Back in October I came across a very short but impressive history metodichka (a sort of a University course digest) on Russia in the 1991-1999. There were multiple moments when I had my mouth wide open and couldn’t restrain myself from interjections of various grades of decency. My, those were the days, really! What would you do if the prices rose 17 times over a period of three months? No wonder my sister and me were brought up on the powdered milk received as humanitarian aid from Germany. And the people were even more desperate to get themselves a plot to grow their own potatoes somewhere off the city limits – just to survive, you know. Teachers and doctors were hastily quitting their jobs and becoming sellers at the market. Or emigrating to the USA, Israel and elsewhere. Those were the days!
I remember watching TV a lot (I was sort of forced to as my Grandpa watches all the possible newscasts) and hearing a lot about the war and Grozniy, the capital of the Chechen Republic, and wondering why they would ever give a city such a name – to make war there, eh? (Grozniy means Menacing in Russian) I just started school then, a happy child miraculously going to a private (!) school and did not care much about the rest of the world. But still the constant war news, the good generals and the bad boyeviks, those were the words I was taking in with my meals.
I’m not at all into politics and stuff but I was deeply impressed by the wheeling-dealing of the politicians and the lot over that infamous period (the names of the parties and the politicians themselves seem to be engraved in my mind too, ironically one of the parties was called Yabloko – apple – comprised of its founders’ names). Some of them really merit to be studied as an example of how the things should NOT be done. A total chaos of the very Russian ‘I do what I want’ principle. There was also a fair share of ‘après moi – la déluge’ and ‘whatever!’ dispositions. The country was immersed into group charades and all kinds of racketeering. I won’t ponder on that, we talk food matters here, right, so let it be at least food-related.
Now, let me surprise you with some statistics: for example, the giant Uralmash (the Urals machine building factory) with a 100 thousand staff was sold for the vouchers equaling 2mn US dollars, just about the same one would pay for a small bakery in an American province. I remember all that privatisation being discussed (especially by my Grandpa who cannot still get over the fact the USSR split up and I do understand him now), the voucher things being forced on to people (we even have some of the Izhorskiy factory ones somewhere…), the plunder that was going on all around the ex-state-owned enterprises…
Who would believe that whereas at the end of 1991 one could theoretically (llllove that!) buy a Zhiguli car for 10 thousand rubles, by the end of 1992 when the state started issuing the vouchers, one could buy… only FIVE BOTTLES OF VODKA?! My Granddad was saving up his money for a new Zhiguli just about that time actually but we ended up riding our good ol’ 1979 car until 2008 or when was that. No idea how the country DID survive, honestly. I don’t want you to think people were dying in the streets (although they did), I just want to give you a picture of what was going on then. Seriously, I had a perfectly joyful childhood, I assure you, and would never ever trade it for the childhood kids are having today, but still.
And nobody would ever believe such a hard-working and always agricultural country like Russia would import 40% of its foodstuffs in 1996. That placed us 40th by the consumption of foodstuffs, behind some of the developing countries. Imported goods were the king of the booming market: I remember Uncle Benz instant potatoes and Mars and Snickers and Chupa-Chups speedily capturing the mouths and minds of people. There were also those multi-coloured glazed cookies I was craving for. That was the age of the raging preservatives – no one cared for those ‘take-my-eye-out’ acid green and pink bubble gums and sweets loaded with E-something, and children were saving their lunch money to buy Love Is (I did – with all the bulochki still around!). Although I somehow managed to eat a whole Snickers only somewhere around 2007-08 during the ever-hungry student years.
If I continue this parallel comparison with the USA, all the things that were gradually introduced there all along the 20th century, were just poured on our unprepared heads and into our hungry mouths like an avalanche all at once, crash! boom! bang! There was of course the packaging boom – never did we have that much of plastic, fancy glittering wraps and such like stuff. People in the USSR used to carry everything from clothes to macaroni in paper right up to the 90s actually. I remember playing with our street friends using the aluminum foil from the cigarette packs – those were the precious bits! And as a logical result – there was an increased amount of garbage in the streets, especially noticeable after the years of relative civilized behavior were abandoned. The same applies to swearing in public.
I usually don’t trust the stats that much but here’s something truly impressive: by the middle of the 1990s the rich accounted for just 3%-5% of the population (the famous oligarchs and New Russians in crimson jackets and gold chains), the middle class had 7%-15% and the rest… Well, the rest of the population was poor, of course! Those were the results of an especially wild shock therapy the country was going through. The country was too quick to ‘feast’ upon the remnants of the Soviet empire potential, which were very promptly swallowed. On a daily life basis this eating away of the Soviet heritage manifested in such things as finally recycling those things people used to stock for the ‘black day’ (and still do!), or like my Mom did – making her children clothes out of sheer nothing.
And the people have paid a very high price for getting themselves a nice consumer life with almost no queues (except at the hypermarket check-out points) and where-to-get-that worries. Now those who were teenagers back then are bringing up their own kids. I’ve had a chance to observe them and all I can tell you is that these kids abandon their sincerity much earlier although not all of them are material boys and girls. There’s hope=)
Ok, finally posting this! Will come back with food.