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Putin inauguration: World view of a Russian feeling dissed

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In the communist system, all agricultural produce was brought to an enormous central area, to be sorted and transported to the city's shops. Don't imagine a Western-style fruit distribution center, where apples and oranges are individually wrapped in tissue and packed into shock-resistant boxes, then whisked out to retail stores. In a system devoid of incentives, almost all the produce went to waste. Workers were fishing through crates of potatoes that had already turned into a stinking black mush, picking out the few that could be salvaged and tossing them into another crate. Eventually a few of them might have reached a shop, and some might even have been sold and eaten.

Putin's task was to arrange emergency food supplies from the West. It was a job that, I think, had two profound effects on the future Russian leader and may still shape who he is today as he's about to assume the presidency for another six years as one of the country's most enduring, enigmatic, and controversial rulers in modern history.

First, it placed him at the center of the most humiliating moment Russia had endured for perhaps half a century. His country was on the brink of starvation. The Soviet planning system had collapsed, and the half-baked reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev had merely introduced an element of chaos. Long lines of angry customers were forming outside empty food stores. Russia was forced to beg for humanitarian aid, like some third-world country. A fellow correspondent in Moscow once coined the phrase "Upper Volta with rockets." That was really how the decaying Soviet Union looked, and Putin knew it. When he came to power nine years later, he vowed never to let that happen again.

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