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Gagarin's Russia fades from view

When Yuri Gagarin rocketed into orbit as the first human in space in 1961, he did so as the citizen of a superpower. Then, the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of the world's land, boasted a nearly zero per cent unemployment rate, and thundered ahead at 7 per cent growth.

When Yuri Gagarin rocketed into orbit as the first man in space on this day in 1961, he did so as the citizen of a superpower. Then, the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of the world's land, boasted a nearly zero per cent unemployment rate, and thundered ahead at 7 per cent growth.

Today, the broken parts of the federation have seen Russia clambering up the pedestal it once occupied to reclaim its position as an international powerhouse. The fresh-faced President Dmitri Medvedev has offered the world a different image of the Russian bear in recent years by inking trade deals with Europe and resetting nuclear relations with Washington.

Economically, too, the country continues to profit from its vast, natural resources. Gazprom, Russia's largest - and government-owned - gas company, raked $80 billion in sales to Europe last year alone. Petro-dollars and privatised wealth have spawned a generation of ultra-wealthy oligarchs who have cultivated an image of an affluent, thriving Russia.

But Russia's general population has yet to fully bask in the success of a post-communist era. The widening gap between rich and poor remains a large challenge to the country's development. While the transition to capitalism has yielded wealth, it remains concentrated in hands of the few.

The 20 per cent of Russians living under the poverty line - or nearly 30 million - are ignorant of a life without hardship. Pensions are hard to come by, basic social services like hospitals and running water remain inaccessible in once-booming industrial towns, and unemployment remains high among the country's youth. Alcohol and drugs - heroin, specifically, which streams in from Afghanistan - have dulled the pain, but prolong these endemic problems.

For the unlucky millions, the dream of living in a Soviet-free era has met the ugly reality of a capitalism marred by cronyism and inefficiency. As with other BRIC countries, GDP in Russia may continue to grow, but the status of society's poor and middle class will ultimately speak for the success of the country as a whole.

Yuri Gargain was the son of poor labourers. Does someone born into the same circumstances in today's Russia have the same shot at success?

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