Fall of the USSR, 20 Years Ago. Who cares?

The Soviet Union was dissolved on Christmas Day 20 years ago. Is anyone celebrating?

I’d just left the Moscow a few days before, after a spending a bewildering autumn and early winter there. I wasn’t the only one who found the USSR, circa 1991, rather bewildering. I remember a fascinating, long conversation I had with an elderly bathroom attendant in St. Petersburg a few days before Christmas. She told me she’d survived the bitter siege of Leningrad during the war, shared with me horrific stories of death, terror, and privation. And then she dropped this shocker: “But this is the worst of all.” This, meaning the dissolution of the only nation she’d ever known. Worst of all? I thought. Worse than starvation, shelling, and near annihilation? 

I still don’t know exactly what she meant that night. I’m sure there was an element of nostalgia at play, a certain forgetting-ness, and undoubtedly, a vast, overwhelming uncertainty about what changes were coming.

Twenty years later, there’s seemingly no consensus in Russia about what it all meant; a bizarre debate still rages in some quarters as to whether shaking off the Soviet yoke was such a great idea in the first place.

I still remember an argument in my car a few years ago between two Russian women, both named Galina: one, a WWII veteran bombardier in one of the women’s regiments, the other an aerobatics champion who was a child during the war. The veteran Galina was going on and on about her generation’s love of Stalin (as she saw it). “He was like our father,” she declared. “We trusted him!”

“He killed or exiled my whole family!” cut in the younger Galina. “He was a beast!” The air temperature in my Honda instantly turned Siberian.

The WWII veteran Galina, center of photo

In 2005, Putin famously declared the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th Century. An actual Communist Party still exists in Russia and has taken part in the rising tide of protests following December’s elections, which were widely felt to be illegitimate.

But surely, misty-eyed nostalgia about the USSR can’t be that prevalent in the 21st Century, right? Here comes another shocker: a poll released two years ago suggests that a majority of Russians “deeply regret” the demise of the Soviet Union—many of these, the folks who benefitted least from the USSR’s fall (economically, that is): elderly, poor, and rural populations.

The anniversary of the USSR’s fall, it seems, hasn’t been widely memorialized or celebrated. At first glance, many would chalk this up to a perceived Russian indifference toward politics, especially in the generation that never lived under Soviet rule. But the protests of recent weeks belie assumptions about youthful, middle-class apathy in Russia. For the first time in 20 years, Russians have shaken off their resignation en masse and taken to the streets to raise their political voice to the world.

Come to think of it, that may be the best possible way to commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s demise.

Related post: The Russian Coup, 20 Years Later

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2 thoughts on “Fall of the USSR, 20 Years Ago. Who cares?

  1. Hi Kim- it seems like all you public radio folks know each other, so this is probably old news to you, but just in case, I wanted to recommend Lawrence Sheets’ new book, Eight Pieces of Empire. I just finished reading it and your post reminded me of it–particularly the way that the collapse of the USSR was a disaster for so many people throughout the empire.

    On a happier note, the merriest of Christmases to you and wishing you health, happiness, and lots of Georgian food in 2012! Big hellos to Hal and your mom. I’ve been getting lots of compliments on the earrings.

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