Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Back in the dying USSR
By Steven Eke BBC Russia analyst.

December 1991 was a miserable time to be living in the Soviet Union. I was a student, in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Or, as it was then known, the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Gorbachev saw his authority ebb away as the USSR collapsedDuring the Soviet years, it had been seen as rather a desirable place to live.
"That's Eastern Europe, not the USSR," people would tell me.
They were alluding to its easy-going atmosphere, and the fact that you could once buy a reasonable range of food and consumer goods there.
Not during those final few months of the Soviet Union, though.
Minsk was totally destroyed during World War II. Rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s, it became a testing ground for Soviet architecture. Not all of it attractive, of course.
Profound pride
The suburb where I lived was called "Green Meadow 6". There was neither anything green, nor meadow-like there.
But in Belarus, there was a strong sense that the Soviet Union was something worth saving. Indeed, there was a profound pride in its achievements.
Yet, on the eve of the announcement that the USSR had ceased to exist, I spent three or four hours queuing outside a Soviet food store. Such shops had the laughable name Gastronom (Gourmet).

Minsk was rebuilt in Soviet style from the ruins of World War III froze, in driving snow, asking myself what on earth I was doing. For my efforts I eventually obtained a scrawny, blue, battered chicken.
But still, it was quite a find. There was real fear of hunger at that time.
Few people in the West can imagine the economic hardships that accompanied the Soviet Union's collapse.
It took a decade - or more - for national economies to begin to recover.
The agreements signalling the end of the Soviet state were signed in a place where, just months earlier, I had spent what I still consider to be some of the most blissful days of my life.
Vanished empire
I had friends in high places, working in state television and Minsk state university.
They were members of the Soviet elite, people who lived a life of relative - but still real - comfort. They were people who could not imagine waking up to find that the world's last great empire - their country - had simply vanished.
They had taken me to a lodge, Communist Party property, hidden deep inside an unspoilt forest on the border between Poland and the Soviet Union.
It was the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, home to the zubr, the European bison. Yes, there is such a creature.

Many in the ex-Soviet states feel nostalgic about the USSRIf air can be fresher than it was there, I am yet to breathe it. If the night sky can be darker, or more full of stars, I am yet to see it.
In the lodge, I had servants at my beck and call. Servants - in a country still calling itself communist, one that professed equality for all.
We feasted on roasted elk and hare, as well as several sorts of delicious, unusual mushrooms. The room in which I slept was the epitome of luxury.
I had become used to queues, empty shops, the incredible rudeness of officials, their petty, humiliating treatment of ordinary people, and the difficulties that characterised trying to do just about anything, anywhere, in the Soviet Union.
And so there was a chasm between what I saw, felt and ate in the Communist Party lodge, and the real struggle of everyday life.
As the scrawny, blue, battered chicken suggested, Soviet reality was, actually, quite wretched.
Yet in Belarus, the USSR was the country that defeated Nazi Germany, and then built a modern, educated and industrialised state.
Perhaps therefore, when it was announced that President Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned, and that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was no more, some felt that a calamity of indescribable proportions had enveloped them.


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