Digest of Russian media
Hunger vs Freedom: Russians Debate the 1990s
May 27, 2024
In April, associates of Alexei Navalny released a documentary series called Traitors. It delves into what happened in Russia during the 1990s, covering the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin. Across three episodes, the creators take aim at the politicians and oligarchs of the era for missing the chance to build a democracy in Russia, and trace how their actions led to the current situation.

“We did not elect him [Putin]. None of us appointed him as the successor. We did not help him build palaces, seize power or start wars. We simply got him as a ‘gift’ from the ‘90s, from the oligarchs who had taken power and the ‘family,’” said Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh in the third episode of the series.

The documentary sparked a strong reaction on social media. Russians frequently debate the 1990s. Opinions often differ, and disagreements are quite bitter, even among people of the same age and social group.

The exiled Russian news outlet Meduza asked its readers to describe the ‘90s in three words. The younger generation, who were not yet born or too young to have their own distinct recollections, used words like “hope,” “lawlessness,” “dollars,” “oligarchs,” “poverty,” “terrorism” and “hunger,” but also “a great time for freedom.”

Those who are old enough to remember the ‘90s well wrote things like: “dad fainting from hunger,” “God forbid we go back [to that time],” “bandits took power” and “parents had to grow up.” However, there was also “the best time of [my]life.”

Writing in 2019, Yuri Saprykin, an art and culture critic, described life in the 1990s as “wild and chaotic,” which left too many in Russia depressed and embittered, nostalgic for the late Soviet stability. For the young, however, this environment of head-spinning freedom was, in Saprykin’s words, “their virtual home.” He compared the Russian 1990s to the Prohibition era in the US, “a time that one does not want to go back to, but that is… an inexhaustible source of images and topics.”

The acclaimed Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko shared her memories from that time on social media. In her heart-breaking account, she, as a 7-year-old in 1997, got hold of a bag of pearl barley but accidentally dropped it in the mud. She still brought it home to her mother.

“We scattered the pearl barley on the newspaper and put each grain into a bag. Then we soaked the cereal, poured out the water, washed away the snow and dirt. We boiled it. We ate it. This is my most shameful memory. But the shame should not be on me,” wrote Kostyuchenko.

She also shared how in 1998 her family saved up money to buy sugar. In social media comments, a user challenged Kostyuchenko’s account: “in ‘98, everything was already in stores, whatever you wanted. And sugar too; supply shortages might have only happened in summer or early fall, during the canning season.” To which Kostyuchenko responded: “sugar was in stores and markets. We did not have any sugar [at home].”

Kostyuchenko’s posts further fueled the discussion on the 1990s

Prominent journalist and media manager Elizaveta Osetinskaya, 10 years older than Kostyuchenko, has a different perspective on the second half of the decade. For her, it was a time of professional breakthrough, when she became a “promising, bold journalist.”

“After the terrible early ‘90s, when my parents and I literally had one pair of jeans for the three of us, and I wore sneakers that were kindly left by an American student to whom we had rented a room, things started getting better,” Osetinskaya wrote on her Facebook page. “I was not just paid well – I was paid incredibly well, $1,200 every month onto a plastic card. Sometimes I worked extra for the fashion magazine Itogi, which occasionally gave me an additional $400. $1,600 a month! It was so much.”

Yevgenia Albats, a veteran journalist and the editor of The New Times, wrote on Facebook that for her the 1990s are primarily about freedom.

“Yes-yes, Freedom with a capital F — the freedom of movement, speech, assembly and expression, the freedom to read books that interest you, to live where you want, to receive education and so on. There was no trace of any of this until 1989, and some freedoms [did not come] until the end of the USSR,” wrote Albats.

She also shared that in 1990 she got her first foreign visa and came to the US, which previously had been impossible. Upon arrival, she went to a grocery store and was amazed by the amount of food, because “in Moscow stores at that time there was gray bread, Azerbaijani marmalade, beets and rotten potatoes.”

Journalist and photographer Victoria Ivleva, about the same age as Albats, also experienced the 1990s as an adult. She described that time as “years of endless happiness and joy” for her. Ivleva said there was a strong sense of freedom and noted a change in how Russians were seen globally during that period.

“I also remember very well how we were perceived in the world back then — with some kind of wild enthusiasm; it was incredibly and terribly important for me, as someone who loved my country and was proud of it at that time. The air of freedom covered up the smell of bread. I will never forget that mass motion of many people, who felt that they could do something, that heaving of a once immovable country,” wrote Ivleva.

Political scientist and historian Vasily Zharkov shared a different point of view on his Facebook. He associates that time with crime and criminals, whom he constantly encountered on the streets, despite living quite comfortably and not experiencing hunger.

“Throughout this time [the 1990s], I lived in fear of being beaten, robbed or even killed,” wrote Zharkov. “I ate, dressed and lived reasonably well overall. Except for the constant fear of physical violence, everything was bearable.”

Russian entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky, born in 1963, who during the 1990s rose to become one of the richest and most influential businessmen in the country, shared his perspective in an interview with journalist Yuri Dud. He resented young Russians’ criticism of their parents’ generation, seeing it as an inappropriate transfer of responsibility.

“A lot of them [younger commentators] claimed that my generation, the generation of their fathers, did not pass down to them the country as they wanted it. I do not like this kind of parasitism. I was born in the Khrushchev era and lived during Brezhnev era. I would never judge my parents for not improving the country for me,” said Khodorkovsky.

Dud, the highly popular Russian YouTuber, born in 1986, pointed out in his chat with Khodorkovsky that the discussion – taking place among people with diverse political views and across different age groups – marked a significant achievement. In Dud’s view, the series Traitors and Navalny’s associates did something the Russian opposition had not managed to do for quite some time: break out of their own bubble and address a topic that concerns everyone.

“This time, FBK [Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation] made a political statement when they addressed Putin’s followers. They are saying: ‘dear compatriots, we agree with you on the 1990s. We agree that the 1990s traumatized Russia and possibly led to where we are today. This is a disaster that we agree with you on,’” said Dud.

The three episodes of Traitors are now among the most popular videos on the Alexei Navalny YouTube channel, run by his associates, in the past year. Combined, they have garnered nearly 17.5 million views in just one month.

Kostyuchenko also mentioned that her mother, who typically only follows Russian state media and is neither a Navalny supporter nor a consumer of FBK content, watched the documentary series.

“[My mother] says, ‘I agree with every sentence [in the series], but remembering it is very scary.’ [She] is waiting for the next episode, sent the link to her friends, [and] they are planning to discuss it,” wrote Kostyuchenko.
  • Sofia Sorochinskaia

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