We are a typical Russian family: Mama, Papa, 26-year-old daughter (me), one cat, one old Zhiguli car and a dacha outside the city where we grow apples, strawberries and garlic. All three of us work, and we all still live together in our two-room apartment in a drab block of 17-story buildings in southeastern Moscow.
We're on the 15th floor. We have a living room, where my parents sleep on a fold-out couch, and a smaller room that is mine alone, with all my junk in it. Our kitchen is about 13 feet by 7 feet, and we think it's the coziest room in the apartment. Mama's always in there cooking. Papa heads there after coming home from work to watch TV and drink his big cup of strongly brewed tea with spoonfuls of homemade plum jam. Musya, our cat, naps on the heater. And I enjoy working on my computer there, writing articles, translating documents, sending e-mail. This is where we have found comfort together, even when there's so much turmoil going on around us.
Here in Russia, there's always something. In May, a medium-size bank shut down, and many people like us feared for their savings. Last month, one of the bigger banks got in trouble, setting off a run on others by jittery depositors. Thankfully, it stopped at that. We watched from afar, worried and sympathetic but safe this time. Mama had learned her lesson a few years ago.
Mama (her name is Yelena and she is 47) and Papa (his name is Viktor and he is 49) grew up under communism and yet they have been more successful than most in adapting to the wild and often frightening economic imperatives that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Like many Russians, they have lost their life savings a couple of times. They have never despaired, and instead have patiently started over, putting boundaries on their dreams. They know they can't think of a bigger apartment, much less a house. They save some money, but not too much -- who knows when it may all be stolen again? Mostly, they invest in me. I am their future.
Mama grew up in a working-class Moscow neighborhood dominated by a large mechanical equipment plant. Her mother died at 38 of a stroke, and her father was brutally attacked in the street and died at 41. Her grandmother -- Babushka -- cared for her and her older sister. In those days, in the 1960s, no one had much money, but Babushka saved a little when she could. "To have some money stashed away is in every Russian's heart," Mama says. "It gives us a little assurance, just in case something unexpected happens. Before, even the tiniest bank account gave us a sense of stability. We always wanted to have some savings before perestroika."
As in most Russian families, the household duties fall on my mother's shoulders, including making the most important financial decisions. Mama is an English teacher at a private university and even though Papa is an accountant for a small Russian business, he hands most of his rubles to Mama when he gets his paycheck. Mama makes the equivalent of about $600 a month, and Papa about $1,000. I earn about $800 as a freelance writer and translator.
Most of our money goes for groceries -- even though Russian salaries are lower than those in the West (an average teacher makes $200 a month), groceries here cost the same or even more. My parents don't ask me to contribute to the family budget, but sometimes I give them $50 toward food. I spend most of my money on eating out and traveling. Thankfully, we privatized our apartment in the early '90s when the government said we could, so we don't have to pay rent or a mortgage. Our utilities are about $40 a month.
You would think that after 27 years of marriage and handling the family finances (and with Papa an economist turned accountant), Mama would know better than most how to protect our money. It turned out we were not prepared for the greedy bankers who would dupe us, and the government left us to fend for ourselves.
So when Mama lost $3,000 in 1994 to a bank built on a dubious pyramid scheme and another $2,000 to a dishonest bank in 1998, we didn't blame her.
During the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union's collapse, the ruble was being eaten away by inflation. After years of having some money, but nothing to buy, Russians suddenly found themselves with hardly any money and stores full of things to buy. After watching their buying power steadily erode, some people started keeping their money in dollars, under their mattresses. The bank runs this summer got us thinking that it's still wise to do that -- and a recent poll showed that 70 percent of Russians have no savings accounts, either because they have no money or they don't trust the banks. With that on my mind, I asked Mama how it felt to see money she had worked so hard to earn disappear. Does she think it's foolish to save? "Today the situation is so unpredictable, and the inflation, too, that people don't know in what currency to keep their savings," Mama says. "We don't know how to save money for the future so that when we retire we might have a comfortable lifestyle. When a person has gotten used to having certain things, it is difficult to give up those things."
Before the 1990s, there were just two banks in Russia, Sberbank and Vneshekonombank, both state owned. When commercial banks started springing up, they offered high interest rates to depositors, Mama recalls. Some newspapers did warn that 15 percent interest a month was too much to be real, but the warning went unheeded. "We wanted to live a little as we'd always worked a lot," Mama says. "All sorts of things became available in the shops that we could never buy before: foreign TV sets, stereos, videocassette players." At first, they were too expensive to buy, but they quickly became more affordable, and when a couple of generations live together, they can buy a nice TV and even a microwave.
"There were so many private banks around at that time," Mama says. "Perestroika gave people opportunities to earn money. The motto of the day was, 'Everything that's not prohibited is allowed.' This is how people perceived perestroika. There wasn't a censor inside of us at the end of the 1980s. We had sheer enthusiasm: All kinds of activities had opened up."
As we got into the '90s, banks proliferated, and they tried to attract deposits. "The interest rates were so high that people literally went mad. Everyone wanted to give money to these banks," Mama says. "In 1994, someone who was permanently moving abroad had recommended a particular bank called Chara to me. I didn't even know about it, but they got lots of money plus interest from it. We deposited our $3,000." The bank, it turned out, didn't have the income to pay such high interest rates. It collapsed, and our $3,000 was gone. Mama and Papa had to put off buying their first car.
A couple of years later, it seemed as if the banking system was becoming normal. Mama put our savings of $2,000 in a big bank that had high ratings in serious business magazines. But in 1998, Russia went through another financial crisis. Many banks failed, and so did ours. "I felt worse about this," Mama says, "because we were duped a second time. But I can't say I took it as a tragedy -- I felt bad that we'd lost our money, but what could we do? At that time we could either wait for the crisis to resolve or write a letter saying we wanted our money back. Only the bank set the exchange rate so low that we received only 30 percent of the original sum. We took this money because we wanted to buy a car at that time for our trips to the dacha."
Those losses have taught Mama a lesson. She no longer tries too hard to save money, though she would like to try to save for a new car or put some aside in case doctor bills come up. "We don't know what will happen with our money. Prices are constantly going up," she says. "I don't try to spend every single kopeck that I make. But I live comfortably."
Since then, Mama keeps our money in Sberbank -- we can now have dollar and ruble accounts. Some of it we keep at home -- almost everybody does. "I won't take my money to a commercial bank, despite the higher interest rates -- they aren't reliable," Mama says. "Just recently, three such banks have gone under. As for the euro, I view it as money for European trips. It's like toy currency for travel in my mind."
She is not one for regret or anger. She keeps working, doing her best, saving a little if she can. She doesn't forget how easy it is to lose everything, and how those who profit from the misery of others often pay no penalty. Unlike the United States, our government is only just setting up deposit insurance, which will cover about $3,000 of a personal savings account. (Maybe we'll have checking accounts next!) "I read in the newspaper in 1998 about one banker," Mama says. "He said he had money to make the payouts but he said, 'Why should I?' This speaks volumes about the bankers' attitudes. It has always been this way and always will be. But I am an optimist: We could've spent this money on something, but there was nothing in the shops to buy, so we took the money to the bank hoping we'd earn some interest. But this is not their money. They are like hired managers who care only about their welfare. All the money they have, they earned using our money."
In the last few years, Mama has been able to travel some. Papa prefers to go to our little red-brick dacha. Earning some extra money from freelance work as an English tutor, Mama went to America for the first time in 1995. She visited California. At Disneyland she went on the Space Mountain ride three times and Mickey Mouse gave her a hug. She loved seeing places she had only read about in books, and wants to travel more.
She and Papa don't have the money for a bigger apartment. Instead, they're hoping they can afford to renovate the one we have. They'll buy a foreign car, a used one. They're tired of our Russian car, which always breaks down.
Mostly, what they have goes to me, so I can go to London and study for a master's degree in international journalism at City University School of Journalism.
"Before perestroika," Mama says, "money meant assurance in the future. I knew what my money was worth. I knew what I would be able to buy in five years, but with today's $1,000, in five years maybe it will be just enough for one trip to the supermarket. The exchange rate fluctuates so wildly. So the only way to spend this money normally would be abroad."
I have learned well from my mother's misfortunes. I keep the little savings that I have in two banks: the state Sberbank and a commercial bank. I also own a tiny piece of land where my parents hope I will build my own little dacha some day. But real estate isn't on my mind right now. Because the world has opened up to us, my friends and I spend money on travel, on buying our first cars, renting a place of our own, on eating out. Most of my friends are saving for apartments, as it appears to be the only sound investment today, or for a better car.
I know that I probably will never have enough money for a place of my own -- and I hate the idea of spending years paying out a mortgage. I will have to rely on my parents for that. Right now, I am going to use all my savings to pay for that master's degree. Russians have always been enthusiastic about education. With the safety net of the government no longer beneath us, the best investment to make is in ourselves. That's the attitude of many young people today -- our future, including financial stability, depends entirely on us.
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