The Fall of the Soviet Union and Beyond, 1982–2013

The collapse of the Soviet Union was surprisingly swift and relatively peaceful. Nonetheless, its consequences are much harder to assess. In most of the successor states, the 1990s and even sometimes the 2000s were years of great economic hardship for most of the population, even if a few enterprising (and frequently criminal) types made their fortune. Russia may have turned the corner in this respect in the last decade, but wealth remains very unevenly distributed among the population, and doubts remain about the stability of the Russian economy.

Only in the three Baltic countries, lucky enough to be welcomed into the fold of NATO and the European Union, a reasonably stable democracy has emerged in which human rights and freedoms are adequately protected (although the Russian minority in Latvia might disagree). Elsewhere far more governments have become increasingly authoritarian, treating political opponents in a crude and often violent fashion. It is too early to draw up a balance sheet, but the promise of the early post-Soviet days has certainly faded. More serious problems may yet develop as a result of the Soviet legacy, from massive ecological disasters to more intense foreign, civil, or independence wars.


Religious observance in the Soviet Union was actively discouraged. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church as well as Islam had managed to carve out a precarious existence since Stalin had reached out to religious leaders in the dark days of the Second World War. It is evident that even if many of the Orthodox clerics were expected to inform on their flock to the KGB, priests and monks catered as best as they could to the spiritual needs of the Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarusyn Christians. While the church already stood under close state supervision, under both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev further antireligious campaigns were organized. KGB types broke up processions and harassed those who tried to attend religious services. The priests Nikolai Eshliman (b. 1929) and Gleb Iakunin (b. 1934) were sent to camp for writing an open letter to the patriarch in 1965 denouncing the Orthodox Church’s abject subordination to the authorities.

Religious opposition was smoldering in the Soviet Union, but the extent of religious belief or the adherence to organized religion such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism (prevalent especially in Lithuania and parts of Ukraine), Lutheranism (in Estonia and Latvia), or Islam (Shi'a in Azerbaijan and Sunni in the Caucasus and Central Asia) is impossible to assess. In 1937, a census showed alarming levels of religiosity for the Communist regime, with more than half the population bold enough to state to the census takers that they were religious. One can surmise that many more people feigned atheism. This high proportion of religious believers was a key cause for Stalin to order the census’s suppression. It is obvious from post-Soviet developments that in most Islamic areas (perhaps the Tatar regions of the Russian Republic excepted), adherence to the religion remained strong thereafter. But this was an Islam that was accepting of many of the tenets of modern life, rather than calling for a society organized according to Sharia law.

Even some Protestant sectarians survived Stalin, as did some Old Believers; Protestants in particular, though, were mercilessly persecuted for decades. The lack of tolerance of revivalist Protestantism persists in Russian society today. Many Russians consider Southern Baptists or Seventh-Day Adventists as alien to their traditions and culture. In Russia, meanwhile, religious mysticism had and has its adherents (Madame Helena Blavatsky [1831–1891] and G. I. Gurdjieff [ca. 1866–1949] were natives of the tsarist empire, after all). Already in the late Soviet period, rumors persisted that Brezhnev made use of clairvoyants and spiritual healers, echoing President Ronald Reagan’s use of astrologers. Certainly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a short period of bewildering religious experimentation occurred. Hare Krishna believers chanted in the Moscow subway, and American proselytizers spread the gospel according to Joseph Smith (1805–1849) or L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986) across the former Soviet Empire.

The Orthodox Church has experienced an increase of its power and influence since 1991, but the church often seems to be used by the current Russian rulers in a Voltairian manner. In other words, it functions as a sort of auxiliary to the government in safeguarding the country’s stability by advocating loyalty and obedience. This is of course an ancient tradition in Russian history. For the Slavic parts of the Soviet Union (as well as for Armenians and Georgians who adhere to their own versions of Orthodox Christianity), however, modern secularism dominated the collective mind-set, both in the age of Brezhnev and in the post-Soviet period. Religious ceremonies (such as the sacraments of baptism or marriage) sometimes mark the important watershed moments in the life of the individual, but few Russians lead the lives of Christian zealots. Whether or not the result of the activities of Soviet militant atheists, religious fervor is mitigated by a general belief in the capability of human beings to change the circumstances of this life in a rational manner, using the insights of science and modern technology.

Given the sudden nationalist boom of the 1980s, it is remarkable how little the Soviet authorities in the 1960s and 1970s were plagued by nationalist movements. Perhaps Stalin’s intimidation had worked in this respect. There lingered the deterrent effect of the vicious antinationalist campaigns and deportations of ethnic groups whose allegiance to the Soviet Union was questionable (at least in Stalin’s eyes). After the Second World War, as we saw, Ukrainian partisans fought for almost five years a guerrilla war against detachments of the Red Army and People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) in the western parts of their country (which had not been Soviet before 1939). The retribution was ferocious (as was the treatment of rebellious Baltic nationalists rounded up from 1945 onward), involving mass executions and camp sentences for tens of thousands. It seemed to have done the trick, however, for after Stalin’s death, few massive nationalist protests flared up. Oddly, among the exceptions were the Georgians, who demonstrated in 1956 against Khrushchev’s criticism of their compatriot Stalin. But among the dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s, only a few isolated individuals who called for autonomy or independence of their Soviet republic could be encountered.

The largest nationalist movement of the Brezhnev era was that of the Crimean Tatars, who, different from the Chechens, Ingushetians, and others, had not been permitted after 1953 to return to the peninsula from their place of exile in Central Asia. This seems to have been primarily a consequence of the fear of conflicts erupting between the Tatars and Slavic settlers who had moved into the premises vacated by the Tatars at the end of the Second World War. Perhaps the strategic location of the Crimea further worried the Soviet leaders. The loyalty of these Tatars to the Soviet state, given their treatment by it, was thought to be dubious. Such fickle allegiance was not desirable among a community that would inhabit a stretch of land harboring a key Soviet naval port and facing the shores of NATO member Turkey (and there were historical and religious ties between Tatars and Turks, of course). Crimean-Tatar protest remained peaceful, even if their most celebrated champion, the Red Army veteran officer Petro Grigorenko (1907–1987), was dispatched to a psychiatric clinic in the 1960s. Like other dissidents under Brezhnev, he was injected with psychotropic drugs to cure him of his alleged delusions.

The first sign of mass demonstrations against Soviet rule occurred only after Brezhnev’s death, in December 1986. Kazakh demonstrators reacted to Mikhail Gorbachev’s replacement of the thoroughly corrupt Kazakh party leader Dinmukhamed Kunaev (1912–1993) with an ethnic Russian. In the Kazakh capital Almaty and elsewhere, these nationalist protests were met with a heavy hand, costing at least 168 people their lives. While these demonstrations were orchestrated by the local Kazakh bosses, they nonetheless were infused with genuinely felt nationalist passion. From that point onward, nationalism caught fire across the Soviet Union, and nationalist opposition to Soviet rule became a key contributing factor to the collapse of the USSR.

Communists from Marx and Lenin onward had believed that nationalism, as a sort of naive capitalist phenomenon, would be trumped by communism with its universal promise of equality, freedom, and justice. Ironically, Soviet Communism ultimately succumbed to nationalism instead. Different from Mikhail Gorbachev’s expectations, emerging nationalist political leaders became his regime’s most persistent critics, once he allowed Soviet citizens to express their opinions about the wrongs of the past and present of their country. They began to demand national autonomy and, eventually, independence for their nations, first in East-Central Europe and then in the fifteen Soviet republics themselves. In a last-ditch effort, Gorbachev tried to save his country by shifting much of Moscow’s power to the republican capitals in his proposed union treaty of the summer of 1991. This led to an ill-fated coup of an old guard nostalgic for the good old days of the hypercentralized Communist dictatorship. Rather than restoring the one-party state, Gorbachev’s efforts triggered the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union.


Many a Western observer dubbed the Soviet regime circa 1980 a gerontocracy, a country led by old men. But Politburo members Mikhail Suslov, Dmitrii Ustinov (1908–1984), Arvid Pelshe (1899–1983), Aleksei Kosygin, and Brezhnev all died in the first half the 1980s, as did Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985), Brezhnev’s immediate successors. The elderly Soviet leaders themselves concluded toward 1980 that some sort of rejuvenation of the leadership was imperative. Thus, from the late 1970s onward, a group of leaders who had been teenagers in the Second World War—and thus remembered little of the trials and tribulations the Soviet Union underwent from 1929 to 1945—were promoted to the highest ranks of the party and government.

Rivalry between the various old men postponed the inevitable until March 1985, but upon Chernenko’s death the fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev was elected as the Communist Party’s general secretary. He was saddled with a difficult legacy: a military fiasco that was unfolding in Afghanistan; an arms race with the United States that could no longer be financed; a population that was expecting greater material well-being than a life in a small and crowded apartment with little more luxury than the use of electricity, a refrigerator, and a television; plummeting enthusiasm to sacrifice oneself for the ever-postponed goal of the society of plenty, freedom, and justice; unresolved nationalist sentiments; and a festering collective trauma as the legacy of the absurdly tragic first thirty-five years of communism in the USSR, about which the silence had been deafening since 1964.

The Soviet planned economy hit a ceiling by the 1970s, beyond which it could not easily grow. It could no longer sustain the enormous outlay on defense that the Cold War rivalry with the West mandated. The Soviet leadership failed to anticipate the use of the computer beyond its military applications. Whereas the quality of Western goods of mass consumption steadily improved, in the Soviet Union the production of consumer goods from cars and refrigerators to televisions and cutlery was insufficient and the quality of the goods produced often shoddy. Despite an all-pervasive censorship, Soviet citizens became acquainted with what they believed to be Western standards of living that far transcended anything in their own country.

In the West in 1985, very few predicted the rapid demise of the USSR. In the 1960s, a Russian dissident, Andrei Amalrik (1938–1980), who had subsequently been exiled to the West, had written an essay that, in a reference to George Orwell’s novel, asked whether the Soviet Union could survive until 1984. By 1985, however, Amalrik’s doubts seemed to have been no more than wishful thinking. Among Western academics, only the French social scientist Emmanuel Todd (b. 1951) predicted in 1976 the imminent collapse of the Soviet Empire. Amalrik and Todd were not mainstream experts, and their predictions were ignored. “Sovietologists” were of two minds about the changing of the guard in 1985. Some experts saw it as a positive generational change, bringing to the fore those who had come of age after the Second World War. They might usher in slow, incremental reforms. Others believed that no more than a prolongation of the status quo was in the offing. After all, Gorbachev and those moving up with him (such as Egor Ligachev [b. 1920], Nikolai Ryzhkov [b. 1929], and Boris Yeltsin [1931–2007]) had been carefully groomed for decades within the Communist Party apparatus. Nobody, however, argued that they would oversee within a few years the country’s collapse.

Indeed, Gorbachev could not have made such rapid promotion had he not, as regional party boss in Stavropol province (situated just north of the Caucasus), hosted the Moscow chiefs on their holidays in the 1970s. He had catered to every whim of KGB chairman Yuri Andropov or ideological chief Mikhail Suslov when they relaxed in the spas in his region. Apart from his personal affability and readiness to please, Gorbachev had made a name for himself as a doer by some (apparently productive) tinkering with the collective farm system. He appeared to be getting better results from his kolkhozniks than were his fellow provincial party secretaries. But he had also succeeded in convincing the elderly leaders that he was a consummate conformist, dismissive of any radical experiments.

Thus, Gorbachev had been transferred to Moscow in 1978 to replace the deceased Fyodor Kulakov (1918–1978, who had preceded Gorbachev as Stavropol party boss) as Central Committee secretary responsible for agriculture. This was an inauspicious time to be promoted to this position, for Soviet agriculture had just entered a prolonged slump. Harvests were so poor in the late 1970s that the regime no longer published statistics about them. But it proved far more important whom Gorbachev knew than what he knew. In 1980, Gorbachev entered the Politburo. It now became apparent that he was a particular protégé of Andropov’s. Andropov was less blind to the social and economic problems of the “stagnation” than were his fellow leaders because he received numerous reports about the growing difficulties in the country from his KGB subordinates.

Once Andropov succeeded Brezhnev in 1982, Gorbachev was moved forward as his key deputy. But Andropov did not live long enough to persuade the other leaders that Gorbachev was the best choice to succeed him. The dithering old men in the Politburo thus chose Konstantin Chernenko, who had been for most of his life Brezhnev’s personal assistant, to succeed Andropov, who died of kidney failure in the spring of 1984. This was a mere postponement of the inevitable, however, for Chernenko himself spent his months in power mainly in hospital. Apart from Brezhnev and Andropov, Suslov had died in 1982, Politburo member Pelshe in 1983, and defense minister Ustinov in 1984, and long-term foreign minister Andrei Gromyko (1909–1989) was seventy-six in 1985. A younger generation’s turn had come.


The American historian Stephen Kotkin has suggested that the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union amounted to an “Armageddon averted.” The birth (1914–1921) and death (1985–1991) of the Soviet Union are almost equally long periods of revolutionary convulsions. The cost in human lives during these epochal transformations was, however, vastly different. Perhaps fifteen million people died in the process that gave birth to the Soviet Empire, representing a virtual apocalypse, but its end was almost painless, with deaths from purely political conflict amounting to, at most, one thousand people.


Figure 10.1. Mikhail Gorbachev as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1980s (RIA Novosti archive)

The human cost of the Soviet Empire’s fall is of course only in comparison negligible, and this calculation conveniently ignores what occurred in the successor states after 1991. While the greatest number of those dying in the convulsions of the late Soviet years fell in Kazakhstan in 1986 and the Armenian-Azeri conflict that began in 1988, police brutality in Georgia, Lithuania, and Latvia cost several dozens of people their lives, and violent clashes between Slavs and Moldavians in Moldova (which persisted beyond 1991) took a toll. To the relatively small number of deaths as a result of political conflict in the final years of the USSR, there might be added others who became casualties of a regime that failed to transform itself in a timely fashion. For example, the several thousand soldiers who were killed in the Afghan war before the Soviet withdrawal of 1988 could be counted, or the dozens of people in the immediate aftermath as well as the hundreds and perhaps thousands more in the longer term killed as a result of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.

Only future historians will be able to assess the cost of the post-Soviet transition for the successor states more precisely, but there is no doubt that it was almost everywhere far higher if counted in human lives cut short. In the first place, even before the official dissolution of the Union in December 1991, gangland warfare began to take its toll. Eventually, organized crime killed thousands in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. It is moot who bears the most responsibility for the as yet unknown number of deaths caused by the economic meltdown of the Soviet Empire that began in about 1988 and ended only after 2000. Most devastating in terms of Soviet and post-Soviet political violence were the two Chechen Wars of 1994–1996 and 1999–2000, wholly caused by the post-Soviet Russian regime. Therefore, even if a true Armageddon was indeed averted, the collapse of the Soviet Empire was anything but painless.

But when one looks strictly at the victims of political violence, the revolution of 1985–1991 seems an inversion of the massive suffering that accompanied the establishment of Communist Russia. Kotkin’s argument that it could have been so much worse appears therefore persuasive. The sudden nature of the disappearance of the Soviet system in August 1991 and Gorbachev’s hasty departure that followed undeniably caused widespread havoc. But as leader of his disintegrating empire, Gorbachev behaved like an anti-Lenin in his utter caution to avoid bloodshed. A good amount of the credit for the almost entirely peaceful fall of the Soviet Union belongs to him.

Mikhail Gorbachev started his leadership of the Soviet Empire cautiously, disinclined to ruffle too many feathers. He soon coined two terms as shorthand for the guiding principles of his tenure that became a part of the English language: glasnost' and perestroika. The first stood for openness, which at first was intended as no more than an encouragement to Soviet citizens to report corruption or abuse of power by officials. Perestroika, meaning “restructuring,” was even less defined: it referred to the economy, but what the extent of its restructuring was to be remained uncertain for some time.

Initially, indeed, Gorbachev appeared a tinkerer like Khrushchev. He seemed inclined to whittle down the overbearing habit of planning as coordinated by Gosplan rather than challenge the wisdom of the plan system as such. Here he may have been inspired by the limited concessions to small private enterprises that had been set up in Hungary by the regime of Janos Kadar (1912–1989), whom Gorbachev befriended. The collective and state farms, as well as the larger factories, were to remain in public ownership. Gorbachev’s cautious beginning may have also been the result of the presence of a number of moderates and conservatives in the Politburo. Its composition changed fairly quickly, however. In 1986, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev (1923–2005) became an alternate Politburo member. In the 1970s, Yakovlev had been made ambassador to Canada after he had tried to halt the creeping “restalinization” of the Brezhnev regime. In Canada in the early 1980s, he had met Gorbachev. Gorbachev had been able to recall Yakovlev to Moscow to head a party think tank on global economic and international affairs in 1983. Yakovlev became the key advisor to Gorbachev in making perestroika and glasnost' mean more than empty words.

The catalyst that set Gorbachev and his advisors on the road to genuine reform, however, was the Chernobyl catastrophe. Due to a series of human errors, a rather unsafely built nuclear power station blew up in Ukraine on 26 April 1986. A massive amount of nuclear radiation escaped before workers (most of whom sacrificed their lives in this effort) managed to close the leak by casting the reactor into concrete. It is not quite clear how much was initially explained to Gorbachev about the scale of the disaster. The Soviet citizenry was not informed until Gorbachev allowed this to happen. After all, in the Soviet Union since Stalin’s days, the media did not report on crime, traffic, industrial accidents, or natural disasters. While Gorbachev was assessing the impact of the calamity behind closed doors in Moscow, the world was alerted through the observations of Scandinavian seismic stations to a radioactive cloud moving westward across Europe. Particles of the fallout would eventually force even the shepherds of Wales to destroy their flock.

Whereas many rescue workers died while preventing a further meltdown of the other reactors at Chernobyl, until this day the total number of victims of the disaster is unknown. Soviet authorities evacuated the residents of nearby towns and villages far too late. These people were not made aware of the disaster because of the cult of secrecy surrounding any disasters. The presence and location of nuclear power stations across the country had never been advertised. Gorbachev admitted to the disaster at Chernobyl only in May 1986, after more than a week of hesitation, thereby damaging the health of countless people. It seems that this fumble made him understand the danger of Soviet society’s closed nature. If media had operated with the sort of freedom they enjoyed in the West, alarm bells might have rung earlier. An independent press, too, might have warned earlier about the dangerous design of power stations such as Chernobyl’s. Fortified by the strong support he had received at a recent party congress, Gorbachev now launched a truly ambitious program to reform his country.


In the second half of 1986, steps were taken to end the Afghan war, to lift much of the censorship, to release dissidents from exile and camps, and to sign a comprehensive treaty with the United States to reduce nuclear arsenals and end the Cold War’s arms race. In the last case, Gorbachev’s far-reaching proposals caught President Reagan by surprise in Reykjavík (Iceland) in December 1986. Eventually, the American president and his successor George H. W. Bush concluded that the Soviet leader meant business and acted accordingly in the subsequent years, signing a series of arms’ reduction treaties. These paved the way for the effective end of the Cold War in the last months of 1989, when the Soviets stood by, while the local population in East-Central Europe overthrew one after the other of their Communist regimes and the Berlin Wall was torn down.

By early 1987, the dissident Andrei Sakharov (who had been a key scientist in building the Soviet hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s) was allowed to return to Moscow from his place of banishment in Gor'kii (now again Nizhnii Novgorod). Sakharov immediately proceeded to roundly criticize the Soviet leaders for their continuation of the war in Afghanistan and demanded greater guarantees of human rights and freedoms. He called for the abolition of the Communist Party’s status as the only political party in the country. Rather than silencing Sakharov, Gorbachev allowed the scientist to speak out. Concomitantly, various newspapers became bolder, and the regime ceased the jamming of Western radio broadcasts. After a hiatus of a quarter century, the crimes of Stalinism were suddenly again discussed. At first, a sort of Khrushchevite version of Soviet history was upheld. It maintained that Stalin also oversaw positive changes (as in the First Five Year Plan) and had led the country to victory in the Second World War. This version was about as far as some of the moderates in the Politburo, such as Ligachev, were willing to accept. It appeared that this faction remained a powerful force when in March 1988 a letter by the Leningrad teacher Nina Andreeva (b. 1938) was published in a widely distributed conservative paper. Andreeva defended Stalin as having been a great leader.

The Andreeva letter, however, presented a final rearguard battle. The conservative forces were about to be overwhelmed by the momentum of glasnost' and perestroika. Gorbachev pressed ahead, even if he tried to curb criticism from the left as well. In October 1987, he thus removed the radical Boris Yeltsin, the Moscow party boss, from his post, subsequently ousting Yeltsin from among the Politburo’s alternates. Yeltsin had accused Gorbachev of using dictatorial methods. This was true, of course, given that Gorbachev’s power was in principle as vast as Brezhnev’s or Khrushchev’s had been. Yeltsin called for greater democratization, although his program seemed far from coherent in early 1988.

By May 1988, the first Soviet forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan, a retreat that was complete by February 1989. Responding to the ever bolder reforms imposed from above, Soviet citizens began to criticize virtually everything that ailed their country in the course of 1988, and people began to leave the Communist Party. The works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were published for the first time or, in the case of a few, republished. Rather than the few thousand whose names and reputations had been (mainly posthumously) rehabilitated from the false accusations of Stalin’s courts during the 1930s, now the good name of virtually all victims of Stalinism was restored. By 1989, Novyi Mir (which had more than one million subscribers) dedicated a series of issues to the full publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

By 1988, Gorbachev and his advisors finally recognized that the official or legal economy hardly functioned without the operation of the second or black-market economy, which made up for the vast shortages in goods and services. More and more leeway was given to private entrepreneurs, in an attempt to legalize the second economy and to stimulate renewed economic growth. But steps in this direction remained hesitant. A series of unstable and poorly operating compromises was struck in an attempt to create an economy that balanced the bloated state-owned sector with the fledgling private sector. Before 1991, this did not lead to any tangible positive results; rather than stagnating, the Soviet economy was actually shrinking in the last few years of the country’s existence.

Meanwhile, the relaxation of the stultifying control the regime had exerted over the country led to other destabilizing developments. After decades of enforced silence, nationalist sentiments began to be expressed, as we already saw, beginning in Kazakhstan. In 1988, clashes erupted between Azeris and Armenians. They led most Armenian workers to depart Baku, while a tense standoff developed over Nagornyi Karabakh, an Armenian enclave surrounded by Azeri territory. These conflicts were suppressed by deploying the Soviet army but until this day have never been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. In the Baltic countries, nationalist movements were organized that began to clamor for independence in 1988. They called for the publication of the secret clauses to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, claiming that those points had provided the grounds for the illegal Soviet occupation of their countries.

In the summer of 1988, Gorbachev convinced the Nineteenth Party Conference (the first such meeting since 1941) that multicandidate elections should be held for the soviets, the official legislative bodies of the USSR. In March 1989, elections were held for a replacement for the All-Union Supreme Soviet: candidates not nominated by the Communist Party could stand for this new type of parliament, which was given the name Congress of People’s Deputies. When this congress met in March 1989, Gorbachev, elected its speaker, made an irritated impression in the debates that were televised live throughout the USSR. The open debates between party faithful and independents meanwhile brought glasnost' and perestroika to households in the remotest areas of the country.


But Gorbachev and his team of advisors were not thanked for their efforts in creating an open society.1 By early 1989, Gorbachev himself had become overwhelmed by what he had unleashed. All sorts of pent-up frustrations were now voiced. The population was particularly anxious about the ever-increasing shortages of basic staples, almost every day queuing for hours for their bread and milk that, like many other goods, had been rationed. Ration cards returned in the daily lives of Soviet citizens for the first time in forty years. Soviet citizens witnessed a serious fall in the standard of living toward 1990, and Gorbachev’s rule for this reason, too, began to be resented by an ever-growing part of the population. These shortages resulted from the usual poor agricultural yields combined with a faltering official distribution system and the hoarding of consumer goods by middlemen, hucksters, and criminal organizations, which found their origins in the second economy. The last types now often made the transition to legality successfully, with the help of lower-level politicians and government officials who shielded them.

In July 1989, a miners’ strike broke out in Siberia; it spread across the entire country and forced the government to major concessions. It also rang the death knell for the official trade unions that had been under the party’s control since the Tenth Party Congress in 1921. Workers finally organized themselves again in the Soviet workers’ state. While the Congress of People’s Deputies was debating on television, ethnic clashes erupted in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, the scene of long-term guerrilla war against Russian and Soviet rule in the 1910s and 1920s. It led to the departure of one of Stalin’s “Punished Peoples,” the Meshketian Turks, who were finally repatriated to Russia. Further ethnic clashes followed in the first half of 1989 in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the Caucasus, Abkhazians clashed with Georgians. Meanwhile, the leadership of the various republics began to introduce nationalist policies, privileging the language and culture of the titular nation (i.e., the Tajiks in Tajikistan) over Russian. This followed the example set in 1988 by the Baltic republics. In August 1989, inhabitants of all three western Soviet republics joined hands between Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The human chain commemorated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had been concluded fifty years earlier and had sealed the fate of the three countries.

In hindsight, it seems evident that these developments heralded the beginning of the end. The genie of nationalism was now out of the bottle. As events in Yugoslavia soon proved as well, it could not be put back into it. But in 1989 both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were intact, as was the Soviet Union. Nationalism had historically not been much of a threat to the survival of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, primarily being a force in peripheral areas such as Poland or Finland and perhaps Georgia. Of course, nationalist rebels had fought the Soviet army in western Ukraine and the Baltic region after the Second World War, but the revolts had been overcome. Before 1986, it appeared that Soviet nationality policy, with its sensitivity to, and support of, local language and culture, had been a measured success. It was true that in order to make a career in the party, state, economy, or academic world one needed to be fluent in Russian, but most non-Russian Soviet citizens seemed willing to learn Russian as a second language.

But the encouragement of local languages, music, theater, and literature and the study of local history had in fact given rise to a much more defined national identity in the various Soviet republics, autonomous republics, regions, and so on. Resentment to Russian hegemony, as should have been clear to Gorbachev and his comrades from the Kazakh riots in 1986, was strong. Russians (and sometimes Ukrainians) often held the more prestigious jobs in the various territories and seemed a privileged lot to the native population. The Slavs did not always behave delicately toward the non-Slavic populations, lording it over them at times as colonial rulers. In addition, the native elite of the various republics realized that separation from the Soviet Union might remove the Slavs (either those in Moscow or those in the republican capitals) with whom they had had to share power, thus opening up hitherto unheard-of possibilities. Of course, local specificities had an impact on the strength of nationalist movements. The Baltic countries were fortified by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and clamored for a place among the European states. In Azerbaijan, the local leaders counted on the seemingly endless oil reserves to sustain independence. Still, apart from the Baltic area, the national leaderships of the Soviet republics were not composed of firebrand nationalists, as all had been groomed in the Communist apparatus.

It does seem then that, besides Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Soviet Union might still have survived had Gorbachev and his comrades realized the danger of resurgent nationalism for their country’s survival. As good Marxists, however, and taking into account the lack of ethnic tensions in previous decades, the Communist leaders underestimated nationalism’s power. They failed to develop a timely strategy that might keep it within bounds. Meanwhile, the 1989 Eastern European revolutions emboldened Soviet radical oppositionists who challenged the party’s dominance in Soviet politics. At the second session of the Congress of People’s Deputies that opened in December 1989, opposition members in the parliament called for an end to the monopoly on power of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by removing article 6 of the 1977 constitution, which enshrined this special position. Although Andrei Sakharov, the most prominent radical deputy, died in the midst of the debates, the party tottered on its pedestal. By March 1990, article 6 was amended in such a way that the Communist Party’s hegemony in the USSR was ended. Gorbachev was now elected president of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People’s Deputies.

Early 1990 saw renewed ethnic clashes in Azerbaijan and Armenia, killing dozens of people. This was followed by republican and regional elections for the local parliaments, which led to a resounding defeat of the Communist Party’s candidates in the Baltic countries and elsewhere. When the Lithuanian parliament proclaimed independence in March, Gorbachev and company at first tried to reimpose Soviet rule by moving in armed forces, as if it was August 1968 in Prague, but then thought better of it. Lithuania was cut off from trade with the rest of the Soviet Union, but when Estonia and Latvia followed suit and declared independence, Gorbachev decided to accept the inevitable. He asked an advisory council to draft a new union treaty, in a last-ditch attempt to keep the Baltic states within the Union, or at least hold the twelve remaining republics together.

At the May Day parade in Moscow in 1990, Gorbachev was booed by the crowd rather than greeted by the usual immaculately marching elite troops. Soon thereafter, the Russian parliament met in Moscow for the first time and elected Boris Yeltsin, the erstwhile Moscow party boss, as president of the Russian Republic. In July, the Twenty-Eighth and last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union met in Moscow. The rift between Gorbachev and the bulk of party bosses appeared beyond repair. Gorbachev could defy this opposition as the party had become a rapidly declining force, for it no longer had any official position of leadership in Soviet society since the constitutional amendment to article 6. At the end of the congress, no ranking member of Gorbachev’s government obtained a place in the party’s Politburo, but it did not matter. That more than 10 percent of members left the party in the course of 1990 illustrates the organization’s declining power and prestige.

There was a serious backlash by conservative forces opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms in the second half of 1990 and the early months of 1991. Different from Communist China, where democratic protesters were massacred on Tiananmen Square in May 1989, even the conservative Soviet leaders never contemplated a massive violent crackdown on the opposition. Indeed, too many among the Soviet leaders themselves, beginning with Gorbachev, sincerely wanted to create a “socialism with a human face.” They longed for a country that would finally deliver on the promise of equality and justice, freedom, and harmony, the seemingly utopian ideals of Marx. But what the humane Soviet chief and his shrinking circle of friends did not realize was that the lofty ideals of communism had been too much tainted to become believable again for the Soviet citizens. Cynicism reigned, shortages were rampant, and everywhere the call got louder for national self-determination.

Gorbachev seems to have taken fright at his own boldness in the last year of the existence of his country. But he was not willing to contemplate a retreat toward a Communist dictatorship. That, in any event, would have ended his political career, too, for he would have become the scapegoat for the implosion between 1985 and 1990 of the Communist Party’s hegemony. Behind his back, a faction of his appointees, including the KGB chief, the minister of internal affairs, the prime minister, the defense minister, and the vice president hatched a plot to prevent the acceptance of a Union treaty in the summer of 1991. The draft of this agreement made the country into a decentralized state with limited powers for Moscow. The plotters hatched their plans while direct elections returned Boris Yeltsin (who had been elected Russian president by Russia’s parliament in the previous year) as president of the Russian Republic in July 1991. Mindful of Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, the conspirators staged their coup when Gorbachev was on vacation on the Crimea.

But the August 1991 coup miserably failed. The Russian parliament and Russian president Yeltsin refused to recognize the plotters’ emergency committee. Demonstrators in Moscow and Leningrad faced down tanks that had been ordered out to enforce the rule of the new dictators. Three people died in the scuffle in Moscow, before the tanks’ personnel switched allegiance to Yeltsin. Some of the conspirators committed suicide, others tried to flee, and several were arrested. A shocked Gorbachev was received at the airport in Moscow by Yeltsin’s allies. Yeltsin prohibited the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and began immediate negotiations with the leaders of Ukraine (Leonid Kravchuk, b. 1934) and Belarus (Stanislau Shushkevich, b. 1934) to break up the Soviet Union into fifteen independent states. The trio signed an agreement on 8 December 1991 that recognized each other’s states as independent. The few All-Union posts that remained lost any significance. In late December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev went on television to announce the dissolution of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.


Even more than twenty years after the fall of the empire, it is too early to tell what the most significant consequences have been (or are) of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Bloc between the spring of 1989 and the fall of 1991. Since we do not have the benefit of historical hindsight for the post-Soviet years, the following remarks should by no means be taken as the last word on the period 1991–2011.2 It is also impossible to do justice to the increasingly varied paths followed by the fifteen successor states in a mere few pages.

The Russian Federation and the other states that succeeded the Soviet republics have developed in a checkered manner since 1991. Their fate has been dramatically different. Some countries have been fortunate enough to join the European Community (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Several seem to have been forgotten and appear mired in poverty and stagnation (Moldova and Armenia). Ukraine and Georgia are torn apart by domestic strife manipulated by foreign powers (first and foremost by Russia). Other states are ruled by repressive regimes that seem heirs to the Soviet dictatorial model, even if they have developed their own specific iterations of single-party rule (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan).

The emergence of these authoritarian states during the last two decades underlines how to a considerable degree the Soviet Union (like tsarist Russia before it) was a colonial empire, for they appear to copy the history of the postcolonial states of Asia and Africa. The role of the Russian language as a lingua franca in the “near abroad” (as the Russians call the republics) is not unlike French or English in parts of Africa and Asia (although ethnic Russians reside in most countries in far higher number than French or English do in their former colonies). As in parts of Asia and Africa, a postcolonial elite rules in the same high-handed fashion as its Soviet (colonial) predecessors, suppressing political opposition and lining its own pockets unabashedly. Dictatorships routinely violate human rights, while corruption has been rampant, but of all successor states only the Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov (1940–2006) in Turkmenistan and the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov (b. 1938) resembled the Burmese junta, the Central African emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s (1921–1996) regime, or Uganda’s Idi Amin’s (1925–2003) despotism. The dictatorship of the Aliyevs (father Heydar [1923–2003], son Ilham [b. 1961]) in Azerbaijan and of Aliaksandr Lukashenka (b. 1954) in Belarus are more on par with that of father Hafez Assad (1930–2000), rather than his bloodthirsty son Bashar Assad (b. 1965) in Syria.

All successor states are to some degree multinational countries, in which, if we may judge from developments elsewhere in multiethnic or multicultural states, there is potential for serious ethnic conflict. In Russia, ethnic violence has flared up in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, as it has in Georgia in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adzharia. Violent conflict has erupted but usually merely for a short period. No massive bloodletting has occurred, with the exception of the two Russian-Chechen wars.

The Russian meddling in Georgia seems to show that Russia sometimes considers the “near abroad” as its backyard, in which no other powers should have much of a say. On many an occasion, Russian leaders demand a cooperative and friendly attitude from these states, which is often interpreted by the latter as evidence of hegemonic desires. But at other times, the Russian government appears to behave as the United Kingdom in the British Commonwealth or France in the global Francophonie, a benevolent friend who has everyone’s best interest in mind.

Although the comparative perspective has only limited value, as, for example, in many respects Ukraine does not resemble India or Nigeria, it can yield some useful insights. Comparison suggests that not just in political terms the postcolonial experience of the Russian Soviet Empire has been better than that of the African or Asian states. Economically, whereas the standard of living of Moldovans, Belarusyns, or Uzbeks has deteriorated and poverty even in Russia is still widespread, famine as plagued African countries has not occurred. At the same time, the three Baltic states have been lucky to enter the European Community, guaranteeing their population a level of material prosperity not far below that of the Western world. Russia and Azerbaijan, as well as some of the Central Asian successor states, benefit from a great amount of oil and gas reserves, which has allowed them to reach growth levels that are impressive. Even so, those resources will eventually run out, and none of the governments of the successor states has been actively trying to develop a diversified economy (only Russia itself may have one sufficiently complex). Indeed, the proceeds from the mining and drilling end up in the bank accounts of a very small group of profiteers in most countries, entrepreneurs who skillfully manipulated the chaotic circumstances of the early 1990s to acquire control over most of the precious assets in the various countries. The rulers lend them a willing ear in exchange for kickbacks. The gap between rich and poor outside the Baltic countries has been vast.

However, it could have been much worse, with desperadoes taking over in Kyiv or Moscow and lobbing nuclear missiles at each other or the West, or a civil war of the Rwandan or Yugoslav kind. None of that came to pass, despite ethnic tensions and high levels of poverty in some areas and other profound problems that have not been addressed by the governments of the successor states in any comprehensive fashion.

Finally, two key phenomena plaguing the post-Soviet countries deserve to be singled out because of their pervasiveness and scope. They are, however, not unique to the successor states, and the rulers of the fifteen republics often handle them as well, or as poorly, as their peers in other countries. In the first place, the debilitating levels of environmental problems rankle at home and abroad. The environment suffers not just from Chernobyl’s consequences but also from the fallout from nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk (Kazakhstan) and nuclear accidents elsewhere (as at Cheliabinsk in 1957), chemical pollution in all sorts of industrial regions, the drainage of the Aral Sea, and so on. Second, the common habit of bribing officials sometimes offends foreign investors and limits investment, and corruption seems almost universal at times.


Why did the Soviet realm not descend into chaos after 1991? All kinds of explanations have been given. Most convincing is the argument that stability was to a considerable degree maintained because most of the post-Soviet leaders came from the more enlightened sections of the party. They were seasoned political operators with experience in governing a country (or at least part of it). Economically, various observers speak of a Komsomol revolution, indicative of the great number of entrepreneurs who came from the Communist Youth League’s leading ranks. In an earlier age, the Komsomol cadres had supplied the future leaders of the party and the KGB. They also furnished the managers of the great industrial enterprises of the Soviet Union. Those may have been part of a state-controlled economy, but a plant with thousands of workers still had to be run with many of the management techniques used in similar ventures across the industrialized world.

Through their networks, expertise, and education, Komsomol, party, or KGB personnel members were often in the most advantageous position to seize the limited opportunities of perestroika and the breathtaking prospects the free-market economy offered after 1991. This economic transformation was ushered in by Yeltsin’s economic advisors, chief among whom was Yegor Gaidar (1956–2009), in the first months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A select group of oligarchs, as they were called by the second half of the 1990s, thus was in position to buy up most of the vouchers that were distributed during a privatization wave of public enterprises in the mid-1990s. The vouchers gave workers shares in the ownership of the company for which they worked. Since few companies were worth much on paper at that time, most holders sold their share vouchers for hard cash, necessary to make ends meet. Not all those who bought them out (often via straw men) had been bosses in the Youth League, for many a former KGB officer plus President Yeltsin and his plundering entourage hit the jackpot as well, but many of the most successful businessmenyhad once been Komsomol cadres.

Social protest did erupt, but most of the disaffected followed leaders who had few solutions to offer and were too closely associated with the lost cause of Soviet Communism. Such was the case when President Yeltsin faced down one particularly tenacious group of opponents in bloody clashes in Moscow in October 1993, ultimately having loyal army units storm the Russian parliament (known as the White House) in which the opposition had ensconced itself. Yeltsin blamed them of stalling far-reaching economic reforms and a desire to turn back the clock. The president believed in turning Russia into some sort of capitalist liberal democracy, while his opponents were unwilling to follow the impulsive president in his radical transformation of Russia. While Yeltsin struggled with “conservative,” quasi-Communist opponents, in various other republics similar clashes occurred between those who preferred an authoritarian government and those who clamored for human rights and freedoms. Different from Russia and the Baltic countries, however, throughout the 1990s the authoritarian forces gained the upper hand in most post-Soviet states. And even in Russia, both Yeltsin himself and his successor Vladimir Putin (b. 1952) increasingly ruled in authoritarian fashion.

The Russian Communist Party (newly founded in 1990) failed meanwhile to attract enough of a vote to threaten the president, although Yeltsin was reelected in 1996 as Russian president only with the help of a fear-mongering propaganda campaign in the media (and possibly thanks to widespread voting fraud). His Communist opponent Gennadii Ziuganov (b. 1944) could not muster the same sort of funds, nor did he have a significant media empire available to him. A spectacular offensive on behalf of Yeltsin on the radio and television and in the print media managed to inculcate in the electorate enough fear of a return to the dark days of the Soviet Union if Ziuganov were elected. But it seems that in exchange for their support, the president had to allow a bevy of oligarchs (many of whom had a significant stake in media companies) to do as they pleased. In his second term, Yeltsin’s health deteriorated sharply because of heart problems and immoderate drinking. He began to disappear from public view, leaving the shop to his advisors and ministers, who played for time and enriched themselves in league with the tycoons. Once in a while one of the magnates was sacrificed to show the government’s efforts at weeding out corruption. But government efforts to show that it lorded it over the billionaires rather than the other way around did not convince most Russians.

President Putin (and his successor and predecessor Dmitrii Medvedev [b. 1965]) has continued to persecute certain moguls for their alleged fraud, tax evasion, insider trading, racketeering, bribing, and so on. But such efforts remain inconsistent and the motivation to prosecute some of the tycoons murky. Whereas Boris Berezovskii (1946–2013) and Vladimir Gusinskii (b. 1952) fled into exile and Mikhail Khodorkovskii (b. 1963) was sent to a Siberian jail, Oleg Deripaska (b. 1968), Roman Abramovich (b. 1966), and Yelena Baturina (b. 1963; wife of former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov [b. 1936]) have been allowed to enrich themselves without restriction.

Often the Yeltsin government announced that prosperity was just around the corner, and most Russians decided to wait rather than take to the streets. It is a matter of speculation whether a social revolution might have broken out once again in Russia, if the economic tide had not quickly turned after a market crash in 1998. But turn it did, and for more than a decade thereafter the Russian economy grew at a fast clip.

Russia’s transition from Communism to capitalism was as rocky as it was in the other republics. The early twenty-first century seems to have witnessed a drastic improvement in the standard of living in Russia (as well as in the Baltic countries and a few other successor states), but the 1990s exacted a grim toll on the population. Yeltsin had little idea how to remake his country into a democratic state with a free-market economy. Many of his actions were rash, while he often abandoned policies that were not given sufficient time to assess their effect. Poverty and homelessness became widespread during the 1990s, while alcoholism was rampant. All of the former Soviet Union also saw a massive increase in intravenously administered drug addiction, leading to high levels of HIV infections and drug overdoses.3 In the prison system, contagious diseases, such as untreatable open tuberculosis, spread.

And whereas a sort of capitalist trickling down of the vast riches acquired by the tycoons has benefited most Russians in recent years, the social problems of the 1990s have persisted. Russians pay fairly low taxes, but many do not pay any taxes at all, and especially the fabulously rich and powerful are guilty of evasion. The resulting meager revenue hampers the government’s attempts to maintain a social safety net. In the 1990s, Western pundits wrote of a “Wild East” in an analogy to the U.S. “Wild West” of the nineteenth century. A better comparison is, however, with the America of the Gilded Age, of the robber barons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) or Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). Russia perhaps needs a sort of American-style Progressive Era to redistribute some of the wealth and introduce social reform that improves the fate of the elderly, street urchins, sick, and those confined in orphanages and prison camps. But the problem is not merely poor collection of taxes or insufficient taxation levels.

Few countries have succeeded that attempted to introduce the free market and a liberal democratic government overnight, as did most of the former Soviet states. Such efforts were doubly difficult in Russia given its sheer size. Independence meant disruption of former communication and trade links and of an All-Union integrated economy. Radical experiments of wholesale privatization following the Polish recipe were never implemented with the hypothetical fast pace and comprehensiveness advocated by Western economists such as the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs (b. 1954). But rather than their implementation being flawed, it stands to reason that Russia, Ukraine, and the other countries needed to find a happy match between their own traditions and economic circumstances and foreign models of capitalist development. Every democracy, like every capitalist economy, is different in the West, too, and the former Soviet countries need (or perhaps needed) to find their version of it.


After a series of prime ministers with whom Yeltsin grew quickly disaffected, he appointed a relative political neophyte, Vladimir Putin, as prime minister in 1999. By Christmas of that year, Yeltsin announced that he was stepping down. In the absence of a vice president in the Russian political system, Putin, a former KGB officer, was to succeed him. This choice was confirmed by Russian voters in the presidential elections of 2000. Putin’s electoral victory was surprisingly easy. It was attributed to his firm hand in suppressing the Chechen government that had existed quasi-independently since the end of the first Chechen war in the spring of 1996. Chechen rebels who stood for a radical Islamist agenda and did not agree with their government in Groznyi had invaded Ingushetia in the summer of 1999. Bombs went off in Moscow, Volgodonsk (near Volgograd), and Dagestan in September that were blamed on Chechen terrorists. Russia accused the Chechen government of involvement. This time the Russian army was sent into Chechnya with orders to destroy everything in its path. At the expense of the utter devastation of Grozny, Chechen independence fighters (moderates and Islamists) were dispersed into the Caucasus. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, security troops, Chechen warriors, and civilians died in the conflict.

President Putin managed to sign a peace treaty with a faction of Chechens who were willing to give up their anti-Russian stance in exchange for a free hand in their country. Sporadic violence in the Caucasus flared up throughout the 2000s, and occasionally spilled over, as with the hostage taking of theater spectators in Moscow (October 2002) and of schoolchildren at Beslan in North Ossetia (September 2004). Putin’s strategy to fight Chechens with Chechens worked nonetheless: Ramzan Kadyrov’s (b. 1976) ruthless regime established law and order of a certain kind in Chechnya after 2004. The Putin government preferred not to be reminded of the massive violations of human rights that this involved. Instead, President Putin was hailed in the media as the peacemaker who had finally brought the conflict in the northern Caucasus to an end. He easily won the presidential elections of March 2000.

The Russian public has given Vladimir Putin much of the credit for solving the Chechen problem. He has also been popular because he has been associated with the economic turnaround and a restoration of law and order after the lawless 1990s. Of course, in economic terms, cynics have observed, Putin merely benefited from Russia’s good fortune to be a major supplier of scarce raw materials for a world market on which prices for such resources rose sharply in the 1990s and 2000s. The lawlessness, meanwhile, was ended only by co-opting some of the gangsters, who had terrorized each other and the law-abiding citizenry, into the power structure. A few were held responsible because they managed to antagonize Putin. Finally, the Chechen problem seems to have been countered only by having Kadyrov, himself a former rebel against Russian rule, lord it over Chechnya in brutal fashion, while the Russian authorities look the other way. And that Caucasian terrorism is not quite a thing of the past was proven through the Moscow subway bombings of March 2010.

Ultimately, nonetheless, perhaps there is reason to be optimistic, or at least relieved that no major war or full economic collapse followed the events of 1991.4 But it all depends on one’s perspective: in the 1960s (and certainly Khrushchev and Brezhnev shared that belief at the time), it appeared quite likely that the standard of living in the Second World would soon catch up with that in the First World. Indeed, the apartment flats in the banlieues of Paris did not look too different from their Soviet or East-Central European counterparts. The Soviet educational system was excellent,5 the transportation system worked well and was cheap for consumers, and the Soviet state provided universal health care for all. Perhaps the Soviets enjoyed less of a choice in terms of consumer goods, while durable household items were in short supply, but the growing Soviet economy surely would produce more and better goods in the future. And how many television or automobile brands does one really need? Soviet citizens, too, regularly went on vacations, even if mainly within their own vast country.

One feels forced to compare the current living circumstances in the former Soviet Union favorably to life in the independent African countries that replaced the French and British empires in the 1950s and 1960s. But that such a comparison seems valid means at the same time that the former USSR’s standard of living has fallen far behind that of much of the West (except in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Soviet citizens would have been appalled in the 1960s if someone had told them that in a generation the average age at which men died would be sixty. It can be argued that some of the fall in the standard of living was compensated for by the freedom of expression that was the rule in most of the successor states for a while. In almost all of them, however, human rights and freedoms have been violated and curtailed in the last decade on a regular basis without, in fact, triggering too much protest. In Russia, “democratic” and “democracy” became dirty words, for those who supported these concepts appeared to manipulate them in order to line their own pockets.

Several republics, and particularly Russia itself, may have overcome the economic hardship that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the Russian recovery has been uneven. Wealth has not been redistributed in any great measure to provide for the weakest in Russian society, nor has capital been sufficiently diversified into a variety of ventures. The Putin government moved to designate all who were older than twelve (and some younger) during the Second World War as veterans worthy of special treatment, benefits, and pensions. Regardless of the question of how deserved such distinction is for every older Russian, it does translate into somewhat more systematic government support for those who in the 1990s and early 2000s often were forced to beg because their pensions were inadequate.

As argued earlier, Russia, Azerbaijan, and some of the Central Asian states survive on the rather volatile revenue from the winning of oil, gas, or other resources, whose deposits ultimately are finite. Only the production of arms seems to be another genuinely thriving branch of the Russian economy. Meanwhile, life expectancy in Russia and the other successor states remains low, especially for men, and the European successor states suffer from a negative population growth. Although this is in no small measure due to poverty, environmental damage, about which nothing is done, is also a cause. In addition, ethnic-nationalist strife has flared up in various regions, most bloodily in Chechnya, only to be ruthlessly suppressed. It is a sign that the Russian Federation, still a country that harbors some one hundred ethnic groups, may yet further dissolve into smaller components through other violent clashes.


Meanwhile, the post-Soviet states themselves have not yet developed a “useful past.” The 1990s and 2000s have seen the release of many previously secret documents, which have incomparably enriched historians’ understanding of the Soviet past. But there is no consensus about the pros and cons of twentieth-century history among academic historians, whether Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, or Estonian. Non-Russians in the “near abroad” tend to paint the Soviet Union as a Russian colonial empire and read Lenin’s or Stalin’s excesses (and even the far less violent policies of their successors) as the outcome of a sort of Russian imperialism. Thus, the famine of 1932–1933 becomes a strictly Ukrainian Holomodor, even if hunger killed hundreds of thousands in southern Russia as well (and about one million Kazakhs). People are accustomed to projecting current sentiments into the past in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. For instance, Ukrainian historians detect a widespread Ukrainian nationalist movement in 1917–1918, whereas in reality Ukrainian nationalists could almost be found only among the very few members of the native intelligentsia in those days. Certainly, there is an apparent tendency to whitewash one’s own sins and blame ills committed in the past on others alien to the dominant population’s heritage, whether Russian occupiers, Slavic immigrants, or Uzbek settlers.

Ukrainian, Georgian, Azeri, and Kazakh nationalists ignore the widespread support before 1991 for the Soviet regime among their compatriots and the existence of a Communist Party and government apparatus in the non-Russian territories staffed primarily by the local population. Perhaps one could call people such as the Armenian Anastas Mikoian, the Georgians Sergo Ordzhonikidze and Lavrentii Beria, the Ukrainians Nikolai Podgornyi and Petro Shelest (1908–1996), the Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunaev, and the Latvian Arvid Pelshe traitors to their own countries, but their willing participation in the Soviet project was similar to that of many (and sometimes most) of their compatriots. It bears repeating that the Soviet regime by its policies galvanized the formation of a national identity in the republics in a way that the tsarist regime never did. And this was not merely because of antinationalistic policies but as much, if not more, because of pronationalistic policies, such as the introduction of universal education in the local language.

As is common in other countries, cruder (or distorted) versions of academic history are popular among politicians and the media. The thinking about Stalin among Russian politicians and the public remains tortured. Although documents published on collectivization and the purges leave no doubt about the bloodthirsty massacre Stalin unleashed on his subjects, a surprising number of people maintain that he was instrumental in winning the Second World War and was responsible for a host of other positive accomplishments, such as the (imagined) eradication of crime. This is astounding since other documents show how Stalin stubbornly ignored all the warnings that came to his desk about an impending Nazi attack. As a result, it caught the Soviet armed forces unawares and enabled the deep penetration of Nazi forces into Soviet territory in 1941 and 1942.

Ultimately, a sort of post-Franco Spanish or post-Hitler West German scenario appears to unfold. Silence and denial will eventually make way for a more dispassionate view of the past. Until the last of its stalwarts are in their dotage, however, the criminal nature of the Soviet regime will be hotly contested. For example, the death sentence handed down in 1954 to former state security chief—and therefore a wholehearted participant in mass murder—Viktor Abakumov (1894–1954) was posthumously reduced to twenty-five years in the 1990s because he had been innocent of some of the crimes of which he had been accused at his trial. That he was responsible for far worse crimes was ignored. This legal precision was perhaps a milestone on the way to establishing a fair and just legal process but otherwise offended people’s sense of justice.

For the time being, admitting that one’s life has been dedicated to a futile, wrongheaded, and harmful attempt to change human society is probably too much to ask from the survivors. Instead, one witnesses the somewhat shrill attempts to salvage something from the wreckage. Thus we see the lavish celebrations of the undeniably crucial Soviet contribution to the defeat of the Nazis. At the moment that the last Stalinist generation has passed away, when emotions are no longer visceral, historians and possibly the courts can assess blame (despite the apparent destruction of some crucial incriminating files in archives) and face the terrible truth of a country that wasted three-quarters of a century and tens of millions of people’s lives for a failed experiment to create utopia.


1. Most prominent among Gorbachev’s team of advisors were Yakovlev, prime minister Ryzhkov, and foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (b. 1927).

2. In addition, many of the reasons behind political and economic developments have remained opaque without the benefit of candid memoirs or broad access to archives.

3. Still in 2012, HIV was spreading in Ukraine at the fastest pace in Europe and in Central Asia at the fastest rate in the world.

4. There was one scary moment in 1998, when the international community tacitly allowed Russia to default on its loans!

5. After 1991, many Western universities benefited from the influx of highly qualified scientists from the former USSR.


Translated Primary Sources

Politkovskaya, Anna. Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy. Translated by Arch Tait. New York: Holt, 2007.

———. A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin’s Russia. Translated by Arch Tait. New York: Random House, 2009.

Putin, Vladimir. First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000.

Yakovlev, Alexander. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Translated by Anthony Austin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Scholarly Literature

Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. New York: Picador, 2006.

Arbatov, Georgy. The System: An Insider’s Life in Soviet Politics. New York: Times Books, 1992.

Borogan, Irina, and Andrei Soldatov. The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. New York: PublicAffairs, 2010.

Bullough, Oliver. Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant Peoples of the Caucasus. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Colton, Timothy. Yeltsin: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Engerman, David. Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gessen, Masha. The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.

Gleason, Abbott. Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Khalid, Adeeb. Islam after Communism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Kotkin, Stephen. Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ledeneva, Alena. How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Lucas, Edward. Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Raleigh, Donald J. Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Roxburgh, Angus. The Second Russian Revolution. London: BBC Books, 1992.

Sakharov, Andrei. From Gorky to Moscow and Beyond. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Satter, David. It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Shevardnadze, Eduard. The Future Belongs to Freedom. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Todd, Emmanuel. The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere. New York: Karz, 1979.

Volkogonov, Dmitry. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Waal, Thomas de. The Caucasus: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Zyuganov, Gennady. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.


The Caucasus: http://kavkazcenter.com/

The CIA and the former Soviet states: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Iandeks.ru, leading Russian search engine: http://www.yandex.ru

Interfax, Russian news from government’s perspective: http://www.interfax.com/

Itar-Tass, main Russian news agency: http://www.itar-tass.com/

RIANovosti, Russian news from government’s perspective: http://en.rian.ru/

Russian archives: http://www.iisg.nl/abb

Russian films with English subtitles: http://stagevu.com/chanvideos/101606/Soviet%20and%20Russian%20films%20with%20English%20subtitles

Russiapedia (sire of Russian TV): http://russiapedia.rt.com/

Russia Today, government-sponsored English-language TV channel: http://rt.com/on-air


Brother. DVD. Directed by Sergei Bodrov. New York: Kino, 1997.

Little Vera. DVD. Directed by Vasilii Pichul. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 1988.

The Return. DVD. Directed by Andrei Zvyangintsev. New York: Kino, 2004.

Russian Ark. DVD. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov. New York: Fox Lorber, 2004.

The Second Circle. DVD. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov. New York: Kino, 2006.

Tycoon: A New Russian. DVD. Directed by Pavel Longuine. New York: New Yorker Films, 2004.

The Vanished Empire. Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov. New York: Kino, 2008.

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