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Russia Is Sobering Up From Its Drunken 1990s America-Worship

Yet sadly American politicians' uninformed groupthink about Russia has not changed much at all

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

  • Bygone are the days when Russians idolized everything western
  • The US-inspired economic reforms cost Russia half of her industrial production
  • Self-confident Russia could be a better partner to America than a subservient one

The author is popular blogger fritzmorgen. This is a Russia Insider exclusive.

I lived in Leningrad when the heavily rusted Iron Curtain collapsed and Russians could see the Western world. We imagined the West to be a communist paradise where everyone, including those idles who lived on welfare, could afford jeans, video-recorders and cars.  

<figcaption>In 1990, when the first McDonalds fast-food restaurant opened in Moscow people were standing in lines for hours to get their initiation in Western values</figcaption>
In 1990, when the first McDonalds fast-food restaurant opened in Moscow people were standing in lines for hours to get their initiation in Western values

The winter of 1991 came with two memorable events. Firstly, Freddie Mercury had died (people in USSR loved his songs just like any other people). Secondly, our class went to Denmark on a student-exchange trip.

The trip was a real shock to teenagers from crisis-stricken USSR, where shopping for basic foodstuffs entailed grueling queues.

Soviet authorities regarded the art of advertising with contempt, so everything enraptured us, from sweet soda to colorful advertising leaflets printed on glossy paper. We probably looked like savages staring at bright beads at an imitation jewelry store. We were stunned and delighted by capitalistic reality. 

In the same year, Leningrad was renamed Saint-Petersburg, the Soviet Union passed away, and we with our hearts ablaze embarked on building capitalism, the showcase of which had seemed so alluring to us. We expected, in all seriousness, that we would all become rich people.

As befits diligent cargo-cult neophytes, we drew an airstrip on a beach as accurately as we could, and a few savages from our tribe started swinging torches in an attempt to imitate runway lights. But somehow a huge silvery bird didn't come to give us valuable cargo. 

After the first seven years of democratic reforms in Russia, the Industrial Production Index fell by more than 50%, and agriculture was in such disarray that it was hard to find any Russian merchandise. To be honest, nobody was even looking for Russian products, as during that time we believed that real quality was only to be found in the West. 

In 1998 Russia defaulted because of the reckless speculation with government bonds of our politicians and their oligarch companions. We became seriously dependent on IMF loans and our Western partners felt free to exploit this dependence for their own benefit. 

Recently Michael Bohm, an American journalist, took part in a popular TV show in Russia. He started to explain that there is nothing wrong with having foreign citizens occupying high positions in the Ukrainian government. "Are there foreigners in the US government?" the anchorman asked. "But we are not Ukraine!" the journalist explained.

Michael Bohm's double standards are forgivable. It doesn't make sense to compare the US and Ukraine. However, the problem is that Washington treats Russia in the same dismissive manner.

In the 1990s, Washington's condescension was justified. Russia was a poor and thoroughly corrupt country. The average pension was 30 dollars a month, while public officials faithfully obeyed their American advisors. At the time, Russia looked like a wretched drunken cowboy from a Hollywood film.

I'm not proud of that period of our history. Nevertheless, 17 years have passed since the default of 1998. The Russian cowboy got himself together. He sobered up, bought his weapon back from the pawnshop and is now back in the saddle, just like in the good old Soviet days – a period which a lot of Russian people reminisce about with unconcealed nostalgia (which, I suppose, is not altogether unreasonable). 

In the year 2000 Vladimir Putin took power from Boris Yeltsin's weakening hands. Putin removed thieving oligarchs from power, forced businessmen to pay taxes, and rebuilt industry that was nearly destroyed in the 1990s. He put the country back in order. For Russians, it was a welcome sight.

I live in Saint Petersburg, near the Finnish border. In 1991, a Soviet teenager believed Finland to be a wonderland full of luxury, treasure and the glittering light of neon signs. When I went on a trip to Finland in 2014, I was looking around and couldn't understand: how could I have admired these backwoods twenty years ago?

Sadly, in terms of perception, American politicians are stuck in the 1990s. Barack Obama was deeply mistaken when he bragged that he had left the Russian economy “in tatters”. The blow that Washington dealt to Russia when it blocked Russian access to dollar loans can be likened to a cowboy who has been barred from buying whiskey on credit in a saloon. The drunkard of 1998 would probably have died without cheap whiskey. In 2015, the cowboy can easily enjoy some Chinese tea for a change.

I suppose Uncle Sam should reconsider his merry band of sovietologists and self-styled experts, and then proceed to analyze the situation in Russia not by reading his own tame activists' reports but by reading articles in the Western business media, which are at least more objective. Now, after Vladimir Putin helped Barack Obama solve the Iran problem, is the best time to move towards a de-escalation in the US relationship with Russia, especially given that the Russians may still believe there is a chance for a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries.

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