Thursday, December 29, 2011

Post-Imperium, 20 Years On

The end of the Soviet Union can be traced back to many different dates, events or even individuals; yet in my mind the clearest of them all is December 25, 1991 -- the day Gorbachev resigned as the president of the USSR and the day the latter ceased to exist. Officially. [And no, we don't celebrate Christmas. Especially not that day.]

I have been meaning to write this post all year, and yet, due to various circumstances it comes in the end of this year, with a couple of days' delay to mark the official 20th anniversary of the "collapse". Despite having had the opportunity of spending the first several years of my life in the Soviet Union, my earliest solid memories - perhaps unfortunately - go back to the post-Soviet "transition" years, which seem to have been perpetually dark and cold, occasionally bloody, and mostly - though not always - unpleasant. That is how I would explain my interest in - if not obsession with - post-Soviet international affairs, whether global or regional.

That is also why December 2011 seems to me as the perfect time for reflection and (re)assessment of balances, disbalances, and possible future trajectories in international and domestic politics of the region. This, perhaps, becomes even more salient in light of the most recent events in Russia, the ex-superpower and the former core of "Eurasianism". I'm obviously far from being in a position to provide anything even close to an attempt at comprehensive analysis in this regard, especially since volumes could be and have been written on the subject. 

Image from RT.

Yet, now that I've stated my disclaimer, I just wanted to look back at a tiny sample of related highlights from the past year.

The best place to start is certainly my favorite Russia Today. In an attempt at what it calls "providing the Russian view to the world" or essentially "public diplomacy", the network has been airing programming dedicated to the anniversary since early 2011. It has a special "online exclusive" section on the subject, featuring various articles, commentary and background information. Perhaps most notably, it released a whole series of documentaries - "20 Years Post-Soviet" - on all former member states, which obviously intended to provide a more or less comprehensive analysis of the events and developments in individual countries since 1991, from the Russian perspective. Cheesy, sometimes too oversimplified, and at times bordering propaganda, I would say this was a lame attempt. One just has to see the differences in the choice of subjects and themes covered in the episodes on Georgia, Latvia and, say, Armenia, and the difference in the way issues were framed... Of course, this is the official Russian view of these events; and yet, I doubt these series do much good to perceptions of Russia abroad, much less to improving these.

Perhaps as a reflection of the ambivalence about the fall of the USSR still common throughout the region, RT also featured pieces such as this:

Then, there was this:

Oh well.

Another highlight that deserves attention is a joint project between the National Security Archive and Carnegie Moscow Center: a compendium of documents and a conference on the breakup of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev himself made an appearance at the conference, which was apparently hosted by his foundation in Moscow. Yet, the most notable part is that these documents are available for free download online, and feature a sample of cables from the US Embassy in Moscow, CIA intelligence assessments, White House memoranda, and Politburo reports. Would love to see a more comprehensive bouquet some day...

Staying with the Carnegie Center: its Moscow director Dmitry Trenin published a book earlier this year, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story. The title says it all. Although I had gotten the book soon after it came out, I just started reading it today, but would certainly recommend it to anyone interested. Trenin argues that Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union - along with other member states - is very different from other former empires and, therefore, should be analyzed as a unique, if not a special, case. He defines "post-imperium" as a "fairly prolonged exit from the imperial condition" and suggests that many of the "imperial" features persist to this day:

"Domestically, today’s Russian Federation is a neo-tsarist, mildly authoritarian polity. Its current operation formula can be termed authoritarianism with the consent of the governed. As an international actor, Russia is at a point where it recognizes all former borderland republics as separate countries, even if it does not yet see all of them as foreign states." (pp. 13-14)

No, this is not just another oversimplified account of what happened in the late 1980s, how or why. Rather, it's a look at what came after -- or, at least an attempt at it. And although I have only made it through the first chapter and, therefore, cannot yet speak of the entire book, Trenin sold it to me with a paragraph in his foreword:

"I’d like to address this book above all to post-Cold War generations around the world […]. To them, the Soviet Union is ancient history. They may hear stories that it fell apart as a result of the confrontation with the West, led by President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, with important assistance from the forces behind the iron curtain, symbolized by the Polish workers’ leader Lech Walesa, who went on to become president of Poland. They may hear about Russia’s undying imperialist urge, which leaves its smaller neighbors in perennial danger and in need of outside protection. They may pick up a copy of the Economist and wonder, as I sometimes do, why its cartoons depict other nations as human being, and only Russia, by tradition, if not by some unwritten law, is represented by an animal. In this book, I will seek to show that there is a portrait behind the cartoon and a story behind the headline." (p xiv)

Looking forward to reading the rest, and especially the last section on "Culture, Ideology and Religion"!

Yes indeed, the Soviet Union fell apart by an attempt at "modernization" and gradual change. Fortunately, there was little bloodshed, relatively speaking at least. Perhaps an interesting parallel can be drawn to all that is happening today in Russia, itself a result of modernization, be it driven by the Internet or Medvedev's malfunctioning dreams. Yet, as Trenin correctly points out, another potential parallel is 1917, which is why the words "revolution" and "change" do not necessarily have a positive connotation in Russian.

What comes next in Russia, or the former Soviet region itself, remains to be seen. Thus far the experience has not been all that great, however. Regional and civil wars, neo-autocrats and dynastic regimes, economic and social havoc, poverty... I often have difficulty explaining to those who have never experienced all this themselves as to why many of the "older" generations feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union, despite all the horrors they endured (sometimes, I catch myself wondering about it, too). They are often derided as brainwashed and carefully engineered "Homos Sovieticae"; but well, that is just wrong. What they are nostalgic about is not their great leader or brown school uniforms. Rather, it is the stability and a semblance of predictability, both in great demand and very short supply all over the post-Soviet space in the past two decades. That is why.

That is why people would watch and contribute to TV channels and websites such as That is why my generation - born right in the midst of this chaos - can feel somewhat nostalgic of the times we never really experienced, but feel we know well. That is also why I rarely have difficulty in connecting with others from the former Soviet states (provided they are open to it, of course). We were all born in the USSR. Although we are happy it's gone and certainly do not wish it back, we had to live through "transition" (and some of us saw it at its worst), which is still "in progress". Most importantly, we are yet to see "democracy" and "freedom" to truly materialize in our part of the world, although it was promised to us before we were even born.

20 years is a lifetime, and that is why it's a big deal. For us, at least.


  1. This was a very well-written post and a great overview of public opinion on the collapse of the USSR for those who are new to the subject. Thanks! I always love your links, by the way; how do you find these great videos and websites?

  2. Thanks Nareg! :)

    Regarding the links: I try to keep track of RT, usually (and quite obviously), while the others I kept coming across throughout the year, so just put them all together here. Google also helps :P