Cursing the future

 A man waits in line outside a food shop in Moscow. Finally, he’s had enough and tells     his friend: “That’s it. I’m going over to the Kremlin to kill that Gorbachev.” Two hours later he comes back.  “Well,” says the friend, “did you do it?”  “No,” he replies, “there was an even longer line over there.” 

          Through the 1990s, in cities, towns and villages throughout the former Soviet Union, industrial workers gathered in bars, restaurants, chaikhanas (tea houses) and bazaars to “curse the future.”  I credit the phrase to my friend Asqat Yerkimbay, describing growing up in the central Kazakhstan mining town of Zhezdy.  But I had heard a similar story from many other people.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

          For 75 years, industrial workers were folk heroes, lauded in speeches, newspapers, books, movies and wall posters for their efforts to make the Soviet Union a world power.  Although agricultural production was vital, Soviet industry seemed more glamorous, and definitely more photogenic.  Newsreels and propaganda films recorded the whirring machines of the factory assembly line, the intense heat of the steel furnace, the jagged face of the coal seam, the electricity pylons stretching into the distance.  Each product coming off the line, each steel ingot, ton of coal or megawatt of electricity represented the growing strength of the USSR, the fulfillment of the great socialist dream.  And the dream makers were Lenin’s proletariat—the engineers, coal miners, steelworkers, engine drivers.  Industrial jobs paid better than most professions, and often came with perks such as apartments and vacations to summer resorts in the Kyrgyz SSR. They also helped reinforce the status of women in society.  The Soviet Union never needed a Roza the Riveter because women were always in the industrial workforce.

           And then it all ended.  Despite Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (literally restructuring or rebuilding), most citizens had no idea of what was coming, or how it would change their lives forever.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the central planning system that had supported the economy collapsed too.  In every sector, production was determined by targets and quotas, which usually had little or no relationship to demand.  Factories, mines and collective farms had to meet targets, even if what they produced was not needed and piled up in rail cars or rotted in warehouses.  Managers were rewarded for exceeding targets, fired or demoted for falling short—a system that provided ample incentive for cooking the books on cotton or steel production. 

          In the factories of Central Asia, workers continued to show up, but the targets and subsidies from Moscow had ended and there were few new customers.  Some factories tried to adapt to the market economy, but most lacked the money to invest in new equipment and compete for quality and price with industries in other countries.  Compared with other Soviet republics, the industrial base of the Kyrgyz SSR was comparatively small because Moscow considered the region too remote to become a major industrial producer.  However, factories for agricultural processing, textiles and household goods employed thousands in the Chuy and Fergana Valleys.  By the mid-1990s, most had closed.  Almost all the canned goods, clothes, shoes, pots and pans on the bazaar were imported from China and other Asian countries.

           Kyrgyzstan struggled to adopt the reforms that donor countries and the International Monetary Fund said were needed to qualify for loans and aid and to build a market economy.  The government abandoned subsidies and price controls, and replaced the Russian ruble with a new currency, the som. The pace of reform caused massive economic dislocation; in one year, inflation ran close to 1,000 per cent, devastating people on pensions and fixed incomes. With international support, the government eventually stabilized the currency and brought inflation down to manageable levels, but economic recovery remained slow and poverty rates increased.

           Official reports tell the story of Kyrgyzstan’s economic collapse in sanitized, bureaucratic terms—the language of economists, policy-makers and development experts.  The calculations were at the macro level--cold measurements of Gross Domestic Product, consumer price indexes, output by economic sector, government debt, foreign direct investment, reforms of the financial services sector. In the mid-1990s, it’s questionable whether Kyrgyzstan even had a financial services sector to reform.  The som had been devalued, inflation remained high, and almost no one trusted the banks to keep their money safe.  With few deposits, banks had little money to lend and when they made loans, it was at ruinous 30 per cent interest rates.  If you wanted to start a new business, you asked your family to lend or give you the money.  Even the loan sharks at the bazaar charged less interest than the banks.  

           The economic statistics were sometimes based on questionable data.  One year the government, in an attempt to convince foreign donors and investors that the economy was picking up, declared that the unemployment rate had dropped below 10 per cent for the first time since independence.  Even government supporters were incredulous.  It turned out that in its sample the statistical agency had included every tout hawking cigarettes, pirated cassettes and homebrew on the streets as a “self-employed market vendor.”  The real rate was probably at least 40 per cent. 

            None of the reports and statistics told the human stories of dislocation, especially for industrial workers.  Their skills were not needed in the new economy, and there were few opportunities for retraining.  Some left for Russia, hoping to find jobs, but the situation in many Russians regions was as bad as in Central Asia.  A few started private businesses or worked as drivers.  Some just gave up.  It was not only the loss of income, devastating though that was.  It was the loss of purpose, dignity and respect.  They had been the breadwinners for their families; now they had no jobs and no prospects.  In some families, women became the main wage earners, but while they kept the family fed, their husbands sometimes felt the loss of status even more intensely. Back in the good old days, industrial workers could afford a bottle of vodka or cognac for a party or holiday celebration.  Now some turned to the bottle to try to forget their plight.  Official reports on the economy do not figure in the social costs of alcoholism, depression, broken marriages, domestic violence, and suicides.  It is not surprising that the engineers, miners and steelworkers were nostalgic for the Soviet Union.  They denounced Gorbachev the traitor, and cursed a future that seemed to offer them nothing.