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Tough and Rakish 90s in USSR / Russia

The much & long promised post on the 90s in the USSR / Russia is here finally 😉

I guess you remember that the USSR broke up right in the early 90s. The enormous empire gradually fell to pieces, leaving the former republics alone as well as millions of people not exactly knowing what to do and where to go and what’s next?! I won’t give you accurate history facts, or any politics (there were so many crises!), as these you can always read on Wikipedia =) Here is my own recollection and my family’s account of the events, such a personal story is not supposed to be flooded with too much facts, right? (for photos see a link at the bottom of the post)

For some the 90s were a lucrative and a determining period which allowed them to get from rags  to riches, as those were the years when the market finally emerged (along with black market), when there were one-day (or longer) enterprises and companies appearing from all sides, when a person without much education could get MONEY and loads of them in just no time. The thing is that the people, especially once the USSR broke apart (1991), were left to themselves. Although it got clearer and clearer with each year for a third party observer that the whole USSR bubble will eventually burst, most of the people were still wearing pink glasses or just used to the situation at such extent that they were literally blind and unprepared for a change. Can you imagine, after 74 years of scheduled life, PREpared future, career planned for years ahead and lots of other pre-determined things in your life, all this suddenly comes to a miserable end and YOU also end up with a shattered image of your good ol’ boggy world.

That’s why for some the 90s were a killer time, when people just couldn’t live without being directed in their every step. There were possibilities, chances, choice and all this was just mind-boggling for them, especially for aged people and those particularly into the Soviet thing. As if left without the very stem of their existence, people were dying out. As if a local evolution of species has occurred, only those ready to face the changes and the demolition of the past could survive. Unfortunately, not all those who survived were nice decent people. This is how a whole lot of bandits and mafia people emerged from their underground hiding and took over business, ex-governmental enterprises and power, of course. That was a period when the most famous people who also passed on to the folklore (LOADS of anecdotes) were wardrobe-like males dressed in CRIMSON jackets with massive golden chains. These people got called ‘novye russkye‘ or New Russians, like a kind of nouveau-riches who were really not that pleasant to meet.  They drove around in a characteristic black Mercedes 600, had a gang of the same wardrobe-y securities and dealt with the same guys. Another characteristic feature was a so to say permanent gesture with two middle fingers bent and the index and the little fingers extended. This gesture expressed the fact that you’re extremely tough and unrivalled. Yes, this word, tough, in Russian ‘krutoy‘, was more than frequently used at those times. The supposedly egalitarian Soviet society got all messed up, with the emerging rich men and the complete beggars, who used to be somehow invisible during the Soviet period. The latter was quite a disturbing and dangerous ‘introduction’ in our lives, as there were now places where one was not advised to go, there were basements where the homeless and outcasts lived, there were maniacs, there were unlocked attics in the block of flats occupied by bomji (actually this is an abbreviation, meaning Without Fixed Residence, just like SDF in French).

The shops were already lacking for stock in the late 70s-80s, and in the 90s we got a period of ration cards… I remember staying in a queue for some hours waiting for a piece of something to eat. We also got humanitarian aid from more hmm developed countries, starting from the Perestroika times. And this was exactly the period corresponding to my early childhood years, there was a time when both my parents were unemployed, after which my Father did all sorts of jobs and my Mum used her talent in sewing to bring in money. She says the prices were ridiculously mad, meaning they were completely uneven, when after selling a costume or a dress my Mum made, we could live a month for the money gained (there was hardly anything in the shops). How people got that money to pay for their clothes, I just don’t know! Raising two children in those years was a hard task, but at the same time I guess it was a very harsh but useful ‘school of life’ for our parents and for us, children, as we got at least that sense of things not appearing from the air or hamburgers growing on trees. It was much easier to make a child happy and cheerful at those times, as even a small thing was hugely appreciated.

My Mum says the world was going crazy all around her and her family but she says it was as if she was looking at all this as a by-stander, not participating in it emotionally or in any other way. There were whole families destroyed after getting involved in some sort of machinations and multiple financial pyramids (the most famous being MMM, I guess everybody still remembers the commercials), lots of families ruined by ever-present vodka and appearing drugs, also AIDS has made its major appearance, as well as inevitable dysentery & suchlike illnesses & infections, as there were so many filthy things around. The whole Soviet system broke down but miraculously its disintegrated parts were still functioning by some kind of inertia. Crazy times, when people were selling their family treasures right at the metro station exits, when the phrase ‘for the black day’ governed over the family shopping: if you by chance come across some thing, like baking soda, pasta or sugar, be sure to get enough (“not more than two in one pair of hands!”) for the black day which threatened the existence of people. Being not sure in your future is one thing, but when your daily life is a matter of survival (although we’re talking here about St. Petersburg, which is the second city in the country and also so close to Europe)…

Don’t be mislead that everything was so macabre and dark in those days. Those were the days when so many things happened for the first time, starting from tasting some food for the first time (how about the launch of the first famous fast food restaurant in Moscow which showed the record consumer traffic with the longest queues ever…) and ending with the possibility to travel abroad, to choose your profession and to open your own business. Of course there was this cultural component which got gradually razed off, there were so many institutions which got lost and the overall spirit was that of trying by any means, be they legal or not, to keep your life going,  desirably with loads of money. The wild pop was awful, but there were talented musicians finally getting their space. The TV showed the first true commercials without boundaries, but had some very interesting programs for the first time in all those years of the TV=) So many people lost their jobs, had to change their qualification, had to switch to sometimes completely unthinkable things, like a scientist or an engineer selling, I don’t know,  socks in the open-air market… There were people leaving the country in flocks, to the USA, to Israel, to everywhere. But there were people who somehow took those years as a lesson – a lesson of survival, of preserving your moral principles & culture, of not regressing but getting wiser and more spiritual, perhaps. Not all of them did so, of course, as still now we have this ‘I’m so tough & cool’ attitude of people who are affluent and drive huge (“the larger the cooler!”) black cars with toned windows. You won’t see them in crimson jackets any more but yet they keep bringing in their proletarian method of seizing the things previously not available for them (like culture, expensive art objects and everything expensive all in all) and showing off as much as they can.

No photos this time. Of course, I could have scanned the old family photos we have, but I think they are a bit irrelevant here. For the photo-reportage of those days, see such posts as this one from (in Russian but you will get the essence through the visual part).

The Rakish 90s deserve more to be said but… I guess this is enough for now =) Will come back soon with some bread recipes.



2 thoughts on “Tough and Rakish 90s in USSR / Russia

  1. Dear author, thank you so much for this post. I remember the period of 90s clearly as it was my childhood then. You really have brought back my memories and touched my soul.

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