Free Market Economy Drives Growth in Former USSR

Contributing Writer

MODERN HOTEL: The Hotel Kazakhstan in Almaty is an example of the economic growth in the former Soviet Union.

I am Russian and moved from Kazakhstan to Oklahoma six years ago. My grandparents were prosperous farm and ranch owners in southern Russia.

Stalin expropriated their properties and deported them to Kazakhstan in 1928-31. They were forced to work in Stalin’s labor camps which where similar to the Nazi’s. Because of the starvation and elements, two thirds of the first 16,000 deported people died.

They were brought to an empty place, to a wild steppe. In order to survive, many of the victims dug underground holes that became their houses. One of the survivors was my grandfather Ivan Golenev, an engineer. He was forced to build a city, Karaganda, in that wild place of Central Kazakhstan, where later I was born.

Now I am an American citizen and just returned from my trip to Moscow, Russia, and Karaganda, Kazakhstan. I had not been there for five years. Changes, which I saw in those countries, amazed me, especially in Kazakhstan. The reforms transforming the planned Soviet economy into a market economy are giving amazing results.

In Moscow, where 11 million people now live, I noticed that the marketplace is over saturated with goods. For example, the choice of fashionable shoes is larger in Moscow than in Tulsa, in my opinion. There are more products made in Russia now than five years ago. I especially enjoyed food: different sausages, milk products such as syrki (sweet cottage cheese) with strawberry, raspberry and other flavors, covered with chocolate, and different caviars.

About ten years ago, when the Russian government refused to support movie production studios, the movie industry almost died over there. Most of the theaters showed Hollywood movies. But now about 50 percent of the movies shown in Russian theaters are produced by new Russian companies.

Another innovation for Russia and Kazakhstan was that now many banks offer loans for buying houses, apartments or cars. Several years ago it was extremely difficult to get such loans. Not far from Moscow, in Mytischi, I could see new towns of multi-story buildings, which grew up fast.

Russia was in the best economic situation among the republics of the former Soviet Union five years ago; most of the industrial enterprises operated there and all levels of professionals were moving from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan to there.

The Kazakhstanian economy suffered a lot from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. About 50 per cent of the factories and plants were closed because of the suddenly new borders between the republics of the USSR and high customs taxes (up to 20-30 per cent). Unemployment reached 50 per cent.

At that time, Kazakhstan had difficulties printing its own money and new passports for citizens. In order to start a business, a person had to go through a huge bureaucracy and corruption. Even because of my good education, I always had a journalist job, and life, maybe, better than others, but I could not look at the growing number of homeless and beggars in the streets without pain in my heart.

But this time, after five years of my separation, I saw a new, surprising Kazakhstan. The center of my native city, Karaganda, was remarkably rebuilt. Modern buildings, made from glass, marble and other stones, new parks and monuments, sculptures, decorative fences and bridges made Karaganda unrecognizable. The assortment of goods is better and shop assistants are more polite. Different kinds of restaurants and casinos exist.

“Did life become better or is it my illusion?” I asked my relatives and friends. Most of them said that it became better. It was difficult to hear such an answer five years ago.

The Kazakhstanian government finally made steps to fight corruption. Salaries and pensions of policemen were raised. Now a policeman earns $300 per month or more, which is enough to support a family of four persons. So bribery is reduced, especially among the road patrol.

But what amazed me the most was that the Kazakhstanian federal government issued a law about professional ethics for government officials. Now an official, who is rude to visitors, can be fired quickly. My relatives informed me that many rude, uneducated and nationalistically tuned-up employees were fired from the police and other state departments in Karaganda.

Unemployment was reduced in Kazakhstan. It is not hard to find a job there as before because of the growing number of private enterprises. Another factor that helps the Kazakhstanian economy is plentiful oil. My father even believes that Kazakhstan will be the second Kuwait in the future.

About 50 per cent of the Kazakhstanian population are Kazaks, who are Moslems. Kazakhstan is located close to Afghanistan and the Middle East. So the threat of terrorism can be a real problem for this country of 14 million people. And I think this is one of the major reasons why the Kazakhstanian government made big steps to improve the life of people. Because, if 1 or 2 per cent of the nation are very rich people, but the majority is poor or almost poor, then it is not social justice, but good soil for developing terrorism.

The security in airports and every day life also improved in Kazakhstan and Russia. In a Moscow subway, you can see policemen almost on each station inside the metro, and they are checking sometimes the identities of suspicious persons at the exits and outside. A radio inside the metro broadcasts, asking people to inform subway employees if somebody notices a strange object or bag left in the metro.

In the Moscow international airport, Sheremetyevo-2, my four bags and bags of other passengers were opened and thoroughly examined. In the Karaganda airport, while we were waiting for a delayed flight, a policeman asked me and other people to show our identification. It is a law in Russia and Kazakhstan now that a person always has to carry identification with him, and anybody can be stopped by a policeman to check it.

Russians show a big interest in life in America. I was asked many questions during my visit, for example, about the attitude of Americans to immigrants, and differences of food. My cousins wanted to know how Mexican food tasted. I failed to describe it, because you have to taste it. So I invited them and others to come and experience the wonderful flavors and other benefits of America.

Updated 04-26-2005

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