Poverty, prostitutes and the long, slow death of the Soviet Union: Haunting pictures show desperate struggle to survive in last days of USSR

If you’re feeling the pinch in our age of austerity, you might want to hark back to life in the last years of the Soviet Union.
Shop shelves were often bare, long lines for food were a regular sight and some children just didn’t have that youthful glint in their eyes you might expect.
As was the essence of communism, the USSR’s economic system was highly centralised and based on inflexible five-year plans rather than market forces. Years of military expansion also hindered growth.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to liberalise politics in the one-party state during the 1980s in an attempt to drive the economic revival.
But this only succeeded in encouraging states in the soviet bloc to make increasing demands for independence.
The unrest grew to such an extent that the USSR finally collapsed on Boxing Day 1991, shortly after these pictures were taken.


Hard times: Eighteen-year-old prostitute Katya scours the street for work as a police car drives past in Moscow in 1991 shortly before the collapse of the USSR

Hard times: Eighteen-year-old prostitute Katya scours the street for work as a police car drives past in Moscow in 1991 shortly before the collapse of the USSR
Bleak: Siberians line up outside a shop in Novokuznetsk, Russia, in a sign of the economic decline that had beset the country in the final years of communist rule

Bleak: Siberians line up outside a shop in Novokuznetsk, Russia, in a sign of the economic decline that had beset the country in the final years of communist rule
Hindered by centralised market forces: A long queue forms in Novokuznetsk for bacon and other meat from the butcher at a state-run market

Hindered by centralised market forces: A long queue forms in Novokuznetsk for bacon and other meat from the butcher at a state-run market
Glum: Two dirty children look out the window in a coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community in Siberia enduring widespread economic hardships

Glum: Two dirty children look out the window in a coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community in Siberia enduring widespread economic hardships
Struggling: Siberian women sit outside houses in the coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community of Novokuznetsk

Struggling: Siberian women sit outside houses in the coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community of Novokuznetsk
Bleak: Russians must wait in food lines to get whatever goods are available in November 1991, just a month before the collapse of the USSR

Bleak: Russians must wait in food lines to get whatever goods are available in November 1991, just a month before the collapse of the USSR
A real age of austerity: Shoppers line up at the check out stand of a store in Moscow in 1991 as the USSR neared collapse

A real age of austerity: Shoppers line up at the check out stand of a store in Moscow in 1991 as the USSR neared collapse
Looks more like the 1970s: Women patients sit at a table with food and fold their laundry in a rundown hospital ward in Moscow in July 1991

Looks more like the 1970s: Women patients sit at a table with food and fold their laundry in a rundown hospital ward in Moscow in July 1991
Taking a breather: Hospital nurse Ludmilla Subocheva smokes on her break in the dining room

Taking a breather: Hospital nurse Ludmilla Subocheva smokes on her break in the dining room
Unrest: Soldiers and tanks moved to Red Square to surround the Kremlin at the beginning of the coup. But by the end, much of the military decided to back Gorbachev

Unrest: Soldiers and tanks moved to Red Square to surround the Kremlin at the beginning of the coup. But by the end, much of the military decided to back Gorbachev
People Standing in bread line
People gather to mourn the three victims of the attempted coup at various impromptu memorials around Moscow in 1991
Grim: A line forms for bread in Moscow (left), while woman mourns the three victims of the attempted coup at various impromptu memorials around the city in 1991
Sombre: Three female Moscow department store workers watch a mass funeral from the store window following the failed coup attempt

Sombre: Three female Moscow department store workers watch a mass funeral from the store window following the failed coup attempt

Small comfort: Women stand next to several empty vodka bottles in bar in Moscow, showing that there was still money around for some products

Small comfort: Women stand next to several empty vodka bottles in bar in Moscow, showing that there was still money around for some products
Taking their minds off things: Siberian men relax outside a shack in the town of Novokuznetsk, which was hit hard by widespread economic problems in the early 90s

Taking their minds off things: Siberian men relax outside a shack in the town of Novokuznetsk, which was hit hard by widespread economic problems in the early 90s
No smiles: Female miners take a break from their work in the town of Novokuznetsk, Russia, in June 1991

No smiles: Female miners take a break from their work in the town of Novokuznetsk, Russia, in June 1991
Getting the bare essentials: Shoppers and vendors in a food market in Kaluga in November 1991

Getting the bare essentials: Shoppers and vendors in a food market in Kaluga in November 1991
Signs of desperation: People stand in line with cans for food supplies in Tula, Russia, in November 1991

Signs of desperation: People stand in line with cans for food supplies in Tula, Russia, in November 1991
Hoping for anything: Russians must wait in food lines to get whatever goods are available in Moscow

Hoping for anything: Russians must wait in food lines to get whatever goods are available in Moscow
Putting on a brave face: A woman stands near the back of a queue for a market in the Russian capital

Putting on a brave face: A woman stands near the back of a queue for a market in the Russian capital
Dark times: A coal miner who lives in an industrial community in Siberia enduring widespread economic hardships in June 1991

Dark times: A coal miner who lives in an industrial community in Siberia enduring widespread economic hardships in June 1991

Getting by: A woman plays her accordion along Arbat Street in Moscow, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare, as several men stand nearby watching her

Getting by: A woman plays her accordion along Arbat Street in Moscow, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare, as several men stand nearby watching her
A young girl plays her violin for a crowd on Moscow's Arbat Street with her dog lounging in the violin case
An accordionist performs on Arbat Street, a popular pedestrian thoroughfare
A young girl plays her violin for a crowd with her dog lounging in the violin case (left) and an accordionist (right) performs on Arbat Street in Moscow

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