“A refugee tells: ‘Before, we had a Motherland, now we don’t anymore. Who am I? My mother is Ukrainian, my father is Russian. I was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan, and married a Tatar. Who are my children? What nationality do they have? Our identification documents say that we are Russian. But we are not Russian, we are Soviet. There is no more place we can call our Motherland, the time of our Motherland is gone, the Soviet time is gone’” (Nivat, 2004.) The collapse of the USSR 30 years ago caught many by surprise: from statespersons to regular citizens, from the former Soviet space to the Western world. It was indeed the end of an era, a process that raised more questions and uncertainty than answers. The shock of the dismantling of the communist colossus was felt at all levels and had long-lasting echoes. Arguably one of the most significant impact that intrinsically carried a ripple effect was the emergent identity crisis, which is clearly reflected in Nivat’s quote from above. The crisis was so serious as it manifested on multiple levels: the territory and the population (as fundamental elements of identity) changed, the regime was new and still had to be clearly defined by the decision makers, all while the international status and relations altered.
30 years after, the fall of the Soviet Union brought to surface in the Russian and post-Soviet space perceptions and reactions that speak volumes about the current affairs both in Russia and in the former Soviet republics. The attention granted to the significance of the collapse of the system and of the country and to the fermenting question of “could the USSR have been saved?” have been apparent in the context of commemorating or celebrating (depending on where one stands) three decades since the disintegration of the USSR.
The fall of the USSR – tragedy or liberation?
The list of those that have consistently bestowed an important significance to the end of the Soviet Union is opened by president Vladimir Putin himself. For those that observe and examine closely the Russian arena it is fairly well-known that the Russian president has been describing the falling of the USSR as a “tragedy” ever since 2005. Then, in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, he urged everyone to “recognize that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. For the Russian people, it has become a real drama. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots found themselves outside the Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration spread to Russia itself.” Putin has been consistent ever since, repeating the idea with different occasions. The 30-years anniversary did not make an exception. In an interview for Russia 1’s special documentary – “Russia. Recent History”, the president reiterated his description of the process as a tragedy and as the “collapse of historical Russia”, since the state lost “40% of its territory, production facilities and population, as well as what has been accumulated over a thousand years”. The president’s focus on the Russian ethnics living outside Russia was once again highlighted, commenting that it was not possible for them to return to their homeland, they had no job or residence and concluding that “this is a great humanitarian tragedy, without any exaggeration”.
Whether it is a perception influenced by the public’s one, or the president’s persuasive attitude and comments shaped those of the citizens, or it is a double way street, as argued elsewhere, it seems nonetheless that the majority of the Russian population shares the leader’s vehement tone when it comes to the end of the Soviet state. A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and reported by Interfax revealed how 60% of the respondents regretted the end of the USSR, with an even higher number (82%) among those aged 46-60. Moreover, 45% declared that Russia had lost from the collapse of the Union, while 32% believed that it had gained. Another interesting finding of the study was that more than a half (52%) expressed their desire to recreate the USSR (in contrast to 31% who do not wish such a process). However, it seems that the desire is conscientiously perceived as an unattainable one, since 74% declared they were sure it was impossible to restore the Soviet state, with only 17% expecting such a possibility.
President Putin’s tragic dimension of the events of December 1991 seemed to have been accurately reflected in Vladimir Kornilov’s take on the matter. The political analyst’s article titled “Six people who killed the USSR: why did they do it” did not only set the accusatory tone from the very beginning, but the analysis was even started borrowing Putin’s evaluation: “Exactly 30 years ago, one of the largest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century took place – our common power, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was dissolved”. The analyst accused the Belovezha Accords to have been illegal and directly blamed the signatories for their selfish actions, which resulted in appalling consequences: “the collapse of the economy, the total impoverishment of the population, the destruction of the entire health care system and social security of the citizens – how many lives were taken by the poverty of the ‘holy nineties’! And all the subsequent wars, including the events in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Karabakh, Donbass, are all natural consequences of that fatal decision on ‘bloodless’ divorce”. With this final remark, Kornilov made a reference to the declarations of Mikhail Gorbachev and Stanislav Shushkevich, both praising with different occasions, and with different underlying intentions and tones, the bloodless character of the events.
Various other politicians expressed corresponding views. For example, the first deputy head of the international committee of the Federation Council, FSB General Vladimir Dzhabarov similarly evaluated the collapse as a tragedy, “because our big Motherland has disappeared from us. 15 independent republics have appeared. People were divided overnight.” Vladimir Zhirinovsky, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, did not miss the chance to express his opinion as well, in an RT article. The same noun was as the core of his assessment – “tragedy”, adding an attribute next to it – “terrible”. He also repeated president Putin’s description – “the main geopolitical tragedy of the last century”, adding that “probably, only the collapse of Tsarist Russia can compete with it in importance.” The same article brought forward Ruslan Khazbulatov’s stance as well. The first Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of the RSFSR called the fall of the Soviet Union “an irrational, destructive event of tremendous international significance” and made a very bold, serious calculation: “it destroyed the integrity and stability of the world”. The politician used the occasion to criticise the United States for not being able to cope with the responsibility it had after the USSR disappeared – attend to “all the destinies of the world”, arguably implying that the USSR had a similar role while it existed. Khazbulatov concluded that what the world is going through nowadays is a consequence of the “tragedy” which is the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some interesting, though analogous, angles came from analysts from the former Soviet Republics. Lenta collected a series of opinions of various origins on the events and implications of the disintegration of the USSR. One of them was expressed by Alexey Dzermant, a political scientist, publicist and philosopher from Minsk, who declared how he perceived the dismantling of the Soviet Union as “a personal tragedy and as a tragedy of a family, which was divided by new state borders”. Preserving a nostalgic tone, Bogdan Bezpalko, a political scientist from Kiev, recollected how, despite his “anti-communist nature” and his disapproval of the CPSU, he “met the collapse of the USSR precisely as a catastrophe, as the collapse of the country that we had been building together for centuries”.
The predominantly nostalgic tone seems to have fuelled some political and analytical circles both in Russia and in the former Soviet territory. One clear materialization of this longing for the USSR, apart from the abounding and colourful declarations mentioned above, which are not exhaustive in any dimension, but indicative of the nature of some parts of the Russian-speaking area, is the proposal coming from the Deputy Speaker of the Duma – Boris Chernyshov. The politician coming from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia submitted a bill to make December 26th “a day of remembrance of the end of the existence of the USSR”. Chernyshov motivated that the importance of such an endeavour laid in the irrefutable significance of the end of the Soviet Union – “the main geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, adding that “this year is 30 years since the collapse of a state great in its power and history – a country that defeated the most terrible enemy on Earth”. Furthermore, the politician stressed how this historical event of such importance needed to be remembered in order to understand “the consequences of the collapse of this country”.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in an article signed by Daria Garmonenko and titled “Nostalgia for the USSR reached legislative initiatives”, commented on the reasons behind such an initiative, while reflecting on the growing nostalgia expressed in the Russian public space. The author argues that these might be tributary to president Putin’s “fascination with history” or that they aim to somehow prepare the public for some forthcoming actions, one of which could be the acceleration of the integration process between Russia and Belarus. The article brought forward various comments coming from politicians; these overall asserted how the LDPR tried to “attract attention” (Emilia Slabunova, member of the Yabloko political committee), how it played on and fueled the nostalgia of the Russian citizens in order to gain political support (Sergey Obukhov, secretary of the CC of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation) and, possibly gain some credit for the idea in case the unification of the Russian Federation and Belarus would happen (Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group).
On the other side of the spectrum, the dichotomous pair of the “tragic” appearance of the fall of the USSR was unravelled by both journalists and politicians, even though it did not enjoy the same attention as the one revealed above. One very explicit perspective that contradicted openly president Putin’s was that of Leonid Guzman, politician and president of the public movement “Union of Right Forces”, in an article suggestively titled “Liberation Day”, published by Novaya Gazeta. The politician called the evaluation of the fall of the Soviet Union as the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century a “blasphemy” and argued that the USSR fell due to internal reasons, not to external pressure. Concomitantly, he appreciated Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Gaidar and other leaders of the Union republics for their “wisdom and restraint” which helped avoiding another Yugoslavian scenario. Moreover, he blamed the “new authorities” for the ongoing conflicts, not the authorities that led to the dismantling of the USSR. Arguably the highlight of his analysis, Guzman targeted directly “those who talk about disaster” and called them “surprisingly self-centred”. He indicated that the day when the USSR fell was, in fact, “the day of liberation of many peoples” and expressed clearly his interpretation of labelling the events as a “tragedy”: “To tell these people and their descendants that this, as they say, was a tragedy, that it would be better if everything remained as it was, that means treating them with the arrogance of the colonialists of the 17th century and it means not to consider them people at all.”
Apart from the former Soviet republics, now independent states, the politician explained how the end of the USSR symbolized a day of liberation for Russia too, as the country decided 30 years ago not to be “an occupier anymore, that it wanted to be not a metropolis, but a neighbour”, therefore being able to build friendly relations, not ones based on the threat of tanks. Building more on this path, Guzman appraised the bill submitted by Boris Chernyshov to make the 26th of December a day of mourning as being a correct idea only if the interest is to “increase tensions along the perimeter of our borders”. Alternatively, he offered another take on the matter: “Let’s declare this day a holiday, Liberation Day, inviting our neighbours to establish the same holiday in their own country. It will be similar to May 8-9 in today’s Europe, where this is an occasion to remember that even after such a terrible war like that [the Second World War], one can live in peace with each other, that dictators are enemies not only for strangers, but also of their own peoples.” As a conclusion, Guzman called December 26th – the first day without the USSR – “the day of liberation from the imperial burden – joyful both for us and for those who are no longer dependent on us”.
Guzman’s perspective on the significance of the fall of the USSR both for Russia and for the former Soviet republics and satellites is audacious, but certainly not unique, especially not outside Russia’s borders; nonetheless, it is still pertinent to mention them, as they were exposed in the Russian mainstream media. Lech Walesa, the first president of post-communist Poland, for example, called in an interview for TASS the collapse of the USSR as “a chance for renewal and development”. To support this view the former president recollected an old anecdote shared with Boris Yeltsin in one of their conversations: “I once spoke with President Yeltsin. And I told him that Russia itself is a wonderful country, like a beautiful Chaika car, but some sofas and chairs were hung on it as if some kind of moving was taking place, and this beautiful car was not visible. I said: ‘Throw it all away, leave only beautiful Russia, and whoever wants to join must be just as beautiful’”. Walesa, thus, appreciated that both Russia and the former Soviet space are better off without the Union. The former Polish president was joined in his declarations by other former leaders, such as Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus from 1991 to 1994, both signatories of the Belovezha Accords. While the former appraised that the people were ready for the end of the USSR and the leaders of the republics took responsibility to sort out the problems, the latter called “amazing” the fact that the USSR collapsed without a bloody conflict: “To divide the empire without a drop of blood is, in general, an amazing achievement”.
Could the USSR have been saved?
The “tragic” dimension granted to the fall of the USSR has implicitly drawn a possibility and even a certainty for some that the Soviet state could have been preserved. Particularly revealing are the views of those that claim the Soviet Union could have definitely been saved. References to the matter have been rather ample and flanked by interesting connotations hinting at how the USSR is currently perceived, at the reasons considered to be behind the fall, and at the perspective on the contemporary state of affairs.
Mikhail Gorbachev, as the leader in charge of the USSR when it collapsed, but surely benefitting from hindsight, could lead the way on the path of suggestions for how the state could have been preserved. The scenario he imagined was that of a Union of Sovereign States that could have worked even in the context of the republics declaring independence one by one. Gorbachev explained further his vision, saying that this Union would have been a confederal state, with extended powers for each republic, which would entail that each would become members of the UN, while the USSR would retain its place in the Security Council. What mattered the most, stressed the former president, was that unity of the armed forces and control over the nuclear weapons would have been maintained, concluding that “I am sure it would have been much better than what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union”. Andrei Grachev, former adviser to Gorbachev, backed this view, repeating the importance of creating a system based on “voluntary union”. Both Gorbachev and Grachev placed, therefore, the blame for the collapse of the USSR in December 1991 on the actions of the GKChP and the actions of Yeltsin and the other signatories of the Belovezha Accords.
Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, on the other hand, placed the blame on Gorbachev’s lack of “political will” and found the key to the salvaging of the Union in the Soviet president’s “full constitutional right to disavow the document [Belovezha Accords], as well as to bring the negotiators to justice.” Hence, the politician, who saw the fall of the USSR as a tragic event, as stated above, was confident that the USSR could have been saved if Gorbachev had acted swiftly and decisively. His opinion was shared by others as well. One can mention, for example, Ruslan Khasbulatov’s perspective, who declared that Gorbachev “brought the state to the point that it was already disintegrating” or Dmitry Novikov’s – Deputy chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, who blamed Gorbachev for not complying with the Constitution of the USSR.
It seems that one of most popular takes on the matter was the perspective that the USSR could have been saved if efficient reforms, particularly economic ones, had been implemented. Nikolai Ryzhkov, former chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, launched such a claim, for example. One noteworthy angle, however, that transpired in the Russian arena while discussing the feasibility of saving the USSR while highlighting the importance of carrying economic reforms was a parallel with China. One of the first to have tackled this subject last year was Anatoly Chubais, in an interview for Kommersant. When asked by Viktor Loshak, Russian journalist with a rich experience and currently director of strategy for Kommersant Publishing House, about how he would comment on the Russian Communists’ claim that the Communist Party survival in China led to a great development – indicator that this has been a discussing point in Russia – Chubais argued that the source of success in China were the economic reforms that were carried “within the existing state”. Chubais, as a self-declared liberal imperialist, stressed the importance of the Chinese managing to preserve their state, while the Soviet Union collapsed; this would arguably imply that proper reforms lacked in the USSR which could have helped preserve the state. Sergey Baburin, Russian nationalist politician, made a similar comment in his attempt to explain how the Soviet Union could have been preserved and offered the Chinese example, stressing the same economic transformations and concluding that “we would have been even more successful if a single country had been preserved”.
Furthermore, it is interesting to notice how the Chinese media did not miss the chance to comment on the topic in the context of the anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet state, information that was brought to the Russian speakers by TASS. Building on ideas tangential to the ones from the above, the Chinese newspaper Global Times exposed how what happened with the Soviet Union “became an incentive to strengthen the new development model of the PRC and helped it find a more successful path of socialist construction”. The Chinese author went on, calling the collapse of the USSR a “vaccine” for China (interesting choice of words during a pandemic), as it offered them the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, to understand “what transformations can destroy a great power and a great party” and find new paths of development. Thus, the failure of one turned into the success of another.
On the other hand, there have also been many voices that utterly supported the idea that the Soviet Union headed to its inexorable collapse and there was little or nothing that could have been done to preserve it. One provocative approach, but arguably not surprising considering the current state of bilateral relations, was disseminated by those that consider that the USSR had in the end no chance to survive and that was because of Ukraine’s leaders and actions. One pertinent article on the topic was published by TASS and was titled “Glue the pieces together: after the putsch, Gorbachev made his last attempt to save the USSR”. The title is promptly continued with the first sentence of the article, which makes the view of the author very clear: “Ukraine’s position prevented this from happening”. Thus, the author argues that, while Gorbachev put considerable effort in counteracting every attack on the existence of the Soviet Union, the final and decisive blows came from Ukraine which not only refused to participate in negotiations on the creation of a confederal state, but also took further steps into dismantling the state. Moreover, Leonid Kravchuk was nominated to be “the leading, but underrated figure” of the last weeks of the USSR. The “last act of the Soviet drama”, therefore, was considered to be the referendum Ukraine carried on the 1st of December which, the author claimed, ultimately convinced even Boris Yeltsin of the idea that “without Ukraine, a single state, albeit a confederal one, cannot exist”.
Vladimir Kornilov, in his RIA Novosti article, unequivocally continued on the same path in highlighting a destructive impact of the 1st of December 1991 referendum. Kornilov went further into building a contrast between that electoral process and the one of 2014 in Crimea; he used this occasion to accuse the West of double standards. Thus, the analyst claimed that the referendum on the Ukrainian independence was not carried transparently and democratically, as the authorities banned any campaigning against independence, with the exception of Crimea – which was “seething its own completely separate political life” and Donbass – where it was possible to print leaflets and distribute them underground. However, Kornilov underlined, the Western countries did not have any objections in 1991 and the process did not “embarrass” them at that moment. Contrastingly, their attitude was completely different in 2014 when, despite the fact that the referendum in Crimea was in Kornilov’s view “an example of the free expression of the will of citizens”, the British Foreign Office, for example, “proved to us that the Crimean poll was being conducted in violation of the Constitution of Ukraine”. Furthermore, the analyst attacked the signing of the Belovezha Accords, imagining an analogy applied to nowadays realities: “If we continue the analogies with Ukraine, then this is the same as the mayors of Kiev and Kharkov (the historical capitals of the Ukrainian SSR) and, say, the governor of the Odessa region would decide to liquidate the Ukrainian state as such”.
30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union it seems that for some the memory of the Soviet times and the state’s last breaths are not only recent, but very much alive. The passionate and arguably emotional perspectives that have transpired in the Russian space on the 30th anniversary of the end of the USSR indeed give invaluable and abundant material for the scholars and researchers of both the Soviet times and the current state of affairs in Russia and in the former Soviet republics and satellites. What seems to definitely come to surface is that people construct history – while the events unfold but also (or mostly) after they happen.
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