Discussing the Fate of Russia in Bunker Banya

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It's a strange world we live in. In Moscow the best minds are busy trying to root out corruption and get a handle on crime, while out in the provinces no one can even imagine life without them. Just what kind of life this is I discussed with an enterprising businessman in Saratov who has converted a disused bomb shelter into a banya. Let me tell you, there's no better place to discuss the fate of Russia than a banya.

The bomb shelter was located inside a small hill. As we climbed up one evening, I saw a mushroom-shaped pipe sticking out of the ground and a metal door secured with a lock. The proprietor unlocked the door and opened it with a creak. A dimly lit stairway led into the hill. Damp concrete walls, then another door with a wheel-shaped handle. The proprietor grunted as he turned it. As we descended another staircase I saw a puddle of light below that gradually expanded as a large room came into view, with wooden couches arranged along the walls. Half-drawn blinds revealed another room with a long table with a colorful tablecloth and sparkling dishes.

Another door caught my eye, however -- tall, carved, with stained-glass windows like the Fire-Bird. Beyond it lay the steam room and a swimming pool. The proprietor, Vasily Semyonich, a strapping man of about 30, removed his trousers and pulled off his shirt. He told the story with the practiced tone of a tour guide. "The bomb shelter was just sitting idle, and we couldn't figure out what to do with it. Then we thought, 'Hey, the Cold War is over.' And we decided to turn it into a banya." Now naked as a jaybird, Semyonich walked up to the door with the stained-glass windows and rubbed his hand over it. "This is my handiwork," he said.

Semyonich and I have been friends for ages. Whenever I travel to Saratov on business, I stop in at his poultry plant 10 kilometers from town. Every year some new structure has been added to the long, low string of buildings -- a new workshop, a new production facility, and now a banya in a bunker.

Vasily brings his business partners here for a steam and ends up with imported equipment and top-quality feed for the plant. Local politicos caught wind of the banya, and now whenever an important guest comes to town they call him up. Not long ago they brought over an American named Bill, a specialist in gasification and electrification. You wouldn't think Vasily had much use for him. His plant uses Dutch technology, after all, and Bill wasn't likely to help him get his hands on quality feed. But then again, the local official who asked for the favor might well come in handy.

The American descended the staircase carefully, mumbling something to himself. But when he caught sight of the door with the stained-glass windows, the pool and the lavish table he let out a laugh. "Drink?" he proposed, then declared in broken Russian: "Rashn banya -- karosh!"

In the steam room, Vasily clambered up to the highest, hottest bench. "I'm used to it," he said. "I get burned enough in business." One day, three guys walked into his office and sat down uninvited. Figuring they had come to blackmail him, Vasily "unintentionally" laid a pistol on the table. Seeing it, one of the men said: "We're here on other business." They were selling protection.

As it happened, Vasily was armed with nothing but an air pistol. He might immobilize them and call the cops, but nothing would happen to them. They hadn't laid a hand on him, after all. They had come "looking for work." Vasily asked how much they wanted, then offered to pay them in kind with smoked chickens and rulet, a boneless chicken roll, both delicacies. "You can sell them and clear three times as much," Vasily said. "The plant gets a third, and you keep two-thirds for yourselves. We'll put up a stand by the highway."

The stand went up two days later. "Now I have three thugs on my payroll," Vasily joked in the steam room. "They perform two functions: guarding the plant and hawking the goods." He jumped into the pool with a loud splash. "These guys are only frightening in a dark entryway. The real thugs are in Moscow, the government racketeers with their exorbitant taxes. You'd think their goal was to force us all into bankruptcy!"

I asked Vasily if he didn't want to turn the clock back to the Soviet era. No chance, he said. Back then, as a fledgling livestock specialist he would have to drive a van around before the holidays distributing deficit goods -- you guessed it, smoked chickens and rulet -- to party and government bigwigs. The number of the plant was prominently stamped on the packages. The notion was that if one of these officials got it into his head to criticize the plant at a meeting, he would remember his care package and bite his tongue.

And the lies he had to tell. One day the head of his section came in beaming because they had exceeded their quota for egg production. He reminded her that if they reported the actual figure, the higher-ups would double it and stick that in the next plan as the quota. And then they would start demanding that the plant exceed this inflated and completely unrealistic quota. Vasily cut the actual production numbers in half and filed the report. This was standard practice at all poultry plants.

"Now everything's above board, but I've got no money to pay the workers with," Vasily said. "You estimate the cost of production, but then the cost of electricity increases, so you have to charge more for your eggs and no one can afford them, and the plant is left holding the bag." "How about another line of work," I asked. "Like politics?" No way, Vasily said. He's a man of actions, not words. He keeps his business afloat by bartering chickens for power and a hundred other things. He has also opened a store in town, and uses the money it generates to pay his workers. "How much?" I ask. He laughs. He can't say for sure, because his employees steal so much to supplement their income. Women sew special belts with pockets for eggs and chicken parts. As the director, Vasily is trying to bring this practice above board. Workers are allowed to take what they need for their families, but no more. The greedy face fines. After three fines, they are forced to sign an affidavit stating that they are quitting of their own volition. The document isn't dated, however. If the chicken thief is caught a fourth time, the date is added and he or she is shown the door.

We wrapped ourselves in towels and stepped out for some air. Vasily once more caressed the door with stained-glass windows. "If the poultry plant goes belly-up, I'll open a stained-glass factory." "Seriously, how about politics?" I ask. No thanks, he says. He was asked to run for an empty State Duma seat. He didn't sleep all night,weighing his options, but in the end he didn't run. It seems the guy who suggested that he run for office had come to the banya once. He fumed about his competitors the whole time, threatening to go after them once he was in power. He promised to sic the security services on them. The politicians get all their campaign money from criminal groups in exchange for protecting their interests once they're in government, Vasily said. They're all so worked up they can't sleep. But they do have an unwritten rule: No public feuds. This rule was broken not long ago. An article appeared in a regional newspaper, making allegations and naming one prominent politician. A reply, naming this politician's rival, immediately appeared in another paper. Lawsuits were filed.

One night, after another trip to the banya, Vasily and I went out for a drive with Vasily behind the wheel. As we entered the main road, Vasily pulled out his air pistol and put it on the floor between us. "What for?" I asked. "You're on good terms with the gangsters and the police." "Just in case," he said without taking his eyes off the road.

I called him a month later. The feud had turned deadly. One of the politicians had killed himself with a hunting rifle in his garage. Seems he had no choice -- his rival had acquired evidence of his criminal activities.

The philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev once wrote: "The path of freedom is difficult and tragic because in truth nothing imposes greater responsibility, nothing is more heroic and full of suffering than the path of freedom." Will today's "market" relations, regulated not by laws but by the gun and by corruption, lead us from this path? Will society have time to assimilate the rule of law before the "vertical of power" once more resorts to total coercion?

That's how the drama of history plays out, Berdyayev says. It is a "constant struggle between the principle of freedom and the principle of coercion, and the constant transition from one principle to the other."

It's anyone's guess which way the pendulum will swing in the near future.

Igor Gamayunov, a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.