When the Berlin Wall came down, many triumphantly declared that the West had won the Cold War and that its values would soon become universally accepted, pushing out the old systems that had dominated Eastern Europe for decades.
However, more than thirty years on and it is clear that Russians are in no hurry to emulate the liberal systems of countries like the US. One poll, released last month, revealed that nearly half of Russians say they don’t hold democratic values. Many Western pundits would quickly blame this on President Vladimir Putin, who they accuse of crushing their hopes for the country after the fall of communism, transforming it into a hybrid capitalist state. But why are so many Russians skeptical of the West’s promises in the first place?
There was indeed a honeymoon period immediately following the end of the Cold War when a huge majority of Russians viewed the US and its institutions favorably, and were open to the kind of democracy being touted from abroad. It’s not well understood how Russians ended up becoming disillusioned to the point where many of them now refer to democracy as “sh*tocracy.” The answer to the question requires one to take an unflinching look at the Russian experience of the 1990’s.
Anarchy in the USSR
Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Russia during the Bush administration, explained that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was wracked by “runaway inflation that destroyed all savings, even worse shortages of essential goods than existed under communism, a sudden rise in crime and a government that, for several years was unable to pay even [its] miserable pensions on time. Conditions resembled anarchy much more than life in a modern democracy.”
This characterization is supported by many Russians as well as Americans who had on the ground experience in the country during the Yeltsin era, undercutting the sepia-tinged narrative put forward by many current western media commentators of a Russia that was a scrappy little democracy enjoying the miracles of the free market during the Yeltsin years, only to be destroyed by Putin.
Sharon Tennison, founder of Center for Citizen Initiatives who has been conducting citizen diplomacy between the US and Russia, as well as supporting community and business projects in the country since 1983, recalled in a series of interviews with me what she saw occurring on her regular trips to Russia during the Yeltsin era. According to Tennison, it was anything but democratic:
“[I remember] a frigid night I came up from the metro to see a line of three or four tiny grannies, wrinkled faces, worn coats and scarves, each holding up a packet of cigarettes for sale….Ordinary people planted food on the sides of roads and lots … young oligarchs drove $100,000 vintage cars in the two capital cities, where elderly people were living in parks, and millions had died from hunger due to loss of their rubles in state banks.”
When crime paid
Life became so dangerous in Moscow that at one point in the early 90s, an official with the American Embassy persuaded Tennison to move out of the motel she was staying in and into the embassy quarters.
Andrei Sitov, a Russian journalist, recounted an incident in 1995 when he and his family were living in Moscow: “My daughter, on her way to walk the dog, discovered a dead body in the hallway of our high-rise…When I pointed out to my wife that the crime rate in New York City where we had been based before was still considerably higher, she retorted that in NYC one knew which neighborhoods to avoid and [which were] relatively safe; whereas in Moscow anything apparently could happen anywhere.”
Unfortunately, this violence wasn’t limited to Moscow. Lena, a newspaper reporter at the time in St. Petersburg, recalls how frightening the era was: “I was also afraid something might happen to my little daughter, so I never let her go [out] alone. The family of my friend’s acquaintance was murdered by drug addicts right in the[ir] stairwell.” She added that those trying to run small businesses often found themselves in particular danger from organized criminals. Consequently, she feared for the safety of her husband who was a budding entrepreneur: “I was very afraid for my husband, who had started his own business. I was afraid that he might not be able to take the financial hit, that he might be killed.”
Sasha Lubianoi, an entrepreneur from Volgograd, believes that the American people generally did have good intentions toward Russia after the end of the Cold War but that Washington’s political class wanted to exploit Russia’s weakness.
He also believes that America’s standards of culture and moral authority began to degenerate during this period and its perpetuation throughout the world had negative consequences.“From my point of view, by the late 1990s America had less and less moral fiber, so it had nothing left to pass on to the Russian people,” he says. “During the 1990s, America flooded not only Russia, but also Europe and Asia with the most base, immoral Hollywood movies…Through these films all morality was broken, including that of our people. Violence, the “right of the [gun],” became the model for achieving a successful, well-fed life. The businessmen, the murderers, the gangsters became the role models.”
Irina, a translator from St. Petersburg, explained how Russians initially thought opening up to Western capitalism would bring a better life, but disenchantment with its reality soon set in. “Russian people welcomed changes and were hoping for the better. We were quite naïve… We probably hoped that we could keep the best features of socialism and add some advantages of capitalism. Our love story with the western way of life ended…[with] the notorious Shock Therapy. In 1991 prices were liberated, the majority of state companies were downsized or shut down, inflation sometimes reached 1000 % a month. People were afraid of food scarcity. My father for the first time in his life made stocks of his favorite cereals, soap, pasta, meat and fish preserves and matches.”
Olga, who worked at a school in the second capital during this period, spoke of the desperate poverty that drove some young girls she knew to prostitution and early death. Food was difficult to buy and salaries were not paid on time: “The salaries were delayed for six months, and the teachers of one school were divided into three parts. Some of them received vacation pay on time. Others were given them at the height of summer, the latter received money when the summer was over.”
Similarly, Ludmila, an assistant professor of biology at a state university in Bryansk at the time, recalled how educators, among others, did not receive pay for extended periods of time and had to improvise other ways to survive economically: “People with higher education absolutely didn’t get paid for 1.5 years at a time. So all the university professors traded in the market in their spare time. Engineers and the military tried to open small businesses. But bandits killed the most successful ones. Unsuccessful men ended their own lives by suicide. I graduated from high school in 1971. There were 16 girls and 16 boys in our class. All were educated in universities, all were moderately successful until the ’90s. After the 90’s there were only 4 boys left alive from our class.”
After the crash
The frequent depiction in western media of the Yeltsin era in Russia as a time of prosperous democracy and the Putin era as a return to darkness is convoluted on many levels. As Tennison stated:
“I wish Americans could get in my mental memory bank and understand the devastation that Russians of all walks of life went through during the 90s,” Tennison said. “It was unbelievable for people who had always had enough food, warm apartments even if only one room, safe streets, health care, good schools … all of a sudden to have nothing. They would have a better understanding of why 60 to 70% of Russians support Putin.”
Sitov also remarked on the contrast of the 90’s versus today: “My personal impression of Moscow is that it’s currently probably one of the nicest, best-kept and most convenient cities in the world.”
For those who truly want to understand why so many Russians prioritize the stability and improved standard of living under Putin to more western-style democracy, comprehending the true scale of what really happened to Russians in the “democratic” 90’s is a good place to start.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.