Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain.
Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.
- Vladimir Putin
Aware of his ignorance in economic matters, Yeltsin pulled a young prodigy named Yegor Gaidar out of his hat. A descendant of the high Communist nomenklature, Gaidar professed an absolute faith in liberalism. As David Remnick nicely sums up in Resurrection, the book that follows his memorable Lenin’s Tomb, and to which I owe many insights into this era, no theoretician of the Chicago School, no adviser to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher believed in the virtues of the market as fervently as Yegor Gaidar. Russia had never anything remotely like a market, the challenge was enormous. Yeltsin and Gaidar thought it was essential to act quickly, very quickly, to force their ideas through and catch the reactionary forces that had gottent he better of all Russian reformers since Peter the Great off guard. They baptized their remedy “shock therapy,” and as far as shocks go, this one was quite a jolt.
First of all, prices were liberalized, which provoked inflation of 2,600 percent and rendered completely useless the parallel ‘voucher privatization’ initiative. On September 1, 1992, vouchers valued at ten thousand rubles were sent by main to all Russian citizens over a year old; these vouchers represented each citizen’s share in the national wealth. After seventy years during which in theory no one was allowed to work for him – or herself but only for the collectivity, the idea was to involve people as investors and foster the development of businesses and private property – in short, of the free market. Because of inflation, unfortunately, by the time these vouchers arrived, they were already worthless. Their beneficiaries discovered that, at most, they could purchase a bottle of vodka with them. So they resold them en masse to some cunning individuals who offered them, let’s say, the value of a bottle and a half.
Theses cunning individuals, who would become billionaires in just a few months, were named Boris Berezovsky, Vladamire Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There were others, but to go easy on my readers I’ll just ask them to remember these three names: Berezovski, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky. The three little pigs who, as in those penniless theater troupes with more roles than actors to play them, will represent or the purposes of this book all those known as the oligarchs. They were young, intelligent, energetic, and not dishonest by nature; but they had grown up in a world where it was forbidden to do the very thing they were gifted at – business- and then overnight they were told, “All right, go to it.” With no rules, no laws, no banking system, no taxation. As Yulian Semyonov’s young bodyguard had predicted with delight, it was the Wild West.
For someone who returned every two or three months as Eduard did between trips to the Balkans, the speed with which Moscow changed was hallucinating. The drab Soviet monotony had been though eternal, and now, on the streets that had been named after great Bolsheviks and when again went by the names they’d had before the Revolution, the neon signs were as densely packed as in Las Vegas. There were traffic jams and, besides the old Ladas, black Mercedes with tinted windows. Everything foreign visitors used to cram into their suitcases with to please their deprived Russian friends – jeans, CDs, cosmetics, toilet paper – was now readily available. No sooner had people gotten used to the appearance of a McDonald’s on Pushkinskaya Square than a trendy disco opened next door. Before, restaurants had been immense, dismal places. Headwaiters who looked like surely clerks brought you fifteen=page menus, and no matter what you ordered there wasn’t any more of it – in fact there was only one dish, usually revolting. Now the lights were subdued, the waitresses pretty and smiling, you could get Kobe beef and oysters flown in that day from the coast of Brittany. The “new Russian” entered contemporary mythology, with his bags of cash, harems of gorgeous girls, his brutality, and his boorishness. A joke from those days runs: two young businessmen notice they’re wearing the same suit. “I paid five thousand dollars for it in Paris,” one says. “It that a fact,” the other trumps: “I got mine for ten thousand!”
While a million crafty people started to enrich themselves frenetically thanks to the “shock therapy,” 150 million less quick off the mark were plunged into misery. Prices kept climbing, while salaries stayed put. An ex-KGB officer like Limonov’s father could hardly buy two pounds of sausage with his monthly pension. A higher-ranking officer who’d started his career in the intelligence service in Dresden, East Germany, and who’d been hastily repatriated because East Germany no longer existed, found himself without a job or a place to live. Reduced to working as a black-market cab driver in his hometown of Leningrad, he cursed the “new Russians” as bitterly as Limonov. This particular officer isn’t a statistical abstraction. His name is Vladimir Putin, he’s forty years old, like Limonov he thinks that the end of the Soviet empire is the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century, and he will be called upon to play a role of no small importance.
The life expectancy for a Russian man dropped from sixty-five in 1987 to fifty-eight in 1993. The lines of desolate people waiting in front of empty shops were replaced by old people walking up and down in underground passageways trying to hawk the few possessions they has. Anything they could sell to survive, they sold. If you were a poor retiree, it was two pounds of pickles, a tea cozy, or old issues of Krokodil, the pathetic “satirical”: magazine of the Brezhnev years. If you were an army general, it might be tanks or planes; some fraudulently set up private companies that sold military aircraft and pocketed the profits themselves. If you were a judge, you sold your verdicts. A police officer, your tolerance. A bureaucrat, your stamp od approval. A veteran of the Afghan wars, your ability to kill. A murder contract was negotiated at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars. Fifty bankers were shot dead in Moscow in 1994. As for the wheeler-dealer Semyonov, by that time barely half his gang were still alive and he himself was dead and buried.
The big players slaughtered one another for control of industrial companies or mineral deposits, the small fry for kiosks or market stalls, and even the smallest kiosk or stall needed a “roof”: that’s what the countless security providers – all more or less protection rackets because they shot you if you refused their services – were called. The holding companies of oligarchs like Gusinsky or Berezovsjky employed veritable armies, commanded by high-level KGB officers who’d privatized their talents. Moving down a rung, the protection services no businessperson could do without recruited from the Georgian, Chechen, or Azeri mafias, and from among the police, which had become just one mafia among many.
To justify the collectivization, the famine, the purges, and, in a general way, the unassailable fact that the “enemies of the people” were the people themselves, the Bolsheviks liked to say that when you chop wood, chips fly, the Russian version of saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The free market replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the horizon of a radiant future, but the same proverb still served the chefs of “shock therapy” and all those close enough to power to get a bite of the omelet. The difference now is that those who see themselves as broken eggs are no longer afraid of being sent to Siberia, and they speak out. Moscow is the scene of numerous demonstrations by retirees reduced to begging on the street, unpaid soldiers, nationalists maddened by the liquidation of the empire, Communists who mourn the days when everyone was poor but equal, and people who are disorientated because they no longer understood their own history. And it’s understandable: how to know what’s right or wrong, who are the heroes and who the traitors, when you keep celebrating the October Revolution year after year, repeating all the while that this revolution was both a crime and a catastrophe?
Eduard Limonov doesn’t miss a single one of these demonstrations when he’s in Moscow. Recognized by the people who read his articles in Dyen, he’s often congratulated, kissed, and blessed: with people like him, Russia is not lost. Once, invited by his comrade Alksnis, he gets up on the platform where the leaders of the opposition are speaking one after the other, and takes the megaphone. He says that the supposed “democrats” are profiteers who’ve betrayed the blood shed by their fathers during the Great Patriotic War. That the people have suffered more in one year of supposed “democracy” than in seventy years of communism. That anger is brewing and people should prepare for civil war. This speech differs little from the others, but after each sentence the immense crowd applauds. The words come naturally to him, and they express what everyone feels. Waves of approval, gratitude, and love wash over him. It’s what he dreamed of when he was poor and desperately alone in his room at the Embassy Hotel in New York, and his dream has come true. As when he was mixed up in war in the Balkans, he feels good. Calm, powerful, borne aloft by like-minded individuals: right where he belongs.