An era came to an end on this day a quarter of a century ago. The lowering of the red flag with the hammer and sickle insignia on the evening of December 25, 1991, marked the demise of a state founded on pure theoretical principles by a clever and determined revolutionary. And for nearly seven decades it was among the most formidable global powers. What caused the Soviet Union’s fall, what consequences followed and why should we be interested in it?
Forged in revolution, in the midst of a brutal global conflict, the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as we knew it, overcame a bitter civil war (with 11 foreign powers intervening) and invasions to soon emerge as a superpower. Ruled after Lenin by a succession of ruthless, reckless or reforming leaders, it, however, didn’t even make it to the 75 year-mark before disappearing — with more of a whimper than a bang, in the words of T.S. Eliot.
The reasons, still being debated, include long-term ones such as “burdens of empire”, global overreach, “bankruptcy” of its ideology — and more indisputably of the economy, a ruinous arms race, technological backwardness, strains from a gradually relaxing totalitarian system, Western subversion and the like.
Others cite more instant causes such as “faults” of last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, his rivalry with protege-turned-foe Boris Yeltsin, ethnic differences and so on.
As it happens in most historical phenomenon, the truth is likely to be elusive, complex and take the shape the eye of the beholder wants. But we can study the accounts of the few final years, usually starting with Gorbachev’s accession, presented by a range of leading journalists and scholars, to make up our own minds.
Among the earliest was the American journalist and author David Remnick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire” (1993). The Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent since 1988, he was (self-admittedly) in a “peculiar angle” to view Russian affairs from the moment perestroika peaked, and Gorbachev seemed to lose control of the sprawling realm with liberation fronts emerging in the three Baltic states and ethnic strife in the Caucasus.
A mix of history and eyewitness reportage, it begins with the excavation of remains of Polish officers killed in World War II’s early days by Soviet secret police and blamed on the Nazis to stress “that essential moment — the return of history” for “once the system showed itself for what it was and had been, it was doomed”.
Subsequent parts go back to deal with the rebirth of democracy, the confrontation between the old regime and new political forces, the “bizarre and climactic” August putsch, and the unstoppable, irreversible sequence of events it set in motion, told from his own perspective as well as of a wide spectrum of officials, public figures and common men and women.
In “Moscow, December 25, 1991 – The Last Day of the Soviet Union” (2011), Irish journalist Conor O’ Cleary, who also reported from Moscow since 1987, recounts the events of that fateful day from dawn to midnight, interspersed with the parallel life stories of Gorbachev and Yeltsin and why and how they became such bitter foes.
Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy, meanwhile, in “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union” (2015), presents a “bold new interpretation” of the final months, going beyond the perceived responsibilities of Gorbachev or Yeltsin to stress the “overlooked” point that the dissolution “was an outcome of electoral politics”.
Also showing how the US, under President George Bush, actually tried to preserve the USSR as far as possible, he underscores how in seeking to take credit for its fall and in “winning” the Cold War, US policy makers overrated their own capacity to topple and rebuild foreign regimes — with tragic results in the future as well as ensuring, Russia, once resurgent, would settle scores.
In a wider view, British historian Robert J. Service, who has a dozen books on 20th century Russian history to his credit, ascribes it to the peaceful, negotiated end to the superpowers’ decades-long global proxy war.
“The End of the Cold War – 1985-1991” (2016), contends the West’s tough bargaining left a weakened USSR shortchanged and set it to way to collapse, but like Plokhy, underlines their victory was short-term and the misplaced triumphalism led to subsequent blunders.
What do those from the erstwhile USSR think themselves? Belarussian writer and 2015 Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “Second-Hand Time” (2013) presents a wide array of views on the event and its aftermath, presented verbatim, with minimal authorial intervention.
And we should let President Vladmir Putin have the last word. Observing the Russian dictum that those who do not regret the Soviet Union’s collapse have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain, he said his policy was not to “allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead” but “must act based on a clear understanding of what happened”.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])