The 90s are Killing People: Why We Need a New Historical Narrative about That Era

Last August, Alexei Navany published a text, in which he strongly criticised those who, in his opinion, ‘sold, drank, wasted the historic chance which our country had in the early 90s’ - including Boris Yeltsin, ministers of ‘state reform’, and other well-known figures from the post-Soviet Russian elite. This statement, unsurprisingly, led to another round of discussion about the 90s.

Navalny’s text provoked a polarised reaction — from varying degrees of support among the left, political scientists studying the failures of Russian democratisation and even ‘angry patriots’, to criticism from the right side of the liberal spectrum, including participants in the ‘government of reforms’ themselves. The statement is noteworthy in that Navalny breaks with the moderate — and often apologetic — view, typical of other politicians of the liberal camp, of the ‘founding’ (as political scientist Kirill Rogov aptly put it) era of the modern Russian state. This kind of revision of recent political history is symptomatic, one can assume, not only of the peculiarities of Navalny's own political biography and the experience of being in prison, but a much deeper transformation, if not of Russian society as a whole, then of its politicised part.

Until recently, it seemed that endless discussion of who was right or wrong, attempts to justify oneself and building a political identity around the political conflicts of the 90s was the prerogative of the heavyweights of that era, who had already lost their influence and status. This, of course, was never the case — the 90s were the ‘founding era’ not only for the modern Russian state, but for conservatives, nationalists, ‘social patriots’ of all stripes, liberals (those against Yeltsin, and those ‘for’), ‘effective technocrats’, cynical political strategists and Russian oligarchs. In short, almost everyone who aspires in one way or another to participate in Russian politics.

Progressives appear to stand alone here — in the perception of this era as a conflict between ‘democrats’ and ‘communists’, ‘supporters of reforms’ and ‘conservatives’, ‘liberals who ruined the country’ and ‘real patriots’, they have no place. This is doubly surprising, given that it was the very attempt to ‘democratise socialism’ that paved the way for the 90s. Democratic left took an active part in the events of the ‘great transit’ — as organisers of mass demonstrations, defenders of the White House in 1991 and 1993, and founders of political parties. But for a variety of reasons, they suffered a historic defeat, remaining ‘the most insignificant segment of the left movement’ in post-Soviet Russia.

These reasons are the subject of a separate analysis. But it is now obvious that the dominant historical narratives about the Russian 90s contain contradictions that force us to reassess this era. It opens a window of opportunity for the democratic left — as the political force that can offer a clear explanation of why after the collapse of the Soviet system, democratisation in the country did not happen, and how to learn from this experience in the future.

Why everyone is talking about the 90s again

It is difficult not to notice a sharp spike of interest in the 90s after 24th February 2022; some rushed to search through recent political history for the ‘point of no return’ when ‘everything went wrong’; for others, the current war became an occasion to rethink, for example, the Chechen wars. The Russian state is also searching for a new language to describe the era when the current political regime was formed; thus, for example, with the support of the Cinema Foundation, the film ‘1993’ was released in September 2023, based on the novel of the same name by Sergei Shargunov.

However, the ‘renaissance’ of the 90s began earlier. Already in 2010, Sergei Minaev (then a presenter on NTV) claimed that ‘the fashion for the 90s is about to engulf Russia’) and he was not wrong. Five years later, the nostalgic festival ‘Island of the 90s’ was held in Moscow’s Muzeon Park, where you could hold a slinky in your hands, take a selfie with a full-length figure of Boris Yeltsin or buy a t-shirt with his quotes.

At the end of the late 10s and early 20s, interest in the 90s was only growing. And yet it was mostly depoliticised, aesthetic interest; one of the most popular Russian artists Monetochka sang about the 90s, Russian Vogue made a tribute to the clip ‘Look into my eyes’ by the 90s icon Natalia Vetlitskaya, and the most popular 90s-themed accounts on Instagram, as Ilya Utekhin from EUSPB has shown in his research of visual images from the 90s on this social network, are specifically dedicated to the details of daily life from that era. Rarely is an exhibition touching on this decade complete without attractions offering interactions with cassettes or old games consoles.

The depoliticised character of nostalgia was vividly manifested by the insane popularity of the series ‘Slovo patsana’ (Boy’s Word). Although the serial itself is about the earlier time of the 80s, the ‘boyish’ criminal aesthetic is strongly associated with the 90s. While the serial has not become a basis for what the researcher Svetlana Boim calls ‘reflective nostalgia’, the attention to detail draws praise from people who know those events first-hand. And on e-commerce platform Avito, sales of ‘tracksuits in the style of the TV series ‘Boy’s Word’ are growing. This is only the most striking example of the exploitation of nostalgia for the 80s and 90s in recent years — in November, the comedy ‘Otmorozhennye’ (‘Stone-cold’) came onto Russian streaming services, in which ‘bandits from the 90s wake up from cryosleep and find themselves in 2022’. A few years ago, ‘The Liver, or the story of a startup’ was released — ‘a crime comedy about the difficult life of young people in the 90s’. The much-talked-of movie ‘Closeness’ by Kantemir Balagov is also set in 1998.

Such emphatically apolitical attention to the era is not at all surprising — not least because millennials, who had their childhood at the end of the 80s and 90s now are at the peak of their purchasing power. Perhaps this is a good reason to try and politicise this nostalgia and reimagine this era from the perspective of the 2020s. In addition, this process is already underway in several directions at once.

Firstly, the 24th of February 2022 became such a shock and a ‘point of no return’ for many, which stimulated them to start searching for an answer to the question of why this happened at all. Turning to history here was the most logical step. And if some look for the origins of the conflict in the myth of the ‘Soviet man’, or go back even further, to the epoch of imperial expansion or even to the Oprichnina or the Golden Horde, others look for an answer in the special configuration of political institutions that developed in the era of the post-communist transformation.

In addition, the start of a military conflict of such magnitude in the post-Soviet space is rightly considered a delayed effect of the collapse of the USSR, forcing us to reconsider the thesis of the ‘breakup of the USSR without a single drop of blood’. The fact that this thesis is far from reality can be verified by Russian immigrants, forced to delve deeper into the histories, full of conflicts, of their host countries (for example, Armenia and Georgia).

Secondly, in Russian society in general, and their ‘political class’, a generational shift is occurring. Participants in the events of the early 90s are passing away — 2022 alone saw the deaths of Michael Gorbachev, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich in quick succession. New members of the Russian elite — experts, scientists, journalists — already do not identify themselves with the political conflicts of that time. This allows us to take a fresh look at established political narratives.

Thirdly, the growth in interest in 90s political history can be traced back to the pre-war period. The most striking example is the bestseller by the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’ in which he details Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996, noting aspects of the modern political system that originated then; namely, the manipulation of the media and the growth in the role of the presidential administration after the rise of Anatoly Chubais. Additionally, an almost consensus view has developed that Boris Yeltsin was not ‘defending democracy’ in 1993, but, on the contrary, was laying the foundations for a future autocracy.

FfRnwwcXEAESoyq.jpgA screenshot from Adam Curtis' documentary, TraumaZone (2022), BBC

This reassessment is associated with the transformation of the political system within Russia itself over the last decade. If seven years ago it was still possible to discuss whether a ‘hybrid’ regime existed in Russia or not, today its tightening leaves almost no room for theoretical debate. This evolution fuels interest in problems with democratisation and reasons for its failures — meaning, in the 90s. Additionally, the upheavals of the last two years have increased expectations of regime change, and in this context, reflection on unsuccessful experiences of building democracy is intended to ‘prevent the previous mistakes’. The American journalist Keith Gessen successfully captured this logic in the foreword to the recently published English-language edition of sociologist Dmitri Furman's book 'Spiral Motion': “The reason to read this wise and intelligent book and to think more deeply, and again, about what went wrong with Russia after 1991, is that there will likely someday be another chance to get it right.”

Today’s historical narratives about the 90s are not well suited for achieving this goal. This places the question of rethinking the history of the Russian 90s from a truly democratic position on the agenda, raising the question of the connection between capitalism and authoritarian drift.

“Holy” and “dashing”: two narratives about the Russian 90s

At first glance, the dominant narratives in today's public sphere about the 90s can be divided into two categories. They can be defined as “statist” and “liberal-market’, with the former gradually becoming the point of view of the Russian state. However, on careful examination, one can discover that Russian officialdom has its own version of history, which cannot be reduced to these.

The ‘statist’ historical narrative has emerged as an oppositional response to the radical reforms of the Yeltsin government and the political order established as a result. However, these responses are very diverse, from ‘criticism from the left’, appealing to nostalgia from the Soviet era, to ‘criticism from the right’, which takes a variety of forms, from the traditional lamentation by conservatives about a ‘decline of values’ to full-blown antisemitism.

What all these have in common is both a declaration of the absolute centrality of the state, and ‘anti-westernism’. Russian researcher Ilya Budraitskis describes this historical narrative as follows: “Just like today, in the past, we can also discover the intrigues of neighbouring countries, the moral forces of internal resistance, a thousand-year-old state in danger”.

In Vladimir Sorokin's novel ‘Day of the Oprichnik’, which ironically plays on, (and in many ways predicts) the conservative turn in modern Russia, residents of the monarchical Russia of the future call the revolutionary epoch of political instability — Troubles, also known as Smuta. And if, in addition to the original Troubles of the 17th century, there was also ‘Red Smuta’ in 1917, then the events of the 90s would be given the name ‘White Smuta’. The view of the 90s as ‘White Troubles’ through which the state periodically passed as a living organism, is probably the most accurate label for what could be called the ‘statist’ historical narrative.

In a sense, it was this narrative that became official. The very appearance of the ‘Dashing 90s’ brand was intended to create a divide between the era of poverty, corruption and national humiliation, and the beginning of the ‘revival’ of the state, associated with the new president. It is in this spirit, for example, that the updated exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary History (previously the Museum of the Revolution) in Moscow is built; beyond a dark and winding corridor dedicated to the Yeltsin era with its political crises, the visitor finds themselves in a spacious hall with the achievements of modern Russia — from atomic icebreakers to the interethnic friendship of the peoples of the Russian Federation. The apotheosis of these achievements, at least until recently, was the Russian president's pen, with which he signed the treaty on the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, which completes the exhibition.

545_foto_1_05.jpgHistorical panorama of Putin's years, exhibit of the Museum of Contemporary History. Photo:

“Vladimir Putin reunited Russia from collapse and led it through more than one crisis” — or so explained Russian TV presenter Dimitri Kiselyov, as to why Putin was ‘not interested’ in palaces or luxury. The same was stated at the Congress of ‘United Russia’ which nominated Putin as a presidential candidate in 2024, by the deputy from Monchegorsk, Victor Kulay, who ‘witnessed the devastation of the 90s’, but ‘then came a man who can be trusted, who never deceived us’. Thus, in official rhetoric, even in the 5th term of the Russian president, overcoming the 90s remains one of his main achievements.

And yet, there are significant differences between the ‘statist’ and official narratives. In 2023, the conservative philosopher Alexander Dugin wrote on his Telegram channel: ‘The colonial 90s elite in Russia must be destroyed’. The belief that for the last 30 years, there has been an endless struggle against the legacy of the 1990s is widespread among publicists in this part of the ideological spectrum. In such views, one of the key goals of the ‘special military operation’ is to overcome the legacy of the ‘holy 90s’, as loyalists ironically refer to this era.

The problem here is that the final authority in this struggle with the past is revealed to be the current president — the successor of Boris Yeltsin. He is himself much more restrained in assessments of his predecessor, although as sociologist Dmitri Furman notes, he seeks to ‘obscure’ the significance of the events of 1991 and the ‘founder of the new Russian state’, Boris Yeltsin.

On 20th December 2023, the Russian president, in a speech at a meeting of the Council of Legislators of the Russian Federation, remarked that although ‘not all laws were followed in the 90s’, and ‘Russia at that time lost a significant part of its sovereignty’, nonetheless, ‘the legal foundations of a new state were created; this at least is important’. A few months earlier, during a speech at a meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum (VEF), he said that in the 90s ‘Russia gained a lot, but also lost a lot’.

A similar way to describe the 90s is used in Russian history textbooks; in particular, a textbook recently received by schools and edited by Medinsky and Torkunov. Yeltsin’s rule is depicted as difficult, but still the founding era of the Russian state. According to the textbook, ‘the main result of Russia's political development in the 90s was [...] the formation of a new political system based on the principle of separation of powers,’ although by the time of Vladimir Putin's coming to power, the country was in ‘an exceptionally difficult situation’; the task of ‘solving problems that threatened the very existence of Russia’ fell on the shoulders of the new president.

From this perspective, the Russian authorities do not have any special attitude to the era, which many representatives of the elite still remember. This fits into the historical narrative officially accepted today, in which there are no obviously dark pages in Russian history. The closest analogue is the relationship to the Revolution in 1917, which, despite shaking the foundations of the Russian state, is also ‘part of our history’. Based on such conservative perspectives, Russia (as a state) was the ‘third force’ in the revolution and the Civil War. Although the ‘mental completion of the Civil War and Revolution’, as Ilya Budraitskis writes, ‘is possible through a complete rejection of the delusions driving their participants’. With the 90s, during a time when, in the words of Vladimir Putin, there was ‘essentially a civil war’ in the country, the same logic applies. This is why those ‘statists’ who want to decisively reevaluate the 90s can hardly count on success within the framework of the existing political regime.

There was a second side to this ‘civil war’. Almost simultaneously with the first one, a second narrative is emerging, commonly known as the ‘liberal-market’ narrative. Its genesis — an attempt by reformers to justify themselves for the political course of the rapid political reforms, which led to total impoverishment, increased inequality and crime. Of course, these negative effects impacted the majority of Russians, so public opinion polls traditionally record their negative attitude towards the 90s: in 2020, two-thirds (62%) of Russians viewed this decade negatively (positively — only 19%). 46% believe that today Russian society is structured more fairly, and the nineties are most commonly associated among Russians with crime and poverty. The reformers of the 90s are so unpopular that one of the reasons why Boris Nadezhdin was initially allowed to participate in the run-up to the 2024 elections was his strong association with ‘liberals from the 90s’ (Nadezhdin worked as an adviser to Nemtsov during his time working in government).

Despite the unpopularity of this narrative, it is also worth taking seriously. Today, it dominates among a social group that can roughly be called the ‘intelligentsia’ (although better suited here is the broader term ‘informed citizens/informed class’ which Guriev and Triesman propose in their later work — it includes all ‘educated citizens, freely navigating the media space’). The importance of the ideological positions of this social group is clearly demonstrated by David Kotz and Fred Wear in their study of the transformation of the Soviet and Russian political systems. In their opinion, the dominance of liberal and pro-market views among the Soviet intelligentsia became an important component of the success of the ‘pro-capitalist coalition’, as a result of which, the process of restoring capitalism was launched in the post-Soviet space (despite the fact that according to opinion polls cited by Kotz and Wear, the overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens leaned towards the idea of reforming socialism).

At the surface, it might seem that with the weakening of the position of liberal reformers in the Russian elite, such a narrative would have been completely marginalised. In fact, the opposite happened. In the 00s, the main task of the former reformers was self-justification — in books like ‘The Death of the Empire’ by Yegor Gaidar or ‘Privatisation the Russian Way’ by Anatoly Chubais, it was argued that there was no other way out than ‘shock therapy’; the country was on the brink of famine due to a bankrupt and inefficient planned economy. This thesis is itself controversial — for example, the aforementioned Kotz and Wear, as well as Vladislav Zubok, professor of History at the London School of Economics, in his book ‘Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union’, convincingly argue that the crisis was rather caused by errors in reforms which abolished the old system of economic coordination but did not create a new one, than by fundamental flaws in the Soviet economic system.

Gradually, however, the debate about the miscalculations of the reformers faded away (the economy was already living with other problems), but authoritarian tendencies in politics intensified. Their contrast with the era of the 90s turned the latter into an ideological opposite of the regime, a “golden age” with competitive elections, freedom of the media and hope for the future, as well as the most important crossroads in Russian history, when it could have become a “normal country”. In conditions when the phenomena characteristic of the 90s are becoming myths and legends, but officialdom does not dare, and does not have the opportunity, to give an unambiguously negative assessment of the rule of Boris Yeltsin, the idealization of the 90s becomes a relatively safe form of protest, an assembly point alternative to the state identity. It is not surprising that clips from television stories from that era, when the authorities could be criticized and sharp reports broadcast to the whole country, are very popular on social networks — now, this seems like a fantasy.

Moreover, this narrative acquires natural reinforcement through an apolitical sense of nostalgia — the 90s are romanticized as an era of adventure, absolute freedom and limitless opportunities to dramatically increase one’s social status. Thus, pins with crimson jackets or nostalgia for the pop music of those years become natural allies of apologists for the nineties. Any politically complimentary project about the 90s (like “Islands of the 90s” by Colta or “The Rise of Russian Media” by Natalia Rostova) exploits this feeling of nostalgia in one way or another. The same feelings permeate the memories of politicians, cultural and business figures who gained their status at exactly this time: Peter Aven in the book “The Time of Berezovsky”, “system liberals” from a special project of the Kommersant newspaper, and eminent music producers from a documentary film about post-Soviet culture “Zone" remember the 90s as years of great opportunity.

e907fb9f6a27a66bfb5c9fe6d508a90a295bd2a6.jpgA pin with the iconic crimson jacket. Photo:

The need to construct a political identity for those who disagree with the country’s authoritarian drift increases the demand for reinventing one’s own historical myth. For liberals, such a myth consists of the idealization of the nineties and the key figures of the era. Thus, a recently published book by Maxim Katz argues that Yeltsin was a convinced democrat who “never tried to use power to infringe on freedom of speech and assembly,” and Mikhail Fishman, in his book “Successor” about Boris Nemtsov, reproduces the thesis that the populist leftist Duma did not allow reformers to improve the economic situation in the country.

Within this narrative, the rise to power of Vladimir Putin is perceived as a historical accident, a shortsightedness of Yeltsin, who did not see an autocrat in the former intelligence officer, and a confluence of circumstances that could have been avoided. This fits well with vulgar explanations of politics based on the personal characteristics of political leaders. This not only explains the regime transformations in Russia in recent decades but also creates the naive illusion that positive changes can be achieved by replacing the “wrong” people with the “right” ones (for example, during lustration). It is important to get rid of such illusions. One of the steps towards elimination of such illusions is to realise that the current political regime arose not in 2000, or 2007, when the political scientists who compose the Polity index first defined Russia as an autocracy, but in 1993 or earlier.

The third narrative — why offering an alternative is important

The opposing historical narratives described above are united firstly by the desire to draw a clear divide between the 1990s and the era of Vladimir Putin’s rule, and secondly, by the idea that “democracy” (whatever that means) existed in the 1990s. It is simply that some criticize the weakening of the strong power necessary for Russia, inheriting in this the Karamzin tradition, while for others this is a time of the dominance of principles to which it is worth returning sooner or later.

The tradition of criticism of these ideas, which makes it possible to escape the ‘democratic/statist’ dichotomy, emerged among the liberals themselves — those of them who noted and described the authoritarian aspects of the new regime during its formation. For example, noting ‘the omnipotence that Yeltsin and some social classes serving the system so strived for’, the researcher Lilia Shevtsova characterises the Russian political regime during the Yeltsin era as an ‘elected monarchy’, or a ‘non-systemic regime’ (noting the contradictions between the formal institutions and the real distribution of power). She also refers to Richard Sakwa, who characterised the Russian regime as an ‘authoritarian democracy’. The definition of ‘imitation democracy’ that sociologist Dmitry Furman used to describe the Russian regime following the collapse of the USSR, has become even better known.

Furman, Shevtsova, and many others wrote about a political regime, which, despite not having extensive coercive resources due to economic decline, was characterised by enormous powers for the president, the elevated role of his entourage, a low level of political participation and, most importantly, the impossibility of a peaceful change of power. All this allows us to consider the reign of Boris Yeltsin and his successor within the evolutionary framework of one political regime, without drawing a clear divide between them. As the Russian political scientist Vladimir Gelman wrote, ‘It was during the ‘dashing’ 1990s that the seeds of authoritarianism were deliberately planted into Russian political soil, which had just begun to thaw from the deep glaciation of the Soviet era, giving rise to poisonous shoots in the 2000s.’

Upon closer examination, if it makes sense to talk about democracy, it is only in relation to the late 80s, when, during competitive elections, Soviet citizens elected deputies to councils at various levels, who, after the collapse of the CPSU, laid claim to real power in the country. The problem arises when trying to address the question of why this democratization was curtailed so quickly. In liberal viewpoints, the main role here is usually played by cultural factors, such as the lack of a rooted democratic tradition, the difficult legacy of the Soviet past, and so on. Creating other “institutions” is proposed as a solution, and their creation requires, as Russian political scientist Grigory Golosov wrote, “political will based on value foundations.” This is not a very reliable base, given that the Russian authorities in the 90s (and even today) declared their commitment to the values of democracy and human rights. How then to distinguish “genuine” value foundations from make-believe ones?

It would be much more promising to rely on mass grassroots political participation, which not only allows for control of the ruling elite, but decentralises power itself — although in this case we would have to reconsider our ideas of what constitutes democracy. For example, is the mere presence of appropriate institutions and transfer of power — a Schumpeterian solution — enough to consider a society democratic? Is it possible to talk about democratisation in isolation from political institutions? Are democracy and capitalism compatible at all?

The designing of an alternative historical narrative must be based on an analysis of the connection of authoritarian drift with neoliberal capitalism and inequality. True democratisation is impossible (and unlikely to be possible) in a society in which the elite 1% control 58.2% of the nation’s wealth and citizens have to work ‘record long hours’ to survive. Only taking into account these factors can prevent ‘walking in a spiral’ as Furman calls it — a rollback to authoritarianism in the event of democratisation.

Moreover, in the event of potential democratization, any political force that takes these ideas as its program will likely find itself in a more advantageous position than its predecessors in the 90s. At that time, the world was dominated by ideas about the lack of alternatives to neoliberal capitalism and market reforms — therefore, when talking about this era, the transition to a market is usually considered as a constant, only within which some variations are possible (for example, the choice between presidential and parliamentary forms of government or types of electoral systems). These ideas, in many ways, still remain common sense, but this ‘no alternative’ paradigm has been shaken: for example, in the United States, socialist views are now more popular than ever before in American history. The reason is the inability of the present stage of capitalism to solve global problems such as climate change and growing inequality. To quote David Harvey, “The fundamental problems are now so deep that without a powerful anti-capitalist movement we will not be able to move forward.”

One of the ways to confront this lack of an alternative is to construct a new, democratic historical narrative in the conversation about the 90s, in which the connection between the failure of Russian democratisation and the logic of the transition to capitalism becomes key. Of course, such a large-scale project will require discussion on many issues; the role of the miners’ strikes in the political process, real alternatives to ‘shock therapy’ and the transition to capitalism in the late 80s, the democratic experience of local and regional councils. This text is a call to begin such a discussion.

Translated by: Rachael Horwitz