The Wild East [Russia]
by Richard Swift
New Internationalist magazine,
Life in the highrise jungle of urban post-communism
is not for the fainthearted. Richard Swift takes the measure of
a new capitalism - that's at! shock and no therapy.
They are mostly apartment dwellers, these
skeptical survivors who have lived for decades under communism.
If you are lucky enough to be invited into their homes, their
hospitality is exemplary. Scarce food and drink flow with unparalleled
generosity. While they have memories and often connections back
to a village somewhere, their life and fate these days is decidedly
Housing is a huge problem for them. Overcrowding
is the norm. Privacy is at a premium. Whoever can buy an apartment,
does so. For most, a single-family dwelling is inconceivable.
Young marrieds have to stay with their family - maybe even share
a room with a sibling or two. But at its best there is a warmth
and cosiness to this kind of apartment living. It could be in
an older downtown building with some residual charm. More likely
it is in some kind of Soviet-era monstrosity on the outskirts
of town. Whether in an Eastern European city like Sofia or the
capital of a former Soviet republic like Tashkent, whether in
the architectural wonder of Lviv in the western Ukraine or Tbilisi
in the far reaches of the Georgian Caucasus - postcommunist people
are taking great care and pride 'doing up' their often cramped
Meanwhile, the public realm outside their
doors often festers with neglect. Corridors, elevators and stairwells
are festooned with garbage and graffiti. Social certainties like
guaranteed apartments are simply disappearing. So too are secure
jobs, pensions, free (if inadequate) education and health care,
affordable (if uninspiring) food, access to recreation. Postcommunist
economies are being 'reformed': marketized and privatized in ways
suggested by Western consultants paid for by the World Bank or
This destruction is intended. The views
of just one US economist sums up the Washington Consensus: 'Any
reform must be disruptive on an historically unprecedented scale.
An entire world must be discarded, including all its economic
and most of its social and political institutions. " The
aim is to create Middle America on the Volga. 'From each according
to their ability, to each according to their need' gives way to
'if you can't make money from it, then don't do it'.
Not that most people were happy with communism.
But with communism's collapse, they were promised more democracy.
Instead they are getting political bosses and fixed elections.
If the economy had to be reformed, they wanted more opportunity.
Instead they are getting oligarchy and corruption.
The champions of the unfettered market
call it 'creative destruction', a phrase that comes from the conservative
economic historian Joseph Schumpeter who saw it as 'the essential
fact about capitalism. And for the people in what used to be the
communist world there has been destruction aplenty. Destruction
of jobs. Destruction of living standards. Destruction of entire
industries. Destruction of health. Destruction of lives.
Life expectancy is down. Suicides are
up. So are alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution and crime as people
try desperately to cope. The severity of this crisis varies. The
formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe and the tiny Baltic
republics seem to have coped best with the changes. But even here
.. are scrambling just to survive.
Economic shock therapy
Hardest hit have been most of the countries that used to make
up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Outside the
glitzy downtowns of cities like St Petersburg, Kiev or Yerevan
where the few prosperous New Russians, New Ukrainians or New Armenians
gather, poverty has reached staggering proportions. Between 1990
and 1999 the number of people living on two dollars a day or less
more than tripled. Back in 1989, 14 million people in the USSR
lived in poverty. Nine years later the number had skyrocketed
to 147 million. This region has undergone depression and demodernization
unprecedented in peacetime: over the last century. One Russian
scholar estimates the destruction to be equivalent to a 'medium-level
The creative part of this 'creative destruction'
is a bit more elusive. Certainly it takes a certain creativity
to survive as an entire way of life gives way under your feet
- as all that is solid melts. But creativity in the sense that
Schumpeter meant- the profit in the market ledger - has in this
part of the post-communist world been, by and large, an export
industry. A lot of the loot from entrepreneurial pillage is now
stored in offshore bank accounts or invested in villas in locations
like the French Riviera. Two billion dollars a month was spirited
out of Russia alone under the corrupt Yeltsin regime. Even the
capital that stays in the post-communist world is mostly devoted
to speculative purposes or high-end retail - night clubs, fancy
cafes, glitzy shops beyond the imagination of most people. Russians
were so disgusted with the corruption and chaos under Yeltsin
that, for some at least, the autocratic order of Putin and his
new cabinet comes as a relief.
It's capitalist utopia these days - everything
is up for sale. That's certainly the impression that my colleague
Andrew Kokotka (the designer of this issue) and I got as we travelled
through the former Soviet Union. People trotted out their worldly
goods in the weak sunshine of a Kiev afternoon and spread them
out on blankets. Or maybe it was from the trunk of their car beside
the river in Tbilisi in Georgia. Every electricity pole was covered
with tear-off posters for all manner of goods and services. A
middle-aged woman named Astghik approached us on the streets of
the Armenian capital Yerevan, with a plastic bag full of necklaces
that she maintained would keep our blood pressure in check - absolutely
necessary when experiencing 'creative destruction'. Astghik needed
the money so she could pay her children's (poorly paid) teachers
extra so they would not ignore her kids in school. Yes, classroom
attention has become a commodity too.
So has medical care. Armenian friends
described how a doctor told them their young son 'looks fine now
but next week he might be dead' as she tried to convince them
he suffered from salmonella poisoning. After all, treating salmonella
(whether you have it or not) is a lob more lucrative than taking
care of a simple case of stomach flu. If you pass your exams and
want to graduate - a little something for the principal will be
in order. If you are in the army and due your leave, your commanding
officer has his hand out. Or say you need a passport or another
of the myriad documents necessary to manoeuvre through life. What
are often taken for granted as simple rights in the West have
become 'negotiable exchanges' in this part of the world.
No match for bourgeois decadence
Communism was always supposed to be about the future, but somehow
it always felt more like the past. Whether it was old ladies with
headscarves and stick brooms sweeping out Red Square or the denunciations
of everyone from Kafka to the Rolling Stones for 'bourgeois decadence',
one got the sense of a world run by a bunch of old fogies. Their
values were mostly small 'c' conservative - go slow, be stable
and predictable, don't rock the boat. Sure, there were the early
days of real revolutionary fervour and debate. Then came social
engineering on a grand scale: Stalin's forced march collectivization
and industrialization and Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural
Revolution resulted in the death of millions. But this kind of
brutal radicalism (more akin, some would claim, to fascism) gave
way to a plodding system where crimes and dysfunctions leant more
toward the predictable and irritating. You knew what you could
get away with and what was dangerous. Injustice and oppression
abounded, but the system provided a certain level of welfare for
those who lived under it. Resignation gradually replaced fear.
The myth of the system's radicalism was
sustained by both those who controlled it and its enemies in the
West. For the former it provided proud credentials for their'
scientific' rule. For the latter it proved that no alternative
to corporate power was desirable.
Still, it was a way of life to which people
adapted with a shrug of the shoulder and a wicked joke at the
expense of communist pretension. In the West much concern was
expressed about the sad fate of those living under the communist
yoke. Oddly there is no such outcry now. Instead those pushed
to the margins of mere existence are fed with 'no pain, no gain'
sermons about 'staying the course' of reform. The main concern
of the free-enterprise zealots has not been the suffering but
rather the fear that post-communist politicians would shrink from
administering the necessary policies to create a viable capitalism.
The politics of convenience has replaced
the concerns about human rights violations that marked the Cold
War. When Boris Yeltsin launched a military assault against the
Russian Parliament in the fall of 1993, the West, led by the Clinton
regime in Washington cheered him on. Although an odd precedent
for democracy building, their man-in-Moscow was seen as the best
hope to continue with brutal economic reforms.
Today, turning blind eyes to unholy alliances
with despotic leaders is common practice. So Kuchma in the Ukraine
or Aliyev in Azerbaijan are wooed and coddled despite blatantly
undemocratic practices. The worst case is probably that 'warrior
against terrorism' the President of Uzbekistan,
Islam Karimov- the recipient of US troops and much Western largesse
who now runs a vicious police state. Uzbekistan currently holds
some 6,000 Muslims in custody for simply practising their religion
outside official Government-approved channels.
A kleptocracy has emerged almost everywhere
in this region. Those who had power and position under communism
have repositioned themselves as either economic oligarchs or political
bosses. In many cases they are one in the same. In Eastern Europe
this process has in part been kept in check by a relatively open
political system. Elsewhere the looting of public wealth has been
pretty crude. Russia and Armenia have emerged with some of the
most severe gaps between wealth and poverty in the world.
The system takes a ride In a car on the
way to Ukraine's airport at Kiev, a police officer looms with
a torch out of the early morning fog. Our driver is deemed to
be drunk (at 6am in the morning! ) and a 'fine' of $100 is required
if we are to catch our flight. The amount is half of what our
friend makes in an entire month. It's a common story: the kind
of corruption that occurs at -) the top gets into the very bones
of a society as people follow the examples, of their elites at
a micro-level. It's not so much a question of morality as it is
one of survival.
An ugly political culture is emerging.
Cars blow up mysteriously or people just disappear. Deaths occur
in police custody. Assaults by some quasi-official security force
take place on offices and computers. Important documents are removed.
A key figure or potential witness to a corrupt deal gets killed
in a run-of-the-mill robbery. It smacks of organized crime vendettas
where the motive is revenge or cover-up.
Overt political motivation is here too.
It is widely believed that the bombings that killed dozens in
Moscow apartment buildings before the second brutal Chechen war
- a war that cemented Vladamir Putin's strongman image - were
the work not of Chechen terrorists but of some murky department
of the Russian security service. Then there is the Ukrainian journalist
- a thorn in the side of the Kuchma regime - whose head turned
up in the woods outside Kiev.
For most of the population this is simply
theatre to be observed with a shake of the head or a shrug of
the shoulders. Proof of the failure of society to free itself
from the iron grip of the state. Proof that nothing ever changes.
I thought of different ways to take the
measure of post-communist life in a market economy. What would
the Rand Corporation do for instance? Ah-hah, I thought... a focus
group. So I got together a group of Armenian students for a discussion.
They were just entering their teens when the old system came apart.
Now they were university students and finding it very tough. On
the positive side, they said that they had more freedom to speak
their minds now and that life was more interesting. They all felt
their access to the internet was very important for democracy.
But education was very expensive and depended
on a massive family effort. All lived at home. They recalled the
days of free education when students could travel anywhere in
the communist world. They worried for Armenia. They worried about
jobs: that many must now go to Russia for work. They worried too
that foreigners were buying up essential services - the Italians
had the water, the Russians the electricity. They especially worried
about the growing gap between rich and poor. They wondered why
they couldn't have the best of both worlds: the new freedoms but
also the equality and the guaranteed security of the old system.