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Unit 24 – The Collapse of the Soviet Regime

Difficulty: Easy/Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The following is an extract of an article by David Remnick, published In volume 191 of the official journal of the National Geographic

It was the summer of 1991. The societ regime was crumbling like week-old bread, and my wife and I were scheduled to fly home to New York for the last time, ending a nearly four-year stint in Moscow – mine for the Washington Post, hers for the New York Times. The flight was scheduled for August 18, a Sunday. A few days before, I had interviewed Aleksandr Yakovlev, who had been Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest aide throughout the perestroika years. The “forces of revenge” within the party and the KGB, he said, were preparing a putsch.
I didn’t know what to make of his comment except to put it in the paper. The next day, at a party with some Russian friends on the Moscow River, we talked about Yakovlev’s prediction. My friends and I agreed – a coup seemed far-fetched. The Soviet Union, after all, was no banana republic.
“But I will tell you one thing,” I said, in the plummy tone of one rehearsing his valedictory, “Check out Moscow in a few years, and there will be shopping malls everywhere.”
“You’ve gone nuts,” said my friend Sergei.
“Oh, you’re right!” Sergei’s wife, Masha said mockingly. “Downtown will look just like Fifth Avenue. Be sure to visit!”
So that was the consensus: no coup, no shopping malls. The world would change, to be sure, but Moscow could forget about Sears, much less Saks Fifth Avenue. A couple of days later the first prediction went sour. There were tanks parked not a hundred yards from my front door on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. The coup was on. (It was over three days later.)

Less earth-shattering to historians, perhaps, is the fact that the second prediction – “the shopping malls vision,” as my friends dubbed it on the spot – came true far more quickly than I had imagined. Capitalism may be creeping only slowly and erratically into provincial cities like Tambov, Stavropol, and Vologda, but in Moscow the signs of money are now everywhere: advertisements, billboards, finishing schools, neon, Nikes, and by God, shopping malls.
To visit Moscow in the five years since the collapse of communism and the Soviet state is to be thunderstruck on a daily basis. Street names change overnight, erasing honors given decades ago to Bolshevik warriors; youth gangs form, recapitulating, in their way, the history of young people in the West – Hippies, Punks, Grungers, Skinheads, Metal Heads, Tolkienites; a gay bar opens down the street and features “transvestite night”; the Lubavitcher Hasidim set up a synagogue and are lobbying the government for possession of a trove of manuscripts stored away for decades in the damp corners of the Russian State Library; the Hare Krishnas come jangling across Red Square trailing clouds of incense; a 19th-century downtown apartment building is cleaned out by mafiosi who have decided “to privatize” the place. The involuntarily gentrified are told, not asked, to accept an apartment so far from the center of town that it is nearly in the center of Minsk.
The changes reach to the most basic stuff of everyday life. Lines are rare now, but there are more homeless living in underpasses, train stations, city parks. The body politic has eroded so quickly that the Russian body has followed suit: The life expectancy of an average Moscow male is 57 at last count – a dramatic drop from the mid-60s just five years earlier. At the same time the number of car owners – and the level of traffic – has doubled. In Moscow only the weather is more or less the same as it was.


1. When the journalist refers to the Soviet Union as being ‘no banana republic’ (End of 2nd paragraph) what was the intended implication of the journalist’s comment?

  • A      The Soviet Union is politically stable
  • B      The Soviet Union is economically versatile
  • C      The Soviet Union is a well-functioning dictatorship
  • D      The Soviet Union is a classless society


2. The ‘involuntarily gentrified’ (2nd last paragraph) refers to:

  • A      People who used to work in Moscow city centre
  • B      Tenants who cannot afford to pay the increased rent
  • C      Victims of organised crime
  • D      Political remnants of the socialist regime


3. Based on evidence from the passage, which of the following statements about the quality of life in Moscow could be said to be true?

  • A      Overall quality of life has improved
  • B      Overall quality of life has diminished
  • C      Quality of life varies across the widening gap between the rich and poor
  • D      It is not possible to say
  • Q1: A
    A banana republic is a state which is politically and economically unstable as a result of depending heavily on the exports of a specific and often limited resource. A coup would seem likely in a country that is politically unstable, and unlikely in one which is stable. In this case the journalist and his friends are suggesting that a coup is unlikely because the Soviet Union is stable.

    Q2: B
    Gentrification refers to the changes that happen when wealthy people acquire property in low-income areas. One such change is that the current residents can no longer afford to live in the area, as they can’t compete with the wealth of the gentry that have moved in. The ‘mafioso’ privatise the building (most likely so they can make more money from it) forcefully evicting the current residents who were inhabiting the public building.
    A, C and D are very vague answers and you don’t need to know the word gentrified to make a guess at B.

    Q3: C
    Everything has changed (implication of the final line) – the former classless society has been replaced by a capitalist one. The fact that there are more homeless but also more cars (which implies affluence) suggests a widening gap between the rich and the poor. There are fewer in the middle ground.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    June 4, 2012

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