The Fabulous 90’s: A Siberian memoir: Response to Adomanis JRL#94

Map of Russia

Date: Sun, 26 May 2013
Subject:  The Fabulous 90’s: A Siberian memoir: Response to Adomanis JRL#94
From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <echosiberia@gmail.com>

The Fabulous 90’s: A Siberian memoir
in response to JRL#94 Mark Adomanis Forbes.com “The Intelligence Squared Debate: Masha Gessen Has Some Really Strange Ideas About The 1990’s” (JRL #94)

Adomanis, “With the stipulation that Gessen doesn’t represent the entire Russian opposition, it’s striking that one of Vladimir Putin’s highest profile public detractors thinks that living standards rose during the 1990 s. Gessen contemptuously referred to the (obviously accurate) position that Russia’s economy performed terribly during the 1990s as a “myth” and said that, because every Russian family got a new washing machine,*the 1990 s were actually pretty decent. She even tried to argue that the real economic crisis has happened since Putin took power, when the gap between wealthy and poor exploded. She was essentially trying to reverse the standard narrative: in Gessen’s understanding the 1990 s were good and the 2000 s were bad.”

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova..the memoir begins….

The 90’s, oh the joy of it when the dollar went from 95 to 720 rubles in one year, along with rising prices for butter (8 to 140r a kilo), sugar (2 ­ 50 r per kilo) and sausage (1 to 180 r per kilo).  There was Pepsi, but, to buy a Pepsi you had to return a Pepsi bottle so even if you had the money to get one, the challenge remained how to break into the Pepsi cycle.

I did not witness the arrival of any washing machines.  The big sensation in 92-93 out here was the chickens that appeared in apartments. One could only envy the fortunate chickens and their owners who lived in first floor apartments making it possible for free grazing among the buildings where the crème de la crème of Siberian science lived.  What fun, when the enterprising women in this scientific community developed this strategy for outsmarting the rising price of poultry.  Sadly, not everyone saw this as innovation.  A student of mine complained, “Two rooms, mom and dad, my sister, her husband and baby and now these damned chickens clucking all night in the kitchen”.

Akademgorodok, home to institutes that correspond to every science discipline you have heard of and then some.  It was in one of those institutes in 1983 (the Institute of Economics) that the term Perestroika was born. Sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya and economist Abel Aganbegan used it in a secret paper presented in Novosibirsk that made its way to Gorbachev and eventually the Washington Post where it became known as “the Novosibirsk Report”.   Post- Perestroika life as a teacher at the University, one of the top three in Russia, was nothing short of an advertisement for the wonders of democracy.  I began each class with the chalk hunt and evenings were spent making 30 copies of Frank O’Hara’s poem “Khrushchev is coming on the right day!”.  I heard a rumor there was a xerox machine but evidence of its existence was still lacking.  Then, there was that memorable day when I cancelled class after 15 minutes because I did not consider an unheated classroom when it is -30 outside a learning environment.

More fond memories from the 90’s include the service sector and acquisition of goods.  There were a bunch of “guys” as in “I know a guy who can get x for x rubles”. Thus your life depended wholly on the information and skills possessed by those around you. This was social capital in its purest sense.  I once got trapped in my apartment when a lock jammed from the inside. There was no alternative but to hatchet our way out.  I soon learned that working at the University I had access to “guy” network central and an arrangement was made for a “guy” to rebuild the door (I never found out whether there were no doors available to replace it or access to them was above my pay grade).  The price was a bottle of vodka and a week because there was more chatting than carpentry going on, but a new door appeared.

Then there was that marvelous time when a friend stopped by late at night. He arrived yelling and waving a bunch of rubles in my face, “this isn’t money, this is old money, as opposed to new money, according to the woman at the kiosk who refused to sell me a candy bar”.  Who needs Internet, this is how we found out that Yeltsin lopped off the zeros.

And who will ever forget the exciting world of elections?  Yeltsin found a way to kick out the communist Governor and replace him with a more “liberal” guy.  The Communist went on to become a banker until he made a comeback when the “liberal” guy was voted out of office. The “liberal” guy went on to become a banker, the Communist achieved nothing and was challenged in the next election by the “liberal”, the “liberal” Mayor of Novosibirsk and a Vice Minister of Economics. The “liberal” and the Communist lost and both went back to banking. In a runoff the Mayor won by a tiny margin and the Minister returned to Moscow.  Except for the Communist I have no idea what political party any of them represented, there were over 60 of them running for office in Novosibirsk at this time. My personal favorite was the “Beer Lovers Party”.

Traveling around Siberia in 92-94, the thing people most wanted to know was my impression of Russia and how they live, how did it look to an American? Regardless of the specifics the, the subtext was always the same, “You’ve lived in a democracy, does it look hopeless to you?”. This need to know mixed with equal fear of knowing was clearest at a meeting with retired gold mine workers in a village in Zabaikalsk Oblast (Chita at the time).  After each question (i.e. the standard of living of pensioners in the US) there would be this pause, as if they were holding their breath in anticipation of an answer that would be too painful. Like a second visit to the doctor after some tests or stumbling across incontrovertible evidence that your 30 year marriage was a sham.

Grown-ups were so frightened by all the changes they were either punch drunk into permanent crash position steeling for the next hit, or, drunk drunk.  During this Masha Gessen golden era of democracy only 793 out of 3,145 students voted and in 1994 it was down to 10% of eligible voters.  The reason for this lack of interest was made clear by my students:

Nina: “Congress made a very strange impression on me.  It looks like a group of people who are fighting for power and don’t care about the country. They don’t want to work together.”

Oleg:”The amazing thing is that Yeltsin was sworn to obey the Constitution when he became President but a few days ago he said he would not pay attention to Congress’s decisions.  No one believes that politicians can change anything in their lives.”

Tanya:”It’s become common to speak about crisis and about the possibility of civil war in our country. The politicians in Moscow seem to be most interested in the struggle for power and have forgotten about the economic situation. If you come to our country you won’t see tanks in the streets but you will have the impression they have just left.”

During this period no one ever asked me about NGOs, human rights or freedom.  It was all about economics, the key to these people’s hearts and votes was obvious. I don’t think much about that has changed.  Better quality of life for everyone.  While no one I ever met had a washing machine until well into the 2000’s (in 2002 when we built our house we were the first in the history of our Altai village of 1,500 to have indoor plumbing), there is no doubt the appearance of the washing machine outside of Moscow isn’t enough to satisfy people.  The big shift is the dissatisfaction is starting to re-orient its focus from wanting more stuff to wanting more fairness.  It is a slow process but it is happening.  Mark Adomanis is right.  There is an argument that could mobilize a desire for things to improve. This would include concrete proposals for providing access to better health care and education.   When Gessen and others promote the idea that things were better in the 90’s to mobilize people in support of democracy it is a big loser. More importantly, it is an insult to the principles that Siberians thought democracy stood for when they were more naïve and curious about it, in the 90’s.

[DJ: Not to step into this contretemps but I believe that Masha Gessen spent a good part of the 1990s in the United States. I remember she interviewed me about Johnson’s Russia List in 1997 at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.]