Special Reports

Last updated: 3 october, 2009 - 10:58 GMT

Soviet sea change

Yevgeny Bely and his son Mikhail Bely

Yevgeny Bely and his son Mikhail Bely

Yevgeny Bely is 54 and lives in Ulyanovsk, a province south-east of Moscow on the banks of the River Volga.

He is the director of the Institute of Business and Economics at Ulyanovsk State University, and has spent his entire life in academia.

His son is 25-year-old Mikhail Bely, a university graduate who studied journalism and economics. He has worked as a journalist since he was 16 – he believes it is his calling. He currently lives in Moscow.

This conversation between Yevgeny and Mikhail is part of a series of eight cross-generational interviews from Cuba, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Tajikistan.

Mikhail Bely: Dad, 20 years down the line, what comes to mind when you think about 1989?

Yevgeny Bely: The main thing that comes to mind is the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies. I remember the interminable live coverage. There were practically no jobs for people back then. Take for instance the college where you mother was working: in the assembly hall there was a TV – and everyone ran to watch it whenever there was a break.

I’ll never forget when we arrived in Moscow at the cancer treatment centre with my father, your grandfather. There was a TV in the hall there too – father sat down and said, "The doctors can wait".

Mikhail Bely: But wasn’t the country really different?

Yevgeny Bely: It’s difficult to imagine now. I got up at 5am twice a week. First I went out to the kiosk to grab a copy of Ogonyok magazine (a kind of Soviet tabloid magazine), and then a second time to get the Moscow News (a slightly more highbrow newspaper). They only ever had three copies: if you came fourth, you might as well not bother – you’d have to go elsewhere.

Mikhail Bely: So what did people hope for in those days? Were there any particular ideals?

Yevgeny Bely: There were expectations. People hoped that the Soviet Communist Party would collapse, that there would no longer be any KGB. They hoped Party members would be banned from taking up managerial positions, that they would finally open up the borders and that people would be allowed to go abroad.

The biggest hope people held was that they would get freedom – freedom to speak, hear and read what they wanted. However, back then few people could really foresee what was to come.

Mikhail Bely: So can you now say whether or not people have actually won anything as a result of the changes that happened? Have their hopes come to fruition?

Red Square parade

Yevgeny Bely: It might sound like a paradox, but it was the people associated with the Party who adapted best to the new way of life. If you look at today’s bankers and businessmen, nearly all of them came from the Komsomol (Lenin’s Communist Youth League).

And meanwhile those who came off worse were the scientists, academics and engineers who worked in the defence industry: they were simply left high and dry – some of them went off and worked on the markets, others worked assembling furniture. Ideological people lost out, such as the history teachers and political scientists.

And of course military officers ended up in a difficult situation: after the Berlin Wall came down, Soviet forces were withdrawn from Germany and then other Eastern European countries. The services of all these people were no longer required.

Mikhail Bely: So a lot of people lost out because of the changes that took place? Is that how it was?

Yevgeny Bely: I actually believe that the people who lost out the most were those who went on the rallies.

That section of the population who listened to (iconic Soviet singer-songwriter Vladimir) Vysotsky, who read Pasternak in secret, who listened to Voice of America radio. It was the beginning of tough and anarchistic market relations.

Only bandits - and people who could protect themselves from those bandits - survived.

Mikhail Bely: And did it get better or worse?

Yevgeny Bely: That’s difficult to answer. Consider the situation: in 1989 I was 34 years old and had a PhD. It automatically meant a 500-rouble salary – the same as a chief engineer or general would have been receiving.

Your grandfather, who was also a professor, could go on holiday to the spa town of Kislovodsk. He had a good car and a dacha. By those times, he was a pretty well-off and highly respected person. Nowadays someone with a PhD who works at a university all too often lives considerably worse off than the owner of some run-down tobacconist’s.

On the other hand, today no one forces you to go to Party meetings; you can watch and read anything you like. I remember when I became a university dean, I was invited into the Rector’s office and he told me: "I have 15 deans, and you are the only one not in the Party: work it out for yourself."

The obvious pluses from the changes have been the consumer possibilities – like, going on holiday abroad, buying all sorts of goods that we’d never seen before. You no longer needed to buy coffee or champagne on the quiet using your networking skills.

Mikhail Bely: But many people now complain that the role of social protection has greatly reduced.

Yevgeny Bely: That’s true. I wasn’t afraid, then, that I would live in poverty, once I became a pensioner. Now that’s a very real fear.

Mikhail Bely: That principally changed for people when the Cold War ended?

Yevgeny Bely: First of all, the borders opened up and you could travel – which you couldn’t really do before. Your grandfather wasn’t allowed to leave the country. In the mid-'70s he and your grandmother wanted to go on a cruise in the Mediterranean. They let her cross the border, but not him – no explanation, even though the tickets had already been paid for.

Back then it was impossible to imagine that young people would be able to go freely to study in Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic.

Mikhail Bely: Where there any side effects to the emergence of these freedoms?

Yevgeny Bely: I’m convinced that back then people were a damn sight more intellectual: people used to read – artistic novels, big thick magazines. Society was more educated, less wishy-washy.

I never knew the country could change so much in the space of 20 years; that people like doctors and teacher would start thieving, taking bribes, giving people low grades so people would pay for extra lessons. The idea that two decades on the country could have deteriorated so far morally - never even entered my head.

That’s what has really shocked me.

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