Russia 10 years later
December 11, 2001
In the Soviet Union beer used to be disgusting, and the only way anyone could drink it was as a vodka chaser. Since the break up of our country, several brewing firms have set up shop, and Russians can now enjoy good company without drinking themselves into insensibility.
That's about the only good thing to happen to Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union around Christmas time 10 years ago. Good beer is a high price to pay for the destruction of our country. Half of our people now live in poverty, according to Russian government figures. What's more, industry is paralyzed and numerous conflicts in Chechnya, Transnistria and Tajikstan have taken hundreds of thousands of lives.
We were told that the free-market economy would bring democracy and prosperity to Russia, but the majority of Russians believe that life was better before capitalism. They are also convinced that if they did not have greater freedoms in Soviet times, they had greater rights.
Western correspondents often paint a near-idyllic picture of the Russian capital filled with fancy imported cars and boutiques. It is true that the situation has improved since the 1998 crash, since the economy has been growing for three years now. Unfortunately, only the middle class has benefited, and by the most generous calculations, the Russian middle class makes up only 15 percent of the population.
Post-Soviet life should be seen not through the windows of an imported car carrying us along one of the avenues of the capital, but through the frost-covered windows of a poorly heated municipal bus in a provincial town.
Russians in Soviet times were not rich, but all their basic material needs were met. The society was remote from utopian ideals, but the government provided relative equality. The party elite shamefacedly hid its privileges.
Education was first-rate even in the provinces. In 1991, Soviet experts were accepted at the world's research centers from North America to South Africa. Soviet medical personnel lacked modern equipment and expensive drugs, and doctors in the hospitals might have been rude to patients, but the treatments were administered reliably and conscientiously. Most importantly, medical help was free of charge and available to everyone. Our housing was wretched from an architectural point of view, but beginning in the 1960s most of the population was provided with their own apartments.
Russian society could not have been called democratic before 1991. Nevertheless, there was a system of feedback. During the 1960s and '70s, ordinary citizens knew they could take their problems to authorities and at least get a hearing. Questioning the political foundations of the state was unacceptable, but private matters were resolved most of the time successfully.
In present-day Russian society, poverty has become an everyday phenomenon. A section of the population, especially old people, simply goes hungry. This occurs against a backdrop of the elite living luxurious lives. The impoverished majority of Russia feel not just materially deprived, but also humiliated. With the average wage at barely $100 a month, the purchase of a pair of boots shakes the family budget to the core. Regional authorities are on the verge of bankruptcy and cannot pay the newly privatized energy companies for heating and electricity. In the winter, heating is regularly turned off for entire cities.
Every year, people freeze to death in their own apartments. This no longer creates a sensation or is deemed newsworthy. Society regards such phenomena with a sort of indulgent tolerance.
As for democracy, its most notable manifestation is the squabbling of deputies in the parliament. Elections are rigged at all levels, according to the Moscow Times. The judicial system simply does not work, and the apparatus of power is corrupt.
Most importantly, no one is interested in ordinary citizens. Unlike the situation in Soviet institutions, where people were at least given a hearing and where efforts were sometimes made to help, officials in present-day Russia either extort bribes or drive petitioners out. The carnival of falsified democracy with its monotonous masks has become absolutely tiresome.
Inspired by the example of the West, the Russian government plans to abolish housing subsidies in the near future. This means that people will no longer freeze to death in their own homes, but on the streets. And in significantly larger numbers.
The downfall of the Soviet system, though inevitable, has not been much of a blessing for us Russians 10 years later. Social catastrophe is not an acceptable price to pay for a bottle of good beer.
Boris Kagarlitsky, who lives in Moscow, is a sociologist and the author of several works. His new book, "Russia under Yeltsin and Putin" (Pluto Press), has just been released. He can be reached at email@example.com.