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HISTORY


hugely significant for Britain and the former Soviet Union. But political chaos at home possibly contributed to the idiosyncratic and lovable behaviour of the Russian sailors on their first visit to the West. september 1993 was a momentous


A


time for Russia and its burgeoning democracy. president Boris Yeltsin was trying to implement massive economic reforms, and give himself near absolute power as well. Russia’s economy was in free fall: its


GDp had contracted by 19 per cent in 1992 and was on course to contract by a further 12 per cent in 1993. The solution, said a group of young economists employed by Yeltsin, was to remove the artificial controls on prices set for all products which had been used in Communist times and never repealed. The move caused even more heart-


ache for normal Russians, who saw inflation jump to levels of 3 per cent a month. Those with businesses suddenly found themselves much richer, but the man on the street was out of pocket, especially if he worked for the Govern- ment, which was virtually bankrupt. Yeltsin called a referendum to see if the public supported his actions and tried to extend his powers to almost insane levels, including the right to dis- band the two houses of state control: the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of Deputies which operated rather like our own parliament. He won the referendum, but the


Supreme Soviet and the Congress impeached him and installed a new guy


THE RUSSIANS COME TO VISIT by Phil Scoble in his place.


visit from a Russian warship to Dartmouth in the early 1990s was


At this point the Army decided they


like Yeltsin and began bombing their own parliament building.


187 people died and 437 people


were badly injured – if you believe official figures. If you believe unofficial ones, more than 2,000 people lost their lives. Yeltsin took complete control, passed laws giving the president huge powers, banned many organisations, shut media outlets that criticised him and placed political opponents in jail. Less than two weeks after these momentous events, the RFS Gangut sailed into Dart Harbour. Its mission


many people in the town were apprehensive about the sailors’ visit


was to establish convivial links with the Royal Navy after years of hostility during the Cold War. The Russian Navy had not done well during the last years of Communism and was still in a massive decline. The break up of the Soviet Union had left it fragmented, with an aging fleet and underpaid sailors itching to escape. As the grey hulk, with ‘205’ daubed on its side pulled into the harbour, many people in the town were appre- hensive about the sailors’ visit: would they be drunken brutes as stereotypes would have you believe? Would they be negative about capitalism? These fears proved massively un-


founded. Despite some sailors telling townspeople they had been taught English in case they ever invaded, all


who witnessed it remember their visit with universal fondness. After years of international political


hostility, many of the sailors had never been to a western country. They made, therefore, the most of the opportunity to sample the town’s shops and other businesses. It’s possible the chaos playing out at home and the uncertainty it brought, contributed to their determination to get the best from their time on British soil.


The pull of the town’s shops,


especially its white goods and clothes emporiums, proved very strong for the sailors and they didn’t let the fact they had little money get in their way. In true capitalist, entrepreneurial style they made the most of their assets - they realised that their Communist uniforms were much prized by the British and sold them to the highest bidder.


Their long weekend in the harbour was marked by them handing over coats, hats and jackets to people in the street for cash and then dashing into a shop to buy something to take home. Goodness knows what some of them did for warmth when they returned to the Baltic just as it headed into midwinter. Wherever they went, they made


friends: at the Britannia Royal Naval College and in town people smile fondly as they recall Gangut’s visit. The town’s Chamber of Trade Chair- man said of the visit: “It has been a real breakthrough. They could go anywhere, do anything. We have been impressed by their good manners and behaviour. We certainly bent over backwards to help them. I just hope they don’t think capitalism is that easy.”•


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