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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Eyewitness: Collapse of the USSR
protesters
The last Revolution Day march of the USSR
BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg recalls what it was like to be a student in Moscow in the months leading up to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

We arrived in the Soviet Union just days after the coup of August 1991, little expecting that by the time we left, the once-mighty empire would have collapsed.


This class has always just been pure propaganda... now I have the freedom to tell you what's really going on - but I don't know... we don't even know what the country is called any more

Regional studies teacher
There was palpable excitement in the streets of Moscow.

Igor Sharonov, a teacher at the Pushkin Institute for Russian language and literature, described how he had stood with tens of thousands of others at the barricades outside the Russian parliament in defiance of the coup-plotters.

They were euphoric days. There would be no turning back now, he said.

But despite the new openness of society, it was ridiculously difficult for ordinary people - let alone foreign students - to work out exactly what was happening in this rapidly-changing country.


I believed that Lenin was my father and that I lived in the best country in the world - now I'm told it was all lies

Teenager
One autumn morning we shuffled along to our most tedious class of all - stranovedeniye, or regional studies - which had until then consisted of a history of Communist Party Congresses.

But the teacher, who we had previously assumed was just another party apparatchik, startled us all.

"I don't know what to teach you any more," he said.

Challenging times

"This class has always just been pure propaganda. Now I have the freedom to tell you what's really going on. But I don't know. We don't even know what the country is called any more."

St Basil's cathedral
Russia was changing day by day
Rumours and counter-rumours abounded in Moscow. As foreigners, we often relied on newspaper articles sent from our relatives in the UK to tell us what was happening.

But we did get the sense of what it was like to be living in such confusing and uncertain times.

"I believed that Lenin was my father and that I lived in the best country in the world. Now I'm told it was all lies," Lena, a 16-year-old girl told me.

Mostly it was the elderly who were the die-hard communists.

Hundreds of people marched down the streets on October Revolution Day, waving placards denouncing perestroika.

Andrei eating banana
Russian teacher Andrei Potemkin eats his first banana for many months
But the young people around me were all hungry for a taste of the West.

You could now buy Mars Bars and Snickers ice-cream on the streets of Moscow.

They were exorbitantly expensive for ordinary Russians, but one friend told me she was prepared to spend more on Western goods because they were undoubtedly "healthier".

She made sure she took her six-year-old son to McDonald's at least once a week "for a good dose of vitamins".

Food shortages

Winter drew nearer and food grew more scarce.

Once after standing in line for more than an hour to buy potatoes, the person at the front of the queue announced he would buy all the remaining potatoes.

The author at a demonstration
The author at a demonstration
Pandemonium broke out. The people behind me rushed to the front, seizing potatoes. Some even started lobbing them at the man filling his plastic bags.

Later a friend of mine told me she was worried about her child, as she could no longer buy milk. Another told me that his mother could no longer afford the bribes to buy the medicine she needed.

This was the beginning of the "Wild West" style capitalism that was to characterise Russia's transition to a market economy.

In those last winter months of the Soviet Union, the shine was already rapidly fading from the golden August days when people-power overturned a coup.

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