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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot