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Saratov: Vanguard of the Volga

By Paul E. Richardson & Mikhail Ivanov

Stretching 500 km from Kazakstan in the East to the Tambov and Voronezh regions in the West, the Saratov region straddles the Volga, covering a large portion of the famous Black Earth region. In early April, Russian Life Executive Editor Mikhail Ivanov and Publisher Paul Richardson visited Saratov to find out how this rich region, fast earning a name for reform, is fairing.

We emerge from the Saratov train station, rumpled and cabin-weary after an overnight train ride from Moscow. Towering in front of us, his chiseled visage and outstretched arm pointing the way to downtown, is a 40-foot-high statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka.

We are now wide-awake.

One might have expected to find here a statue of Pyotr Stolypin, one of Russia’s great reformers. Stolypin was governor of this region from 1903-1906, helping the region survive uprisings and instituting progressive reforms {See Russian Life, April 1997}. These days, Saratov is again at the forefront of Russian reforms. Which makes the statue of “Iron Felix” a bit incongruous. But then, as our driver zig-zags to avoid spring pot-holes, we see more: there is Felix’ face emblazoned on the side of an academic building, a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in the town’s Revolution square, and a mosaic of Lenin on the side of a building downtown. There are still streets named for Kirov, Chapaev, Chernyshevsky and even Sacco & Vanzetti. And Dzerzhinsky.

It is odd to see such prominent display of icons of Soviet power when they have nearly disappeared from the capital. But, in the Russian provinces, the rules are different than in Moscow, where symbolism is everything. In Saratov, unlike in Moscow, there is little fixation on Felix and Vladimir; they go largely unnoticed. Attention is on more immediate, practical concerns, like crime and payment of pensions and salaries. Tearing down and disposing of icons costs money, after all.

Silk and Spark Plugs

Saratov, population 909,000, is the capital of the Saratov oblast, recently renamed the Saratov gubernia (a tsarist-era designation). Little known and less explored (largely because Saratov was a “closed” city until 1992), the region is a sleeping giant with huge agricultural and industrial potential.

The gubernia covers a territory nearly equal to that of Ohio, but with a population of just 2.7 million (Ohio has over 11 million). It is largely agricultural and is Russia’s second largest grain producing region (after Krasnodar) and a major producer of meat and milk. But industries make up a much more significant portion of its wealth. Construction materials (cement, polished glass and stalinite) are significant, as is oil processing and fertilizer production. Machine-building tops the list: 98% of all Russia’s trolley buses are produced in Saratov, as are many of the country’s refrigerators and the famous YAK-40 and YAK-42 airplanes. Interestingly, the region is also Russia’s largest producer of both spark plugs and synthetic silk. In all of this, the city of Saratov, perched on the right (west) bank of the Volga river, is the dominant force in the region’s economy: nearly half of the population lives in the city and half of all industrial production output originates in the city.

Saratov was founded in the late 16th century (some say 1584, others 1590), on the site of a Tatar settlement on the left (east) bank of the Volga, at its confluence with the Saratovka river. Its earliest function was as a fortress to protect the river trade route to the South. Completely burned in a winter fire in 1613, the town was rebuilt and remained on the left bank of the Volga until 1674, when, by a decree of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the town was moved across the river, to its present location.

Since its earliest years, Saratov has been an important transit point for trade along the Volga, and played a significant role in the trade of fish (thus the town seal) and salt. By the early 1800s, the population stood at 27,000 inhabitants, with an interesting international mix, due to the influx of German settlers invited by Catherine the Great in 1764 (see box) and French prisoners from the war of 1812. By the turn of this century, Saratov was one of the most well-equipped cities in Russia. Roads were paved and the center of the city had asphalt roads or stone sidewalks. There was a horse-drawn trolley system. Much of the city had telephone service and wooden water mains distributed water. An 1895 accounting showed nearly 4000 stone buildings in the city, 2266 of which were private homes (there were over 20,000 wooden homes and buildings). This growth was largely a result of the fact that Saratov was, at the end of the 19th century, one of the most important centers of agricultural trade in Russia.

Today, Saratov stretches along the right bank of the Volga for some 34 kilometers (21 miles). The town suffered little of the Soviet lust for grand, constructivist architecture, and has preserved many of its 19th century buildings, both wooden and stone, although most are sorely in need of attention. Downtown streets and the pedestrian mall on Nemetskaya (German) street are lined with squat, brick and plaster-fronted buildings, few over two stories high. The city sits on low hills, gently sloping down to the riverfront. One hill overlooking the river supports a towering monument festooned with cranes, in honor of the 177,000 Saratovites who fought and died in WWII.

The New Stolypin

Engage in any conversation with a resident of Saratov about their city and it is not long before the name and patronymic Dmitry Fyodorovich is mentioned. Nine times out of ten, it is with a tone of respect and awe (“As Dmitry Fyodorovich said...”). The other one out of ten will only speak on condition of anonymity.

Dmitry Fyodorovich Ayatskov, 47, is the powerful governor of Saratov gubernia. His sumptuous office, complete with sunroom, exotic fish tank and near-life-sized statue of an African warrior, overlooks a large central square, the opera building, and the backside of the city’s huge statue of Lenin.

Trained as an agronomist, Ayatskov began his political career as deputy mayor of Saratov from 1992-1996 and as a regional legislative deputy from 1993-1995. In April 1996, he was appointed governor of the region by Boris Yeltsin. Soon after his appointment, he fired almost all the district administrators in the region, then directly intervened in the management of farms and factories to make sure that wages got paid and the harvest got done. He got political and business leaders to sign an accord whereby all sides agreed to forsake petty quarrels and to set up a Social Council that would meet biweekly to reach agreement on important issues before they are passed on to the legislature. This led to speedy passage of, among other things, laws on protecting foreign investment and sale of land.

In September 1996, Ayatskov was re-elected to the post of governor by 82% of the region’s voters. His opponent, communist Anatoly Gordeyev, was an aide to Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Ayatskov did not campaign as a member of any political party (but later joined Our Home is Russia, Nash Dom Rossii, or NDR). “If the election were held tomorrow,” Ayatskov said in an interview with Russian Life, “I would get 98% of the vote.”

This is not cocksure political bluster. Ayatskov is a very popular governor in a country that, these days, is not lukewarm about its leaders. His reformist moves and popular appeal have made him one of Russia’s up-and-coming political leaders. Russian TV recently reported that Ayatskov was on a short list of four candidates to replace Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin in April.

Yet, in April, during the government shake-up, Ayatskov denied federal aspirations, at least for the time being. “I have no ‘stardom disease,’” he said. “I will be sitting here, working on implementing the program I have worked out. If I don't carry it out, I am not going anywhere ... Plus, I won’t work just on orders. Here I have guarantees: I was elected here. While there I have no guarantees.”

Then, in May, in his speech to the annual congress of Victor Chernomyrdin’s party, NDR, Ayatskov lashed out at NDR. “No building can be built starting from the chimney; it must be built from the foundation. The NDR party has legs of straw and this building will quickly burn.” Ayatskov quit the NDR and announced his intention to build his own party, likely on the basis of his Bloc of Popular Trust, which last summer soundly defeated communist and leftist candidates, winning all 33 contested seats in the local Duma.

In April, Ayatskov used the same terms to berate the former premier and his party, saying NDR was doomed to fail, “unless Chernomyrdin puts the emphasis on the primary cell [of the party], like we do in Saratov.”

“Like we do in Saratov” is a refrain that might be marked up to provincial pride, but the region is setting the pace on numerous fronts, most notably land reform. As of press time, Saratov region had conducted four land auctions (the first being in March of this year), open to all Russian citizens. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Russian Duma had only passed the second reading (of three) on a Land Code that would not even allow the sale of agricultural land (which has been allowed in the Saratov region auctions). That shortcoming is likely to lead President Yeltsin to veto the bill and cause yet more delays.

Ayatskov hesitates to call his a victory of land reform. “Let me put it another way. I was one of the first to stop speculation of land. They engage in land profiteering throughout Russia and they all pretend nothing is happening. And a law regarding the purchase and sale of land, passed within the framework of the Federal Constitution, erects barriers against land profiteering ... we have a Law on Land, it complies with the Constitution and I don’t give a damn about the opposition and whatever is said in the Duma by communists or agrarians. Nobody is going to cancel this Law, passed on the territory of the Saratov region.”

Ayatskov has also sought to make the region investor-friendly, passing a Law on Protection of the Rights of Investors, whereby investors are guaranteed the security of their capital in the event of confiscation. But there is also the question of personal security, an issue made topical by the kidnapping of two Mormon missionaries in March. They were released after just four days -- a result hailed by some as a sign that crime is on the run in Saratov.

Which it may well be. Many interviewed were quick to mention the drop in crime since Ayatskov arrived on the scene. One local businessman said that the last “gang-related” violence he could recall was two or three years ago, when members of a gang were murdered in a bar. But even that instance, the businessman said, “had the marks of an operation carried out by the FSB [the state security apparatus] and was sold to the public as a settlement of accounts between rival gangs.”

Our interview is interrupted by a phone call on a priority line. The governor uses the interruption to make a point. “I would not say we have muzzled crime 100%. I have just talked on the phone with the newly appointed Minister [of Internal Affairs] Sergei Stepashin. I think the first thing is to help each citizen achieve guarantees of his security on Russian territory. The same is true for each citizen who wants to invest.”

The swift response to the Mormon kidnapping, Ayatskov said, “is just one example of how our local special secret police works quickly... when we solve crimes quickly, it discourages other criminals. Today I tell people, ‘the goal is for there to only be a second between the crime and the punishment; here is the crime and here is [the criminal] sitting behind bars, serving his time in prison.’”

Such talk might cause civil libertarians to blanche, but it is welcomed in Russia, where the advent of new liberties has been twisted into license. Ayatskov takes a similarly uncompromising stand when defending fixed state prices for bread. “Maybe it is not quite the market, and maybe I am regulating it by authoritative decisions at times, but this is social protection of those in need. All these issues should be solved gradually; you can’t just have a market overnight.”

While Ayatskov’s policies are earning him kudos from many quarters, that does not mean all is well in Saratov. “You think we only have victories, only fanfares, only drums?!” Ayatskov asked rhetorically. “No, far from it. Nobody is making soap operas here ... We have a lot of problems. I believe that salaries are still low, the social security of the population is low, we are still falling behind in creating a decent living environment, even though we are doing a lot. But today we have the right ideology to have this decent environment -- today people believe in the authorities, which is essential for its ability to protect and solve problems.”

But that does not mean attempting to solve knotty problems will be uncontroversial. In February, Ayatskov announced that the Saratov Duma was working on legislation that would legalize prostitution and create registered brothels. The law would require prostitutes to undergo regular medical examinations, practice “safe sex” and, in Ayatskov’s words, pay taxes “to the regional budget rather than to pimps.” Ayatskov was actually the second Russian governor (after Leonid Gorbenko, of Kaliningrad) to make such a call to legalize prostitution. It was met with huge controversy in the central press.

In April, Ayatskov sounded less strident when recalling the controversy. “I told them, ‘I will get you all in a brothel. I will hang a number over your ear and you will be standing like milking cows in the stable. Maybe it was not quite a well-calculated step (I know it did not add to my authority), but there is a problem with this and they have begun debating it now .... we just raised the issue. Today we have sociologists, psychologists and legislators working on this. As long as they have not taken a decision, I have no right to do anything ... just hanging a red light and opening a brothel is not a solution to the problem.” Nonetheless, Ayatskov said that “just raising the issue” has led to a huge drop in the number of prostitutes in the city -- who in part congregate on Moskovskaya street, under the immense statue to Lenin and just below Ayatskov’s office.

Every politician has his critics. Some more than others. Ayatskov’s few detractors seem mainly to be among communists and intellectuals. Zinaida Viktorovna is in the former category. She voted for Zyuganov in the last presidential election (as did 50% of the Saratov population in July 1996) and said she would do so again. “I had a 120 ruble pension,” Zinaida said. “I retired early from a hazardous job to make way for younger workers ... my husband and my pensions were enough to live on, have a dacha, feed ourselves and put something away in savings. And now?! Can you live on this 300 ruble pension? No,” said Zinaida, who sells strawberries from her dacha to get by, “you cannot.”

For others, it is not a question of the pocketbook. It is a question of style. Two leading members of the local intelligentsia spoke with Russian Life only under condition of anonymity, saying they feared reprisals that could damage their careers. One spoke of Ayatskov’s style as a “new bolshevism,” relying too heavily on authoritarian means. The other scoffed at the notion that the local legislature was in any way democratic, calling it a “pocket Duma,” (i.e. “bought and paid for”). “The style of governing in Saratov is far from democratic,” he said. “But, you understand, this is the Russian provinces and now, this, not some more democratic style, may be the type of leadership we need -- someone who has energy and gets things done.”

Ayatskov would seem to agree with this assessment. “Today one can prove himself only by deeds, not by words, but by deeds.” As to the opposition? “I don’t give a damn about it ...” Or, as he was quoted recently in a supplement to the newspaper Trud, “You can call me the devil if you like, as long as I get things done. Yes, I don’t need a nay-saying Duma, and disobedient mayor and a presidential representative regularly spying through the keyhole ...”

As a popular and charismatic regional leader, Ayatskov has much in common with another “can-do” regional leader who, a decade ago, was an outspoken critic of central power. In 1991, this latter leader, like Ayatskov today, left his political party and became a symbol of popular discontent with the Kremlin. In a signed picture on Ayatskov’s desk, this former Sverdlovsk regional boss, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, warmly greets the youthful governor of Saratov gubernia.

Similar photos of Ayatskov and Russian leaders like Chernomyrdin and Luzhkov fill a new book called First, which Ayatskov has published. Touted as a “year in the life” of the governor, it focuses on “the phenomenon of Ayatskov.” In it, Ayatskov indicates who he feels are the most likely presidential contenders in 2000. “First of all Luzhkov, then [former Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir] Shumeiko, third, a representative of the regions ...”

Land, Bread and Peace

Nikolai Gogol wrote that there are two things Russia will never be short of: bad roads and fools. As to fools, no country has a monopoly. But as to bad country roads in spring, Russia still has more than its share.

It is a brutal, three hour ride by Lada from Saratov to Balakovo (population 227,000), the site of Russia’s first land auction. But by keeping the speed consistently at a kidney-bruising 120 kmh (75 mph) and playing chicken with oncoming Kamaz trucks, the winding trip along the Volga can be made in about two-and-a-half hours, less with a tailwind.

The office for the Committee on Land Resources and Land Use in Balakovo is on the second floor of a non-descript, pale yellow building near the town center. Victor Dolgov, the head of the Committee, is a rugged, matter-of-fact administrator. He offers no linguistic flourishes, but describes the auction process as if reading it from a spreadsheet.

“According to the Law on Land passed in Saratov region December 14, 1997, land plots can be sold. So we decided to sell a portion of land plots here ... this was prompted by life. Land plots previously were distributed somewhat arbitrarily -- one would come and ask for it. Maybe they would give it, maybe not ... So, to make it fair, we decided to auction off available land plots ... and they were sold, regardless of the buyer’s rank, official post or faith, but sold only to Russian citizens, mind you.”

The famous Balakovo land auction, Russia’s first free sale of land since collectivization, took place on March 5 of this year. 26 land plots, some with buildings, were put up on auction, 24 for sale and two for rent. The only significant restriction, aside from the requirement of Russian citizenship, was that each plot of land was designated for a specific use.

“No sooner had we announced the auction, Dolgov said, “but the opposition took to the streets of Balakovo, with banners protesting it with ‘shame on you’s’ and all. But there is no shame at all, we are guided by the Law on Land ... we are replenishing our coffers for the well-being of the population living here.”

“We registered 86 bidders,” Dolgov said. “For some land plots we had 5-8 bidders, then the haggling began. The toughest fights were the auctions for land plots designated for retail use.” Just 18 of the 26 plots sold. Land for parking lots and kiosks did not move well. Still, the auction brought some 485,000 rubles ($78,000) to the city’s coffers. “If, before, we distributed land arbitrarily and for free,” Dolgov said, “now at least the budget is getting something from it.”

Other city budgets around the Saratov region also seek to benefit from the law. For its part, the city of Saratov held an auction on April 11. Governor Ayatskov was in attendance as the proceedings were televised on national television.

Balakovo’s Other Fame

On the eastern outskirts of Balakovo is the newly opened Evropeyskaya Mebelnaya Kompaniya (European Furniture Company), or EMK. This factory, we are told, is the largest furniture factory in Europe.

Cleanly swept and surely large (covering over 40 hectares), EMK is operating at about 25% of potential capacity. Its primary product is home and office furniture made from compressed, laminated wood and targeted at a middle class audience. Given that most all such furniture purchased in Russia is imported, EMK’s directors see great competitive advantage for their domestic production, even though some supplies, like glues and laminates, must be purchased abroad.

“Two billion dollars in furniture is sold in Russia each year,” said Pavel Doronichev, First Deputy Director of EMK. “It is a huge market, comparable to, say the car market. We have the advantage of much better prices vs. imported furniture (which must overcome customs barriers), plus good Western quality standards for the price we charge for our simple furniture.”

EMK actually ended up in the remote town of Balakovo almost on accident. The idea to build a factory of this scale and orientation in the USSR began in 1991, with the French company Ceribot (France’s third largest furniture manufacturer). Originally sited for Ukraine, by 1992 the involvement of a large Saratov furniture factory turned Ceribot’s attention to the Volga region, with its easy access to ship-borne freight and inexpensive nuclear and hydroelectric power. Loans from Western banks and from the Russian government (and later the EBRD) got construction started. But, three years later, with construction nearly complete, the money had run out and there was no capital to begin production.

“We didn’t know whether we would be able to finish construction or not. Then Dmitry Fyodorovich [Ayatskov] came to power and he extended us powerful support on the regional level ... helping us to secure a loan from Sberbank to complete the construction ... plus Balakovo used some of the city’s assets as collateral.”

The huge factory, which began production in January, is clean and new, and half empty of equipment. Still, it employs some 500 workers and, according to Doronichev, has no trouble getting the best workers the region has to offer. “Given that we pay our people on time, they are lining up to get a job with us.”

But people are not lining up to buy furniture these days. “When we were building the factory,” Doronichev said, “there was a deficit of furniture. People [in the Soviet Union] were queuing in endless lines, writing down numbers on the palms of their hands. This is why such a huge factory was conceived.

“Normally,” Doronichev explained, “furniture factories are not built close to raw materials, but rather close to customers ... but I must say that demand for furniture is very low in Saratov region.” So EMK is bringing in dealers from around Russia, and making the furniture to meet dealer demand.

“There is a huge market here,” added Alex de Valuykhoff, deputy general director. “Plus Russia has 26% of the world’s wood resources. Naturally there is a “postponed unsatisfied demand” which now can be satisfied. And the middle class is now taking shape in Russia. In major cities, demand for trashy furniture is declining and consumers are buying what is in the middle [of the market].”

They had better hope so. The factory’s first production line (a second is in construction) has a production capacity of $100 million per year, or 5% of the total Russian market for furniture.

Local Flavor

“Have you seen our Arbat?” asks a local acquaintance.

The Muscovite raises a skeptical eyebrow at the notion of comparing a provincial city with the capital.
Nonetheless, Friday evening finds us on Saratov’s “Arbat,” simultaneously named Kirov and Nemetskaya (German) street. It is actually a very nice, broad pedestrian mall that we are told normally bristles with strollers, young and old. But, in early April, spring has not quite arrived in its glory.

Shops along this street and throughout the city are well-stocked with all the consumer goods one can find in Moscow these days. But prices are lower and in the shops and on the streets, there is a natural courtesy absent in Moscow.

We are curiously drawn by the glowing blue neon of Burger Royale, a clean and enticing fast-food restaurant just off Nemetskaya that serves the anticipated assortment of burgers, fries and shakes. The staff is friendly and the fries quite good, but we press on for something a bit more Russian. Our search leads us to a renovated state cafe (we can tell by the surly disposition of the staff) where Baltica is served on tap and a kotlet and fries can be had for 20 rubles. We share a table in the crowded restaurant with Sergei and Aleksei, two brothers who are at the front end of a bender.

Sergei, 22, studies at a local technical institute. His younger brother Aleksei, 19, also studied at the institute, but was recently tossed out for being lax in his studies. He now lives at home with his parents, in the village of Stepnoye.

“Our vodka is very good,” Governor Ayatskov had noted, earlier in the day.

“Which brand?” we ask.

“Liksar.”

“Meaning ‘Liquor of Saratov’?”

“Yeah, the ‘face of Saratov’” (laughter -- lik is an archaic Russian term for face).

Sergei and Aleksei are eager to show off the “face of Saratov” and pour their guests a drink from the bottle of Liksar they are sharing. “In general,” Sergei said, “I am pleased with changes in Saratov. For one, thanks to Ayatskov a road was finally built to Stepnoye. And life is great here in Saratov. For the youth that is. There is more freedom, better options to distract ourselves.”

We find out that Aleksei recently went a bit over the top with distraction, getting into a rumble with other local youths. He has just been released from a militia detention cell. “What is a problem here,” Aleksei said, “is drugs. The number of drug addicts in Saratov is big.”

“And older people here don’t have it so good,” Sergei added. “Take our dad. He works in Stepnoye as a fire fighter and makes 700 rubles [a month] at most. What kind of money is this for someone who is risking his life daily?”

What Would Felix Say?

Not far from the state stolovaya, a search for Saratov’s Friday nightlife leads us to 501, a basement bar featuring a Texan atmosphere and live piano music. 501 is the place where Saratov’s young and rich come for a drink and a meal (at about half going Moscow prices).

The piano player bangs out a mixture of jazz and James Taylor. We sip on our Baltikas, munch onion rings and soak up the atmosphere. In the corner, a pair of “New Russian” couples compare notes on foreign vacations to France and Turkey. A foursome of Americans arrives and is seated at the neighboring table. We wonder if we haven’t stumbled on the local Mormon community, then remember this is a bar.

It turns out that they are UN envoys. Chemical inspectors, to be more precise. They are in Saratov as part of a UN chemical weapons reduction treaty, learning about Russian chemical weapon destruction techniques. Saratov, it turns out, has a military institute for training in the use and destruction of chemical weaponry. The thirty-something men, ex-military all, reveal that this is their first night out without their armed bodyguards (“apparently it would be a huge wad of egg on someone’s face if anything happened to UN inspectors”). They liberally share their opinions on Russia and “what is to be done,” based on their two weeks of life in Saratov. They speak no Russian and need help ordering their dinner.

Hermitage on the Volga

A spring snowstorm dumps half-a-foot of snow overnight and drops temperatures into single digits. Seems like a good day for a museum.

The Radyshchev Art Museum is unassuming in all respects but for its huge central staircase, which is made entirely from cast iron. Guards and room monitors languish about and steer you to the half-dozen rooms containing the works of art. But what works of art there are in this modest building. What the Radyshchev Museum lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in both depth and breadth.

There are paintings by Repin and Aivazovsky, by Vryubel and Makovsky, by Vasnetsov and Nesterov. And all this bookended between impressive collections of medieval icons and modern art, to say nothing of Western masters.

Affectionately referred to by locals as the Hermitage on the Volga or the Saratov Tretyakovka, the museum was the first publicly accessible provincial museum in Russia, and was opened seven years before the Tretyakovka Gallery in Moscow and 13 before the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. A local paper wrote of the museum’s opening in 1885:

On the 30th of June, the Radyshchev museum was open for free public viewing. A huge crowd of people -- several thousand people -- gathered very early in the morning at the entrance to the museum. In view of the impossibility of letting in at once all who wanted to enter, some 500-600 persons were let in at a time. In the course of the day, within three hours, 2700 people visited the museum.

The museum’s founder was Aleksey Petrovich Bogolyubov, an accomplished painter of marine subjects and a student of Aivazovsky. But he was also the grandson of the writer Alexander Radyshchev (see box). In naming the museum for his disgraced grandfather, Bogolyubov sought to associate Radyshchev’s name with the arts and good works. Three decades later, Radyshchev would enter the list of pre-revolutionary progressives, along with the Decembrists, Alexander Herzen and others. And the museum’s name would last through seven decades of communist rule and into the present day.

Although the museum’s first exhibits were made possible by contributions from a number of different donors, the majority of them were based on the collections of Bogolyubov himself. He contributed his entire personal collection of art to the museum. And, though he regularly visited western art shows, Bogolyubov was deeply devoted to the development of art in his homeland, and maintained close ties with many of the great masters of his day.

What is to be Done?

At the opposite end of town from the train station, (and its ominous statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky), is the river. In April, the ice has not yet broken and the mighty Volga is covered with shifting snow drifts. The tree-lined promenade is empty but for the occasional mother pushing a stroller in the direction of the riverboat station and the kilometers-long bridge spanning the river between Saratov and Engels. Here, a statue to another famous Russian stands, taking in the magnificent view. It is a 20 foot high statue of the world’s first human satellite, Yuri Gagarin, who studied at a technical institute in Saratov from 1951-55 and whose capsule came to earth not far away, on April 12, 1961, near the little town of Smelovka.

The famous 19th century writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky also has a statue in his likeness and honor standing in Saratov, at the top of Nemetskaya street. Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov and went on to write a philosophical tract in 1863 that set the terms for debate over political and economic reform in Russia for the next half-century. The title of the tract, “What is to be done?” was later stolen by Vladimir Lenin for his own treatise, in which he argued for revolution and a dictatorship of the proletariat. He would later enlist the likes of Felix Dzerzhinsky to carry his revolution to its conclusion.

Today, Saratov is once again trying to answer native-son Chernyshevsky’s daunting question. Thankfully, the answer it is choosing is far afield from that offered by Lenin or Dzerzhinsky. Instead, Saratov today seems more ready to respond with something like the words uttered by Saratov’s adopted son, Yuri Gagarin, as he sped into orbit around the earth: “Poyekhali!” (Let’s Go!).

© 1998, Russian Life magazine