Written by Eleanor Hemming
Often when we recount the eras of Russian history, we think first of the Tsarist era, followed by the Soviet Union, and then the arrival of Putin’s Russia. Little thought is given to what happened in between the collapse of the USSR and the year 2000: the all-important tumult of the 1990s, which shook both Russia and many other former Soviet states which found themselves suddenly independent and alone in a fiercely competitive world. The result was violence, dislocation and a loss of identity affecting millions of people across Europe and Central Asia.
Second Hand Time is a book by Nobel-prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich, who has interviewed hundreds of former Soviet citizens in order to try and uncover the profound effect the break up of the USSR had on its people. Alexievich is a Belarusian journalist, who has spent many years interviewing former-Soviet citizens about their life experiences, from Nazi occupation, to Chernobyl, to war in Afghanistan. If you are at all interested by Russia today, why it is as it is, and how Russians perceive their lives today, one would benefit from reading any of the works by Svetlana Alexievich.
I was intrigued to listen to and learn about the collapse of the USSR, and how Russians view their Soviet past from the people I met and grew to know during my time in Russia. The following transcript is taken from an interview I conducted with a teacher living in St Petersburg, who is probably in her mid-sixties and who was keen to impart with me her feelings about the transformation Russia has gone through.
How has your life changed between 1989 and today?
Of course, life now has changed a lot. If you want it in a few words, I would say that before life was more modest in terms of materialism, there were fewer material benefits, but life was happier, more joyful. Our life was lighter, cleaner and in a higher place, and more fair. That’s how I feel.
We had belief in the future: not only in tomorrow but in the day after tomorrow too. Moreover, we knew that there were many years to follow us.
We knew that there would always be work; that we could take holidays and that we could go to relax in the sanatorium [spa], in the Crimea, in the Caucuses or around St Petersburg, for 20-30 per cent of the actual price, thanks to the Teachers’ Union.
We knew that we had and always would have free and decent health care. Our life expectancy was like that in Europe at the time – 76-78 years for men and even more for women.
We had free education for everyone at all levels. Not only at school but also at specialist training schools and universities. Education was splendid. For example, I was a student at the philology faculty at the Russian department at SPSU. In the first class, I studied one course of classical literature, a whole year of Latin, the grammar of Russian language, Latin and Old Slavonic. We had an excellent teacher who would give us extra lectures for free – can you believe it? As a result, we used to get ten hours a week of old Slavonic. Would this be possible under ‘capitalism’? Absolutely not, I think. Why did my teacher give us these extra lessons I ask you? She simply wanted us to have the best understanding of Old Slavonic possible. This knowledge has really helped me, in my work before and now. I pass on my knowledge to my students with enjoyment. There are many more examples like this.
Selflessness – this was the main quality of our people during the Soviet years.
In the USSR, cultural activities were free. If you wanted, you could go to the Palace of Culture, to the theatre, to listen to a choir etc. For example, I sang for two years in the university choir, and our director was an extraordinary conductor, Grigorii Sandler. He was the choral conductor on the Leningrad radio. Thanks to him I sang many times in classical music concerts – in the main hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic and in the October Concert hall, which was then the biggest hall in St Petersburg. The hall was full, more than two thousand people came to listen to us. It was the happiest moment of my life. Of course, we didn’t pay money for these concerts; instead, the ‘Golden Fund Radio’ recorded our performance. Sports were also free. If you wanted to do sport, it was all free. Therefore not only art but also sport was performed at a higher level.
Today parents must pay for all these activities. Nothing is free. Is this capitalism? I don’t know.
Accommodation – we all received a flat for free. The factory gave my father his flat, although not straight away. He was the director of the workshop at the shipbuilding factory, and he was twice offered a flat, but he twice refused, believing that the flats must first be given to the workers. The third time my mother insisted – we needed a flat too!
Now professional/vocational education has practically ceased to exist, our industry is largely destroyed, the factories are closed, and there are no jobs. It was our great chemist Mendeleev (author of the Periodic Table of Elements), who, in the nineteenth century created our legacy of technology and industry. He laid down the chemical foundations for progress and technology and science in our country and throughout the world. In Soviet times we had a powerful industry.
Do you think, in general, that you prefer life now, or before 1989?
I apologise, but I cannot answer that question exactly or unequivocally. No matter how difficult or hard life is, we cannot turn back the clocks. However, I certainly do not want to relive the so-called ‘tumultuous’ 1990s. This was a time full of bandits, a time when many lost all of their money and savings in just one day, a time when many broke down. On the 1-2 of January 1992, we were informed that not even a kopek of our money remained. Savings were depreciated and shops were emptied. We lost everything that we had earned during our lifetimes.
During the 1990s, the population of Russia declined by ten million people – even though it seemed there was no war and no repression. The loss of work and money, the drunkenness, the disbelief, the lack of faith in the future and so on all took their toll. Not everyone could continue to live and fight for life.
Was capitalism what you thought it would be?
Of course, it was not what we had waited for. Although having said that, I had not imagined it too badly: I had read The American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, many of the works of H.G. Wells, Thomas and Heinrich Mann and much more. Nevertheless, I didn’t think that capitalism would bring prostitution, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, violent crime, and many other terrible things.
So, we must thank Putin, for stopping the war in Chechnya, for stopping the disintegration of Russian industry, and much more. And I won’t say anything about Crimea! I grew up in a family where we talked about it a lot. We went on holiday there many times. My father built a lot of space technology there, which is not often talked about. Whilst he was in the Crimea we stayed there with my mother. Today I am proud of this.
Did you support Gorbachev and Perestroika in 1989? If Gorbachev were here now, would you still support him?
Yes. I supported Perestroika, as did many of the intelligentsia, and in fact the majority of the population. I understood that change was necessary – reforms, renovation. Moreover, at first, Gorbachev was very confident. But it turned out that he didn’t have a plan of action for reforming the country. He was only confident abroad. It turned out later, that the opinion of the West was much more important to him than the opinion of his fellow citizens. He betrayed the army. And he did it many times. He did not think about our relationship with the republics etc. It was he who ‘forgot about the Crimea’. We are seeing the results now! In conclusion, it’s like the saying ‘you start on a merry note, but finish on a sad one’.
Do you think that people today have different values than those who lived in the USSR?
Yes, as I already mentioned, this is our biggest loss.
We lost what held us together – universal values, collectivism, a sense of responsibility, a sense of partnership, of being ‘elbow to elbow’. However, I hope that Russians can still come together at a time of crisis. They say that Russians don’t give up. They can die, but they won’t give up. This is a quality that I saw in my own unforgettable parents. My father was strong, intelligent, from a wonderful, educated family (his father was a lawyer). He graduated from university a laconic, strong, intelligent man with a fine sense of humour that lasted the whole war, until August 1946! My mother was sweet, kind and joyful. She was left alone in St Petersburg after her parents both died of starvation in 1943, during the Leningrad blockade. My parents survived the war and preserved their humanity and kindness.
The modern youth – they don’t have courtesy, goodwill, respect for themselves and others. These qualities have been replaced with ambition and rudeness. Perhaps this is because today’s television educates these qualities in them, it corrupts them and destroys their moral values.
This is an account of someone who has lived in both the then and the now, and whilst it is important to remember that these are the views of one woman from one generation, she does give us an insight into the mindset of some Russians today. As someone in her mid-sixties, she probably grew up under Khrushchev and Brezhnev and did not experience the terror of Stalin’s era. In the West, Soviet times are portrayed as grey, sombre and full of terror, and in comparison ‘capitalism’ is free and full of colour. Here, we see that for some, at least in hindsight, it was the reverse. Here Soviet Russia is a time of light – full of happy memories and morality. Whilst all the evils of capitalism she mentions almost certainly also existed before 1991, for her these years were a time of stability in comparison to today. In the West, we wonder how Russians can support President Putin. We forget Russia’s tumultuous and difficult past. Whilst we can criticize him on many fronts, Putin has gained tremendous support amongst Russians for restoring stability and national pride, something that during the 1990s went from being a given to a luxury overnight.