Exiled Beyond Kilometer 101

Life in the Russian countryside makes life in Moscow -- even during times of economic crisis -- look pretty good.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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The geographic precision with which the city-countryside division was originally made bespeaks its police-state origins.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.

MUSCOVITES and residents of St. Petersburg refer to the territories farther than 101 kilometers from their cities -- that is to say, almost all of Russia -- by a number of words roughly equivalent to "hinterland," the most common of which are glubinka (related to "depth") and glush' (deriving from "deaf" and denoting "a remote place of silence"). But Ozyory and other towns like it are not exactly dormant outposts lost to humanity. Ozyoryans evince a vigorous peasant heartiness that urbanites simply no longer need.

This is most apparent on market days. The Saturday morning after my recent arrival I wandered over to the market after Svetlana's neighbor, Vera, suggested that I do my grocery shopping there instead of in the foul-smelling stores across from the bus station. Fenced off and empty for most of the week, the market on Saturdays becomes the county hot spot, the place to see and be seen. Often it looks as if the entire town has turned out to slosh about in the mud under the rattling aluminum roofs, examining the unsteady tables stacked high with foodstuffs, cut-rate Turkish and Chinese goods, and secondhand bric-a-brac. When I walked in, a hale blonde woman was hawking Turkish Lycra sweaters, a cherubic fishmonger was tending piles of salted herring from the Black Sea, and a lively Azeri woman, whirling like a dervish with two Romanian overcoats on her shoulders, was laughing and urging the crowd to step right up and try one on.

Nearby, a grandmotherly peasant with gold teeth stood over a pile of shriveled red peppers. I took one in hand and examined it.

"With that pepper there you can season a whole pot of potatoes," she said, flashing me a smile. "It's from my own plot."

"Is it hot?"

"Hot?" She raised her arms. "My God! It'll clear your sinuses and spice up your love life! Your wife will be happy tonight if you buy that pepper!" She and the women next to her broke into laughter that was all gold teeth and ruddy tonsils. I bought the pepper and moved on.

I drifted over to the tent area beyond the tables, needing to buy a plastic bag to put my pepper and other produce in. At one table I had a choice among bags emblazoned with likenesses of the Marlboro Man, Marilyn Monroe, the Golden Arches, and a half dozen interchangeable beautiful blondes stretched out under the sun on a half dozen interchangeable idyllic beaches. As I was paying for Marilyn, a declamatory voice rang out behind me.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there's a killer in our midst!"

Heads turned toward a young man standing behind a row of aerosol cans arrayed on a table under a blue tent. "Yes, it's Killer -- the new nemesis of roaches," he announced, tapping a can. He sprayed a dose into the crowd. "No, Killer won't hurt you or your children if you don't drink it. And for those ladies whose hairdos fly apart in our stiff Ozyory breezes, how about this American hairspray here!"

"I'll take some Killer!" one woman shouted, forcing her way through the gawkers with a handful of rubles.

"Woman, here's your roach spray, but you might also want to remove that sweaty stench of yours with some of this German deodorant! And dear housewives, take those nicotine stains right off your teeth with this bleach paste!"

There were muffled laughs and a general rummaging in purses for rubles. The crowd pressed in around him.

Just beyond the tents middle-aged women were rifling through stacks of bucket-sized bras while the rave song "Encore Une Fois" blasted from a boom box nearby. Behind the women stood a cassette display marked RUSSKIY KHIT ("Russian Hit"), where a dozen crew-cut young men wearing track suits, black-leather jackets, and mud-caked wingtip shoes, and reeking of cheap toilet water, huddled around four or five teenage girls. As "Encore Une Fois" reached its climax, the young people began tapping their feet and singing along, adding distortions that turned the chic dance lyrics into a sort of Slavic burlesque -- all the while glancing sidelong to see who was watching. They were, it appeared, the Ozyory jeunesse dorée, and the muddy market was their weekly venue.

My shopping done, I walked past the young people and started toward the apartment. Behind the kiosks, at the edge of the mud lake, an old woman bundled in a brown-wool shawl sat hawking sunflower seeds in a weary treble. "Buy my seeds! Please, please, buy my seeds!"

Two young militiamen marched over. One prodded her with his baton. "Okay, Grandma, move along. You have no license to trade, and you know it."

The old woman looked this way and that. "Oh, I beg you, boys. I'm just trying to earn a few rubles. My pension is late."

"You can earn your rubles when you buy a license from the city. You heard us -- move it!" The militiaman prodded her again with his baton. With a sigh of resignation, she grabbed her sack of seeds and hobbled away. Snow was falling. I trudged home along the embankment.

lives in Moscow. His book will be published this month.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Exiled Beyond Kilometer 101; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 18-25.