FOR the past three and a half years I have found myself traveling regularly to Ozyory, a small town ninety-seven miles southeast of Moscow, to check in on the apartment of my friend Svetlana, to pay the accumulated heating and phone bills for her there, and to pick up her mail. Though I enjoy the respite that Ozyory provides from the churning pace of Moscow, Svetlana, now a Muscovite, is loath to return to her home town, even for a day, and not only because it lies outside the zone of relative prosperity surrounding the capital, which has persisted despite the countrywide economic crisis. "Ozyory is full of exiles, criminals, and drunks," she says. "But what do you expect? It's beyond the hundred-and-first kilometer."
The lingering stigma associated in the new Russia with towns more than 101 kilometers (sixty-three miles) outside Moscow or other big cities reflects a perdurable Soviet legacy: the division of the land into favored urban areas and a neglected, poverty-stricken hinterland. This contrast has only grown more marked since the economic crisis began, in August. The bright lights of Moscow have not yet dimmed. Supermarkets are still stocked with goods unavailable elsewhere in the country; restaurants are still frequented, if less than before; and designer boutiques are still in business, though with fewer customers. A relatively small number of Muscovites kept their savings in banks, preferring to hoard cash dollars, so many have come through the collapse of the financial system with their money safe under the mattress, even if their salaries have been diminished by the devaluation of the ruble.
The geographic precision with which the city-countryside division was originally made bespeaks its police-state origins. To implement totalitarian governance, the Communist rulers zoned, rated, and regimented places and people to such an extent that Soviet citizens used to joke bitterly that their country was divided into malyye zony, or "small zones," a euphemism for labor camps, and bol'shaya zona, or "the big zone," meaning the rest of the Soviet Union, with zona here conveying the sense of a giant gulag. Peasants suffered a status equivalent to that of prisoners or serfs. By not issuing them the internal passports necessary for domestic travel, the Soviet government for decades forced them to stay on state and collective farms and, at the cost of their own impoverishment, to labor at providing the privileged proletariat with a regular and inexpensive supply of food.
The countryside was indeed demarcated along the lines of a gulag. For most of the Soviet era, criminals and other undesirables, including supposedly rehabilitated political prisoners returning from the labor camps after Stalin's death, were often banished beyond kilometer 101. (Presumably this was intended to keep disaffected elements away from foreigners, who were usually restricted to areas within twenty-five kilometers, or about sixteen miles, of city centers.) With the fall of the police state this practice has lapsed, but for many Russians mention of the land beyond kilometer 101 still connotes a pale of exile, a domain of reprobates and societal waste. Ozyoryans themselves assert that much of their population descends from former prisoners who had the words EXILED BEYOND KILOMETER 101 stamped on their release documents.
I began a recent trip to Ozyory from central Moscow, entering the metro a few steps away from Versace and Sandra Star boutiques near the Marriott Grand Hotel. I rode the train out to the southeastern suburb of Vykhino and boarded a worn-out red-and-white bus, which departed in a cloud of exhaust fumes and snaked its way through Mercedes-clogged traffic to Ryazan' Avenue. Twenty minutes later the driver was shuffling his documents into order; ahead of us stood the mud-splattered glass-and-aluminum police checkpoint marking Moscow's city limits. The flak-jacketed officer on guard recognized him, and motioned us through with an uninterested wave of his baton. At the checkpoint for the lanes leading into the city a half dozen cars had been pulled over; their occupants were showing papers and explaining what business had brought them to Moscow. Russians must register with the militia and pay a fee to stay in the capital for more than three days if they are not Muscovites. Leaving is easier.
After passing the checkpoint we rocked and rattled down the road amid flurries of snow. We soon left behind Moscow's neon-and-glitz environs and entered a somnolent realm of villages with ancient-sounding Russian names -- Zhilino, Stepanshchino, Vokhrinka -- where women gather at wells and goats scavenge for food among weathered wooden dwellings. We crossed over the Severka River, and the tarmac, now flanked by birch and fir groves, turned bumpy. Within a couple of hours we were beyond kilometer 101 and were passing the onion domes of cathedrals in Kolomna, where we picked up a side road to the south. Rusted signs along the way announced destitute state farms, decrepit factories, and then, finally, the county of Ozyory and the town itself.
AFTER a brief tour one could be forgiven for concluding that Ozyory, with a population of 28,000, lies deep in the Russian hinterland. Many of its roads are tracts of mud, and hardly a car or truck engine breaks the whisper of the wind in its birches and aspens. Huge, crumbling concrete apartment blocks here and there tower over quaint but rickety wooden houses that hark back to the nineteenth century, when serfs who had bought their freedom from the landlords of surrounding estates began flooding into Ozyory to take up work in its burgeoning textile plants. The boom is over: today the town has a desolate, abandoned look that calls to mind broken lives, banishment, and poverty -- in short, the lot of the Russian countryside and its people since the 1917 Bolshevik coup.
Svetlana's apartment is in the center of town, where Ozyory's main drag, Lenin Street, dead-ends at Soviet Square. Along the north side of Lenin Street stand a number of pre-revolutionary wooden buildings, latticed and colorful, that now serve as stores selling a haphazard assortment of bread, knitwear, flowers, vodka, Kodak film, sausages, Rambo videos -- and more vodka and more sausages. On the other side of the road are scattered tumbledown shops, adjacent to the bus station and the outdoor market, offering the same goods. A profusion of shabby kiosks skirts the edge of a foot-deep lake of mud fifty yards wide. This is the heart of town -- of the county, no less -- after more than seven years of market reform.
Ozyory's economy collapsed with that of the Soviet Union. Its two textile factories (which suffered when the cheap supply of cotton from Uzbekistan ceased) and a defense-related optics plant (converted unsuccessfully to a chandelier factory) now stand idle. Many of Ozyory's kiosks, harbingers of the free market, have recently closed down. About all that still functions is a foreign-owned dairy plant. Reportedly, 40 percent of adult Ozyoryans are unemployed, most of those who work are paid late, and thousands more are pensioners whose stipends are months in arrears. Many survive only by farming their dacha plots; others have taken to small-time trading or have left to look for work in Moscow. In these economic straits a fierce power struggle has developed among local politicians: the regional branch of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's reactionary Liberal Democratic Party is trying to overthrow the current (nominally reformist) county administration -- which, it appears, does little more than preside over the town's decline. It is difficult to assess what a victory of the Liberal Democrats would mean for Ozyory, but one thing is certain: since 1991 the town has witnessed a tragic drop in living standards that makes the affluence of nearby Moscow, lessened though it may be by the economic crisis, look criminal by comparison.