What happens when a country is gone

Andrei Kurkov

In the context of the current chaotic atmosphere in Afghanistan, a celebrated writer on the irony of an invader’s nightmare fiscal scenario visiting the victim country three decades later; as a nation lurches into slow dissolve with crimes and uncertainty running rampant

A protest scene from 1991, 'Down with the Communist Party of USSR” in Ukranian

1991 - the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union - should have been the most important year in the life of every Soviet citizen. But those who survived this time prefer not to remember it. They care about their nerves. Memory itself filters events, trying to include only positive moments in thoughts about the past. However, it is common for a person to rummage through one’s own memories and to pull out the most dramatic events from there. Often to prove to themselves that any current problems are trivial compared to what was already experienced.

In 1991, on the ruins of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared itself independent. But the ruins remained for a long time on the streets of cities, and even in the heads of citizens. I was 30 years old, and I looked at what was happening with apprehension, but without fear. I saw that the Soviet state was becoming impotent, both economically and politically. For a very long time it had been slowly moving towards this last phase. At that time, I was optimistic, thinking that Ukraine, having freed itself from the Soviet Union, could quickly restore normal life and turn into a functioning democratic state. My naivety was also a legacy from the Soviet Union. Optimism and enthusiasm were important elements of Soviet life, supported by schools and universities.

The miner’s strike of 1991
The miners' strike of 1991

On the contrary, my parents watched the approaching collapse of the Soviet Union with fear in their eyes. We lived in a state of economic collapse, probably from the second half of the 1970s, when the most everyday products became scarce, when it was possible to buy a good piece of meat or a normal pair of shoes in a store only through friends or acquaintance. The political system tried to create “fair” options for purchasing scarce goods, especially refrigerators, televisions and washing machines. For this, ‘official’ queues were created, in which it was necessary to check in once a week.

We stood for two years in such a queue for a refrigerator and every Sunday someone from the family had to go to the city center to the department store ‘Ukraine’ and be present at the roll call, so that when the queue administrator read our surname aloud, the person could raise a hand or shout “We are here!” Every Sunday we found out our new number in the queue. Sometimes in a week it moved five people forward, towards the dream of a new refrigerator, sometimes even ten! But all the same, for a long time we were in the third hundred of those wishing to make a purchase. In the end, two years later, we managed to buy a modern Soviet refrigerator. I can imagine how the people who stood in such lines and who went every week to check in and find out their new number in the line felt when the Soviet Union collapsed. Hundreds and thousands of such queues throughout the USSR also disintegrated before the long-awaited purchases could be made.

After the collapse of the USSR, my parents were afraid to leave their apartment. Outside the door of the apartment there was now another, unfamiliar, dangerous world. The habit of reading newspapers only increased the fear of this world. Indeed, at that moment, newspaper publishers realized that you could publish anything they wanted, and most importantly, they understood that scary news sells well. Censorship disappeared along with the Soviet Union. The police hid in their buildings. Control over the street, and, it seemed, over the whole city was taken by criminals. Newspapers wrote about murders and robberies.

Mom worked as a doctor in a hospital and continued to travel to work, although her new salary was $10 a month. The hospitals ran out of medicines and doctors told patients that they had to buy for themselves medicines needed for treatment. Soviet rubles were still in use, but daily hyperinflation quickly made them worthless. Stores closed because there was nothing to sell. All trade moved to pop-up markets, to the streets. Many people had no money at all.

My parents, like many citizens, had had savings in a Soviet bank, but the bank stopped returning money to account holders, then devalued the currency. Nobody got their money back. The new Ukrainian government, which consisted of the same Soviet officials who had wielded power in Soviet times, tried to come up with at least something so that people could survive economically.

Queuing for vodka in the 1990s USSR
Queuing for vodka in the 1990s USSR

Back in the final phase of the Soviet Union, special vouchers were introduced for sugar, vodka, and other goods. These vouchers were issued at work, sometimes together with the salary, sometimes instead of part of the salary. But even in stores where everything was sold for vouchers, there were not enough goods. After the collapse of the USSR, the Ukrainian government decided to introduce coupons - a quasi-currency that could only be used in conjunction with Soviet rubles. These were sheets of paper with micro-banknotes printed on them, indicating their value. These micro-banknotes had to be cut off with scissors and served in the store for payment along with the same amount in rubles. At the market, it was possible to pay for things without these micro-banknotes. But soon micro-banknotes printed on sheets of paper became the main temporary currency, while rubles turned became a secondary currency; accepted in some places and not in others, or they were accepted, but at half the value indicated on them. The best currencies were US dollars and German marks. So, for one dollar, you could go anywhere in Kyiv by taxi - from one end of a big city to the other.

They stopped paying wages in factories and plants. The workers began to quit. Everyone who had cars decided to become taxi drivers, but there were not enough passengers with money. The level of crime rose even higher. Advertisements like “Our warehouse will hire 20-30 physically strong men” appeared on street lamp posts. These notices heralded the created of whole bandit armies, engaged in racketeering and other criminal activities.

Mass immigration to Germany, Israel and the United States began. At that time, it was possible to buy a good apartment in the center of Kiev from those leaving the country, for one thousand dollars. The composition of the city’s inhabitants began to change. The cheap apartments from people emigrating were now bought by officials and bandits, those who had access to easy money.

I remember that at this time people began to talk less. They stopped sharing their problems and thoughts even with friends. The disintegration of society began. Each person, each family learned to survive alone.

Lenin square turned into an open-air market
Lenin square turned into an open-air market

About a year or two after the collapse of the USSR, Soviet passports began to be stamped with the ‘Ukraine’ stamp, but many documents were still issued on Soviet letterheads. The Soviet criminal code continued to operate, like many other Soviet laws. Moreover, there were groups of people and organizations which refused to recognize the collapse of the Soviet Union. On May 15, 1996, the State Duma of Russia declared the Belovezhsky agreement which refused to recognize the collapse of the Soviet Union and deemed the creation of new states on its territory invalid. This decision had no real political consequences. De facto the Soviet Union no longer existed. Only its 250 million citizens remained, each of them trying to understand how to survive in new conditions and in new countries.

Now in the Russian-speaking segment of Facebook, the joke “Cheap, for sale, spacious three-room apartment in the center of Kabul,” has become very popular. For people who survived the collapse of the USSR this is more than a joke, and, probably, not a joke at all. This is evidence that Afghanistan is now experiencing the same tragedy that Soviet people experienced 30 years ago.

The Kyiv-resident is an Ukranian author-filmmaker, who writes in Russian

{The Malayalam version is published in the weekend edition of the Mathrubhumi dated November 28, 2021}

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