty-six year-old Anastasia sits on a bench, warming herself in the early spring sun.

Life was never good here, but now she says it's even worse. This collective farm is nothing but a rusted heap. Tractors and harvesters decay in the muddy barnyard—untended and useless without spare parts. The surrounding fields lie fallow.

Anastastia's neat house and vegetable garden are a stark contrast, a testimony perhaps to pride and private property. Delighted to have some company, Anastasia grabs her stick and hobbles up the steps to show off her humble, cozy, three-room home.

A central wood-burning stove provides warmth as well as the oven where she dries mushrooms she collects in the nearby forest. But she's running short of fuel. She hasn't been able to afford meat in two years, and,with a pension of only $30-a-month, she worries about how she will get through next winter.

Anastastia clings to us as we say good-bye; it is an emotional farewell. We find the head of the farm waiting for us outside. Sixty-one-year-old Victor Hippolitovich says prospects for Maximtsevo are bad.

"The equipment is out of date," he tells us. "There aren't enough trained people left. The young people just don't want to live here."

He says the farm was never profitable—not even with Soviet-era subsidies. In those days, the authorities just wrote off the losses every year, and no one had to accept any responsibility. Not a bad life, he jokes bitterly.

This legacy and the absence of investment now spell the end. While the communist system had its problems, Hippolitovich says the present government has simply posed new ones.

"Freedom means different things to different people," he explains. "Out here, freedom of the press doesn't mean anything. We were never concerned with political freedom. We were just concerned with raising our children and sending them to school. We had certain guarantees and those have now gone. In the early '90s, we thought we had a chance to improve our lives, but then the government screwed us."


A Model Farm Two Hours from Moscow

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 crook—that 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 be—not 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."

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.