With the dissolution the Soviet Union there has been an enormous resurgence of interest in Russia's pre-Soviet past, as well as a great deal of debate and reconsideration of the Soviet era itself. This shift has not resulted in a simple vilification of everything Soviet or a naive embrace of all that preceded it, but it has spurred an unprecedented effort to regain the ancient Russian national heritage. Churches are being restored all across the country, great Russian writers and artists whose works were banned are once again being honored, and the individual character of ancient cities and communities is once again becoming established. Next year, the city of Moscow is celebrating its 850th Anniversary, a celebration that will mark the recovery, as well as the commemoration, of its glorious past.
For most western visitors, the bulk of Russia's history is nothing more than a compendium of hazy legends and sensationalist rumors--from scurrilous stories about Catherine the Great to tabloid television reports of the miraculous survival of the children of Nicholas II. However, the factual history of the country is no less compelling than its fabulous history, and even a brief introduction to the great and not-so-great figures of its past make a visit far more rewarding.
Economic reforms also consolidated a semi-criminal oligarchy with roots in the old Soviet system. Advised by Western governments, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Russia embarked on the largest and fastest privatization that the world had ever seen. By mid-decade, retail, trade, services, and small industry was in private hands. Most big enterprises were acquired by their old managers, engendering a new rich Russian oligarchs in league with criminal mafias or Western investors.4 At the bottom, many workers were forced by inflation or unemployment into poverty, prostitution, or crime. Meanwhile, the central government had lost control of the localities, bureaucracy, and economic fiefdoms; tax revenues had collapsed. Still in deep depression by the mid-1990s, Russia's economy was hit further by the financial crash of 1998.
Nevertheless, reversion to a socialist command economy seemed almost impossible, meeting widespread relief in the West. Russia's economy has also recovered somewhat since 1999, thanks to the rapid rise of the world price of oil, by far Russia's largest export, but still remains far from Soviet-era output levels.