“It was a wonderful winter evening with a soft snowfall – real crisp weather. Shushkevich, Kravchuk, and I had gathered at the residence of the chairman of the Belarus Supreme Soviet in the Belovezhsky Nature Reserve in Belarus. We were meeting to decide the fate of the Soviet Union” (Yeltsin, 1994, p.111). This is how president Boris Yeltsin described in his memoires the context surrounding the signing on the 8th of December 1991 of the “Agreement on the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States” or more commonly known as Belavezha Accords, which announced the cessation of the USSR. A couple of weeks later, on December 25th, at 19:35, the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin; ten minutes later, the Russian tricolour flag was raised. Symbolically, that marked the end of the Soviet Union.
Ever since, the dissolution of the USSR has been arguably one of the constantly recurring subjects in the Russian public space, even more so at its 30th anniversary (or commemoration – the preferred term varies). The month of December 2021, but not exclusively – since growing, but not overwhelming, interest on the topic has been evidently expressed in the preceding months as well-, has gathered some relevant and illustrative discussions on the events of December 1991. Undeniable attention has been granted in all spheres – from media to academia. Surely, it could be observed how there was a clear interest in popularizing the events of December 1991 in particular and those of 1991 in general (or, better said, those of the last year of the USSR), in order to familiarize the Russian-speaking public with the current take on the end of the Soviet Union. Among those publications that followed this path, one could mention Interfax’s chronicle of December 1991 carrying the main events of each day, Nastoyashee Vremya’s – “The Fall of the USSR: how it was”, RBK’s multiple articles on the topic (for example, the one dedicated to the Belovezha accords, or the one focusing on the last day of the Soviet Union), or TASS’ “History of the collapse of the USSR. Prerequisites and basic steps”. The list is not exhaustive.
However, apart from the informative nature of some of the media and academia outputs, an overall perusal of the discussions has unveiled some of the main matters that have been emphasized, which will be unravelled in a two-part exposé: the contemporary significance and perception of the USSR (part 1); the significance of the collapse of the USSR and whether the Union could have been saved (part 2).
What happened in December 1991?
Subsequent to the attempted coup of August 1991, the spiralling events that followed led inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After a tumultuous autumn, which included Yeltsin’s November decree banning the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the last month of the year debuted with the Ukrainian referendum which approved with an overwhelming majority the declaration of independence released by the Verkhovna Rada on August 24th 1991.
This step was followed by the meeting of the leaders of three of the Soviet republics – Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine – in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, Belarus, on December 8th, where an accord was reached and signed. The text, in its first paragraph, proclaimed undeniably that “the USSR, as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality, ceases to exist”. Further on, the fourteen articles of the Agreement laid the foundations and principles of a new type of relation between the contracting parties, a new structure under the name of “the Commonwealth of Independent States” (Art.1) and stressed the nullity of any Soviet norms (Art.11) and bodies (Art.14). The new formation – CIS – was to be “open for accession by all member states of the former USSR, as well as for other states that share the goals and principles of this Agreement” (Art.13).
The Agreement was quickly ratified by the legislative bodies of the parties: Ukraine and Belarus on December 10th and Russia on December 12th. Discussions emerged on the legality of such actions, but there were no decisive actions taken by any body or institution that altered the process, which was pursued and strengthened on December 21st, in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Then, the three signatories of the Belavezha Accords were joined by the leaders of eight other Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Republic of Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) into signing the Alma-Ata Protocols. The Protocols included a Declaration which restated that the USSR ceased to exist and that the members of the CIS would interact “on the basis of the principle of equality through corroborating institutions, formed on a parity basis and acting in the manner of a financial agreement between the members of the Commonwealth”.
On the 25th of December 1991, in a televised speech, the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned or, in his words, “I terminate my activity as President of the USSR.” In his lengthy speech, Gorbachev restated his support for “the independence of peoples, for the sovereignty of the republics. But also for the preservation of the union state, the integrity of the country”. Despite his opposition to the demise of the Union, the president accepted he could not dispute the outcome and detailed the endeavours and results achieved under his leadership, highlighting repeatedly how change takes time and significant effort: “cardinal changes in such a huge country, and even with such a legacy, cannot pass painlessly, without difficulties and upheavals”. Concluding, the statesman reminded the audience that “we are the heirs of a great civilization, and now it depends on each and every one to revive it to a new modern and worthy life” and expressed his confidence that “sooner or later our common efforts will bear fruit, our peoples will live in a prosperous and democratic society”. Soon after the speech, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin, and replaced with the Russian tricolour, with few spectators to witness the event.
The Soviet Union – majestic or oppressive?
The debate on the end of the Soviet Union included inevitably opinions and remarks on its significance. These are even more pertinent as they express perceptions that benefited from hindsight, from 30 years of personal, but also social, political, economic development that the issuers have undergone.
One relevant source on the contemporary perception of the USSR in the Russian space comes from an extensive project done by RBK named “30 years without the USSR”. Part of the project, a poll conducted in collaboration with VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Centre – a state-owned institution) showed how around 80% of the Russian population could decipher correctly the abbreviation of the USSR (with lower numbers for the younger population), while only 6% could name accurately all 15 former Soviet republic. It seems that the most forgotten name was that of the RSFSR – the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, with only 28% of the respondents mentioning it. The best remembered republics were Ukraine (65%) and Belarus (59%).
Apart from the awareness on these objective realities, the poll included current personal perceptions of the former state. Hence, 21% of the participants in the study mentioned a positive perception of the Soviet Union, indicating concepts such as “belief in a bright future, stability, tranquillity or confidence in the future”. Furthermore, 13% associated the USSR with positive emotions, nostalgia, while 11% with childhood and adolescence or with the youth of their parents and 10% with the multinational character of the country. Clearly, these answers were more often produced by the older or middle-aged people. For the younger population (under the age of 24), the USSR was mainly associated with the state symbols – the flag, the anthem, the coat of arms. However, the poll unveiled also some negative perceptions among the respondents, mostly among younger people, though the numbers are lower. The most prominent was the association with the shortage of goods, queues in stores, coupons (5%), followed by the restricted freedom, deceiving the people, stagnation and poverty of the population (4%). The Red Terror, repression, executions and the GULAG were mentioned by just 1% of the respondents. Political analyst Alexander Pozhalov commented on the results, concluding how the prevalence of positive associations with the Soviet era was consistent with the “unfavourable socio-economic trends in modern Russia”. Plus, the analyst stressed how the position of the authorities and of the politicians have a clear impact on these perceptions, mentioning how many Russians agree with president Vladimir Putin’s repeatedly voiced opinion that the USSR’s collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
The overall nostalgic perception could be stressed by cultural indicators of the poll, with 82% of the respondents having a favourite Soviet film, 61% a favourite Soviet song and 55% a favourite Soviet book. Among the titles mentioned, the most popular film was “Moscow does not believe in tears” (6%), the most popular songs – the anthem of the USSR and “Katyusha” (4% each) and the most popular book – “How the Steel was Tempered” by Nikolai Ostrovsky. Alexander Uzhankov, vice-rector of MGIK – Moscow State Institute of Culture, named the choice for the books loved by the Russians “predictable”, commenting that “Ostrovsky creates an ideal hero of the Soviet era – Pavel Korchagin, who is ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of building future communism”.
Public opinion, as expected, was doubled by individual reactions coming from journalists, politicians, members of the academia, and so on. The nostalgic, positive perceptions found echoes in, for example, the remarks of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the last chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, who called the USSR a system that “was so big, so majestic, and grandiose. It was a beacon of hope for millions of people” which could not have ended on its own, but it was rather “deliberately destroyed”. Another positive reflection came from Petr Petrovsky, a political scientist and an expert of the Belarussian public association “Belaya Rus”. In a lengthy expose done by Lenta.ru, he appraised how the Soviet period in the history of Belarus “has an unambiguously positive assessment”, bringing up multiple points to support his statement, such as how the October Revolution brought self-determination for Belarussians and “an opportunity for the emergence of Belarussian statehood” and how the USSR “turned Belarussians from an illiterate peasant nation of semi-serfs into a nation of engineers, cosmonauts, scientists, and cultural workers.” Petrovsky concluded his evaluation stating that the Soviet Union brought “colossal” modernization for Belarus and made it possible for the Belarussians to enter “into the family of highly developed modern nations”.
On the other hand, there were also voices who brought to surface negative connotations of the USSR, consistent with the aspects highlighted in the poll as well. Kommersant prepared a special series as well to mark the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, collecting a series of interviews with former or present-day politicians or members of economic or cultural life of the Soviet and post-Soviet times. One of them brought forward Anatoly Chubais, Russian businessperson and an influential character of president Yeltsin’s administration, mostly known for the role he played in the privatization process. Chubais, defining himself as an “imperialist liberal”, recollected in the interview how he started every morning of his life during the Soviet times, with a “disgusting lie”: “In the morning you turn on the radio and hear a joyful voice: ‘Hello, guys. Pioneer Dawn’ […] But this is a disgusting lie from the first to the last word. 100% of what you see, hear, understand, read is a lie. And everyone understands perfectly well that this is a lie. It worked like that”. He continued his reminiscence with underlining how he was in contradiction with his father, who was devoted to the regime and its ideology, since he had been in the Second World War (or “The Great Patriotic War”, as Russians call it) and had been witness to the first decades of the USSR, concluding that “what was a lie to me was a normal life for him”. Hence, this perception made Chubais develop different political views and contribute to the creation of a new system in Russia.
Leonid Guzman, president of the public movement “Union of Right Forces”, joined the club of negative perceptions of the USSR, expressing his in the article suggestively titled “Liberation Day”, published by Novaya Gazeta. The politician described the Union as being an empire, “based on force – sometimes on the force of habit, on the feeling of the impossibility of change, but often on direct military force”, which sometimes surpassed the borders of the state and acted in other countries as well (Hungary, Czechoslovakia are among those mentioned by Guzman). Moreover, he criticized the Union to the extent of saying that “no one needed the Soviet empire” and the evidence for that was its rapid collapse “in three days”.
The leaders of the USSR – Heroes or antiheroes?
Consistent with the dichotomous view on the Soviet times is also the dichotomy regarding the main characters of the USSR. RBK led the way on this path as well, with its extensive poll on the matter. Relevantly, one discovery of the poll reflected on the heroes and antiheroes of the Soviet Union, which could inspire numerous observations. On the heroes’ side, the most popular open answer was the famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (41%), followed by the Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov – mostly associated with the “Great Patriotic War” (22%) and, on the third place, by Joseph Stalin (20%). The list included also the names of Leonid Brezhnev (9%), Sergey Korolev – the head of the Soviet space program (8%), and Vladimir Lenin (7%), etc.
RBK brought forward some observations on the findings from Elena Mikhailova, adviser to the VTsIOM general director, who considered the top choice – Yuri Gagarin – an expected one, since “the image of Gagarin is symbolic of the Soviet era, one of the most emotionally close images for all age groups of Russians”. Political analyst Alexei Makarkin, first vice-president of the Centre for Political Technologies, associated with Carnegie Moscow Centre, commented that the first Russian cosmonaut is “a consensus figure, there are no ideological questions to him”. It could be argued that it is not coincidental that in 2021 Russia celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first human flight in the outer space. The Russian authorities popularized this achievement of the Soviet Union through numerous posters and billboards on the streets of the cities, easily noticeable, for example, in the bus stations of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. One could use this case to appraise the effects of contemporary propaganda on the public opinion.
On the antiheroes side the list started with the last leader of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev (20%), followed by a three-way tie, each with 11%: Lavrentiy Beria (chief of the Soviet Security, associated with the Stalinist purges), Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. The next place, with 9%, was filled by Boris Yeltsin. Leonid Brezhnev (5%) and Vladimir Lenin (4%) made the anti-heroes list as well. Makarkin explained the top choice for Gorbachev among Russians as, despite starting the liberalization process, the politician looked weak in the public’s eyes and “Russia historically loves strong leaders and does not forgive weakness”. Hence, since Gorbachev lost the control of the USSR and the competition with Boris Yeltsin, he is castigated by the Russian public and historically punished accordingly. That is also why, in Makarkin’s opinion, Yeltsin is to a lesser extend an antihero, since he is the one that defeated Gorbachev, thus a stronger leader than the latter was. Elena Mikhailova added to these observations, connecting the negative response towards the first and last president of the USSR with a “collective nostalgia for the Soviet era”.
Arguably one of the most interesting, but probably not surprising, findings of the poll was Stalin’s positioning on both lists. Political analysts Makarkin noted how, despite the multi-layered character of the Soviet leader and his multiple negative dimensions, what prevailed in the Russians’ evaluation was his dominant image of a strong leader. It could definitely be convincingly argued how this is one fundamental element of the Russian political culture and Russian identity in general. Makarkin’s comment is supported by extensive research done by various historians and theoreticians that have highlighted the weight of a strong leader in the Russian identity (see, for example, Ponsard, 2007 or Duncan, 2002). Beyond these academic evaluations, the growingly positive perception on Stalin has not been reflected only by the recent RBK study, but also through empirical observation in the recent years of the Russian space. A close examination could reveal how there is a revival of Stalinist nostalgia, illustrated through various outlets, from an increased number of books published and read having Stalin at the core of the examination to street manifestations (i.e. people carrying Stalin’s portrait on various occasions – for example, 1st of 9th of May). This is also supported by a 2019 study of Levada Centre, labelled as “foreign agent” by the Russian Ministry of Justice, which showed how the admiration, respect and sympathy towards Stalin had reached a record-high (51% of the respondents).
Echoes of the findings of the poll were, unsurprisingly, cast in the Russian media as well, mainly through the voices of journalists and politicians. One observation that could be launched is that, since most focused on analysing the fall of the USSR and since, on the one hand, many views are nostalgic, hence criticise the end of the Union, while on the other hand, some are critical of the system as a whole, the main focus was on the antiheroes of the Soviet past. Considering all these, it could be noticed how president Boris Yeltsin occupied a higher position in the media’s top regarding the antiheroes of the Soviet Union, being considered by many outlets the main culprit for the fall of the USSR.
For example, following the first path, RIA Novosti published on the 8th of December – on the 30th anniversary of the Belovezha Accords, an article suggestively titled “Six people who killed the USSR: why did they do it”. The author, Vladimir Kornilov, political analyst of Ukrainian origin, decisively criticised the creation and signing of the agreement that announced the end of the USSR and the birth of CIS, called the actions illegal and concluded that the “personal ambitions” of the signatories – Yeltsin, Kravchuk, Shushkevich, Burbulis, Fokin and Kebich – were behind this destructive result. Moreover, Kornilov commented, they didn’t even announce Gorbachev first on their action, but president George Bush, which was a “shame”, as described also by Gorbachev. Since these were the culprits, Gorbachev was presented by the political analyst in a positive light, as he was considered to be the “only legitimate authority” and that he was taken by surprise and betrayed by the actions of those that met in Belarus to decide the fate of the Union without his consent or knowledge.
Yeltsin’s critique was pursued by multiple outlets. RIA Novosti, through another article, quoted Alexander Rutskoy, vice-president of Russia from July 1991 to October 1993, in describing the president’s inebriated state when flying in to Belarus to sign the accords and his arrogant attitude saying that “he was a top official and did not need authorization” to decide or sign anything. Simultaneously, the former vice-president highlighted president’s Gorbachev’s weak nature (which complies with the public opinion’s view) as he did not decisively react when Rutskoy went to him and urged him to take action: “he was shaking all over, was pale, sweating. I realized it was useless to talk to him, and had to leave”.
TASS, on the other hand, dedicated an entire article to show how Gorbachev made significant efforts to save the USSR throughout 1991, and tried to find a potential solution after each new hit that came to attack the very existence of the state, but he was sidelined by the actions of Yeltsin, his team and collaborators, who were considered the ones responsible for the fall of the union. President Yeltsin’s negative perception found echoes in other areas as well, such as the film-industry, expressed by the director of Mosfilm, Karen Shakhnazarov, who cried for the collapse of the USSR, despite considering it to be an “objective process” since “everything was heading towards the collapse and would continue to fall apart”, he appraised that Yeltsin’s goal was to get Gorbachev out of the Kremlin, as he did not really care about anything and “did not think about any reorganization of the empire”.
A note-worthy entry regarding Gorbachev was another article published by RIA Novosti, named “Gorbachev will see many more amazing things” and signed by the journalist Maksim Sokolov, who launched a veiled critique towards Yeltsin, Barbulis and Khasbulatov in his description of them taking over the power in the Kremlin: they “came to the presidential office with a bottle of whiskey and immediately opened it, celebrating the victory. With such a solemn ceremony, the new Russia began”. In the same time, he called Gorbachev “a monarch in exile”, implicitly – not directly – underlining his lack of decisive action, apart from the speech he held before handing over the reins of power to Yeltsin, and concluded that “the last president of the USSR, like the magician Merlin, remains alone in the enchanted forest”.
The dichotomous nature of the Russian public space was arguably evident once again with the occasion of the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. The passionate stances Russian journalists, analysts, politicians, but also simple members of the Russian society have taken on the matter at hands could show how history – recent or not, relatively objectively presented or politicized – plays an important role in constructing and nuancing contemporary perceptions and identities.
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