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“In Soviet Russia, you don’t find party—party finds you!”

By Denebola
Published: March 2008

By Alice Lee  

“In Soviet Russia, you don’t watch television’€television watches you!
“In Soviet Russia, you don’t find party’€party finds you!
Let’s face it. Ukrainian-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff knew how to get a laugh out of a crowd. Chances are you got at least a small chuckle out of it, too. But even though the Communist Soviet Union bore the brunt of many a comedian’s snarky jokes, the real situation was not so humorous. The lasting effect that Communism left on Russia, even after its collapse, was nothing to laugh about.
Smirnoff’s comedic career peaked in the mid-80s, at which point Mikhail Gorbachev still led the Soviet Union as General Secretary of the Communist Party. However, in contrast with his hard-line Communist predecessors – Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin being obvious figures, but also Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev – Gorbachev realized that the USSR was sliding steadily towards decline. In a desperate attempt at salvation, he instituted perestroika, an economic restructuring, and glasnost, which allowed more social freedoms.
Despite Gorbachev’s efforts, the region had too long been oppressed by military despotism. For the bulky, backwards nation with an underdeveloped economy, the weak reform only incited nationalist and anti-Soviet fervor among the USSR’s constituent republics. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of a Europe divided between Soviet and democratic nations, in November 1989 signaled the beginning of the end for the USSR.
Tensions with the republics culminated in the summer of 1991 with a radical coup d’etat. Days before the signing of a treaty that would loosen the Soviet Union’s hold on the Socialist Republics, radical Marxists led the August Coup in hopes of restoring the power of the central government.
Little by little, republics began to declare their independence until Gorbachev finally resigned from the Communist Party in 1991 and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially dissolved. A Commonwealth of Independent States was created and the presidency of Russia was turned over to popular Russian Federation leader Boris Yeltsin. A new era began.
“New era, though, is a relative term, turning over a new leaf in Russia was nowhere as simple as the turn of phrase might imply. The dominating characteristic of the “new era was severe economic crisis. Unsure how to begin, the new government tried to eliminate inflation by pulling back budget expenditures, which plunged the nation into poverty.
The newly established capitalist system fell prey to a corrupt oligarchy of the affluent elite. Living standards plummeted while unemployment and organized crime skyrocketed. Though nationalism and the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church gave the timorous nation some support, they were not enough to offset economic turmoil.
Furthermore, Russia was plagued throughout the 1990′s by armed ethnic conflicts, the most notable being the First and Second Chechen Wars, the intermittent guerilla conflicts between Chechen rebel groups and the Russian military. The continuous military engagements combined with the financial crisis of the ‘Ëœ90s caused even further economic decline.
Russia’s prospects seemed bleak. But with the resignation of Boris Yeltsin in 1999 and the appointment of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the possibility of a successful new order was resurrected. Putin’s immediate revitalizing reforms saw an increased GDP, decreased poverty, large-scale reforms in retirement and banking, and the appointment of a new cabinet. Despite Western concerns with Putin’s authoritarian reforms, his success merited re-election to a second term in 2004 and the beleaguered nation slowly achieved stability.
Social analysts had been predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union for decades – with comedians like Yakov Smirnoff around, everyone knew how bad it was. But no one had foreseen such a sudden and catastrophic collapse, and no one could have foreseen the resultant devastation.
Though Russia has been nursed back to relative health, it was a long and difficult process, and the scars remain. The oppressive Soviet regime ensured for itself a legacy of hypocrisy and politicide that will not soon be forgotten.

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