The 1990s Glossary

Between the stagnating Soviet Union of the 1980s and the Russia-oh-haven-of-stability-thou-name of the 2000s came the 1990s. A bizarre decade where things changed so fast that even twenty years later, we don’t quite know what happened. And we are the people who were around then (albeit pleasantly shielded by our young age and protective parents).

But the “likhiye devyanostyye” (“the roaring 90s”) had such a titanic impact on popular Russian culture that we simply couldn’t at least try to explain some key bits of this definitive decade, with our special-purpose glossary.

<h2>Putsch</h2>  The failed coup attempt of August 1991 that became the end of the USSR and the start of the crazy 90s in question. If you’ll indulge my desire to cut away the important detail, the gist is that a bunch of people from the Soviet leadership set up a special committee to declare a state of emergency in the country to get rid of then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Some reckon it was a blatant power struggle, others — that it was a last-ditch attempt to save a country that was rapidly falling apart amid the Perestroika restructuring. In the end both sides lost, and the ultimate victor was Mr Yeltsin, who made a history-making speech atop a tank and then became president. <h2>Chechen war</h2>  No subject for witticisms. There were two wars in Chechnya — the first Chechen war in 1994 and another round in 1999. The wars were basically an attempt to suppress breakaway attempts by the Caucasus republic through guerilla warfare/terrorism (please pardon the very crude representation). It was horrendous. There’s not really much to add. <h2>Default </h2> The epic economic fail of 17 August 1998, when the Russian government said it wasn’t going to repay its debts or support the rouble. As a result, the rouble lost almost 60 per cent of its value in a little over a month. <h2>Oligarchs</h2>  Abramovich, Berezovsky, Potanin, Vekselberg and pretty much every other Russian on the Forbes Richest list. These guys did well in the 1990s privatization — particularly with collateral auctions (the government borrowed money from commercial banks using its shares in major resources companies as collateral. It then didn’t repay the loans and the shares were auctioned off, ending up in private hands). Because of the way they came to power, oligarchs are considered to be very loyal to the powers-that-be. And we all know what happened with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who seemingly decided he was done with the loyalty programme. <h2>Novyye Russkiye</h2>  A “new Russian”, aka a 1990s “businessman” in the loosest sense of the word. The New Russians of the 1990s are those who managed to find themselves at the receiving end of the 1990s money vortex. But rest assured, this is not an affectionate term for entrepreneurial and clever types. It’s said with a certain sneer, because it mostly refers to not very bright, but very muscly, near-criminal types. Novyye Russkiye are easily recognizable by their crimson jackets and massive gold chains (see next). The real kings of the world also had humungous mobile phones. And a model-as-a-wife and a black Mercedes Benz. And an unfathomable affection for Shanson music. The mere mention of this is so traumatic, that I simply cannot tell you any more about this phenomenon, please forgive me. <h2>Kinder Surprise toy collections</h2>  Now this was really special. Kinder Surprise eggs were unlike any chocolates previously known to Soviet children, and the toys! The toys! They were just magnificent. Any child hoping to hold any playground clout in the 1990s had to have a respectable collection of said items. Ah, the validation... Facebook and Instagram likes have nothing on my collection of crocodile teachers. <h2>1990s fashion</h2>  Fashion didn’t really fit into the Soviet ideology (which is not to say that people didn’t make an effort to get around this), so when all hell broke loose in the 1990s, people hungrily scoffed down the diversity, in all its sparkly splendour. Sadly, the most memorable images were the most unfortunate: crimson suit jackets and fat gold chains — the status symbols of the 1990s worn by the Novyye Russkiye (see above); and truckloads of “Dolce and Gabbana” diamante-encrusted fluorescent orange lycra shirts alongside Abibas, Pooma and Reevok jackets heaped on trestle tables at chaotic markets. <h2>Pager</h2>  The ubiquitous 1990s device, which came before Twitter for iPhone, Twitter full stop, and even all-embracing SMS. It was a wee little box that could receive text messages, and not much else. Ok, ok, it also made funny beeping noises. To send a page, you rang up the number of operator company, said the number of the subscriber you wanted to page and passed on your message, which was transcribed and sent off to the recipient. I wonder if such a cumbersome mechanism saved anyone from those awkward morning moments when you realize you drank-and-texted/tweeted the night before... <h2>Privatization</h2>  The sale of state property to private owners. Seems fair enough, but it was done in a “special way” in 90s Russia. It may have been ok on paper, but random rules and a general lack of transparency meant the whole thing was confusing and unprofitable for the average person, while facilitating the emergence of a caste of Oligarchs (see next). As a result, the whole thing is largely perceived by most Russians as at least unfair, and at most — criminal. <h2>1990s soaps</h2>  Ask any Russian over the age of 25 about Santa Barbara and Simply Maria and watch them get all misty-eyed and nostalgic... American and Mexican soaps made the 1990s that much more fun and made your average watercooler conversation that much easier. Everyone watched with bated breath the trials and tribulations of Eden and Cruz. And the new post-coma C.C. was rubbish. I’m still reeling. <h2>Terror attacks</h2>  Another humourless subject. Towards the end of the decade, in 1999, there was a whole bunch of terror attacks around Russia. It started with an explosion at a market in North Ossetia in the Russian Caucasus that killed 52 in March. This was followed by bomb blasts at residential apartment blocks in Dagestan (also in the Caucasus) and at two blocks in Moscow, killing 64, 100 and 124 people respectively in September. The bloody season ended in the south, with a car bomb that killed another 19. After this, Putin said his infamous “mochit’ v sortire” — a phrase that has plagued translators. “Liquefy/take out/annihilate in the outhouse”, when it comes to terrorists, doesn’t have quite the same ring in English. <h2>Bratva</h2>  Literally, “brudders”, connoting much the same as the English equivalent but with a distinctly criminal flavour. Basically, a member of the bratva (sing. bratok), also known as a gopnik, is a kind of petty criminal with pretty low IQ, a corresponding expression on their face and the respective interests (namely: pickpocketing, harassing vulnerable passers-by and drinking beer. And wearing tracksuits, always). <h2>Krysha</h2>  Literally, “roof”, but so much more than that. One of the best-known Russian oligarchs, Roman Abramovich, said it best when he was testifying in a London court last year during his lawsuit against fellow tycoon Boris Berezovsky. “There was a lot of krysha activity in Russia at that time which was well outside the law and was little more than criminal extortion. That was how krysha worked: so long as one’s protector provided the services necessary to maintain the particular business, you were expected to pay whatever he asked, whenever he asked”. Kryshas in the 1990s could come in the expensive suits of MPs, in the epaulette-studded shoulder pads of police officers — some cynical types say even under the robes of priests... There was no way out of having a krysha if you were in business in the 1990s, even if you were only a little guy, because otherwise, you’d be given a whipping by the reket (krysha criminals who aren’t on your payroll) or be paid a visit by a maski-show (violent raids by people dressed in balaclavas — not the Pussy Riot kind — and police uniforms. They could well be bandits or police. Or both. Or one after the other. It was a confusing time). <h2>Charge your water, believers!</h2> No, I did not drink heavily while compiling this glossary — charging water was the thing to do in the 1990s! Oh yes, two major stars of 1990s TV, Alan Chumak and Anatoly Kashpirovsky — wait for it — sent special rays of specialness from the TV screens to energize water (among other things). Yep, millions of people sat in front of their TV screens with three-litre jars of water, waiting for the blue screen magic to energize the water molecules. Hey, the 90s were insane, you’d have bought it too. <h2>Yeltsin</h2>  The man of the decade, the first president of Russia, who came to power in 1991 on the back of the failed August putsch. A pseudo-referendum was conducted under Yeltsin in 1993, after which the Russian constitution, as it is now, was adopted — some say unconstitutionally. Quite the conundrum! In other fun factoids, Yeltsin had heart surgery while he was president and apparently, the first thing he did when he came around after surgery was sign a decree to get his presidential powers back from acting president, then prime minister, the legendary Viktor Chernomyrdin. <h2>MMM</h2>  The quintessential pyramid scheme — the biggest in the country’s history — that showed that people believed in magic in the 1990s (how else can you explain the reason that people buy into pyramid schemes?) There was really no genius behind it, save for the genius of playing on people’s naivete and greedy desire for easy money. The guy behind it, Sergei Mavrodi, spent a bit of time in jail, but not only did he not give up, he pursued a political career and launched a second round of MMM in 2011... with a disturbing amount of success. <h2>U.E.</h2>  We can hardly talk 1990s money without mentioning the unique construction that was the “U.E.” — a “notional unit” (mostly a US dollar), which loads of prices were unofficially denominated in. The big idea is that the rouble was unreliable and its value fluctuated daily, so shop keepers introduced the U.E. to get around the technical inability to trade in foreign currency. So you’d still pay in roubles, but the price would change depending on the exchange rate of the U.E. in that particular shop on that particular day. Oh yes, that seems perfectly legitimate. <h2>Presidential address NYE 2000</h2>  At five minutes to midnight on the 31st of December of each year, the Russian president makes a new year’s address — blah, blah, blah, we did well this year, we’ll do even better next year. Boris Yeltsin started out much the same on the 31st of December 1999, though in his speech, he — lo and behold — announced that he was stepping down and (drumroll, please) handing over the reigns of acting president to then Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Then the world spent most of the 2000s wondering “who is Mr Putin”. But that’s a whole other decade... <h2>Laryok</h2>  A kiosk shop selling all kinds of basic necessities: cigarettes, beer, chewing gum, pretzel sticks, condoms, chocolate bars and soft drinks. Before they used to pop up randomly, without plausible placement logic and certainly no permission from any kind of hygiene, fire safety or other authority. Yet these round-the-clock kiosks are really very convenient, particularly when they diversify their assortment of goods, so it’s no wonder they’re still around in the stable and sensible 2000s. Anyway, the new Moscow mayor declared a war on these in the capital and since then, many have been knocked down, some later replaced with laryoks of a special approved “unified” type. But these polished creatures aren’t proper grungy laryoks, they’re just trying to be cool. Like commercial indie music.
By Marina Taiga

Marina Taiga is said to own Moscow’s only petting zoo of koalas, kangaroos and kookaburras, which she keeps on the balcony of her studio apartment. Her neighbours aren’t pleased, but she distracts them with delicious vegetarian borsch.