I recently returned from my sixth trip to Russia. I was staggered to see the transformation since my first visit in 1969. The climate of fear is gone, the red and white communist slogans on rooftops are gone, and lines for a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread are gone. There is a huge increase in automobiles, stores are full of goods, and there are ninety McDonalds in Moscow. Ironically, Russia with its thirteen percent flat income tax is ahead of the USA in tax simplification.
This article describes in more detail the transformation I observed in Russia between 1969 and 2003 — and also includes some photos of Rand-related sites that I visited.
Russia in 1969
In 1969, during the Cold War, Russia operated in its own sphere, deliberately cut off from the world. It was the self-proclaimed leader of a radical economic and social system that was alleged to be better than that of other countries. It was a totalitarian system that aimed to change human nature. Everything about the system was ideological and it intended to prove itself the best system — regardless of the facts.
Prices were not based, as in other countries, on supply and demand; they were based on ideology. Therefore, apartment rents were very cheap — but forty percent of Moscow residents had to share an apartment with strangers in a communal arrangement. In a three-bedroom apartment, for example, three different couples or families would each have their own bedrooms, but share the kitchen and bathroom. Even with this kind of rationing, there was a wait of many years for any apartment at all.
Quality of life was dreadful. You could see some people inside the city limits of Moscow using wells to get water. Food quality was poor and the food was boring. Service was slow and indifferent. There were few cash registers in stores and most transactions were hand calculated on abacuses. There were few phones. Quality of manufactured goods was terrible. East German tourists pointed out to me that most Russians didn't even have curtains on their apartment windows.
University graduates were assigned to state enterprises based on the need of the enterprises, not on the preferences of the graduates.
The famous newspaper Pravda was only six to eight pages, and no Western newspapers or magazines were allowed in the country. Everything was censored. All news was slanted to demonstrate the alleged superiority of communism, and to show the alleged unhappiness of the people in the West.
Russians were shocked when they were told that America had landed a man on the moon; this was one of the triggers which destroyed the myth that communism was the wave of the future.
Travel to Eastern Europe by Russians was tightly controlled by the state. Usually, families could not travel together because so many Russians were defecting. Travel to the West was virtually impossible.
Russia was supposed to be a classless system, yet there was a noticeable difference in social status between Communist Party members and regular Russians. Party members were able to shop in special stores and go to better restaurants. Tourists at the ballet would observe that patrons either walked to the subway or got into a chauffer-driven car.
Russia was a contradiction. On the one hand, it was a superpower with hydrogen weapons and missiles; on the other hand, it couldn't make a ballpoint pen or even a decent pair of shoes.
There was one positive: the subways were clean, on time, and cheap.
That said, in 1969, being a tourist in Russia was sometimes quite an ordeal. At the airport, scores of soldiers patrolled with machine guns. Soldiers controlled customs and stared suspiciously at every single page of your passport. Tourists were totally silent while in these lines. Once at your hotel, there were “key ladies” on each floor to store your key and monitor your activities.
Ironically, though, the best stores and restaurants in Russia would not accept rubles, only dollars and Western currencies! Russians were not allowed to shop in these stores because they were not allowed to have dollars — officially. On the streets, the black market was active and you could get three or four times the official dollar-to-ruble exchange rate.
Surprisingly, of the more than one hundred countries I have visited, I would rate the Soviet Union in this period as the most pro-American — not at the level of the Soviet government, but at the level of the individual Russian on the street. It is surprising in that Soviet propaganda was constantly attacking America — while at the same time holding up the United States as the yardstick to measure progress in the USSR. Yet Russians were intensely interested in talking to Americans and learning what we thought, in spite of laborious language work-arounds. We were special.
A minor example: when Russian strangers with whom I would share taxis learned I was an American, they would always insist on paying my fare. In 2003, American tourists are commonplace and no longer special. This is progress.
Russia in 2003
In 2003, one is struck by how far Russia has come in normalizing itself. It is no longer cut off from Western standards and institutions. It is amazing to see this transformation and realize it was accomplished without a bloody revolution or cataclysmic upheaval that could have sent millions of refugees pouring into other countries.
The first things you notice in 2003 are signs and advertising, some in English. Then there are the cars. There are now three million cars in Moscow and half of them are foreign. You also notice that many churches have been restored and the cathedral across from the Kremlin that Stalin dynamited in the 1930s has been rebuilt.
Moscow is in the middle of a building boom. There are cranes everywhere. People are better dressed than ever before. Food is good — certainly for tourists. The best hotels are up to world standards and Moscow is very expensive these days. There is a daily newspaper in English called the Moscow Times, started in 1990, which now boasts twenty-four pages. In 2003 alone, the number of cell phone users increased by forty percent.
As the first impression wears off a bit, you realize that the dramatic changes in Moscow have only partially reached the countryside. Yes, there are some entirely new communities and some new construction in other cities, but most of the population is still living in apartments built in the communist times with the shoddy construction that characterized that whole era. Russia's past created a kind of physical inertia that will take another generation or two to replace.
Also, the end game of communism destroyed the value of the ruble and the savings of tens of millions, thus throwing millions of seniors into abject poverty. I cried seeing toothless, infirm great-grandmothers selling flowers.
On the positive side, there has been a dramatic change in people's thinking and a move away from a soviet-style mentality. Russians now understand profit and loss, the importance of following international standards, the fact that government can't take care of them like it used to, and the idea of competition as a way of life.
As an example of the shift, back in 1969, a young Russian in his early twenties asked me if we had an economic plan in the United States (thinking of the Soviet five-year plan). I explained that each company had its own plan; there was no plan for the whole economy. He was surprised — it had never occurred to him that things could be organized this way! Today young Russians understand that point.
On the other hand, about thirty to thirty-five percent of the people are nostalgic for "the good old days," when Russia was a superpower and there was order and certainty. This will also take another generation to eliminate. One of the indicators will be the fate of Lenin. When he is buried underground instead of enshrined in an aboveground casket, and when all of his statues are removed, then Russia will be completely normalized.
Russia has a number of hurdles as it continues to normalize and to eliminate the vestiges of communism. One is to allow land ownership. Presently, land can be leased but not owned. There is hope: back in 1990, I was amazed to read an article in the Moscow Times which observed that the concept of private property was essential for civilization. The communists never understood this fundamental point.
Russia has made profound movement in the right direction. But establishing fully the rule of law and private property are necessary to ensure that current reforms are permanent. In Russia, even something as basic as a mortgage is still not common. Russia is not yet a member of the W.T.O. But today the Russian economy is ranked tenth in the world, below Brazil's. I'm optimistic for Russia and look forward to a future visit.
For more photos of Russian Rand-related sites, visit Ayn Rand Sites in Saint Petersburg on Don Parrish's personal web site.
Don Parrish is a long-time Rand admirer and world traveler. He earned his M.S. in computer science and worked as a technical manager at Bell Labs in their International Switching division before retiring. After visiting Russia as a tourist in 1969, his expert knowledge of the Soviet telephone network brought him back to the country on business four times throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. He returned as a tourist in 2003. Don resides in Downers Grove, Illinois.