On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Tom Nichols wrote a column for The Atlantic where he mourned the death of the dream of a peaceful, democratic world that took hold after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lifting of the Soviet yoke from the shoulders of Eastern Europe. After dividing the world figuratively and literally since 1947, the Cold War was over, and anything seemed possible. The future looked bright.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, writes Nichols, put the final nail in the coffin of that dream.
To explain what he means, Nichols divides his life into three phases: the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the promise of Russia, and the war in Ukraine.
In his take on post-Soviet Russia, Nichols speaks with the knowledge of an insider, having visited the Soviet Union several times during the 1980s, before and after Perestroika, followed by visits to the Russian Federation, the country that formed out of the ashes of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and culminating with the adoption of his daughter in Moscow in 2004.
But whereas his view is based on personal experience, his view is also based on a certain Western-centric naiveté. It seems as if Nichols’s took to heart Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of history because liberal democracy had won, and only now has he been able to let go.
But history never ended. Liberal democracy didn’t “win.” I agree with Nichols that the bright new future was all a dream, but as with all dreams, it was never real.
My life runs parallel to Nichols’s in many ways. I, too, witnessed the final years of the Soviet Union, its collapse, and the creation of nations out of Soviet republics.
If I were to divide my life into phases like Nichols does in his column, I too would divide my post-Soviet life into three phases. But my phases are different.
The first phase is the Cold War. Growing up in Sweden with the Soviet Union as the next-door neighbor to the east and the Soviet bloc to the south-east, I saw fighter planes patrol Swedish air space regularly. There were military convoys on the roads. General public safety alarm drills at 3 pm on the first Monday of every month. The basement of the building where I went to school in grades 4 through 6 was a bomb shelter.
The second phase is the Collapse. I watched the news as Mikhail Gorbachev launched Perestroika, East Germans organized protests against their own repressive government every Monday, the assassination of the Ceausescus, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
When I was in my early teens, I sang in a choir. We went on a cultural exchange trip to West Germany, and because the border was open, we spent one day in East Germany as well. When we returned to West Germany, the line of cars waiting to cross the border was so long our bus needed to be escorted to bypass them. I was in Vienna watching CNN on the TV in our hotel room as the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time.
Out of the ashes of the Soviet Union, new countries arose, and old countries came to life again. In Europe, these countries were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the hero from the failed coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev, was now the president of the Russian Federation.
In my senior year of high school, I traveled to Moscow to visit family with whom we were recently reconnected. I remember how some things worked, and other things didn’t. The autobus broke down in the middle of the street one day, and the driver walked off without a word. People in the streets were selling whatever they had or what they had found. The ruble was in free fall. Before getting on the subway, we needed to check the currency exchange of the day to know how much a token would cost. Meanwhile, concerts went on, buildings were being renovated, Lenin’s mausoleum was open for visitors.
The third phase is the ascendancy to power of Vladimir Putin. Putin took power in Russia in the year 2000. Despite the brief stint as Prime Minister between 2008 and 2012, he has been in power ever since. On the face of it, Russia has been a democracy during Putin’s reign. For many, that has been good enough.
The war in Ukraine is shocking, egregious, and a violation of the rights of a sovereign people, but it is not a new phase in Russian contemporary history. Russia has been a bully towards its neighbors for centuries. First in the guise of the Russian Empire, then dressed up as the Soviet Union, and now in the shape of the Russian Federation.
The war in Ukraine can only be a new phase for those who bought into the illusion of a Russia in America’s image following the end of the Cold War. Democracy has steadily been eroding during Putin. Journalists and dissidents have been murdered. Anti-LGBTQ laws have robbed Russian citizens of their human rights. Wars have been fought in Chechnya, Georgia, and, yes, Ukraine. The difference is that this time, the West is paying attention.
Three phases of a post-Soviet life are also found in Artem Mozgovoy’s novel Spring in Siberia (Red Hen Press, publication date April 4, 2023) where the main character, Alexey, is born on the same day Mikhail Gorbachev announces Perestroika, grows up during the collapse, and, in an echo of Mozgovoy’s own life, leaves Russia all together because of the hardening repression under Putin, especially towards gay people.
In the end, what matters most is your perspective, which determines what you allow yourself to see and when you allow yourself to see it.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
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