A peek into the collapse of USSR

Dr Naazir Mahmood

If you write for a newspaper, the use of first person singular is not a good idea. But at times, one cannot help but defy the maxim.

I landed in Moscow in 1984 as a student of Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University (PFU) or Lumumba University for short, and became an eyewitness to one of the greatest periods of the 20th century — the unravelling of socialism leading to the rapid decline and disintegration of the Soviet Union. Here I give you a picture of the Soviet Union as I saw it.

The early 1980s in Pakistan was a dark period dominated by a dictator. Political workers and student activists were hounded for their love of democratic ideals. Many were put behind bars and some managed to flee the country.

Leaving the details of the journey for another article, one can start from the first experiences one had in the Promised Land for left-leaning adventurists and self-proclaimed revolutionaries, many of whom were more romantic than revolutionaries.

The first thing that impressed foreign students in Moscow was the whole-hearted welcome they received not only by the Soviet state but also by the common Soviet citizens. The state narrative of proletarian internationalism was so embedded in the common people that one never encountered any racism or xenophobia. There were thousands of foreign students across the Soviet Union and an ideal example of that was the Lumumba University itself that boasted to have students from more than a hundred countries. The monthly stipend of just 80 rubles was good enough not only to survive but also to indulge in occasional merrymaking.

The medical facilities were top of the mark and totally free. The books were so cheap one could buy heaps with peanuts. The translations of world literature were so common you could hardly find a family home without some world classics. Opera and ballet were highly subsidised and within the reach of common people. Cinema houses were aplenty and affordable with films from across the world dubbed into Russian.

The teachers were loving and caring without an iota of discrimination against anyone. During vacations, educational institutions took their students to other cities and resorts; those who wanted to work and earn some money went to construction sites.

Contrary to anti-Soviet propaganda, there was no terrorist training; no KGB operatives following foreign students. One could travel across the Soviet Union without being stalked if you had a student card with you. Most of the students were from humble backgrounds and made friends with common Soviet people without being harassed or restricted. Many married there and had local spouses who had an affection for the people from the third-world countries.

But, was it all so rosy or just appeared so to a lonely student who had cherished ideas of a better world?

One of the things one hated there was the need to stand in queues to purchase almost anything for household use — from food items to furniture. Scarcity of consumer goods was common and the variety was limited. If you wanted to buy a shampoo, soap, or toothpaste, normally there was only one brand and that too of poor quality. Electronic items were ugly and ungainly. Restaurants, cafes, and hotels were hard to find and too expensive for common people. Even a ‘revolutionary’ from Pakistan who could enjoy roadside tea and snacks in his country almost any time of the day missed that ‘luxury’ in the Promised Land.

And then, there were undercurrents of discontent. When foreign students brought a nice shampoo or a fragrant soap from home, the locals realised what they were missing on. When they saw in foreign films modern electronic gadgets, they felt sad at not being able to buy them in open market. If they touched jeans and Japanese electronic goods that were slick and sharp, they felt inferior deep inside, though not many were vocal about that. When they heard that in other countries, one could easily get dresses stitched and the dirty laundry dry cleaned at corner shops, they lamented the poor customer service they were getting.

All this engendered political disenchantment and there were no venues to vent the pent-up anger. Media was strictly controlled; there was only one political party, the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). No political groups were allowed to function; no dissent was tolerated; fair and free elections were a dream, and foreign travel was highly restricted. Now, it didn’t matter if there were free education and healthcare for everyone, or unemployment was almost non-existent as the constitution guaranteed jobs to everyone.

Bread and circus were there, but barking was not allowed. Education was given, but questioning Marxism and communism was almost blasphemous. Health facilities were offered, but the people craved for cosmetic luxuries. Vodka flowed but scotch and gin were scarce.

In short, human desire for variety was not satisfied, and the urge to utter the unconventional was suppressed. People were tired of septuagenarian socialist supremos. And then suddenly, a breath of fresh air came. Within three years from 1982 to 85, three old guards — Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko died in quick succession; the wind changed direction.

I remember the day our Russian language teacher broke the news of Chernenko’s death in March 1985. We were happy that at least for a couple of days the university would be closed in mourning. To our sheer surprise, not even a single hour was wasted and the work continued as before. The new Soviet leader was a shiny 54-year old Gorbachev who was the first leader born after the October Revolution of 1917.

His accession was quick, indicating that the party top brass was aware of people’s disgust for swollen faces. Gorbachev had travelled to the western world multiple times and had witnessed the wonders of market economy, if not its weaknesses.

Almost immediately he showed his articulation and openness by speaking extempore to the Soviet public that was long used to written gobbledygook. Within two months after coming to power, he identified widespread alcoholism as one of the causes of slackness in Soviet citizens. Prices of beer, vodka, and wine were raised to an unprecedented level and their sales were restricted. His anti-alcohol campaign launched in May 1985, had us shiver in long queues for hours. This well-intentioned but poorly conceived step backfired as alcohol production went into the black market and dealt a blow to state revenue which saw a drop of billions of rubles.

Thwarted in his first step, within a year Gorbachev embarked upon a journey to reform the Soviet society. In the 27th Congress of the CPSU held in February 1986, he launched his four-point agenda to revive the stagnant party and the state economy. The points were glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring), demokratizatsiya (democratisation), and uskoreniye (acceleration of economic development).

The Soviet economy had been stagnating for the past two decades and the zeal to support socialist movements around the world had taken its toll. Probably the last straw had been the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 that had sapped the remaining strength from the Soviet economy.

The clique that had made the decision to invade Afghanistan had no idea what they were getting into. They had thrown the Soviet Union into an abyss. Initially, Gorbachev did not openly hint at disengagement from Afghanistan but he did change his old foreign minister Gromyko and brought in Shevardnadze. During the first year, his main focus was salvaging the Soviet economy by curtailing military expenses but not by introducing market economy.

Initially, he simply wanted to prop up the centrally planned economy. He initiated the concept of gospreyomka (state acceptance of production) which represented quality.

As a sign of more tolerance for dissent, Gorbachev personally invited the intellectual Andrei Sakharov to Moscow after six years of internal exile in Gorky city. Taking the cue, the newspapers and magazines for the first time started criticising local communist officials and started covering issues that were hidden under the carpet and had not seen the light of the day for decades. It was such a pleasant surprise for people that they loved Gorbachev for these changes — but the love was not to last for long.

In 1986, after two years’ stay in Moscow I moved to Baku in Azerbaijan — one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union — and saw for the first time a Muslim-majority republic that was seething with hatred against the Russian domination. My one-year stay in Baku showed me closed mosques and people desperate for religious freedoms. If Moscow was a brighter side of socialism, Baku had a much darker face. Notwithstanding very nice and hospitable people, the situation was dire. Food shortages were much more acute with rationing of meat and butter. The hostels we lived in were in dilapidated conditions with scarcity of water and the filthiest toilets I had ever seen. If that was communism, I would rather stay away from it.

In the closing days of 1986, Gorbachev made a Soviet-style mistake by removing Kunayev as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan resulting in public riots. Now Gorbachev realised that people wanted to be involved in political decision-making.

In 1987, he proposed multi-candidate elections and the appointment of non-party members to government positions. The same year a new law was passed giving enterprises more independence. By the close of 1987, he had rehabilitated many opponents of Joseph Stalin and thus began another part of De-Stalinisation, which had started in 1956.

In 1987, I moved to Odessa, a port city in Ukraine and was able to see a simmering tension between the Russian and the Ukrainian people there. The same year we saw the 70th anniversary of the Great October Revolution which was marred by the beginning of a strife between Gorbachev and his own hand-picked mayor of Moscow Boris Yeltsin.

Now the CPSU was witnessing a factional fight in which Ligachev, an old guard, was trying to restrain Gorbachev from rapid reforms and Yeltsin was pressing for a much faster pace. This fight intensified in 1988 and triggered the process of unravelling of the Soviet Union.

So, the six year period of Gorbachev from 1985 leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 can be divided into two halves. In the second part of this article, we will discuss the three year period from 1988 to ‘91 that witnessed the most dramatic changes taking place so rapidly.

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