I was born in the USSR in 1978 and was just becoming a teenager as the Soviet Union fell. For a schoolboy this was heady stuff. There was no more talk of ‘Good Old Lenin’ in class, and literature and history sessions suddenly became interesting. For the first time, we openly discussed the Stalinist Terror and the gulags, and sat around reading formerly banned books like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. We condemned the madness of the Cold War and rhapsodised about the golden future. The world was opening up and it seemed nothing could prevent its peoples from becoming lasting friends. This was Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ and we believed in it. How clueless, in retrospect, both Fukuyama and we young Russians were. But how happy too.
We had Gorbachev’s glasnost to thank for this, yet it all started properly only with the failed coup against him in 1991. Communist hardliners, wanting to undo his reforms, put Gorbachev under house-arrest in a bid to take over government. I remember waking up that morning paralysed with fear and despair. Then in the evening a huge protest rally gathered on the Embankment of my city. Miles away in Moscow, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was fighting hard against the coup, standing on a tank and risking his life to preserve the reforms. Suddenly it seemed to us the coup was doomed to fail, and it did. No matter how hopeless Russia’s present and future may currently be, the memory of that day, of people standing up for what seemed vital to them and willing to sacrifice everything for their future, is still with me. It may have spelled the end of Gorbachev but it was the beginning of a new era.
As I moved into adolescence, we had decades of catching up to do – especially with Western music, now freely, miraculously available. The Doors, the Velvet Underground, King Crimson – we spent countless hours recording music from one cassette to another, copying out the lyrics from the sleeves of precious vinyls. The same went for literature: Hermann Hesse, Carlos Castaneda, Henry Miller, Orwell, Tolkien. A joke at the time said that to seduce a Russian girl all you had to do was whisper in her ears the magic trinity of Latin writers: ‘Marquez, Borges, Cortazar.’ Condoms and the pill were suddenly in the shops and the Russian 1990s, for the young, were like the Sixties in the West – an explosion of creativity and freedom, even if we had to make do with vodka instead of LSD.
Naturally, these freedoms applied to speech as well. Boris Yeltsin, for all his faults (we’ll get onto those) remained true to this principle throughout his tenure, knowing free speech was effectively what had brought him there. Sometimes he paid a price for it, his entourage repeatedly showing him the most unflattering press cuttings and cartoons and asking his permission to shut them down. But Yeltsin to his credit stood firm: ‘This is freedom of speech for you,’ he growled. ‘You’d better get used to it.’
The media was changing fast. New presenters, discussion programmes, shockingly candid phone-ins. A key programme of the time was Kukli (‘Puppets’), based on Britain’s Spitting Image, a show that gave a pasting to anyone in public life. In February 2000, just as Putin was getting underway, it portrayed him as Hoffman’s ‘Little Zaches’, an evil gnome mistaken by blind villagers for a beautiful youth. Needless to say, Kukli did not flourish much longer. Russian rulers became, once again, what they had always been in the Russian mass consciousness: Celestial Fathers who could not be mocked or criticised, only revered and obeyed. Now we see the results.
Back before we heard the name ‘Putin’ I hoped, like so many, that Russia would become part of a globalised world, with numerous joint companies and private entrepreneurships taking care of the economy as they had elsewhere. When the people realised democracy wouldn’t bring the same living standards as other democratic countries, disillusionment set in.
A key memory of my 80s childhood is staring up at the intricate plasterwork of Stalin-era shop-ceilings as I queued for hours – often fruitlessly – for meat and sugar. The situation was improving all too slowly, albeit for different reasons. My family had a three-litre can of black caviar in the fridge – bought from poachers – but couldn’t now afford the butter to go with it. These troubles may have been unavoidable. An entirely new system had to be built from scratch, with all the problems that involves – the devaluation of the old Soviet roubles, wiped out lifesavings, dodgy privatisations and rampant crime. My father was in the pharmaceuticals trade, highly profitable and fought over by ‘local businessman.’ On New Year’s Eve 1993, they set fire to the wooden door of our apartment. The next day, we replaced it with a steel one – steel doors being a growth industry of the time.
Perhaps we got off lightly. In the same year, Yeltsin was to fire literally on his own parliament for blocking his reforms (in fairness to him, a well-armed opposition dreamed of doing the same to him). Yet it was a decisive move away from the promised democracy and hinted at Yeltsin’s fatal inability to compromise. A year later, this flaw saw him take the country into a decade-long war in Chechnya. On a school trip to a military hospital just after war broke out, I saw hundreds of severely wounded soldiers barely older than I was. Many were without arms or legs, all of them with the same bewildered look on their face: ‘What have we done to deserve this? Why are we here at all?’
Thus began our disenchantment with Yeltsin. We realised what a horrible crime Russia was descending to. Yeltsin’s alcoholism was also becoming an issue now. For long periods he was quite oblivious to events, the power vacuum filled by a clique of pretenders: Berezovsky and sundry members of Yeltsin’s ‘Family’.
But no crime was as heinous as Yeltsin’s final one: leaving power in the arms of Vladimir Putin. From the moment you saw Putin, you knew a catastrophe had occurred – the man was a tabula rasa with the letters KGB written all over him, willing to exploit the absolute worst in people. When, turning to the theme of Chechen separatists, he promised to ‘whack them even in the sh**house’, you knew then that violence would, now and in future, be his chosen method.
The handover of power happened on New Year’s Eve 1999, the end of the 90s for me in more ways than one. In a state broadcast Yeltsin apologised to the nation for his failures and hailed the advent of a new generation with fresh ideas and new energy. Cut to Putin, orating about the importance of property rights, free speech, a free press, the ‘fundamental elements of a civilised society’, vowing to preserve them one and all.
The broadcast ended, the national anthem played. It was now 2000, the start of the Millennium. You all know what happened next.