For someone who loves his history, being right in the heart of an historic event of a country can be something that really makes a holiday, and that was my experience when I visited Russia in August 1991.
While the rest of the Eastern Europe swept Communism out during the 1989 revolutions, Russia still clung onto their ideology even though Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were beginning to make their mark. It was an educated guess by experts that Communism would continue for a number of decades instead of the complete and sudden collapse it experienced at the beginning of the nineties.
During these seismic changes, our family as part of a group had been invited to visit and tour the country through the cultural exchange programme. An exciting prospect for any history loving teenager like me, was visiting a Communist country to see what life was really like.
But to travel through Russia, like I did in August 1991, the decline of communism could be seen everywhere, grinded down by the years of inefficiencies and corruption. I remember on arrival at the capital as we sped through Moscow traffic spotting tall half finished buildings, no roofs, floors or stairs. I asked our guide, why was it like that. “They only need to half build them” he explained “to reach their building targets.”
Shops were usually empty or displayed random objects on sale. We saw Ice-hockey sticks on offer in a small rural shop during a hot August summer. (We managed to buy half of the stock, priced at a 1p each).
In Moscow, we visited the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy. It was in a sorry state, most of the exhibitions were dull, out-dated and broken machinery and the only thing on display in the Agriculture section was a thin ill-looking white horse.
Even as a 14 year old, I couldn’t help notice that things were not right and that the free market was slowly seeping into this Communist utopia. Amongst the numerous statues of Lenin and patriotic displays, Muscovites had set up stalls selling Russian Military hats, Russian Dolls, t-shirts for the first few tourists. One of the T-shirts I bought was a picture of man and his signature with the slogan ‘Free Russia!’ His name is Boris Yeltsin, the guide explained, and he is the President of Russia.
We were staying in Gorky (now called Nizhny Novgorod) when we woke up one morning to hear that something was on the television. On the screen showed a row of men, grey looking in their beige and baggy suits explaining that Gorbachev has stepped down due to health concerns. Little was known what was going on, normal television and radio schedules were interrupted with music and films. I remember a surreal experience after returning to Moscow, our group being spirited through the capital in black limousines in the midst of the protesting and the tanks on the streets to the flat of a Soviet Deputy.
Whilst we drank black coffee and a enjoyed dubbed version of a BBC classic adaptation on his television, he was in next room loudly discussing with his colleagues and trying to find what was going on. It was only until we arrived at a hotel with CNN news did we manage to catch up on events and see Boris Yeltsin, the man on my t-shirt, standing on the tank cheered on by the crowds demanding an end to the coup. The attempt at power by the organisers ultimately failed and we carried on with our holiday, enjoying the hospitality of the Russian who could always think of something to drink a toast for. Since the twenty years I visited Russia, its attempt at being an open, free market society has largely failed.
A country which ticks all the boxes when it comes to being modern, articulate and educated but remains stubbornly entrenched in deep conservatism, corruption and the lack of democratic accountability. Free-speech is discouraged; the Russian media largely tow the Kremlin line. There is little space for public discussion and patience for protesting. Younger Russians have greater ambition in having a career in government, enjoying a safe job for life and bribery pay-offs. Entrepreneurs fed up of having to pay off corrupt local officials just to keep their business afloat aspire to emigrate and seek greater opportunities in more business friendly countries. “In my business, I’m constantly being shaken down by health officials, policemen or firemen seeking a bribe” said one young entrepreneur to the Sunday Times on why he seeks opportunities outside of Russia.
Russia is withdrawing into itself and seems to wish again the glory days of Communism when it was feared by the West. Moscow might be enjoying flexing its muscles, winning the bid to host the 2018 football world cup while Putin spending his time cultivating a ‘strong man’ image.
But the country will have to face its challenges; the economy is largely dependent from oil and gas revenue, which accounts to 40% of the state budget while rest struggles under rampant corruption and lack of strong free market institutions. Its decaying infrastructure serves an ageing population suffering from health problems around alcoholism, high HIV infection rates and early death amongst the male population. Not facing up to these challenges might mean another August Coup like we saw twenty years ago.