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» Society » Recent Ukrainian History: 1988-1993 - Years of Lawlessness and Collapse

Ukraine from 1988 to 1993: lawlessness and collapse

Classifying recent Ukrainian history

From a socioeconomic standpoint recent Ukrainian history could probably best be divided up as follows:


From a political standpoint we would divide it up by presidential terms:


1985 - 1988: perestroika begins
1988 - 1993: years of lawlessness and collapse
1993 - 1998: gradual stabilization
1998 - 2004: recovery
2004 - ?: ??
  1985 - 1991: the Gorbachev era
1991 - 1993: the Kravchuk years
1994 - 1999: Kuchma's 1st term
1999 - 2004: Kuchma's 2nd term
2005 - ?: the Yuschenko era

Ukraine from 1988 to 1993

Why focus on this particular period? Because these years seem to have left the greatest impact on people. These were the years when the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine declared its independence, the economy and society went down the tubes, and yet there was hope that soon, very soon, things would get better and Ukraine would become like the rest of Europe. It was a very dynamic—and traumatic—period for Ukrainians.
Visitors to Ukraine today will hear legends about standing in lines for bread at 6 a.m. and paying for groceries with coupons that they received at work. During this period food shortages were common as the central planning system fell apart, disrupting production and logistics.
This was also a time of galloping inflation and incredible demand for western currency. People today still recall as if it were not long ago the days when their monthly salary was the equivalent of three dollars. As a result, workers began taking home any goods they could get ahold of at work as government control weakened.

Theft of government property

Admittedly, this practice had begun long before, but during these years petty theft as well as large-scale embezzlement of government property grew to absurd proportions. In parts of Ukraine there are still towns with uncovered manholes; the manhole covers (and any other metal) are still stolen immediately and sold as scrap metal. During the early 90s kids and adults alike would steal lightbulbs from lamps in apartment building stairwells and other public places.
To make matters worse, those in positions of power succumbed to the same temptation and secretly sold factory equipment and other national property abroad, making millions. The command economy and law enforcement bodies had entirely ceased to function.

The days of super-profits

Even as astrophysicists were earning salaries of $3 USD a month, this was a time when many made small fortunes on commerce. The demand for foreign goods was so great and consumers so inexperienced that anything could be brought in from abroad and sold for a great profit. The first foreign goods to flood the market were candy bars, chewing gum, soda pop, and cigarettes—icons of the "western lifestyle."
Pretty much anyone with a car began taking trips to Poland and other neighbors to the west to stock up on any goods they could find to resell in kiosks that had sprouted up like mushrooms. Those without cars took the train to Moscow or even other cities around Ukraine to buy things for a low price and resell them at a higher price elsewhere. This type of commercial activity was simply called "doing business" [заниматься бизнесом], and anyone who did it thought he was the quintessential capitalist.

Crime and mafia

No one paid taxes back then; they paid protection rackets that soon came to be known as simply "the mafia"—essentially a form of relatively effective paid police—since law enforcement was virtually nonexistent. However, these rackets were always competing for territory. Gunshots could be heard outside as protection gangs settled their disputes [выясняли отношения]. It wasn't too unusual to see a corpse outside on the way to work in the morning.
Basement casinos appeared all over the place, drug use rose, porn magazines were sold on the street, and Ukrainians watched Dallas and Santa Barbara in the evenings and dreamt of Beverly Hills.
The reinforced metal door business flourished as apartment dwellers feared for their property. Vast numbers of apartments were broken into. Trust between neighbors fell; people feared for their money and for their possessions.
This was Ukraine from roughly 1988 to 1993. In some rougher parts of the country (especially medium-sized cities in the east and south) law and order have still not been entirely restored and the economy remains deeply depressed.

Aftermath and recovery

Post-Soviet life during this period made quite an impression on westerners. The Russian (and Ukrainian) mafia became a sort of mythological symbol, and a number of Hollywood movies during the 90s portrayed (and greatly exaggerated, of course) the brutality, wealth, and debauchery of all-powerful Russian mafia lords. No wonder some westerners are spooked to this day about the "mafia" in Ukraine!
In reality, the mafia days are gone. In the mid 90s the government regained control over society, the rackets gradually disappeared (or dissolved into the law enforcement bodies), the crime rate dropped, and trading profits lowered to more normal levels.
These difficult years of socioeconomic collapse caused many Ukrainians to grow disenchanted with capitalism and the western mass culture they had idolized during the 80s. The lawlessness traumatized many people, and many who lost their savings in the financial crises still cannot get over it. The psychological effects of these troubled years continue to be felt.