The Last Empire: 20 Years after the USSR's Collapse

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An insight from inside: what led to the fall of the Soviet Union?

Just a few days before the New Year, on December 30 of 1922 the Bolshevik leaders of four republics – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia (the latter included Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) signed a treaty that laid a foundation of a new country on the world map – the USSR. Although the first line of the state anthem of this newly created country stated “soyuz nerushimi” (“an unbreakable union” in Russian) the unbreakable fall apart in 69 years.

Starting with four republics, the Soviet Union increased its size to 16, later sliding down to 15, after the Karelo-Finn Soviet Socialist Republic, which was established on the territories conquered from Finland in 1940, was reorganized into an autonomous district within the Soviet Russia.

Interestingly enough, the Soviet Union won all the wars it fought (Afghanistan was probably a draw), but lost the Cold War. Nazi armies that reached Moscow or Caucasus were unable to do what the Cold War eventually did to the Soviet Union.

So why and how did the last empire vanish from the world’s political map?

The national problems of the multinational country

It is commonly believed that there were three main sensitive points of the Soviets that made the USSR vulnerable and eventually led to its collapse: the national problem; gradual loss of faith and belief of the Soviet citizen into the ideals of communism; and the deteriorating economy. “The Soviet Union is a vast house of cards waiting for a strong breeze. All anyone has to do is to blow hard and the entire country is going to fall over. Just ask an Armenian or a Georgian or an Uzbek”, David Ignatius wrote in one of his novels.
Although a country which occupied 1/6 of earth’s soil, with its enormous nuclear arsenal, could seem to be invincible, those who studied the Soviets closely would see that the country had large problems which could shake the foundations of the statehood.

One of them was the national problem. None of the Baltic countries had ever forgotten that it was Stalin’s tanks that incorporated them into the Soviet Union, nor did they give up their hopes to regain the lost and long-cherished independence. Permanent statements about the eternal friendship of Socialist republics and 100+ nationalities in fact were as exaggerated as the statements about the unbreakable union itself. In 1977, in its November 11th issue, the New York Times reported about the tension between the Armenian and the Azerbaijanis around Nagorno-Karabakh region – a historically Armenian populated enclave that, as the NY Times reported, was assigned in 1923 to Soviet Azerbaijan.

“The Armenians in Karabakh charge that they are victims of cultural oppression, economic discrimination and other ethnic disadvantages. They demand, with increasing insistence, that Karabakh be put under the Armenian Republic," the newspaper reported.

Now the declassified Russian documents show, that in November of 1977 the Supreme Council of USSR seriously was considering the possibilities of transferring the NK back to Armenia. 11 years after that the simmering pot of NK would turn into a boiling pot with Armenians and Azeris conflicting about who should possess Karabakh. Protests turned into pogroms in Sumgayit, Baku and eslewere with Moscow’s complete impotence to resolve the first ethnic conflict of the USSR. Russian colonel Viktor Krivopuskov, who was sent to Karabakh in 1990 called NK “the first hot spot of USSR”. The US senate passed a resolution, which emphasized the importance of finding a just solution to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which would reflect the free will of the people populating the region.

On March 18 of 1989 the autonomous region of Abkhazia demanded to break up with Soviet Georgia, another Caucasian Soviet Republic. Clashes with Soviet Army in Tbilisi led to resignation of Edward Shevardnadze, then the Foreign Minister of the USSR of Georgian Origins. In March of 1989 Lithuania, first among the rest of the Soviet Republics declared independence. Protestors and Soviet Special Forces clashed in January of 1990 in several towns of Lithuania.

In all these conflicts Armenians and Azeries, Georgians and Abkhazians, Moldavians and the Slavic people of Transinistria blamed each other. But all of them also blamed Moscow, Kremlin and Mikhail Gorbachev personally. Glastnost and Perestroyka, i.e. the process of democratization and reconstruction of the USSR had revealed the national problems but were unable to resolve them. Actually, no one really knows if there was any solution to national problems that would still keep the USSR stable or even alive.

Sergey Markedonov, a Russian analyst, currently employed at CSIS, Washington, D.C., thinks it would be impossible to do. “The country changed its identity. Nationalistic ideology started to prevail over communist ideology. The communist leaders of Soviet countries were engaged in completely non-communist activities. If you take communism out of the Soviet Union, then there is no more Soviet Union. The USSR was a country governed by a certain type of ideology”, Markedonov says.

Lenin’s behests forgotten

I have been told a story by a well-known artist from Armenia. He asked me not to disclose his name.

“Once in early 80ies they called me to the Composers Union of Armenia and said” “Since you became prominent then the time has come to become a communist”. “I don’t want to”, the composer replied. “Well, it’s decided already” was the answer.

There was a big gap between the Bolsheviks of early 20th centuries and those at the dawn the century. Instead of revolutionary romanticism, commitment and even fanaticism of 1917, six decades later the Communist party membership ticket was more a mandatory thing for those who were already successful and a desirable thing for those who would like to advance in their career. By 80ies one might even need to bribe the party activists in order to sneak into the Red organization. All the schoolboys and schoolgirls, including myself, had to become pioneers, i.e. young communists. By mid 80ies the compulsory red ties around our necks were creating more resistance and frustration rather than commitment to Lenin’s ideology. By 1988-89 more pioneers in my city abandoned their red ties and acquired red-blue-orange tricolor ones that were symbolizing the colors of the national flag of Armenia and not communism. Thus, paradoxically a symbol of junior-communists became a symbol of anticommunism.

The overwhelming majority of young Soviet citizens had gradually developed different interests, that were more and more identifiable with Western lifestyle rather than with communism. In 1984 Karen Shakhnazarov, young movie maker and writer wrote a novel called “The Currier”, which later himself converted into a movie. The story of a teenager with typical Russian name Ivan depicted the whole generation of young people dancing breakdance in the streets, skateboarding, looking for new experiences, clashing with their parents, abandoning colleges and treating as a joke old Soviet slogans like “Let the communism prevail all over the world”. Shahnazarov’s artistic nature seized the quest of new generation and the deepening crisis of society. Interestingly, the movie became a hit with great audience attendance at Soviet movie theaters in 1987, when over 30 million Soviet people, mainly young watched it. The genie was gradually getting out of its bottle.

In 1984, the KGB unsuccessfully tried to preclude Georgian movie-maker Tengiz Abduladze from making his what later turned to be a masterpiece called “Repentance”. The movie about a brutal dictatorship of a mayor in a small Georgian town resembled the dark 1930s of Stalinism. After Gorbachev made censorship less prevalent in media and art, Abduladze’s film became another sign of the Soviet awakening.

“Mikhail Gorbachev turned his own country upside down. He woke a sleeping giant, the peoples of the Soviet Union and gave them freedom they never dreamed of” The Washington Post correspondent to Russia and author of “Why Gorbachev happened” Robert Kaiser wrote.

Canons or cans?

I used to wake up at 7am and stand in the line for an hour in order to buy milk and sour cream. If you woke up later – you had to forget about acquiring simple food products. Things were not bad before, but the prominent dilemma of economics: oil or guns was so true for the USSR of late 80ies. Although we used to blame the Soviet leadership for shortcomings later we should find out that there was another reason that wiped out food from stores and triggered the rise of the prices that never stopped until the country collapsed: sliding oil prices. What is largely believed, with America’s active participation the world oil prices fall up to 11 dollars by July of 1986, about 12% of contemporary prices. With hydrocarbon prices going down, corruption and bribery in economy and enormous military spending – the Soviet Union, a country that was supposed to abandon money and provide everything for free as soon as the communism prevails – simply ran out of money itself.

“They knew, more money we invest in military buildup less money we will be able to allocate for construction of houses and roads, for social purposes. That would lead to deterioration of peoples’ life quality and their frustration”, USSR's PM from 1985-1990 Nikolay Rizhkov says.

The increasing foreign debt of Soviet Union made the country more vulnerable for the external forces. The salaries of workers were delayed, the governments had to freeze the bank savings of people, and angry citizens initiated protests. Ukranian mine workers started strikes demanding increase of salary. There was no such thing possible even few years before.

By 1990 the USSR was changing on a monthly basis.

Declaration # 142N

By the autumn of 1991, the former empire was so disorganized that the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher stated: the USSR in fact ceased to exist. In November, Russia’s democratic leader Boris Yeltsin signed a decree prohibiting the communist party in the country, which was identified with communism for 70 years. In early December, Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus leaders signed the Belovejskaya treaty about disintegration of the USSR.

The Soviet Union's first and the only president, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned on December 25, 1991. A day after that the supreme council of USSR gathered for last time in the history of the country to adopt the resolution # 142 N on the abolishment of the Soviet Union.

Interestingly enough, none of the countries that established the USSR in 1922 participated in the December 25 final session of the parliament.

By that time only Uzbek, Tajik, Kazak, Kirgiz and Turkmen deputies could be seen in the USSR’s parliament…

Original Author: Haykaram Nahapetyan
Haykaram Nahapetyan is the Washington correspondent for the Armenian Public TV and an analyst at the Armenia based “Noravank” think tank.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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