Photographs, text and
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Introduction by Robert Wallis
I first arrived in Moscow in 1990 on an assignment to document the social changes wrought by Gorbachev's twin policies of perestroika and glasnost- economic reforms coupled with a new openness and social/political freedoms. At the time there was as yet little evidence of the economic transformations on the horizon, except for the opening of the world's largest McDonald's on Pushkin Square. State stores in Moscow still offered a meager selection of basic staples, although much more than could be found elsewhere in Russia.
On the glasnost side however, there was a feeling of excitement in the city. This was an opportune moment to be there as a foreign photo-journalist because it was the first time that people felt free to speak to, or interact openly with, Westerners without the fear of a KGB hand on their shoulder. Traditionally all political discussion had been limited to "kitchen debates" with family and trusted friends in the confines of one's apartment. It was a bewildering but heady moment for many who had grown up with total State control of the media to turn on the T.V. or read the newspaper and find public criticism of failed government policies for the first time. The impact was most profound for artists, intellectuals and young Muscovites who had a 1960s sense that now anything was possible and that the old social order was collapsing. Similar feelings were sweeping Russia's second cultural capital, Leningrad (soon to be renamed St. Petersburg). In the countryside, however, people heard the news as if it was coming from another planet.
The first phase of the new Russian revolution came to an end in August 1991 as the old guard tried unsuccessfully to put a halt to the reforms by placing Gorbachev under house arrest. Boris Yeltsin seized the day and his finest hour climbing atop a tank to defend reformers in the Russian White House. Gorbachev was set free but the crisis was the beginning of the end of his political career. After saving him, Yeltsin would betray Gorbachev only a few months later by orchestrating the end of the Soviet Union, kicking him out of the Kremlin and onto the lecture circuit.
As the 1990s draw to a close it now appears to be the final months of the Yeltsin era (barring an emergency powers act or changes in the Russian constitution). The optimism of the early 1990s has long since evaporated as the reality of crime and corruption in the new economic order became apparent. In Moscow today there are dozens of new designer boutiques, supermarkets and shopping centers selling Western brand names to the new economic elite. But for the majority of Russian's, especially outside the capital, this is still a life viewed by window shopping only.
During Soviet times Moscow was a Potemkin village, showcasing socialist life while hiding its harsher realities. Now, under the "market economy", and a powerful mayor with his sites on the presidency, it continues to fulfill this role giving an artificial impression of capitalism in the new Russia. In the countryside, life has gone from bad to worse with the collapse of state support in mining, agriculture and other areas.
Adapting to the new realities is hardest for older Russians. Many of them actually believed in the ideology for which they sacrificed a lifetime and which has now been discarded in a few short years. Their reward has been state pensions that are paid late or not at all and which are virtually worthless due to inflation. Not surprisingly, some look back to the Soviet era wistfully, claiming they would gladly trade their new political freedoms for old social securities. In their minds, Stalin provided order rather than repression.
For most of Russia the "free market" is still an illusive concept, experienced only on the level of small scale street trading.
In 1996 I went to Russian to cover its first American style presidential campaign. In the elections Russians were asked to choose between a return to the past under the Communist candidate- Zhuganov, or to continue the "reform" process under Yeltsin. Yeltsin won, partly with the support of the oligarchy of powerful businessmen who now controlled newly privatized media that kept the anti-Communist feeling of the early 90s alive and partly by persuading the third major candidate, General Lebed, to drop out of the race and join his team.
Arriving in Moscow, I started following the candidates with the rest of the media but then decided to leave the photo-op's on the campaign trail behind. Instead, I decided to photograph Russians from different backgrounds and ask them to give their own opinions on where their country was heading. I felt a combination of portraits and personal statements would give an intimate view of the country at the crossroads between its Communist past and an uncertain future. This series of photos and text is the result. It portrays a widening gap between life in the countryside and in the capital; between those benefiting from the new social order, those on the road to change but uncertain where it will lead, and those who have been left by the wayside.
Three years on, following new corruption
scandals and a banking collapse that wiped out the savings of much of the
fledgling middle class, the gap between the New and Old Russia continues
to grow. As it approaches the millennium and new presidential elections
Russia's future remains clouded with uncertainty.
Robert Wallis was based in Moscow from 1990-93 and now lives in London. He has worked on feature stories in Russia and the former Soviet Union for Time, Newsweek, Fortune and other U.S. and European publications. He also works extensively in Europe and South and East Asia.
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