During a visit to Moscow in January at the invitation of the Russian Party of Labour to help counter threats to abolish Moscow Council, it was confirmed to me that, in the aftermath of August’s attempted coup and the break-up of the ussr, Russian politics is rapidly clarifying around two fundamental, and interconnected, issues: growing economic chaos and the Russian national question. It is clear that whichever political force is perceived capable of responding to these issues will dominate the next phase of Russian politics.

To take the economy first. No description by a Western commentator can adequately convey what took place when price liberalization was introduced on 2 January. Figures presented in terms of exchange rates are meaningless given the collapsed state of the rouble. The best way to gauge the impact on the Russian people is to convert prices into their equivalents in the purchasing power of British income. Economists estimate that the average monthly wage, with bonuses, in Moscow in January was 1,000 roubles—pensioners, students and many others receive far less. An average monthly wage in Britain is £700 after tax and national insurance. So, to compare prices in terms of average British income, one rouble is equivalent to 70p. On that measure, in January milk cost £9 a pint, ten eggs £11, poor-quality sausage £19 per pound, cheese £31 per pound, and pork £35 per pound. Most items have increased by between three and five times since 2 January: the price rises in the first four weeks of liberalization, averaging 350 per cent, were greater than those projected by the Russian government for the entire year. Although prices stabilized in February, the initial inflationary shock was so great that the government had to postpone at the last moment the energy price increases scheduled for 1 April, thereby making the first serious deviation from its economic policy.

Although inflation has slowed temporarily, other aspects of the situation have continued to deteriorate. Moscow’s main thoroughfare, the former Gorky Street, is now overrun with people selling anything from food to foreign dictionaries from small tables or wooden boxes. Sections of the pavement become almost impassable, as sellers line up on both sides. Distribution through such unofficial channels has led to a rapid increase in cases of serious food poisoning in the city. Items such as uncooked fish and meat are being sold from wooden boxes only eighteen inches above dirty pavements, with thousands of people passing by, and only a few feet from busy and heavily polluted roads. A new phenomenon, which directly reflects rising poverty, is aggravating these food-poisoning outbreaks: for the first time, some state shops fail to clear their stocks of food immediately and it rots on the shelves before being bought.

The poorest among the population—particularly women—are, of course, the hardest hit. Women now comprise 90 per cent of Moscow’s unemployed. The average Russian woman spends at least two hours a day in the food lines, in addition to a full-time job and domestic work, with wages that are falling relative to men’s, and an even higher risk of unemployment than men. The overall job situation now faced by women is summed up by Anastasiya Posadskaya, Head of the Moscow Centre for Gender Studies: ‘My institute conducted a survey into the conditions of women working at Kamaz, the biggest heavy-truck manufacturer in the ussr, with 140,000 employees. Kamaz was transformed into a stock-holding company last year. . .The typical view of the lower-level managers was that they had to sack women because, under the new self-accounting system, each brigade had to earn more; and men in the brigades said that women did not work as hard as men and were legally protected from some kinds of work. Therefore “they should be the first to go”. The deputy general director of Kamaz was quite clear: “my strategy is that there will be no women at Kaman at all.”’

Official Russian government figures reveal that the majority of the population now exists below the poverty line, and the impact is felt far up the social scale. One of my hosts was a professor of economics at Moscow University—a relatively well-paid post in Russia. Yet in December a hundredweight of potatoes sat beside the television set on his dining-room floor in preparation for the price increases. Under such conditions, the slogan seen on demonstrations that ‘price liberalization is a crime against the Russian people’ finds a genuine echo.