From the personal archive of a Rusianist, installment thirty-one

Diary notes, Belgium, weekend of Saturday, 21 September 1991

Our 19th wedding anniversary party – a political debate over the break-up of the USSR

We invite Tanya and Jean, our pianist friends from Namur, and Svetlana and Mark, from Brussels, to a champagne toast at our Braine l’Alleud home, followed by a restaurant in the town. As usual with Russians, the talk turns to politics. Jean becomes fierce in his attack on the stupid break-up of the Soviet Union and its turn away from socialism to a market economy. He says how people will suffer.  Why give up political principles that are essentially good just because they have been abused by villains. I see purple!

Jean shamelessly tells us at dinner how splendidly he had lived in Moscow during his student days at the Conservatory. How like other Armenian/foreign students he had smuggled in gold jewelry (the 2 meter long chains!) which, when sold, enabled him to live like diplomats. How he used tricks to get past the bouncers at better restaurants. How he bought a Peugeot 504 from a Yugoslav embassy official and kept the CD plates. Clearly he was and remains a shameless elitist, epicure, sensualist. He wants 280 million Soviets to remain poor so that he can be rich among them.

Our dinner is mediocre. But our bon vivant friends are not discouraged and we go through numerous bottles of red and white wine, ending in Havana cigars for the gents, the typically extravagant offer of Mark. 

Political debate re-emerges.  I am something of a coq in these matters. Jean backs away, mellowed by the food. But the sting is there –we are clearly standing on opposite sides of the barricades.

I am wholly for the market changes, for the break-up of the USSR, whereby I see each of the republics finding its own worth. I deplore the laziness and egoism of our Western diplomatic community, which is conservative and unwilling to acknowledge the necessity of allowing freely elected democratic parliaments.  The right to self-determination.

As I see it, no one knows who is rich and who is poor in the Soviet Union. All calculations are built on misinformation. Official statistics show what common sense observation denies.

If Tatarstan is poor, it’s only because its vast mineral wealth is being sold cheaply via the Druzhba pipeline to Comecon for roubles. Let the western oil companies in, let the exports go at world market prices and this down-and-out provincial area of the Russian Federation will be among the richest. Ditto Uzbekistan. Now the papers begin to reveal the truth about its status which official data concealed for reasons of military secrecy. The large gold production, which is second in the USSR after Russia and ahead of Kazakhstan, did not appear officially because the gold mining was conducted in the same fields as militarily operated uranium mining and was enshrouded in state secrecy.

The despoliation of all resources in the Soviet Union, the rape of the land, was legendary. Now control must be turned over to the indigenous peoples. They must assert national interests and must understand their worth on the world stage before any recombinations are possible.

Those in the West who ask how these republics can survive on their own are empty rhetoricians. Let’s take Estonia, for example: a tiny population of under 2 million of whom one-half are Russians, Ukrainians and other non-natives; a land without mineral resources, whose economy is founded on agricultural products which are already over-abundant in Europe. Fine, but Estonia is situated geographically in the position of transit crossroads from Finland-Scandinavia to the south. They rightly emphasize the potential for developing roads to allow a north-south route in the east, where the ecological restraints are not so severe on truck transit as in the pampered West, passing through Germany.  Moreover, the Estonians seek to develop their banking activities as financiers of East-West trade.  In a word, they’ll survive quite nicely by rendering services to their bigger and more powerful neighbors. Why then should they be compelled to participate in a union which has been till this past August the vehicle for trampling on their rights.

Jean and I are indeed far apart. He’d do better to mind his music and not his politics. I will not mourn the passing of the black market days of the past.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up in now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble, and]

One thought on “From the personal archive of a Rusianist, installment thirty-one

  1. I would have agreed at the time. But how did it all turn out. Take Estonia for example, not much of a “transit crossroads” visible today, is there? To much enthusiasm for Western promises, too many exiles with axes to grind. The Westerners were predominately looters and regime changers. But I too expected better — I thought the West would welcome the FUSSR. But it expanded NATO instead.


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