FSU/CIS; it’s all still Russia

1993 was a confusing time in the Former Soviet Union, if for no other reason that it was called the Former Soviet Union. It really takes a lot out of a country to lose their name, especially when the new name gets informally replaced with the old name, plus “former”. Commonwealth of Independent States was a name that never really took, it didn’t help that none of the independent states could really decide if they were part of the commonwealth or not. So everyone just referred to the place by the old former name, as if the Soviet Union was just like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, but without that cool symbol. (I suppose they could have used the hammer and sickle, or that shape on Gorbachev’s forehead, but nobody thought of that at the time.)

But I wasn’t really going to the Former Soviet Union, which was a nebulous, vague region. I was going to Moscow, and that meant that I was going to Russia.

Russia in this period was less than totally stable, to say the least. This was the time just after Communism, but before capitalism fully took hold. An uneasy mix of old and new was everywhere, Dollars and Rubles were used equally, not because both had the same value, but because anything new and free market was priced in dollars, and anything from the old Soviet system was (heavily subsidized) in Rubles. You could find stores that had an upstairs “Dollars” section, with all the latest western foods, Western prices, and no lines, and a “Rubles” section downstairs, with much of the same foods, subsidized, cheap prices, and the old Soviet “three line” system. Foreigners would shop upstairs and Russians would shop downstairs.

Part of this was predicated on that if you were a foreigner working on Moscow, you made some serious money. My Per Diem was something like $50 a day. Many Russians made that in a month. Most folks I worked with tried to live local and shop where the Russians shopped, part to save money, but also because it was crazy to spend 10 times what you needed to. As it turned out, things were changing so fast that this option started to disappear, old soviet priced places were disappearing by the day, and the whole country was turning western. It was common to spend $10 to eat at McDonalds, and find a state-run cafeteria where you could get lunch for less than a dollar. Pizza Hut had two full restaurants next to each other, one priced in Rubles, and one in Dollars. The Rubles side was cheaper, and had a line to get in, The Dollars side had no line, and you paid a lot more.

This was the first of many dichotomies that I would find while living in Russia.

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  1. So nostalgic! Even more so after last trip to Moscow in March.  Everything is new, vibrant, filled with opportunities and yet living you with a feeling of regret for the lost authenticity.

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