Although I did not return to Russia for eight years, I heard about it frequently -- almost all of it bad. In 1991, I met people who had been mugged in Moscow. The media was filled with stories about how murder and mayhem had spun out of control. Another friend who lived there told me about the power of the Mafia and the craziness of seeing prices double in a few weeks. Crime seemed to spiral as a corrupt elite privatized the country into their own pockets while millions went from grim austerity to even grimmer destitution.
Getting around was increasingly difficult, dangerous and unpredictable. Flights were often cancelled, diverted or delayed for days because there was no fuel available. One friend almost got stuck in the Northern Caucasus when the pilot landed halfway through journey and made everyone on the plane give him money for fuel to complete the flight. Russians only had to pay $10 while foreigners got stuck for $100. So much for the warm welcomes. Dima disappeared while Sergei followed Margarita to Israel before she divorced him. He stayed in Israel anyway.
Unhappiness extended much further. Russians who once believed that the gray but safe world of Socialism could give way to European style prosperity instead found their savings decimated, the health care system shredded, their public safety ripped away and their country humiliated as Russia’s erstwhile allies ran to join the European Union and NATO. Boris Yeltsin, the hero of 1991, lurched between alcoholic stupor and astonishing acts of egoism. Russians joked that Yeltsin only sobered up long enough to fire any Prime Minister capable of getting things done. To add more insults to humiliation and injury, the government essentially gave the national patrimony to a clique of deeply corrupt robber barons, nicknamed “The Oligarchs”. The miseries of the 1990s replaced hope with fatalism and cynicism.
The West did not help itself in Russia
either. While Yeltsin’s government was presiding over the ruination of most
Russians, the United States and most Western countries remained supportive of
him. These were the gold rush years where foreign consultants made six figure
incomes giving often questionable advice to a country that was just learning the
ways of the market and democracy. Unfortunately, real resources were not
forthcoming – there was no effort made by the West to protect the incomes of
Russians during the 1990s. When the economy collapsed, led by a pro-Western
leader advised by Westerners, the average Russian was left on their own. No
wonder we stopped being heroes there. America was not the hope; it was just a
After hearing all of this, I didn't even want to go back to Russia. I was afraid of how heart-breaking it would be to see how hope had given way to chaos, innocence to criminality. My romantic images of a big-hearted people rising above the dying embers of the USSR kept me from embracing the new Russia. I knew I wanted to come back some day, but not to a nightmare. My Russia experience was consigned to my personal dustbin of history. I forgot my Russian and moved to Taiwan, which, along with China, seemed to represent a brighter future.