I just spent the last week in Moscow. I had been there twice before, once in 1978 and once in 1993. The visible change is staggering.
In 1978, there were lines for everything and very few cars. I was visiting a friend on a post-doctoral exchange, and she spoke Russian.
I wanted to know what the lines were for, so we asked. One line was for women’s sanitary pads, and the other was for baked goods.
This time, there was heavy traffic and no lines for anything. Consumer goods were on every corner and available to anyone who had money.
During my first visit to Russia, I went to GUM’s department store and there were wooden shelves with almost nothing on them to purchase. On my second visit, the shelves were stocked well. This visit revealed many indoor shops with recognizable fashion names. I was told by a businessman in Moscow that the prices were too high to purchase items. He called GUM’s a museum.
Much has changed in Russia, and much remains the same. In my column in WND in 2012, I told the famous story first in print by Hendrick Smith. During my first visit to Russia in 1978, there was a story I heard several times. It was such a well-known tale that Hedrick Smith wrote about in “The Russians.” It goes something like this:
The tsar dies and goes to hell. Some years later, Lenin dies and also goes to hell. The tsar asks, “How’s the secret police? How’s the army? Are you collecting maximum taxes from the peasants?” “Yes, yes and yes,” answers Lenin.
“Good, good” says the tsar.
Stalin dies next, goes to hell and gets the same questions from the dead tsar.
“Yes, yes and yes,” answers Stalin.
Next, Khrushchev dies, and while in hell gets the same questions from the tsar. He answers, “Yes, yes, yes,” but also adds, “You will be pleased, your majesty, we also increased the alcohol content of vodka by 1 percent.”
The tsar stops for a moment and says reflectively, “For 1 percent you had a revolution?”
Yes, Russia is a consumer oriented society, and yes it is ostensibly a democracy, but it is still a place where the elite (1 percent or even 10 percent) get privileges that other people don’t. It did not begin that way in 1993. When I traveled there with USAID, they were touting the fact that every Russian could buy into the dream. At the time, the Russian government handed out vouchers for 10,000 rubles each. As our guide told us last week, some invested and lost everything, some sold their vouchers to others for cash, and some like him framed them knowing that they would most likely be useless.
Back then, in 1993, the New York Times wrote: “As Russia began to hand out privatization vouchers to each of its 150 million citizens today, giving them a small share of the national wealth, the ruble lost 21.6 percent of its value against the dollar …
“Converting the mass of inefficient state-owned enterprises into private shareholding companies is one of the government’s main goals, and the adventurous and confusing voucher plan is the chosen method. Vouchers for some 1.4 trillion rubles – worth about $4.5 billion at today’s exchange rate – are being distributed to every Russian, in denominations of 10,000 rubles.”
It was a nice idea, but somehow the 150 million citizens did not make the money that was promised. A corrupt Russia had hard currency stores and restaurants for the Communist Party elite. Now all the stores are open to everyone, but like GUM’s, most people can’t afford the high-end merchandise. Russia, like parts of America, has a vast gulf between those who can afford to live well and those who live from paycheck to paycheck.
President Putin is elected, to be sure, but like party bosses before him, he has not brought the vast wealth of Russia to most people. Russia, so filled with promise in the early 1990s, has reverted to the Russia we knew in the Cold War days. Consumer goods are available, and people can practice religion and vote for an array of candidates, but like the tsar meeting Stalin in hell, there is still a long way to go for the average Russian. The 1 percent still reigns.