The collapse of the USSR: between triumph and tragedy

| by Sergey Strokan

( December 26, Moscow, Sri Lanka Guardian) Twenty years after the collapse of the USSR, Russian experts remain split on its implications. Some call the December 25event “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century,”
echoing the catchphrase of Vladimir Putin. Others argue that it is more appropriate to dub the demise of the vast Soviet empire a triumph rather than a tragedy.
And Russian society is equally divided. Ageing anti-Communist dissidents, proud of their mission, will never share the emotions of grandads and babushkas whose eyes brim with nostalgia over the era of incredibly cheap goods, Red Square military parades, the Day of October Revolution and Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space.
I think this diversity of opinions in itself is one of the major outcomes of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Dismantling of the old Communist propaganda machine which denied the very idea of any alternative view gave all of us here a right never enjoyed before December 1991. We are now free to voice our opinion free from the fear of being arrested, proclaimed an enemy of the state and sent to GULAG, if not shot dead, as it was under the rule of the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, or to be quietly fired from a job or placed in a mental hospital as during the last years of Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership.
Twenty years after the new “historic entity – the Soviet nation” ceased to exist, all of us here – Communists and anti-Communists, radicals and moderates, liberals and conservatives, right and left, are divided into two major groups. One group is comprised of the first post-Soviet generation, born after 1991, to which the disintegration of the Soviet Union is just a fact from a history book, and nothing more.
Unlike the “indigo generation” which feels no emotion at all about the Soviet legacy, the other category of people, to which I belong, sees 25 December, 1991 not only as the date of the end of Soviet history, but as a personal Rubicon as well. After December 1991, my life and the lives of the millions of former Soviet compatriots took a dramatic turn. Ever since, we have been forced to view our lives in terms of what was “before” and what came “after”. So it is no surprise that we keep on arguing over what all of us lost and what was won.
Let me share with you my own feelings which you may find quite contradictory, if not confusing. Soviet reality was full of contradictions and conflicting moments. The moments of overwhelming joy and pride for the privilege of calling yourself “Soviet” were followed by the periods of unprecedented cynicism and total disrespect of Soviet values. The people who once worshipped Communist gods later negated them, demolished their statues and dumped the Marxist classics – the Bible of a Soviet man. Just imagine their psychological trauma: shortly after December 1991, the people who once considered themselves “the cream of humanity”, as Communist propaganda had it, all of a sudden found themselves in the position of “the downtrodden of the Earth”. No surprise that some of those people ran amok.
I was born in a family of ardent Communists in the town of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, which at one point served as a nursery for the Soviet ruling elite. In my early childhood in the early ‘60s my grandfather, Semen Strokan, was the head of the Novomoskovsk Party Committee (Novomoskovsk is a town in Dnepropetrovsk district). At that time Leonid Brezhnev, who later moved to the Kremlin, was a local Communist Party boss, serving as head of Dnepropetrovsk obkom – the regional Communist Party Committee. My grandmother, who had the new Soviet name Kima (derived from Komintern), recalled how Brezhnev, who was on friendly terms with my grandad, often dropped into their house in Novomoskovsk and used to lunch with grandad discussing routine Party jobs and the latest articles in Pravda. Grandma Kima told me that Brezhnev’s favorite dish was potato with herring.
That was under the rule of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev – the first Soviet thaw which came after decades of Stalinism. What an extremely interesting time it was! After his triumphant visit to the USA, Nikita Khrushchev, famous for his “we will bury you” speech, gave Soviet collective farmers an order to switch from wheat to maize production (it was reported that the Soviet leader was impressed by the crops of American farmers and decided to overtake the US in agriculture). So one day wheat bread disappeared from the shops. I remember how my father Vladlen (the name derived from Vladimir Lenin) came home with an unusual, yellow-colored maize bread which had a strange taste. However, the father who was a Communist Party activist was proud to get it after an hour standing in a queue which snaked over the Karl Marx street to the bakery.
That was a time when public opinion was fascinated with popular Soviet mythology and felt comfortable with it. At one point, Soviet people started to believe that real Communism was within reach and that the glorious Soviet scientists would soon discover “magic pills” for eternal life. “Grandad, how many years are left before Communism? We will live in a Communist state and you will never die!” I said to my grandfather Semen as he swallowed green, yellow and pink pills (he was a kidney patient and died in 1968 when I was nine). That was a time when all of us lived inside one grand Soviet utopia created and cherished by all of us.
However, when Khrushchev was replaced by Brezhnev in October 1964 in a velvet Kremlin coup, the thaw of the early 60s was over. Brezhnev’s era ended in 1982, to be swiftly followed by another thaw – Gorbachev’s perestroika is often described as a two-decade period of stagnation. At the end of his rule the senile Brezhnev, who suffered from a stroke and was a poor speaker who swallowed his own words, became the butt of endless privately-traded jokes. He was mocked and ridiculed by the vast majority, unlike Stalin who was mostly worshiped (if not hated). But contrary to most of my liberally-minded colleagues today, I am proud of Brezhnev, and the reason is not my “Dnepropetrovsk roots”. Brezhnev’s rule is associated not only with the Cold War, but also with détente and the Helsinki Act signed in 1975. There was room for human feelings and person-to-person contacts between Soviet citizens and Westerners, despite the Iron Curtain. Do you remember the movie “Letter to Brezhnev” – the story of two Liverpool girls who fell in love with two Soviet sailors? I find it very humane.
Brezhnev died in 1982 and it was clear that the Soviet model of a one-party system and an inefficient, state-run economy was facing acute problems which needed to be addressed before it was too late. However, Gorbachev’s reforms with glasnost and perestroika winning the hearts and minds of millions, regrettably turned into an extravagant talk-show, at that time described by Time magazine as “good talk with no goods”.
Was there a chance for the Soviet Union to survive? “The USSR should have started timely economic reforms and changes as well as reforms to strengthen democratic change in the country,” said Vladimir Putin during in the course of a recent phone-in program on Russian television. Probably, we could have averted the demise of a great country if we had had someone like Deng Xiaoping, architect of Chinese reforms, at the helm.
However, what is done is done. You can’t change your own history. But you can be proud of it, even if along with great achievements, it is full of dark corners, tragedy and pain.
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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