The Nineties: Bankers and Call Girls

When I think about the 1990s, I remember a kind of golden childhood haze. Something about Beanie Babies, Full House, WWJD bracelets, Lion King, Radio Disney, tamagotchi and vague recollections of general affluence and Bill Clinton.

For Russians, however, the last decade of the century brings up vastly different connotations. The 1990s were dark in Russia. People remember a loss of innocence, loss of their life savings, “Wild East” capitalism, oligarchs, seedy street markets and mafia gang rings.

I’ve heard lots of stories about the dark, wild nineties, but finishing my recent metro read, Londongrad, has been really illuminating. It not only connected the myriad tales and cleared up the vague sentiments I’ve heard, it’s also made me really, really angry. I found myself not just sympathizing with this country, but seething – furious at the oligarchs, at Russia, and at the west…and this isn’t even my country!

Read for yourself:

the privatization of Russia’s vast and valuable state assets in the 1990s, [was] an explosive process that enriched the few, opened up a huge gulf between rich and poor, and enraged the Russian people. A World Bank report in 2004 showed that, in effect, thirty individuals controlled 40 per cent of the $225 billion output of the Russian economy in its most important sectors, notably in natural resources and automotives. The study concluded: ‘Ownership concentration in modern Russia is much higher than in any country in continental Europe and higher than any country for which data is available.’ …Little of this unprecedented accumulation of wealth has been invested in Russia in business or charity. Rather, most of the money has been secreted abroad, with billions of dollars hidden in a labyrinth of offshore bank accounts…Stashed away, it has been almost impossible to trace. Despite attempts by Russian and British law enforcement agencies, little of it has been recovered and requisitioned back to Russia.

It’s hard to wrap my mind around the massive upheaval that shook this country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before studying abroad here in 2005, I used to think that the transition to capitalism was something everyone in Russia was happy about. Unsurprisingly, my western perspective was bit naive. Some things my husband said really brought the 1990s home for me.

He was in his twenties in the nineties. He tells me about seedy street markets, gang members swaggering around in black Adidas sports pants, reading about violent assassinations every morning in the paper, and his parents warning him not to go for walks in the neighboring park because it was too dangerous.

Perhaps the most hammering story is the one my husband tells about “what I wanna be when I grow up” dreams in Russia’s nineties. I went through lots of phases as a kid, trying to decide who I wanted to be when I grew up. The 1990s included the banker stage, the astronaut stage, the nun stage, the lawyer stage, and even the “Subway Sandwich Artist” stage.

People my age in Russia have a vastly different list of childhood “what I want to be when I grow up” phases. Where Soviet children went through cosmonaut, stewardess, and scientist phases, children in the nineties had a whole new set of ambitions. Economist husband tells me that in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of boys dreamed of becoming bankers or traders, and many little girls dreamed of becoming prostitutes. If that doesn’t bring home the tragedy of the 1990s, I don’t know what will!

The authors of Londongrad gave some perspective on the drastic changes in Russia, and the sudden changed ambitions of many women. It’s a whole different take on the Cinderella story:

In Russia the life of a ‘sponsored woman’ does not carry the same social stigma as it does in the West. They want a comfortable life of luxury and this is often the only way to obtain it. They also know that after the age of thirty they are likely to be surplus to requirements and so they need to acquire as much jewelery, and as many cars and flats, as possible. Russian women sometimes claim that the line between mistress and prostitute is very thin for the rich. ‘If a woman marries or has an affair with a man purely for his money, does that make her better than a call girl? I don’t think so,’ one lawyer who worked in Moscow commented. For some Russian women, being a mistress offers liberation from poverty and a possibly loveless marriage to a Russian man who is often drunk, lazy, and unemployed.

Whoa. Reading history like this – so fresh in the memories of people around me – really gives me a different perspective on why things are the way they are here. It gives me a little slice of understanding into the people around me. It makes me angry, and sad for the brokenness I still see in Russia. It also gives me a whole new level of respect for the strength, intelligence and integrity that I see in so many people around me.

Bringing the subject up to the women my age in my Friday morning English class, I got confirmation. Yes, there were a lot of girls who wanted to be prostitutes in the nineties, they told me, but now of course, things are different.

Staggering. Fascinating.

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5 Responses to The Nineties: Bankers and Call Girls

  1. Maryfran says:

    Fascinating and heartbreaking. Although I was in
    Subway this weekend and thought of your sandwich artist yearnings!

  2. Phyllis says:

    “Sponsored woman.” I didn’t even know there was a term for it. Sadly, I have a friend whose goal in life is to become exactly that. 😦 So sad.

  3. Phyllis, so interesting to hear your confirmation. Mind-boggling and sad…

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