Life in the former Soviet Union

Following Gorbachev’s failed attempts to reform the Soviet Union towards social democracy in the late 1980s through the policies of perestroika and glasnost, the Union dissolved on 25 December 1991 into independent post-Soviet states. From the Union, 15 countries were eventually born – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. I am currently in Tajikistan as a Kiva Fellow, one of the poorest of the list.

20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most former Soviet States have achieved a GDP greater than what they had before 1991. Unfortunately, Tajikistan is not one of them. Having the most beautiful mountains and lakes in the world became both a blessing and a curse for Tajikistan, as only ~5% of the country is non-mountainous land that can be put to productive-use. Besides the hustle and bustle of little retail shops, local markets and eateries, the only sizable productive activities visible in the capital Dushanbe are the old Soviet power generation facilities and a cement factory. Old is an understatement; archaic may be a more apt description.

Old Soviet-style architecture

Old Soviet-style architecture

Being a Kiva Fellow in the field gives us unprecedented access to the people in the country we serve in. By “unprecedented”, I mean getting the chance to interact with people who a typical traveler does not get to meet. Through my work with Kiva here in Dushanbe, I have met a very diverse group of Tajik people, ranging from the farmer in the remote village to the one who returned home after completing college in the United States. The spectrum is extremely wide. However, one theme seems to resonate among the people – the common perspective that life in the former Soviet Union was so much better. Coming from the developed/capitalist world, this was a mind-blowing revelation.

An older gentleman sitting next to me in the office by the name of Ohid described life in the 80s to me: “…  everyone had access to good education and healthcare, food was affordable with stable prices, students had monthly stipends… we didn’t have a lot of money but we all had enough to live very comfortable lives.”

Another gentlemen remarked, “We could easily take a plane to Moscow for lunch, and return back in the evening!” Gone are those days.

Today, Tajikistan exists in a very different world. With high inflation and an economy vulnerable to external shocks, prices are high and extremely volatile. I have been in Dushanbe for 2 weeks and the USD:TJS exchange rate has gone up by nearly 5%. That’s 5% in 14 days… try to annualize that! Since a lot of the food is imported in especially during the winter season, prices at the local markets have also increased significantly. Eventually, the local Tajiks get hit the hardest. In countries like Tajikistan, one could argue that a centrally-planned state economy may not be a bad thing for the local people after all. Sure, it came with “evils” such as state control of investment and public ownership of production assets, but it also brought macroeconomic stability and negligible unemployment for the locals, especially since they have so little production potential to begin with.

Former Soviet-era train tracks now defunct

Defunct train tracks from the Soviet years

Growing up, textbooks have always described the failure of the Soviet system, which, to their credit, did eventually crumble. However, talking to people in Tajikistan who lived through the Soviet era, and getting a new perspective from them about how much they miss the stability of the yesteryears, had me thinking about what the “right” system is. Our lively discussion in the office ended with a somber question to me from Ohid, “What about America?”

“Many rich people but also many poor people, plus more than half a million homeless people’, I responded.

“In Tajikistan we have very poor people but at least everyone has a home”, Ohid remarked.

I sat back down in my chair, as his words lingered on in my mind.

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