By Steven Rosenberg
In August 1991, I arrived in Moscow to teach English at the Machine Tool Construction Institute. Printed on my visa were the words “For entry into the USSR”.
Less than four months later, the USSR ceased to exist.
The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a huge shock to its citizens. But, for many of the people I met in Moscow in 1991, it also offered hope of a better life.
“We were so glad that something very important was happening. It was a wind of freedom,” recalls English teacher Irina. “The understanding that it was a tragedy that such a great country collapsed – I’m not afraid of this word ‘tragedy’ – that came much later.
“I saw new people, the new Russians, who I absolutely didn’t like. May I say, I saw the ugly face of capitalism?”
When I met Oleg in 1991, he was in his early 20s. He and his friends were determined to cash in on the opportunities provided by the new Russia. Today Oleg lives in Canada.
“We started by bringing used cars from Poland and selling them in Moscow,” he tells me by phone from Toronto.
“And we were buying crates with chicken legs from the United States. So we tried everything.”
Wild Russian capitalism of the early 1990s was not for the fainthearted.
“It was dangerous,” Oleg remembers. “We made a lot of money, but we had a lot of problems.
“I had a couple of situations when bandits, who we borrowed money from, said: ‘We will kill you, no problem. If you don’t bring our money within two weeks, you will not be on this land any more’.”
The 1990s saw two wars in the North Caucasus, tanks firing on the Russian parliament and a financial crash in which many Russians lost their savings.
Irina began to miss the USSR.
“In the beginning of the 1990s, we used to be displeased with what we had in the Soviet Union,” she tells me. “Everything was bad and we cursed many things in the USSR. But later we realised it was not that bad.”
“But in the Soviet Union,” I point out, “there was no democracy, no freedom of speech.”
“What sort of ‘democracy’ do you mean? It depends,” Irina replies. “Maybe we did not know much about what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. But did we need it? Do we need it?”
After Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, the Kremlin set about restoring the power of the state.
Private business became problematic. Oleg went abroad.
“From the school buddies I know – around 10 or 15 people, who had their own business; they do not have their own businesses any more. They are in the government or in corporations that are close to the government. Right now it’s much more difficult to do something in Russia.”
Irina is convinced that Russia needs a strong leader.
“By nature I am a typical monarchist,” she tells me. “And if the monarchy is returned to Russia I will vote with my both hands.”
“You’d like a tsar?” I ask.
“Yes, I’d like a tsar. I understand that the country is so big and it has so many problems that I don’t see anybody else but a strong, mighty, powerful person who is ruling this country.”
“Does Vladimir Putin fulfil this need for a tsar?” I ask.
“To my understanding, yes,” confirms Irina. “The president is not simply working, he’s toiling. And I respect him for that.”
I point out to Irina that Western governments accuse President Putin of aggression: they cite the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. Many in the West do not trust Vladimir Putin.
“So why should they like him? He’s not a pretty woman!” Irina laughs. “He is a strong person.”
As for Oleg, he may have moved to Canada, but he still appreciates his Soviet upbringing.
“Yes, there were a lot of negative things in the Soviet Union. But I still have a positive attitude. This comes from my education and my Soviet mind-set.”
Russia has come a long way from the days of used cars from Poland and American chicken legs. It survived the 90s – just. And today it is flexing its muscles.
And tomorrow? After 25 dramatic years I have realised you can be certain of only one thing in Russia: unpredictability.