A colleague has been telling me some very interesting tales about the metamorphosis of Soviet Russia into the pseudo-democratic-capitalist-republic hybrid that exists today, long after naive optimism and idealism of Glasnost turned to dust. It was a wild ride indeed, throughout the 1990’s after 70 years of Communism shuddered to an abrupt halt; a mere two years following the fall of the Berlin wall (1991 and 1989, respectively). Perhaps “emergency stop” would be a more appropriate term.
86% and counting
He’s retired now and a dedicated “86 percenter”, a term that’s a humorous dig at the dyed-in-the-wool 86% who seemingly follow Putin through all of his ups and downs. Alternating between cheerleaders and apologists, depending upon the cards played by their favourite Tsar, and remaining loyal, on the whole, through thick and thin. Even the recent pension-age scandal could not shake them off. As another Russian colleague remarked “Ah you mean he’s all Putin, Putin, Putin!”. Well, yes, but only when we are talking politics of course.
Somehow I admire his conviction to a cause, as if surety was so simple, whilst I feel like I navigate a course peppered with false turns, cow pats and man traps at every junction. At least I haven’t had to endure what he lived through. He was there, anyway, standing with his son in the snaking food lines of the late 80’s and early 90’s; a grim throwback to the pre-revolutionary days preceding the end of the Romanov dynasty, whilst socio-political unrest and the scourges of the 1st World War helped seal the fate of an empire.
The death of optimism
The post-Soviet era had all started so optimistically, with a massive queue of a different kind in 1990. A seemingly impossible 30,000 served on the first day of McDonald’s opening in Moscow as happy customers devoured the western dream and left, some retaining their empty food cartons as proof, should they awaken.
The wake-up call was soon to come, however. New supply chains and procedures were yet to be established as the Soviet government that once controlled and facilitated everything, ceased to exist. The supply, demand and management of the free market had to learned, from scratch, by both provider and customer, one step at a time. It was a disaster.
1992 was an early nadir as the first year of economic reform saw prices of goods increase by 2500%. The value of the Ruble fell to 1,247 per single USD by 1993 and runaway inflation rocketed throughout the decade on a seemingly driverless train, shifting into high gear on Black Tuesday, October 11th 1994 (Although there were several “Black Tuesdays”). That day saw the Russian currency shed 27% of its value as confidence fell through the floor and recession exploded. Relative “success” would be the taming of this untempered acceleration to a mere 16% per annum by 1996.
Impoverished millionaires in line
My colleague became a millionaire, several times over along the way as monthly salaries morphed into meaningless and worthless telephone numbers. He brought home over a million Rubles per month, not that such fantastical amounts would buy many daily staples now costing tens or hundreds of thousands.
Most key products were sold in establishments dedicated to type, with separate shops offering families of related items. Devoid of “chain” names, a shopping trip would see the housekeeper pass between various stores labelled “Meat”, “Milk”, “Bread” and “Wine” etc. only to find more queues or near (or completely) empty shelves and complaints against staff accused of diverting stock for themselves, whilst customers went without.
Word would spread about new stocks of sugar or fruit, say, or other staples due to arrive later in the day, or perhaps tomorrow, causing more preemptive queueing with grim, ballooning price tags awaiting inside. Alternatively, anxious shoppers would find nothing at all within – except more hearsay, or perhaps some supplies, but not enough. The front runners would then make off with limited spoils and count themselves lucky (and fed).