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 Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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