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A Society in Crisis

 

There is no doubt that future generations will be able to arrive at a more balanced evaluation of the cataclysms that rocked Russia at the turn of the twenty-first century. Historical distance will allow future analysts to assess the Yeltsin era more objectively and dispassionately. However, it is clear even now that the price Russian society paid for the post-Communist modernization and the second transition within one century to a cardinally new system of life was very high.

Old-age street sellers. Photo: A. Svinchukov

There are examples of reforms in other countries when a cautious and well thought out approach allowed governments to reduce substantially the burdens of radical reforms. Somehow Russia has never been able to emulate foreign examples of successful evolutionary transitions. The Russian tradition has never known such precedents. In Russian history transitional periods have invariably been accompanied by the immense suffering of its citizens and have always been very protracted and painful.

In this sense, the transitional era opened by Gorbachevís perestroika and continued by Yeltsinís liberal reforms conforms fully to the Russian tradition. Neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin was able to achieve his objectives. The result of both reform efforts was a society in a state of acute economic and political crisis.

However, the Russian tradition has also taught its people how to survive in times of great uncertainty and upheavals. Many Western commentators were puzzled: all formal economic indicators throughout the 1990s clearly showed that the Russian economy was in a deep hole. Plants did not produce output, wages were not paid, the productivity rate fell, and almost all effective institutions of social protection practically collapsed due to underfunding. Yet all these negative processes did not seem to have the impact one would expect on the populationís survival.

True, the average life expectancy dropped, peopleís food rations declined, and everyday problems multiplied. But there were no signs of starvation. Life continued as normal, with teachers teaching, doctors treating patients, army officers giving orders, and police officers controlling street traffic. The social and economic survival of its population against all odds appears to be the central paradox of Russiaís contemporary history.

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