RUSSIA: Ten years after the end of the USSR



MOSCOW — When I am asked to name some indisputable achievement that marks the 10 years since the collapse of the USSR, I always recall that Russians have learnt to brew good beer.

In the Soviet Union the beer was disgusting, and the only way anyone could drink it was as a vodka "chaser", after they had lost all powers of discrimination. Then in the early 1990s a group of Swedes set up the Baltika firm in St Petersburg. Various competitors followed them, and in the course of a few years beer became Russia's national drink. Russian citizens, if they wish, can now enjoy conversation in good company, without drinking themselves into insensibility.

The question is: was it necessary, for the sake of this, to destroy a great country, to condemn half of its population to poverty, to paralyse its industry, to leave its science bereft of investment and to undergo numerous "local" conflicts that have already taken hundreds of thousands of lives?

What about democratisation, and the achievements of the market economy? There is no disputing that Russian society has changed. But have people started living better? The overwhelming majority of them consider that they have not. Most importantly, and in seeming defiance of the obvious, the majority of the population are convinced that if they did not have greater freedoms in Soviet times, they at any rate had greater rights.

Western correspondents who write about Russia assess what has happened from the standpoint of the "middle class". The members of the middle class approve of some things, are unnerved at others, and are downright terrified by a great many. On the whole, however, the political balance of the past decade seems to them relatively positive. People have gained access to a wide range of information, and even if the state tries to control the press, these efforts are not entirely successful.

The resorts of the Mediterranean are full of Russian tourists, while in Soviet times people joked that they could go abroad only in a tank. The streets of Moscow are clogged with imported cars, not only the Mercedes of the newly rich, but also more modest though thoroughly respectable models.

In Moscow, St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, striking new architecture overshadows the monotonous prefabricated buildings. The shops of the capital offer a choice of goods in no way inferior to that in the boutiques of Paris.

In Soviet times, the fortunate holders of foreign-travel passports brought everything down to underwear home with them from their trips abroad. Now, Russians buy things in the West only because goods are often cheaper there; Moscow and St Petersburg remain extremely expensive cities even by European standards.

It is true that the situation has improved a little since the 1998 financial crash. Super-expensive shops and restaurants have closed down here and there, to be replaced by establishments with more moderate prices. Moreover, the economy has been growing now for three years in a row. People who lost their jobs and savings simultaneously in the crash have found new positions, and recovered to a degree.

Unfortunately, this near-idyllic picture refers only to the middle class, and by the most generous calculations, the Russian middle class makes up only 15% of the population. In other former republics of the Soviet Union the situation is even worse. The only exceptions are the three republics of the Baltic region, but their successes in the social realm should not be exaggerated.

Majority worse off

If we look at post-Soviet life not through the windows of an imported car carrying us along one of the avenues of the capital, but through the frost-covered windows of a poorly heated municipal bus in a provincial town, the picture is quite different.

People in Soviet times were not rich, but all their basic material needs were met. The society was remote from utopian ideals, but provided a relative equality. The party nomenklatura hid its privileges shamefacedly.

Education was first-rate even in the provinces, as witnessed by the successes of the Russian experts who after 1991 flooded all the world's research centres from North America to South Africa.

Soviet medical personnel lacked modern equipment and expensive drugs, and doctors in the hospitals might have been rude to patients, but the treatments were administered reliably and conscientiously, and most importantly, medical help was free of charge and available to everyone.

The housing was wretched from an architectural point of view, but beginning in the 1960s, most of the population were provided with their own apartments.

Of course, this society could not have been called democratic, even taking the most forgiving attitude. Nevertheless, there was a system of feedback. Ordinary citizens knew they could take their problems to the organs of authority, and at least get a hearing. To question the political foundations of the state was unacceptable, but private matters were resolved, at times quite successfully.

In present-day Russian society poverty has become an everyday phenomenon, and a section of the population, especially old people, simply goes hungry. Against a backdrop of the luxurious lives of the oligarchy, the impoverished masses feel not just materially deprived, but also humiliated.

With the average wage at barely US$100 a month, the purchase of a pair of boots shakes the family budget to the core. Regional authorities that are on the verge of bankruptcy cannot pay the privatised energy companies for heating and electricity, which means that in winter, heating is regularly turned off in entire cities. Every year, people freeze to death in their own apartments. This no longer creates a sensation; it is no longer even news. Society regards such phenomena with a sort of indulgent tolerance.

Falsified democracy

As for democracy, its most notable manifestation is still the squabbling of deputies in the parliament. Elections are rigged at all levels. The apparatus of power is corrupt through and through, and the judicial system simply does not work. Try to bring a court case over the falsification of voting results, and you will soon find how much your constitutional rights are worth.

Most importantly, no-one is interested in ordinary citizens. Unlike the situation in Soviet institutions, where people were at least given a hearing, and where efforts were sometimes made to help them, what happens in the present-day Russian organs of power is that the officials either extort bribes, or worse still, drive the petitioners out.

The carnival of falsified democracy, with its monotonous masks, has become absolutely tiresome. But the authoritarian rule of the same corrupt bureaucracy will not solve a single problem. Hence the calls to "impose order", uttered by people who have themselves been engaged in plunder or who have provided cover for thieves, do not seem especially convincing.

Inspired by the example of the West, the Russian government plans to abolish housing subsidies in the near future. This means that people will no longer freeze to death in their own homes, but on the streets. And in significantly larger numbers.

The downfall of the Soviet system was the natural result of what had gone before, and in its own way was inevitable. But does this mean that we have to accept everything that has flowed from it as a blessing?

Is social catastrophe really an acceptable price to pay for a bottle of good beer?

From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.
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