Dating : Liberty or License? Pushing for Change in the USSR.

h2>Dating : Liberty or License? Pushing for Change in the USSR.

From Bodybuilding to Mindbuilding

Lawlessness or glasnost? Free at last from communism or simply abandoned by the government? This is a tale of two Soviet Russias.

We had no clue what would really follow in the wake of neoliberal reforms that seemed to have turned Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s America into the most impressive states in the world. We would be just like Brits and Americans as long as we kept whacking away at our ancient fuddy-duddies in the communist government.

The late 1980s and early 1990s. The Soviet Union seemed to be running on fumes, and change was in the air. To understand the mood of the Bolshevik nation in those days, just listen to Scorpions’ Wind of Change from 1990. We were so close to liberty. The old system with old leaders just stood in our way. The German Scorpions captured the zeitgeist so perfectly.

Gorbachev, then in his late 50s, definitely seemed to be walking in step with such Soviet youngsters as Viktor Tsoi and his unbelievably popular band Kino who took millions of guys like me by storm who had been singing since 1989,

Мы ждём перемен. (We’re expecting changes.)

Changes came to other young people like my parents in their early 30s too. My dad finally left his steady work as an engineer at a local relay tower for a less impressive but more lucrative job as a TV repairman. The magic hand of laissez-faire directed people like my dad away from socialist safety to capitalist liberty.

Liberty caught up with my mom too. Intellectual freedom to be exact. One of my flashbacks is my parents’ room with stacks of literary magazines and books that my mom was buried in. For the first time in years, high school teachers of literature like my mom got their hands on once-banned Pasternak, Nabokov, and other enemies of our socialist state.

Intoxicated with this liberty to read once-dangerous books, my mom spent countless hours in her room poring over Doctor Zhivago lying on the bed illuminated by the sunlight coming through the window sheers. A vase with freshly cut lilacs on her bed stand helped her feel transported to the first decade of the twentieth century when Russia looked hopefully into the future — just like we all were in the late 1980s. Fools were rushing in….

In those days, our state was communist in name only. In March 1990, the infamous article 6 of the 1977 Constitution was finally repealed and with it the Communist Party’s “leading and guiding force of society and a core of the political system.” Our communist state was a dead and pathetic man walking, begging someone to put him out of his misery.

Doctor Zhivago, the Russian (best) version.

As liberty swept over my hometown, Russia, and the other fourteen soviet socialist republics in the union, making young people like my parents drunk on the fantastic possibilities for our society and believing that a utopia was finally at hand, other forces were gaining momentum and merging into a powerful network that the Italians aptly called mafia.

Just like the Sicilian word suggested, young toughs in Russia walked with a new and bold swagger. They were no longer small pickpockets but hot shots of a new Russia shedding its shackles of oppression (and incarceration). All dressed in black, athletic and vicious looking, with ex-con-style buzz cuts, and driving black BMWs when owning a car (any car) in Russia was still a luxury, our young gangsters were poised to take liberty all the way to its logical conclusion — license to do whatever they felt like doing, letting fools chant for liberty — a classic clash of realism with idealism.

No longer were they interested in beating pocket change out of kids like my friends and me. No, they patrolled open markets instead, providing a “roof” (protection) over merchants who shuttled between Turkey and Russia to earn a handsome living off international trade. Racketeering had become the most respected occupation, a noble calling of sorts.

Anyone who’s interested in Russia’s transition from socialism to whatever we ended up with, can watch a brilliant Russian series called The Brigade from a historical point of view. With all characters fictional, the interaction between crime and political power seems anything but fictional. The producers’ decision to end the scandalous series made sense because it got dangerously close to explaining today’s Russia.

Believing in the early 1990s that our government was simply overwhelmed with street crime and that more political and economic reforms would magically solve all our problems, local gangs kept on cobbling together regional and soon national organizations, acquiring a whole state in the end.

Soon our new masters of Russia had license to act as de facto law enforcement. De jure police had become virtually meaningless. And who could blame cops without a clear and constantly changing set of principles to risk their lives for? Justice got monetized and oftentimes outsourced to local toughs.

The Brigade.

We always count and appreciate our blessings once they’re gone. What we took for suffocating oppression was actually law and order. When we thought our militiamen (soviet cops) were out to get us, they actually held us back from getting hurt. As first-world countries continued to expand socialism for their citizens, we watched it in disbelief with our mouths ajar because socialism was supposed to be over.

The most disappointing was my eventual realization that what my mom took for liberty to expand her mind other people took for license to take our state apart brick by brick and build their own version of whatever increased their power. Funny to read Machiavelli’s The Prince now and learn about rulers’ most important goals — how to gain, sustain, and increase their power. That’s it. Nothing else matters.

But boy did we have beautiful dreams of a better society within our grasp! Just a little more change, just a little more reform, push just a little harder — until it all came crashing down — as if out of nowhere. It looks like crashing down only in hindsight, though. December 21, 1991 seemed like another crappy day when Vladislav Flyarkovsky, a TV anchor, opened the news with the words more applicable to a diseased person:

The USSR is no more…

The Romans must have felt the same way in A.D. 476 after another sack of their eternal city. The end of their civilization wouldn’t sink in for a few more years.

Just a few random happy kids in the Soviet Union.
My dad and I in 1994.

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