The 1990s in Russia were dreadful. The 1990s in Russia were liberating. The 1990s in Russia were crazy. A huge variety of interpretations exist, and a recent viral campaign in social media asking people to post their personal pictures of those times proves: they are all true. This crucial, but badly understood decade could be key to understanding the Russia of today.
In Russia the 1990s are all around. Not only did the Rouble crash in December 2014 shake up memories of the 1998 financial crisis, the sanctions and import bans affecting people’s consumption options also brought many back to the “dark nineties” where the painful transformation from planned to market economy took place and confronted a large part of the population with actual poverty. But by no means do all Russians see it that way and economic hardships are not the dominant association with the 90s for everyone.
A recent social media campaign illustrates this. People were asked by Colta.ru, a cultural online magazine, to post their pictures and memories of the decade, using the hashtag #остров90 (English: island90). The campaign was promoting a Colta.ru-organized festival that took place in Moscow in September 2015. The „flashmob“, as Russians like to call such viral campaigns infected the whole country.
People were posting pictures of youngsters in Adidas clothing, drinking Pepsi Cola and Lada’s next to the new cars from the West. If non-Russians had seen this campaign they would have wondered about the 80s looks and hairstyles or why the pictures all had a red shine to them, like they were from the 70s.
But even if Russia was a little behind in terms of fashion at the time, the flashmob showed one thing: for young people the 1990s were about experimenting with new things, they were about freedom and they were one big party.The positive associations were so strong that even, and overwhelmingly, people who technically cannot remember those times came to the festival in Moscow in September.
One Twitter user with an obvious nostalgia for the Soviet Union bitterly remarked: These pictures don’t fit your pastoral-nostalgic campaign, do they? The photo album he posted shows the sick and the poor of Moscow in 1995 through the lens of photographer Miron Zownir - with graphic brutality.
The “90s Island” festival shows that memories of that period will always be subjective, selective and highly controversial. The following is an attempt to de-clutter those memories and to understand what that memory means to Russia today.
Vladimir Urazgaliev, nowadays professor at the Faculty of Economic at St. Petersburg State University, says the 1990s were not easy. He is a man of numbers and the former businessman does an expert job at explaining the economic situation in the 1990s: Why the economic collapse? What was the situation with the Rouble and the Dollar?
The former businessman, however, has one memory of the 1990s that is very personal and hard to make sense of, even considering the roughness of that period in crime-struck St. Petersburg of the 90s. Starting in 1995 Urazgaliev worked as a manager in the oil business. His company, the Baltic Financial and Industrial Group, was headed by Pavel Kapysh.
His boss’s and friend’s assassination took place in summer 1999. Kapysh was driving on the northern Neva embankment, when he was shot from two grenade launchers. “And here they shot him, they shot him right here, see?” Urazgaliev explains pointing to a newspaper photograph of where it happened. “Here is the bridge, and this is the Academy of Artists, you know that one right?” I do know that one, it’s right by my university.
The professor has a collection of newspaper and magazine articles about the case. The assassination was all over the Russian press, to date Kapysh’s case is still one of the most notorious cases of murders of businessmen and other people of power in the 1990s. In the international press, the Kapysh case was also featured. Urazgaliev updates his collection along the way. Every now and then journalists bring up the issue, but to date, nobody has been convicted.
Before agreeing to an interview about her experience of the 1990s, Masha Godovannaya reminds me: “You have to keep in mind that my memory might be a bit blurred. I have had some pretty intense experiences since then.” What she means is that Masha can only remember the early 1990s in Russia because in 1995 her family emigrated to the United States. “I turned 19 and then the next day, on 27th January 1995 we left,” she recalls. She returned to Russia in 2003 after the birth of her son. Now she teaches at the European University and is also a visual artist.
The time before the emigration, Masha remembers as intense: “Those were not only five years of this particular time, but also five years of me being more or less conscious of my self because I was transitioning from being a teenager into a young adult.” It was the time between school and university. She would take classes with a teacher, whom she paid in vodka: “The vodka had a certain value, for example 300 roubles. And one hour of classes cost 350 roubles.”
On a spiritual level Masha was looking for something during that chaotic period. “As a child I was an atheist and then I sort of followed the fashion of becoming orthodox and got baptised. But then I read Nietsche and said: shit, what did I put myself into? So then I started wondering about my Jewish roots.” Masha’s family is partly Jewish and after the collapse of the Soviet Union sought to reunite with the relatives that already emigrated during Soviet times. “We had an interview at the American Embassy and we really had to dig out stories about the anti-Semitic oppression. Convince the American side how unbearable it could be,” Masha remembers.
In New York she lived the underground artist’s live. “In Russia I was a regular, middle class, non-intellectual girl. I would not have had any access to Russian subculture at the time. In the states it was different.” In retrospect Masha describes her emigration experience as painful, rather than negative. “The feeling of not belongingness is quite familiar to me. I don’t belong to American culture, I don’t belong to Russian culture. And there are many other forms of not belonging hanging over me,” she explains. “But it’s OK. But I don’t feel it’s something bad. You have to not victimize yourself. It’s a privilege.”
Man and Power and Powerful Men
The National Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg hosts an exhibition called “Man and Power in Russia from the 19th to the 21st Century”. Somewhere between the room dedicated to the Great Patriotic War and the one about the Russian Revolution, uncomfortably close to the end of the exhibition (because apparently political history stops with Vladimir Putin’s takeover of power), one finds the room about the 1990s.
The simplistic and orderly navigation the museum has tried to uphold in the exhibition thus far comes to an abrupt end. Dizzy from the flickering television screens hanging from the ceiling, showing scenes of tanks shooting at the Duma, clashes between police and protesters, as well as speeches of angry politicians, the visitor is left to explore the various bits and pieces the museum has collected about the period.
Unorganized, as if on purpose, the drawers that can be pulled out of the wall are illuminated photographs of scenes characteristic of the times: the poor babushka in a leather coat, middle-class car next to a Lada, new fashion and Pepsi Cola. In the vertical drawers numbered “1989/1990” to “1999” newspaper and magazine covers from Russian and international press are archived. A SPIEGEL cover from 1995 feature’s Yeltsin and “Russia’s bitter war”, below the Novoe Vremya asks “Russia after Chechnya? Chechnya after Russia?”. And on the opposite side, in an endless loop plays Putin’s New Year’s address to the year 2000.
I leave the room like I entered it. With glimpses of the Russian 1990s flickering over the television screens of my mind.
Viktor Voronkov is an elegant man with bushy eyebrows. That is why the little puppet on the armrest of the sofa in his office that uncannily imitates his body type and unique style has bushy eyebrows, too. But despite being the most pleasant of conversation partners, he is also someone who knows a lot about that decade that the Political History Museum does not seem to be able to help me make sense of. Voronkov is the director of the St. Petersburg-based Center for Independent Social Research. For Putin’s administration, this sociological institute is a “foreign agent”.
To him, paradoxical memories of the 1990s don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “What is perfectly understandable for one person, can be fantastical to another. And both are right. So dreadful 1990s and good 1990s goes very well together. To people this isn’t a conflict.”
But the dominant notion today, according to Voronkov, is that the 90s were terrible and that prosperity only returned the moment that Putin came to power. The Putin administration in his view likes to highlight this terrible side of the 90s: “The understanding is that the 90s in Russia were a place like Chechnya today. A black hole, where everything’s terrible.” That in turn lead to this idea that “we’d rather have totalitarianism rather than go back to the 90s”.
In an open letter circulated in 2015 in protest to the foreign agent status, the institute writes: “For sociologists, a ban on talking about the imperfections of public and state institutions and their practices is effectively a ban on the profession. [...] Any society that permits itself to persecute social scientists and independent research organizations is doomed to a lack of knowledge, ideas, and strategies for the future.” The most dangerous about this organisation are probably the vast bookshelves all over the offices, filled with insights about the state of the country that are not comfortable for everyone.
Ivan Zassoursky belongs to the kind of people that discovered in the 1990s that they can do anything - he started off as a journalist in the Golden Age of journalism in Russia.
He remembers: “For the majority of people 90s were traumatic. Just imagine everyone lost their savings. So the most popular heroes were bandits and whores. Because these people were successful in the 90s. Or so it seemed.”
His situation was different: “I was happy, I was young. I didn’t have any savings. And I was entering a booming sector, the media. I made some money, didn’t need much. I paid up my mother’s debt. Because they were brought down by inflation, but they still had some value. I helped a friend buying out her boyfriend from the army.” How much did that cost? “I don’t know, maybe 500 Dollars.”
In the mid 90s Zassoursky started working for the government as an advisor to Boris Nemtsov. He bought a house, a car and got himself motorcycle. All in the 90s. “In the 90s I have discovered that there is no limit to what I can accomplish. And that stayed with me. It empowers me up to this day. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.” But he knows that the situation is different for most other people: “I think most people felt incredibly powerless, so completely different.”
But at the end of the 90s the tide turned for Zassoursky. “I was like the only person campaigning against Putin. It’s kind of an uncomfortable truth, but he was welcomed with open arms.” His friendship and close connection with Nemtsov lasted until he was brutally murdered in February 2015. “The place where he died is the screensaver on my phone.”
All in all Zassoursky joins the ones that see the 90s as a wound, a trauma. “People have been traumatized incredibly, but Putin has healed them. When I used to visit my grandmother I always gave her some money. Now, in these days, she sends money to my mother. So the pensioneers are incredibly better off. A lot. People on salaries are better off, there was no inflation for a long time.”
Even the Rouble crisis of 2014 hardly has any effect to how the average Russian feels about the present situation, he claims: “Of course if you want to buy a Maserati, you feel it. But if you buy a Lada the difference is negligible. And if you want to buy French cheese instead of Russian cheese.”
But the experience of the 90s impact how people interpret the present political situation. “The 90s are a trauma that people are trying to replay. We’ve been traumatized to be weak. Ok, let’s show we’re strong. We’ve been traumatized to be poor. Okay let’s show we’re wealthy. I think what Putin has done is enough now. It’s not productive anymore. It’s time to switch modes.”
The problem of conflictual memories of the 1990s has not been lost on Russian intelligentsia. Neither has the importance of the experience of that decade for Russia today.
In an article for InLiberty magazine responding to the social media craze incited by Colta.ru, Sergej Kuznetsov writes: “The 90s are a key phase in recent Russian history. Everything we deal with today comes from that period: the corruption, rigorous suppression of the opposition, wars at our borders, political technologies, economic liberalism, freedom to travel, free access to Western technologies, books, films and music... in other words, everything that is bad and everything that is good. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of politicians and media personalities today made it in the 90s.”
The implications seem clear. “Unless we come to an understanding what this period stands for in Russian history we cannot reach national consent. And that means we cannot move on,” Kuznetsov writes.
To me it is clear. Russians have agreed to disagree about the 90s. It’s the moving on part, that is hard.