Last week we left a Russian colleague of mine in the food lines of Soviet Moscow circa 1993, amongst the deprivations of a society turned upside down. Things had still not quite bottomed-out yet, unfortunately. All bets were off for the emerging new Russia, devoid of its power structure, social safety net and contributing satellite states.
The outlying territories had been convenient sources of raw materials under the Soviets of course. Empires don’t just acquire new lands for prestige alone; the vast array of plunder is a major deciding factor too. Furs were imported from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (still one of the most popular forms of fashionable/effective winter wear), sulphur arrived from Crimea, copper from the Caucuses, dangerous (though industrially useful) asbestos from Mongolia and more.
That’s not to discount the valuable resources procured closer to home: from the Urals, Siberia Arkhangelsk and other White Sea regions etc. Without the end-to-end control exerted by Soviet rule, the supply chains faltered, the flow of minerals and raw materials stopped and commerce awaited the arrival of another regime to get the wheels turning again. Until then, scarcity hiked the prices and inflation boomed.
Industry collapsed and whole plants were sold for scrap; a far cry from the days of Stalin when factories could be moved brick by brick to new, profitable areas. Scientific research was abandoned and archives neglected. Labs were left to ruin, skilled scientists and their staff, once seeding future development, were suddenly unemployed.
The value of the Ruble, in freefall, was recalculated daily in order for it to be utilised. For most of the 1990s the calculations yielded more bad news. Many preferred to hold cash in American dollars, which may seem initially surprising. Yes it was the currency of the former enemy; but at least it was stable (and worth something). Numerous exchange bureaus popped into existence, allowing a handful of stable dollars to be converted at the last minute into a wad of disintegrating Rubles so that the day’s food and groceries could be purchased.
Dollars became the only meaningful way of tracking and managing finances, even though it became illegal to publicly advertise dollar values for goods. To get around this, the term “YE” (Unit of Exchange) was created to euphemistically refer to this increasingly essential, though officially frowned upon currency. In case you are wondering, yes: 1 YE equalled 1 USD for the sake of convenience.
Meanwhile, Russian coinage ceased being minted, it cost more to manufacture coins than their value as currency, so large clips of notes were the norm. Russia’s population lurched from lives of absolute, restrictive certainty to a daily existence bordering on random chance, a transition that few were prepared for.
By any means necessary
Not only was the Ruble falling into worthlessness, it was also taking longer to arrive in hands of the remaining workforce. Delays in payment quickly ran into weeks, months, and then seasons! Some companies offered payment in vouchers, redeemable against mediocre goods in special exchange stores whilst the increasingly disillusioned and desperate workers looked for ways to support themselves. Redundant intelligentsia and unskilled ex-employees alike, sought any work, even two jobs to gain a second chance at being paid.
Some sold whatever they could as their savings evaporated, some bartered, some earned a little extra ‘on the side’, aka “shabashit”, as the grey, “semi legal” economy prospered. It’s still around today as is it’s decidedly black counterpart, but that’s for later. Fake or inferior goods circulated, those in the countryside could at least grow some produce of their own, either for their own consumption or for trade in whole or part.
For some younger, attractive women the lure of “easy” money made through prostitution became too tempting to resist, with the potential cost to mind, body and, soul deferred to a later date. Alcoholism and suicide rates exploded and male life expectancy crashed down into the upper 50s.
There was still more to come.