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Soviet Kids Discover Capitalism : Culture: As communism collapses, pint-sized entrepreneurs have emerged. They can earn more than their parents by washing windows and selling newspapers.

November 14, 1991|STEVEN GUTTERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — Misha Belyayev stands in the failing light of a gray autumn afternoon beneath an overpass at the busy intersection of Moscow's main Ring Road and the Boulevard of Flowers. In his hands, the 12-year-old holds the tools of his trade: a filthy scrap of cloth and a rusty can of window cleaner.

As a dirty white Mercedes wheels around the corner and stops at the light, Misha springs into action, dodging into the traffic and, with a barely perceptible nod toward the man behind the wheel, sets to work washing the windshield. As the light goes green, he makes a few final wipes of the rag and whips around to the driver's side to grab a small blue piece of paper from the hand sticking out the cracked window: 5 rubles.

"Not bad," he says, pocketing the note. "Usually they give three, sometimes one."

Although five rubles may not seem like much--it comes to about 15 cents at the official tourist exchange rate--the money adds up as the hours pass. Misha started working during the summer and is out on the street an average of four hours a day, three days a week. The brown-haired, freckle-faced boy says he earns about 2,500 rubles a month.

Misha is one of a growing number of Soviet children who are discovering the ability--and, in some cases, the necessity--of earning money on their own.

They wash car windows, collect bottles and sell newspapers, posters or souvenirs. In many cases, these pint-sized entrepreneurs make more money than their parents.

Sasha Shchupiko clears more than 1,000 rubles a month selling newspapers in a central Moscow subway station. The tow-headed 12-year-old has recently become the breadwinner in his family: He gives most of the money he makes to his mother, a postal carrier with a monthly salary of 360 rubles.

Sasha's earnings will be in particular demand in the fast-approaching winter months, as the disintegrating Soviet Union quickens its pace toward a market economy. Inflation is already high, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin has announced that price controls on most food and goods will soon be lifted in the republic, presumably causing prices to skyrocket.

Sasha does not plan to be left behind. He is already adapting and is familiar with the fundamentals of the brave new world: "You need money to buy things."

Although lemonade stands and paper boys are generations-old fixtures, even cliches, of American society, such traditions were unheard of in the Soviet Union of the past.

As recently as last year, the sight of a child selling his wares or services on the streets of Moscow was extremely rare. Under Soviet law, one must hold a passport--the major form of identification here--in order to get a job. But Soviet citizens are issued passports at age 16.

This bureaucratic Catch-22 codifies the understanding, ingrained in those brought up under the communist system, that the state provides for parents, who in turn take care of their children.

But now, with the speedy collapse of communism brought on by the abortive conservative coup in August, youthful entrepreneurship is being lauded by the highest authorities. In a statement released recently about the advent of Junior Achievement in the Soviet Union, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev expressed hope that the U.S.-based program "will open the world of business to our children and help them learn how to live in the world of the market economy."

Still, these kids are not waiting around for Junior Achievement, which will begin in colleges and high schools and only later will reach younger children. They are quickly becoming acquainted firsthand with some of the less-appetizing aspects of the "world of business." Windshield washers are often hit up for money by fledgling mafiosos who claim ownership of certain street corners. And despite the Soviet president's encouraging words, Sasha and his peers are intermittently chased from their chosen locations by police, because selling newspapers in the Moscow metro is still illegal.

But the rewards--hard cash--outweigh the problems. For Vanya Petrovsky, the satisfaction lies in the independence that comes with having his own money. "It gives me freedom," he says of his job selling Commersant, a popular weekly financial newspaper targeted at his elders in the Soviet Union's budding business class. "I can buy what I want without asking my parents first."

Despite the bare shelves of state stores, which lack virtually all of the basic foodstuffs and consumer goods provided to the populace under earlier Soviet regimes, these children have little trouble finding uses for their money. Higher-priced commercial shops have cropped up all over Moscow in the last few years, offering Western products from chewing gum and cigarettes to high-top sneakers and VCRs.

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