100 Years..., (continued)

By the time the 1980's rolled around, it began to look like no one in the Soviet Union would remain apolitical for long.

The successive deaths of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko opened the way for a new type of leadership in the USSR. US President Ronald Reagan was escalating Cold War rhetoric, and the future looked uncertain. But no one knew how uncertain it really was until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and started shaking things up.
"Gorbachev spoke without notes; he just talked. That was the amazing thing," says Nina's son Boris Shalyopa, who was 15 years old when Gorbachev came to power and is now a student at a psychology institute. "He was young and dynamic, not like Brezhnev, who could barely speak. We had a sense that he would fight against the things that we didn't like about the Soviet Union, and everybody began to be interested in politics."

The twin policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) became part of the world lexicon, and suddenly things were changing very quickly in the creaking behemoth of the USSR. For young people like Boris, it was an exhilarating period. "When Gorbachev initiated perestroika, I thought, 'It's about time!'"

But initial enthusiasm turned to disillusionment in the late 80's, years which saw tremendous shortages of goods all over Russia. When Gorbachev declared limits on alcohol production, sugar disappeared from store shelves, snatched up by people as a vital ingredient in "samogon" -- hooch. There were also chronic shortages of butter, flour, tea and other essentials.

"In the end," says Boris, "Gorbachev himself became a barrier to the reforms he started. He was afraid to do more. He lost control of the situation."

By the early 1990's Gorbachev had lost control not only in a metaphorical sense, but altogether. In 1991, the now-infamous aborted coup by hard-liners failed, but Gorbachev nevertheless resigned his presidency, and the USSR was dissolved.

For Boris, the fall of the Soviet Union was no tragedy. "The USSR was an artificially created entity: Kazakhs, Azeris and other nationalities that were brought into the Soviet Union are completely unrelated to Russians. They should have their own countries." During the putsch attempt of 1993, Boris went to St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Square, where hundreds of Petersburgers were gathered to listen for news from Moscow. After initial anxiety over the situation, he decided everything would be fine after noticing "how calm everyone was on the square. Nobody was yelling, or panicking. The whole place was quiet." About the present situation of Russia, Boris says, "Things are better now than they were five years ago. The ghost of hunger has disappeared from Russia. If you work, you can earn money, and now you can buy everything here. "Yes, there are some pensioners who are suffering, but Russia is enduring growing pains now. It's all part of the historical process. Some will suffer, some will die, but the process itself is unstoppable."

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