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Review of Robert Stephenson “We are building Capitalism! Moscow in transition 1992-1997” for SCRSS Digest

09/30/2020

Robert Stephenson We are building Capitalism! Moscow in transition 1992-1997 , Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 210 pages, Foreword by Vladimir Gel’man pages 7-12, Paperback £25

Robert Stephenson lived and worked in Moscow from 1992 to 1997. A civil servant, he had been head of the IT Strategy team for the UK’s Employment Service, and was invited in 1992 to become a Consultant to the new Federal Employment Service, and then a capacity builder for trainers in business and commercial skills. In 1995, in Moscow, he married the brilliant sociologist Svetlana Stephenson (Sidorenko – now at LondonMet, essential reading – Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power, 2015). So he did not experience Moscow as capital of the former USSR.

Robert is also an accomplished photographer with an eye for the telling detail, and there are over 100 fascinating photos in this book, most of them taken in 1992-1993. The final photo, however, taken in 2012 (p.208), shows the “Moscow City” skyscraper complex looming over the Garden Ring and Krymsky Most (bridge). The photo on the opposite page taken in the same place, in 1992, 20 years previously, shows an utterly different view, with no advertising, very little traffic – and no skyscrapers. Should we feel nostalgia?

As Vladimir Gel’man comments in his Introduction on Bob’s photos “… with his focus not only on major political events… but also on the manifestations of the societal change in many details of Moscow life, from the rapidly changing patters of consumption to the outward appearance of Moscow and its inhabitants.” Indeed, as Gelman says, the book has its own protagonist, Moscow.

The book has 11 chapters, each with an insightful introduction and commentary by Bob. The chapters’ titles give a good indication of their contents: “The shadow of the past”; “Inflation, speculation and accumulation”; “Reform and resistance”; “Religious resurgence”; “Out with the old and in with the new”: “Reaching for the stars”; “Attractions and distractions”; “On the road”; “The view from the street”; “Strange sights”; and “The shape of things to come”.  

The book is beautifully produced in landscape A4 format, and the photos are vividly reproduced. I found myself reliving my own experiences during those turbulent years, One of the first photos (p.28) is of a rock concert held at the White House on 19 August 1992 on the first anniversary of the failed coup of April 1991 (which Bob missed – I was in Moscow). But there are no photos of Yeltsin’s use of tanks in 1993 to storm the White House, where the Supreme Soviet was sitting, though Bob has a brief account of events on pages 69-70.

This Chapter, 4, “Reform and Resistance” (pages 69 to 79), has photos of demonstrations in 1992-3. Bob comments that “…the streets of the city became a forum for protest against, and promotion of, social change”. But he is detached, apolitical observer.

This gorgeous book is recommended to anyone who wants to view, if not experience, how life carried on.

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