On the eve of collapse: encounters in a changing Russia

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the August 1991 coup attempt. While this proved a dramatic final nail in the Soviet coffin, many more fundamental changes — the breaking down of information walls and the dissipation of fear — occurred in the months and years leading up to then. Susan Richards, oD Russia’s founder editor, spent much of this time traveling around Russia, talking to ordinary Russians about their lives. We reproduce two accounts here.

Susan Richards
12 August 2011

The reinvention of the ordinary

Grisha and I had met in the autumn at Elena’s flat. I had gone back to Elena’s to collect the money I had forgotten to take the first time I visited her. Thanks to Grisha’s appearance, I forgot about it again. Grisha had dropped by to collect his laundry from his mother-in-law. Elena’s daughter Ira was away working and, like most Russian men, Grisha was unable to cope on a domestic level without her. A short, spherical man with eyes that twinkled behind his glasses, he had sat balanced on a stool and announced that he had decided to put himself forward as a People’s Deputy [Member of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union]. ‘Ah, how wonderful!’ we chorused. ‘It’s not wonderful at all,’ he responded. ‘I won’t get past first base. But as a journalist, I’m interested to know who will stop me and how.’ In a country where people seemed to ask so few questions, I found a questioning man.  

“We spent our entire history being special. Chaadaev was the one who said it first before this terrible century began. He said that we were doomed to act as a lavatory for the world’s ideas. Because people here have always been ultimately more interested in ideas than in real life. And I don’t just mean the intelligentsia. Which is why we condemned ourselves to live out the great idea of the twentieth century to the bitter end of the experiment.”


That evening, Elena and Grisha appeared to decide spontaneously and without consulting each other to adopt me into their family. When I came to live with Elena, it was Grisha who took it upon himself not only to try to explain the inexplicable but to broaden my acquaintance beyond the limits that my random approach could yield. 


"Glory to the party": by the 1990s, party membership was 
no longer socially acceptable 

As well as being a journalist and occasional documentary film maker, Grisha was senior editor for a magazine with the unpromising title of Country Youth. In order to accept this promotion, he had been obliged to enter the Party at a moment when membership had become at best something to be lived down with humour, at worst an ordeal. Party membership was one of the few subjects about which Grisha was touchy. It represented a strategic decision which had set him apart from most of the intellectuals I had met. He had staked everything on the possibility of change and he had done so knowing the risk he ran: ‘If things do not change soon it will be too late for me’, he confessed at a low moment. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Because by that time, I will have become the thing I’m fighting against.’ It was a fear that haunted him.  

As a journalist, his concern was to see how far he could use the growing power of the Fourth Estate to champion beleaguered individuals pressing for change. This crusading role had developed as a result of an initiative he had taken the summer before I arrived. At the special Party conference called by Gorbachev in June 1988 to try to mobilize the Party behind his reforms, his section of the Union of Journalists had found that their choice of a representative had been pre-empted. The man who was being sent on their behalf was an old Stalinist called Ivanov who was known for having informed on the enlightened editor and poet Tvardovksy. Grisha caught the attention of the magazine Ogonyok by submitting a striking article entitled ‘The two Ivanovs’, in which he described two separate characters: the brilliant writer and prize-winner of the official profile and the disreputable hack who was the other Ivanov. 

‘After that all hell broke loose. It looked as if I might be thrown out of the party...’ ‘That was the only time of our lives when we used to go to bed at night and not know what lay in store for us the next day,’ Ira, his wife, interjected. ‘You couldn’t exactly call it fear, but it was an alarming time.’ ‘Someone denounced me to the regional Party committee’. It was not a personal denunciation, but a demand for “an explanation of the contents of Comrade Kakovkin’s article...”

‘They called me in for “a chat”. There were three of them and they had the article there, with words and phrases heavily underlined and the margins dotted with question marks. They said my article “raised a lot of questions” and asked me to explain myself. I said that if they could formulate those questions, I would be able to answer, but that I could not respond to question marks in margins. If I wrote “Comrade X came into the room and shut the door” that was that. It was not something amenable to further explanation.. “No, no, you’ve got the whole thing upside-down. Don’t you see”, they cried, slapping me on the back, “that this isn’t some kind of interrogation, it’s just a chat between friends.” Well the “chat” went on for four hours and ended with their asking me, there and then, to write them an explanation. I said I couldn’t. I’d have to go home and make a considered response. 

The upshot was that instead of the cringing explanation which they had expected, Grisha wrote another article as outspoken as the first. He delivered it to them, keeping copies which would be sent off for publication in case of trouble. This pugnacity saved his carer: ‘They were dumbfounded. They didn’t know how to respond. There was an attempt to mobilize the journalists who work for our group of magazines against me. But, unusually, they supported me. If they hadn’t, things would have gone badly for me.’


"Freedom now or never!"

‘Most moving of all,’ Ira took over again, ‘a young girl whom Grisha had never spoken to - she worked in the typing pool - stood up at the meeting and said to the man from the Party regional office: “You should be ashamed of yourself. I feel sorry for you. You can’t possibly believe in what you’re doing. I can say this to you,” she went on, “because I’m a nobody, so I’m free. There’s nothing you can take from me, because I have nothing.” It was an astonishing outburst. All the journalists had been making these well-argued contributions and there was this young girl, with no education, with nothing, who went straight to the heart of the matter. The Party official was stumped. If it had been a man, a professional, he would have known what to do. But against her, he had no defence.’

The outcome followed a pattern with which I was to become familiar. A minor victory concealed the larger defeat. Grisha was saved and went on to enjoy widespread support from the new radical political groupings that were beginning to emerge. From then on, people started to refer cases of injustice from all over the Union to him. But this did not stop Ivanov from representing the journalists at the Party conference. 

It was not Grisha who told me about the institute in Moscow whose researchers were employed in reinventing basic agricultural implements like the spade. But it might have been. In his moments of gloom, Grisha despaired of his fellow countrymen who, taking their cue from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had sought to reinvent the world: ‘We had to think up everything ourselves: we strained our starved minds, we sweated, we searched for the right words, but what we came up with turned out to be worse than what existed already.’ 

At other times, he found in this same observation a reason for optimism: ‘We have spent our entire history being special. Chaadaev was the one who said it first before this terrible century began. He said that we were doomed to act as a lavatory for the world’s ideas. Because people here have always been ultimately more interested in ideas than in real life. And I don’t just mean the intelligentsia. Which is why we condemned ourselves to live out the great idea of the twentieth century to the bitter end of the experiment. Now at last people are tired. What they want most of all is to be ordinary, to live like people in the West, with a house, a car, and a nice dull life. The question was, could this ordinary dream be realized now by ordinary means. 

A potential traitor

Vika was only in her twenties and she was a bright girl. But she had believed. I had met her through her husband, who was a dancer with the Bolshoi. She too had been trained as  a dancer, but when her husband got into the prestigious school in the capital, she had been obliged to give up her career in order to keep the family together. not that it was exactly together now. Wives and children were not allowed to live in the students’ residence. She lived there illegally, in a partitioned corner of the room which her husband shared with two other students. She divided her time between her husband and her daughter, who lived with Vika’s parents, both miners, deep in the countryside. 

‘It’s very hard for me to live now. You see, I used to believe in it all.... I was one of the masses, marching cheerfully in step!  Yes I was one of them. And then we discover that everything, everything we believed in was a lie. It hurts so much, because I believed in my heart.’


Vika had warned me that she might be late, as she was coming straight of the train. She had been spending the last few days with her daughter. The wooden seating round Pushkin’s monument has been ripped out for winter so I stood in the slush, shifting from foot to foot. Now I saw her, walking fast, weaving through the pedestrians on Gorky Street, her long dancer’s neck bandaged in a home-knitted brown scarf. She looked far more relaxed today than when we first met. With her neat-featured good looks and hair tied back, she could only have been a dancer, but she could have been of any nationality. What was Russian about her was the expression of vulnerability, which had drawn me to her when we first met.

Then, she and her husband had taken me to see the staircase off which the writer Bulgakov used to have a flat. For years, it had served as a shrine. But by the time I saw it, its time had passed. While earnest foreigners scrutinized the graffiti, half sacred, half profane, scrawled over the walls, there had been young Georgians sitting on the ill-lit stairs, drinking from a bottle of port and boasting about their conquests. Vika and I had been standing at the foot of the staircase when she suddenly started to try and put words to the pain I had seen in her face: ‘It’s very hard for me to live now. You see, I used to believe in it all.’ She whispered. The half-light had fallen on her girlish face. Her voice was full of tears: ‘I was one of the masses, marching cheerfully in step!  Yes I was one of them. And then we discover that everything, everything we believed in was a lie. It hurts so much, because I believed in my heart.’ She paused. ‘It’s easier for my husband, a little, because he uses his head. He can think it through. But with me’ — she put both her hand one her heard, as though the wound were physical — ‘as for me, I feel it all. It has become so hard to go on.’


One of the most symbolic changes was the January 1990 
opening of the first McDonald's chain in Moscow. Some
30,000  Soviets went through the restaurant's doors in thefirst day alone.

Today, Vika took me to an ice-cream parlour on Gorky street and miraculously there was no queue and we found a table in a room in which it was no punishment to sit. The ceiling was not too low, nor the music too loud. The waiter was surprisingly friendly as Vika ordered Russian champagne, pomegranate juice and ice cream. Moscow was smiling on us. I asked Vika what she felt about the election. With a characteristically Russian seriousness, she answered not the question I had asked, but the one which I had wanted to ask, and the one I could never have brought myself to put into words: how did a girl as intelligent and sensitive ever come to be, as she had put it, ‘one of the masses, marching cheerfully in step’?

‘At school, we were not allowed to think up our own answer to a question. There was always a right answer and a wrong one, black and white.  But I was never sure. Take Lermontov’s Pechorin.’ Pechorin is the Byronic figure at the centre of his novel Hero of our time. ‘We were given this essay to write about him. You were meant to say that he was riddled with evil from head to foot. But he didn’t strike me like that at all. I was sorry for him and I said so. I got a two.’ Two out of five is a bad mark. Or take Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He, believe it or not, is a revolutionary.’ Raskolnikov had murdered an old lady for no other reason than to prove he could. ‘And it wasn’t just literature. It was everything. 

‘It hasn’t changed much either. A friend of mine told me how her twelve-year old daughter burst into tears the other day when faced with the task of having to write her opinion of some Soviet painting of a train travelling through the countryside: “But Mama, it’s so ugly!” she said. All the same, what she did write was just what they wanted. You know the sort of stuff: “In this masterly painting, the artist has depicted the train, symbol of progress, racing through the countryside without disturbing the beauty of nature....” and so on. She was only twelve, but she had already learned how to think one thing and say another. 

‘I was always unsure at school. But we were never allowed to doubt. That was considered unprincipled. “Doubt is the first step to treachery,” they used to tell us. They accused me of being an intellectual — and that was a term of abuse. How could I have been an intellectual? My parents had only four years of schooling before they went down the mines. It was wartime and they were short of labour.

‘I came to think of myself as a potential traitor. It was very painful. I kept watching myself, never trusting my own reactions. Now that it’s all changed and I am grown-up, with a child of my own, I find that all those years of education had their effect. Now that I have to live in a world without answers I don’t trust myself. It’s painful to get through every day. You asked about the election. Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t vote in the end. I’m afraid of myself. I would have voted for Yeltsin. But I’ve avoided getting to know too much about him and make an idol of him.’ 

I had never imagined that I would meet so many people, including bright young people like Vika, whose instincts had been effectively cauterized by the experience of totalitarianism. But I had also never imagined that such people would be able to talk of the experience with such lucid candour. Honesty like that is not met often in the West. It was as if people like Vika, deprived of the overview with which we grow up in the West, focused on self-knowledge with a different intensity. Whatever political catastrophes might overwhelm Russia, this at least would last a few generations, this liberation of people’s heads and hearts. For a long time to come, there would only be one way of visiting oppression on these people and that would be from the outside. They would know what was being done to them.  

Taken from “Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia” by Susan Richards,  Penguin Books, 1990

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData