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Moscow’s failed attempt to westernise

Queuing for milk in Soviet Russia. Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty

It seems unimaginable now, says Allan Little on the BBC website, but not long ago Russia was seeking to westernise. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Boris Yeltsin tried to turn the country’s “sclerotic, state-owned command economy into a free-market system”. But the rush to do so resulted instead in “gangster capitalism” – a small elite becoming “fabulously rich” by plundering the assets of the major industries. When the wheels finally came off this “disastrous” experiment in 1998, “the economy collapsed, the rouble lost two-thirds of its value in a month and inflation hit 80%”.

I remember standing in a queue at a Moscow bank with a middle-aged couple trying to take their money out in dollars or pounds – “anything other than roubles”. As the currency plunged in value, a bank employee would change the exchange rate on display – “people could see their life savings dropping in value by the minute”. Later I went to a former coal-mining region where a graduate engineer told me he grew 80% of what his young family ate in the year on the acre of land beside his house. “The rest, like coffee and sugar, I barter for.” He had seen no cash for 18 months. “Stalin turned a nation of peasants into an industrial superpower in a generation,” he told me. “Yeltsin is doing the same thing in reverse.”

Ordinary Russians felt robbed, and the great westernising experiment was over. But Russia, like its double-headed eagle emblem, has always looked both east and west. Imperial Russia’s capital was Western-looking St Petersburg – “the European Enlightenment in architectural form”. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow. “Power retreated behind the high, crenellated walls of the Kremlin”: the architecture of “suspicion, even fear”. As the former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once said: Russia can be a democracy or an empire, but it cannot be both.

Read the full article here.