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Post Soviet Part I

The Collapse - I first arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1990 after covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia's Velvet revolution and the aftermath of the Ceausescu era in Romania the previous year. The collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe was a reversal of the 'domino theory', the Cold War term for the perceived threat of communism spreading across S.E. Asia. Anticipating that the domino that fell in Berlin in 1989 would continue toppling all the way back to Moscow, I decided to move there.

In 1990 the Soviet economy was imploding in slow motion. At the same time, glasnost, Gorbachev's policy of more transparency and freedom of the press, was leading to open criticism of the government. Real debates about the country's direction took place in Parliament and were shown live and unedited on Russian TV. Protests took place in front of the Communist party leadership for the first time on May Day 1990. Mothers held up photos of their sons who had never returned from Afghanistan while Gorbachev looked down from Lenin's mausoleum.

As the state-controlled economy crumbled, queues for subsidised staples like bread and milk became longer and inflation drove the elderly onto the streets to sell whatever they could to supplement their meagre pensions. Meanwhile even longer queues of people formed for the opening of the world's largest McDonald's on Pushkin Square. Previously underground social satire was being published openly for the first time while a heavy metal, punk and biker scene developed.

It was a fortunate moment to be a journalist with access, through sometimes unconventional means, to places that were unimaginable before the 1990s and that would become impossible again in the Putin era. I was granted permission to report on the border army along a border that was about to disappear with the Soviet Union. I would later be the first Western press allowed on Russian nuclear missile bases through contacts I made playing poker with the son-in-law of a KGB colonel.

But for ordinary Russians, there was a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots . In the past, only those with party connections enjoyed access to special shops selling imported products. Now U.S. dollars could be attained by budding entrepreneurs and anyone with criminal connections. There was bound to be a backlash, especially among older Russians unable to adjust to the new reality. This led to the first attempted coup by Russian parliamentarians trying to stop the reform process.

In August 1991, I was on a naval base on the Chinese border with Soviet border forces. As the commander welcomed me with a toast to the Cold War thawing, one of his adjuncts appeared and whispered in his ear. My visit was cancelled; I would have to return to Moscow immediately. The reason given was that the General Secretary was gravely ill and all permission for travel outside Moscow was revoked until further notice. What the commander may or may not have known was that Gorbachev was not 'ill' but had been placed under house arrest at his dacha in the Crimea and a coup was underway to remove him.

Boris Yeltsin was also at his dacha in a forest near Moscow. The coup plan was to seize Yeltsin as well but, according to some accounts, the plotters in Moscow drank too much the night before and arrived a few minutes late to arrest him. By then Yeltsin had received news from Crimea and was rushing back to Moscow before he could be stopped. He then stood on a tank to convince the brigade commander not to attack the Russian White House and the coup collapsed a few days later.

Gorbachev was freed and flew back to Moscow, ostensibly to retake control. At the press conference upon his return he showed a crumpled note he had written and hidden on his body explaining what had really happened in case his 'illness' proved to be fatal.

Yeltsin's actions may have saved Gorbachev's life. But a few months later he betrayed him by entering into secret negotiations with the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus to jointly secede from the Soviet Union. Without Russia, the Union effectively ceased to exist and Gorbachev was forced to resign. On 26 December 1991 the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time, replaced by the Russian one.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, hardliners in the Russian parliament still hoped they could turn the clock back. In autumn 1993 they staged a second coup attempt. This time Yeltsin was not the defender of the Russian White House which had been seized by rebel parliamentarians. Instead he ordered Russian tanks to fire on the building until the rebels were forced to surrender. This would be the last attempt to violently change the course of Russia's history in the 20th century.

Yeltsin was now firmly in control. His signature policy would be the opening up of Russia to foreign investors and the privitisation of state-controlled industries. Shares in state firms were issued to every Russian citizen. Not knowing what to do with 'pieces of paper', many Russians then sold their share certificates at low prices or for cases of vodka to a small number of individuals who amassed vast fortunes by gaining control of former state industries. They would become known as the oligarchs, and most had close connections to the Yeltsin government.

Elsewhere, in the former Soviet Republics, growing tensions between different ethnic groups that were suppressed in the Communist era led to conflict and further splintering of the post-Soviet space.

In 1996 Russia held presidential elections. Yeltsin was opposed by the leader of the Communist Party and by a former army general. The country was divided, largely dependent upon age. Those who remembered the 'heroic defense' of the Soviet Union against fascism in World War 2 were opposed by younger voices who joked about Moscow beer halls that had served only cheap Russian beer that 'if the old hadn't fought so hard, we'd have been drinking Heineken all these years'. But in villages far from the capital the main worry wasn't about beer but unpaid pensions and salaries in failing state enterprises.

Yeltsin went on to win the election with the backing of the new media owned by his oligarch supporters. But by the late 90s his health was in decline, exacerbated by his fondness for vodka. A successor had to be found and Yeltsin chose the KGB man from St. Petersburg.

As the Putin era began, many Russians were still not benefiting from the freedoms of the 'free market' and the Russian military was in decline due to lack of money. But luck was on Putin's side. Oil and gas prices quintupled between 2002-2008, giving Russia a mass infusion of $400 billion in currency reserves. When I returned to Moscow in the mid-2000s I found a city transformed with luxury car showrooms, designer jewelry launches, bling nightlife and sushi bars mushrooming where McDonalds had once been the most happening place to be.

Thirty years on, it's hard not to feel that in some ways history has come full circle. America has suffered its own defeat in Afghanistan, after Russia's experience in the Graveyard of Empires that contributed to the Soviet Union's collapse. The political freedom in Russia of the 1990s is finished and recently opposition journalists and politicians have been imprisoned or even killed. Anti-Western nationalism is on the rise, even as many Russians enjoy a consumer lifestyle and foreign travel that was unimaginable thirty years ago. It is debatable whether things could have turned out differently if, instead of NATO expansion after what was supposedly the end of the Cold War, Russia had been able to integrate into some new joint security arrangement with the West. It's a question that will remain unanswered.

Part II - Russian Portraits
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