World confronts pandemic shortages. Russians have been here before.

Why We Wrote This

The coronavirus epidemic has raised worries about job security, food supplies, and social stability in many countries. Not long ago, Russia experienced such a trial. Our correspondent lived through it.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Women line up to buy cookies from a street vendor in Moscow in July 1990.

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When 15 former Soviet republics went their separate ways in early 1992, it wrecked supply lines, separated industries from their traditional markets, and led to economic chaos.

By the middle of the decade, Russia’s economy had shrunk by around half. About 40% of the population was in dire poverty, and corrupt elites were laundering what was left of the country’s wealth into foreign bank accounts. The virtual implosion of the state meant people could expect no assistance from that quarter.

Russia’s economy today is heading for its biggest contraction since those days, as unemployment soars and businesses go underwater amid a near total shutdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. That is reminding many people of the chaotic 1990s and how they managed to adapt to completely new circumstances.

The cataclysm drove people like Maya Melnikova, a Moscow architect, into odd jobs to survive. “I had a friend who bought children’s denim sundresses at wholesale prices, and I would stand all day in a Moscow market selling them retail,” she says. “I was surrounded by educated people like myself, all doing the same kind of thing. It wasn’t easy, but I came home with food.”

I recall the catastrophic upheaval well. The economic floor dropped away, destroying the livelihood of millions and forcing individuals to imagine entirely new ways to survive and feed their families. Old political verities proved worthless, and government largely failed to relieve the disaster.

Today’s coronavirus lockdown is a fresh nightmare for much of the world, but in Russia it is reviving painful memories of the chaotic 1990s, a social and economic cataclysm that anyone over the age of 40 knew all too well.

Through hyperinflation and a banking crash I lost my life’s savings twice. But I was spared the crushing, disorienting sensation experienced by millions of Russians as they realized that everything they had relied upon and formerly built their lives upon had collapsed, scrambling the social order and forcing people to face existential challenges they had never imagined.

Russia’s economy is heading for its biggest contraction since those days, as unemployment soars and businesses go underwater amid a near total shutdown that will last until at least May 11. So, many people are recalling the hardships they faced in the ’90s, and how they managed to adapt to completely new circumstances. Indeed, it’s hard to understand Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where polls consistently show that people place an overwhelming priority on political stability, without appreciating that turbulent decade.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“Yes, I’m afraid all those hardships will return,” says Anna Abashina, who had a good job as an economist when things fell apart in the early ’90s. “I had a small child to raise, my job had ceased to exist, and it was really difficult to even obtain food.” She found a job in a bakery. The work was hard and the money was sparse. “But people always need bread,” she says.

“We inherited a catastrophe”

It wasn’t a virus but a political event – the sudden demise of the USSR – that turned Russians’ lives inside out. When 15 former Soviet republics went their separate ways in early 1992, it wrecked supply lines, separated industries from their traditional markets, and led to economic chaos.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A woman holding a toddler begs at a busy intersection in Moscow in July 1999. The 1990s saw a lot of Russians lose their jobs and the safety net that the former Soviet system provided, leaving them desperate to find ways to feed their families.

By the middle of the decade, Russia’s economy had shrunk by around half, about 40% of the population was in dire poverty, and corrupt elites were laundering what was left of the country’s wealth into foreign bank accounts. The virtual implosion of the state meant people could expect no assistance from that quarter. Law and order all but disintegrated.

“It was a terrible time to be elderly, or without education or skills,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, who was deputy minister for social protection in the first post-Soviet government and an official adviser on social policy for much of the decade. “But for the young, the most active people, it was a time of unimaginable freedom and opportunities to do things in a totally new way.

“We inherited a catastrophe. There were mass shortages, no reserves in the banks, and few real jobs to be found. That was because the previous economy, the Soviet system, was completely dysfunctional,” he says. “We had to contend with all that.”

He says the current coronavirus crisis is different from the turmoil of the ’90s. “In those days, people were thrown on their own resources and had to think of something to do. Now the state has become very strong, and most people are waiting for the government to take care of them.”

“What do you think I do for a living?”

I recall visiting a coal mine near the city of Shakhti, in southern Russia, during one of the worst years, 1994. I had come to find out how they were managing to get by, and I received an education.

A group of miners took me down to the coal face – the shafts are very deep there – and I watched them clawing out coal and sending it up to the surface in big buckets. Then it was time for their break, which they called tormozok (coincidentally from the Russian word for “brake”) and we sat there, drinking tea from thermoses and eating bread torn from loaves.

A big fellow with a smudged face leaned over to me and asked, “What do you think I do for a living?”

I answered, “Well, um, I think you’re a coal miner.”

He laughed and said, “No, not me. I’m a farmer.”

They explained to me that the mine was bankrupt, but since Russia did not yet have any bankruptcy laws, it continued a zombielike existence, producing coal and selling it wherever possible. Even though they had received no cash wages in months, the men kept putting in their regular shifts. Sometimes they were paid in coal, which they could barter for other goods.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Women sell children's clothing on the stairs leading to a subway entrance in Moscow in July 1999. Senior pensions dried up as Russia's economy collapsed in the '90s.

But while the houses they lived in nearby were owned by the former Soviet coal company, they were allowed to stay and work the pieces of land attached to them. Some raised cows and chickens, or grew vegetables and potatoes. I recall being astonished by the amounts they claimed to harvest from their small garden plots. They, and their families, put up huge amounts of preserves for the winter.

Alexei Shishkin, the head of the Union of Gardeners in the central Russian region of Tambov, says that a Soviet-era innovation of handing out rural garden plots to urbanites may have saved the country from starvation in those desperate years. In the late ’90s, a Russian sociologist calculated that about 40% of all food being consumed in the country was homegrown.

“We were given free plots of land in 1992. I received mine through the hospital where I worked,” Mr. Shishkin says. “About half of those plots are abandoned today, but in the worst years they were full of people growing potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many of us keep it up, because when you know what you’re growing, you know what you’re eating.”

“It was unclear how to go on living”

Maya Melnikova, a Moscow architect, had expected that to be her life’s career. But it disappeared, and she ended up doing a wide variety of jobs during the ’90s.

“At first we found ourselves without hope, and it was unclear how to go on living,” she says. “I had a friend who bought children’s denim sundresses at wholesale prices, and I would stand all day in a Moscow market selling them retail. I was surrounded by educated people like myself, all doing the same kind of thing. It wasn’t easy, but I came home with food.”

Ms. Melnikova went on to reinvent herself as a home repair expert, an interior designer, and a teacher in a private school before immigrating, briefly, to the U.S. She’s now retired and living in Moscow.

“I have learned that knowledge isn’t just an accumulation of information, but the ability to learn new things and enjoy the process itself,” she says. “I also learned that you don’t need a manicure every week, or new clothes for each season. I really hope that, as a result of this current crisis, a society that found it possible to pay millions to football [soccer] players will decide to provide decent salaries to our doctors and medical workers.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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