After two instalments of post-Soviet decline, it’s time to end with a reversal of fortune, for a select few within the newly forming Russian society. It’s the wild east of the mid 1990s and opportunist chaos reigns. It’s truly an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Some benefited for sure, but good was out of the picture.
More equal than you
There had always been an element of free enterprise in Soviet Russia, in a drive for self-betterment that is common to us all. Perhaps not officially or overtly so, under Communism, but Party members and their families benefited from privileges that members of the proletariat did not. I interviewed a Russian woman who told me of her first husband; the son of a factory manager. Being a Party-member’s child, he found himself bumped-up the waiting list for a car. Yes; prospective car owners had to wait to get their wheels. If that’s not unbelievable enough, try this: the waiting period was 10 years, unless, of course, you had the necessary status or connections. So much for equity.
Another reality concerns one of Communism’s fundamental hatreds: that of a wealthy, controlling elite, whether the successful, land-owning Kulaks, the aristocracy or the Tsar himself. Do you remember those nondescript, pragmatically labelled stores that I mentioned, signed: “Meat”, “MIlk”, and “Bread”? They were all run by the State as owning a private business was both illegal and an anathema to staunch Communists. Such inconveniences as Soviet law or the moral judgement of their peers were little disincentive to some of course.
Poachers turned gamekeepers
The small-time “entrepreneur” was a figure of distrust and ridicule, buying and reselling western watches and jeans from tourists or sourcing illicit goods that bypassed official restriction. The equivalent in English parlance would be the “geezer” (according to some definitions), “wide-boy” or the much older: “spiv”. Essentially, the friendly face at the lighter end of the criminal economy. There were (and would be) much worse to tangle with.
When Russian communism disintegrated and western-style capitalism was adopted as the primary business model, a whole legion of would-be businessmen stepped out of the shadows. They had been there all along of course, under the Soviet banner; so much for a nation of Marxist automatons! Suddenly they could go public. Some had seen opportunity brewing and had positioned themselves close to Yeltsin in order to receive the beneficial fallout of business naivety.
As a Russian colleague told me: “They bought for thousands; businesses that were worth millions …they took for themselves; industries that had been built by the population. We needed reform, but not like this!”. At this very moment, the idealistic relationship between east and west, forged under Gorbachev and Reagan, started to rot into a mistrust that still continues today.
The chaos of youth
A generation entered into adulthood as the system collapsed beneath their feet, taking with it their future plans, careers and security. The Communist model of stability was gone and nothing had yet been developed to replace it. Wealth and power changed hands as opportunists grabbed what they could whilst others went hungry. All bets were off.
A good education, even if it could now be completed, no longer offered a commensurate career at the end. Those with qualified careers lost them as their Soviet-sponsored positions winked into non-existence, or the fledgling power structure seeking to establish itself stopped paying it’s employees. Conversely: underachievers, malcontents and the academically disenfranchised were no longer limited by the constraints and prerequisites of official career requirements. In the final insult to Communism, this: a cartoonish parody of the social levelling that the outgoing system had (officially) championed.
Some struggled to diversify, some emigrated, some fell into addiction, some committed suicide. Into this hellish scene predators stalked: hungry and confident. Crime follows where big, easy money is to be had and official regulation (even at a token level) is absent.
For those that were simply willing to walk into a situation and take whatever they wanted, numerous opportunities presented themselves. A gang of Gopniki street thugs could shake-down a pedestrian; partly for money, partly for sport. Intermediate criminals extorted “protection” money from traders whilst the most dedicated and ruthless served the new barons of wealth as bodyguards, enforcers and hitmen. The lines between them shifted and blurred, even into officialdom, as personal phone books swelled with the names and numbers of professionals for all manor of tasks, legal and otherwise. Money and power ruled.
Rivalry between burgeoning empires escalated into a theatre of violence, played out blatantly on city streets as gangs of varying status shot each other in traffic jams, favourite partisan drinking haunts and public spaces. Car bombs erased underworld figures in their prized gleaming-black automobiles, taking out passing locals in the process along with the misplaced bullets of chaotic gunfights. The “owned” police, citizens and even panicked, foreign tourists looked on, powerless. Even the lower-level protection racketeers handed out punishment beatings (or worse) as a casual display of power, largely with impunity.
To the perpetrators, civilians and those who still clung to the old, dead system were simply cattle to be exploited, the police: stooges or minor inconveniences to be paid off, the opposing gangs/syndicates: obstacles to be erased, matter-of-factly so.
Meanwhile scams, pyramid schemes and cults of pseudo-religion or self-improvement boomed as the desperate sought near-magical thinking to extricate themselves out of the nightmare. There would be one more (major) chasm to plunge into: the Russian financial crash of 1998, then like an elderly patient rising from a chair, slowly the situation began to improve -one aching step at a time.