The year following his appointment, Gorbachev announced major reforms. Photo: Getty
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Perestroika is turning 30 – so why aren't Russians celebrating?

I was six when perestroika was introduced, and I remember the benefits. So why aren't Russians looking back fondly to Gorbachev's reforms?

It was 30 years ago that Mikhail Gorbachev became the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At 54 he was the youngest man to take charge since Josef Stalin. His predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, lasted in office for mere 13 months and died of liver cirrhosis and heart failure at the age of 73. Gorbachev was quick to announce his intentions to modernise the Soviet Union: reforms were badly needed to improve productivity and accelerate economic growth. The Soviet system was famous for its bureaucracy and censorship – the new General Secretary promised to tackle that too. 

Whether Gorbachev was a true reformer or simply the right man at the right time, his tenure at the helm of the Soviet Union was transformational. The following year after his appointment he announced radically new policies at the party congress. Glasnost –  the policy of openness – called for increased transparency throughout the Soviet Union and freedom of information. Apparatchiks did not know what had hit them. Perestroika, which means restructuring, aimed at transformation of the Soviet command economy to the market one. The West welcomed the new tidings. Even Margaret Thatcher paid a compliment: "I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”

In the Soviet Union things changed quickly – for the worse. While the state-owned media focussed the news on the progress of perestroika, the reality in the shops was very different. Shortages seemed worse than during the Forties, by account of people who had survived the Second World War. When the state abolished its monopoly over the economic sector, the established supply and demand chain broke down, causing bottlenecks, before the grassroot enterprises found their footing. Before Gorbachev, there was little choice in grocery stores; by the end of Eighties, queues of hungry people, desperate to get a piece of frozen meat, a bag of sugar or a loaf of bread, had to be regulated with metal barriers to control chaos.

I was six years old when Gorbachev announced perestroika. I remember being sent to the local supermarket to buy butter. There was just one variety sold in the Soviet Union. It was wrapped into milky white paper with the name “butter” printed across in green letters. The information on the wrapper ensured consumers that the butter had been produced according to GOST – the state standards set for each particular product, including its ingredients, recipe and nutritional values. No artificial colourings or harmful chemicals were allowed.

The producers varied throughout the country, but their products tasted the same. The state guaranteed the quality. There was no chance for horsemeat to appear in a Soviet GOST-certified burger unannounced. Before perestroika, in addition to plain butter, on occasion, you could get hold of chocolate butter and even shrimp butter. However, from the middle of Eighties, butter had to be rationed to 300g per person per month and was sold for a coupon, a pale yellow, precious piece of paper, distributed to every household in advance. 

Gradually, imported goods appeared in the shops. With butter still rationed and being a perishable product, unable to outlast the doggedness of the Soviet customs, entrepreneurial businessmen imported long-life margarine to delight Soviet consumers. Home cooks weren’t impressed but those were dire times. Some ate German margarine, baked with it and hoped (in vain) that it lowered cholesterol. Others could not afford it and existed on stale bread instead. 

Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy grew, the standards of living improved and consumer products hit the shelves in their variety. A couple of years ago I wanted to make a carrot cake for my parents, when I was visiting them over the summer. In a supermarket I was duly impressed with the choice of butter, including Europe’s best brands from Denmark and France. Of course, I wanted to support a local producer. There were at least 15 varieties to choose from, many brands signalling wholesomeness, tradition and purity with the help of nostalgic-sounding brand names and artisanal packaging.

I chose butter with a mid-range price tag. I followed the recipe's instructions and put a piece of butter into a saucepan to melt it over low heat. After a while, nothing happened. The butter was still solid, reminding me of those creepy pictures of processed food that never goes off. It is no wonder that many Russians feel nostalgic about the olden days when the state regulated the quality of the produce. Some consumers spend hours on internet forums debating which brand is closest to delivering on the promise of “the taste of childhood”. The less affluent Russians reminisce about the days when butter was not just tasty but actually affordable.

Today the picture is different once again. With sanctions on imported goods, there is no Lurpak being chilled in the supermarket refrigerators. From the myopic point of view, this is good news for the Russian dairy producers, who are now taking advantage of the patriotic sentiment spread liberally across the country. However, it is pretty clear that any protected industry has no incentive to improve the quality of the products it churns out or to lower the prices in the absence of competition. The diminished purchasing power of the rouble and the political uncertainty encourage capital flight, which means the domestic industries won’t be able to compete in the future either. With real butter becoming a treat again, it is no wonder Russians aren’t celebrating.

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The US election is now a referendum on the role of women

Melania Trump's recent defence of her husband's indefensible comments, shows why a Cinton victory is vital.

Maybe one day, when this brutal presidential election is over, Hillary Clinton will view Melania Trump with sympathy. The prospective Republican First Lady’s experience sometimes seems like an anxiety dream rerun of Clinton’s own time stumping for job of wife-in-chief back in 1992. Even before Bill Clinton had the Democratic nomination, rumours about his infidelities were being kicked up, and in a bid to outflank them, the Clintons appeared in a joint interview on the CBS current affairs show 60 Minutes. “I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said, the extreme humiliation of her situation registering as perhaps the tiniest flicker across her perfectly composed face. “I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him.”

Another decade, another TV interview, another consort to a nominee called on to defend her husband’s honour. After the release of Donald Trump’s grotesque “grab her by the pussy” comments from 2005, Melania headed out to do her wifely duty. But where the Clintons in 1992 had the benefit of uncertainty – the allegations against Bill were unproven – Melania is going up against the implacable fact of recorded evidence, and going up alone. Even leaving aside the boasts about sexual assault, which she’s at pains to discount, this still leave her talking about a tape of her husband declaring that he “tried to fuck” another woman when he was only newly married.

What Melania has to say in the circumstances sounds strained. How did she feel when she heard the recordings? “I was surprised, because [...] I don't know that person that would talk that way, and that he would say that kind of stuff in private,” she tells CNN's Anderson Cooper, giving the extraordinary impression that she’s never heard her husband sparring with shock-jock Howard Stern on the latter’s radio show, where he said this kind of thing all the time.

She minimises the comments as “boys talk” that he was “egged on” to make, then tries to dismiss women’s allegations that Trump behaves precisely as he claims to by ascribing their revelations to conspiracy – “This was all organized from the opposition.” (Shades here of Clinton’s now-regretted claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her own husband during the Lewinsky scandal.) “I believe my husband. I believe my husband,” she says, though this is a strangely contorted thing to say when her whole purpose in the interview is to convince the public that he shouldn’t be believed when he says he grabs pussies and kisses women without even waiting because when you’re a celebrity you can do that.

Melania’s speech to the Republican convention bore more than a passing resemblance to elements of Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention in 2008, but in fact Melania is working to a much, much older script for political wives: the one that says you will eat platefuls of your husband’s shit and smile about it if that’s what it takes to get him in power. It’s the role that Hillary had to take, the one that she bridled against so agonisingly through the cookie-competitions and the office affairs and, even in this election cycle, Trump’s gutter-level dig that “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Clinton soldiered through all that, in the process both remaking the office of First Lady and making her own career: “a lawyer, a law professor, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, a US senator, secretary of state. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime – more than Barack, more than Bill,” as Michelle Obama said in a speech last week. It was a speech that made it stirringly clear that the job of a First Lady is no longer to eat shit, as Obama launched into an eloquent and furious denunciation of Donald Trump.

A Trump win, said Obama, would “[send] a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated.” She’s right. From the moment Clinton was a contender for this election, this wasn’t merely a vote on who should lead the United States: it became a referendum on the role of women. From the measly insistences of Bernie Sanders voters that they’d love a woman president, just not the highly qualified woman actually on offer, to commentators’ meticulous fault-finding that reminds us a woman’s place is always in the wrong, she has had to constantly prove not only that she can do the job but that she has the right even to be considered for it.

Think back to her on that 60 Minutes sofa in 1992 saying she’s “not some little woman standing by her man.” Whatever else the Clinton marriage has been, it’s always been an alliance of two ambitious politicians. Melania Trump makes herself sound more like a nursemaid charged with a truculent child when she tells Cooper “sometimes say I have two boys at home, I have my young son and I have my husband.” Clinton has always worked for a world where being a woman doesn’t mean being part-nanny, part-grabbable pussy. Melania says she doesn’t want pity, but she will receive it in abundance. Her tragic apologetics belong to the past: the Clinton future is the one Michelle Obama showed us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.