The Gucci Archipelago

MOSCOW: By following Western economic advice - devised in good faith to bring Russia to democracy and prosperity - Yeltsin and Co., true to the national character, created yet another form of dictatorship, with the leader ensconced in the Kremlin utterly indifferent to his subject's well-being. The difference between today's Russia and the old Soviet Union is that the Gulag archipelago of labour camps has been shunted aside in favour of what can only be called a "Gucci archipelago" or a casino camp.

Under communism, Soviet citizens were locked in. Russian citizens under today's sham market economy are locked out: locked out of the normal conditions of life; out of decently paid jobs, or what is even more common, out of paid jobs altogether. Most importantly, they are locked out of hope to overcome the everlasting Russian curse. Former prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin conveyed this dilemma in his usual lethargic way. By privatising state property "we wanted things to be better, but it still ended up ‘like always'."

"Like always," in Russia means a never-ending gulag-type arrangement for the average Russian citizen. The power of the KGB was simply replaced by the power of corrupt private oligarchs and an even more morally bankrupt state apparatus. Nowadays, the well-guarded marble facades of Russia's (often insolvent) banks and businesses have assumed the role in domestic demonology once played by the frightening "Big House" on Lubyanka Square in Moscow where the KGB did its night work.

Before 1991 everyone was overwhelmed by the very real fear of losing your freedom; now people are overwhelmed by the fear of having too much freedom. Those who are not up to the new challenges are dismissed with a shrug as "leftovers from the past" and chucked onto the dustbin of history, a place overflowing with "human refuse" after years of communism. Inequality is said to be inevitable in the process of Russia's Westernisation, and most people accept this. No Western adviser ever suggested, however, that the coming of free markets did not require a rule of law with everyone equal before it, and the development of sensible tax structures that provide for a public safety net.