Twenty years ago on Christmas Day, Mikhail Gorbachev delighted the West with a gift: Having failed to breathe new life into a decaying Soviet Union, he acknowledged that it had already effectively dissolved and resigned as its leader. The Cold War, children crouching under their school desks to practice nuclear drills and Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” all gone peacefully on Christmas Day.
Many Americans assumed democracy, free enterprise and free expression would flourish instantly in the 15 new countries sprung from the former Soviet Union. But no framework existed for fashioning them from the debris of communism, nor did leaders necessarily choose to steer there. The new era that opened with euphoria hurtled into fear and disarray. Everything from living conditions to politics degenerated.
Twenty years later, life has settled into a more stable reality, tailored to each of the 15 new countries. But they still are finding their way, as seen this month as Moscow protesters push back on Putin’s plan to keep his party in control of Russia for many years to come.
Before the collapse, many Soviet people recognized that their system was rotting. By the late 1980s, everyday life had deteriorated such that consumer goods largely disappeared from stores.
“I remember walking into a food store and seeing nothing but packages of salt,” says Yana Yablonovskaya, who was in primary school in Irkutsk, Siberia. “I remember lines for bread, for milk, for meat, and yes, for vodka.”
When the Soviet Union dissolved, “the natural gas supply was cut, and there were shortages of electricity,” recalls translator Armen Hovhannisyan, living in the capital of Armenia. “We started using a wood stove in our apartment for heating and cooking. People cut down trees in the streets and parks to use for fuel.”
The post-Soviet transition from a planned to a market economy has been stressful. Hyperinflation destroyed purchasing power, and unemployment hit people who, under communism, had been guaranteed employment for life. Hovhannisyan’s father, a construction engineer who lost his job when construction slowed, put food on the table by selling toys and soap in the wildly erratic new free-market economy.
Twenty years later, people enjoy a wide array of pleasing consumer goods, replacing the dull, limited Soviet goods. Entrepreneurs start their own businesses. Traffic and parking in cities have become congested as people buy cars. (In Soviet times, only one in 10 households owned a car.)
New freedoms enable people to travel internationally and attend houses of worship.
New identities have surfaced; without one hub, one people became many. Ethnic tensions suppressed in Soviet times, such as in Georgia, Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh, erupted. Populations shift as people seek economic opportunity.
“A lot of our people — about half a million — left to become guest workers in Kazakhstan, Russia and other countries,” says Azizbek Tashbaev, a university administrator in Kyrgyzstan, whose population now stands at 5.4 million. “Lots of physicians, teachers and other professionals left as well.”
His country experienced two revolutions while struggling to find its political footing. Now, he says proudly, “we are the first nation in Central Asia where a parliament runs the country.”
Today 15 new countries work on nation-building. U.S.-sponsored educational programs and people-to-people diplomacy are facilitating this nation-building in a quiet and effective way.
A new generation with initiative to shape their future is replacing a generation accustomed to waiting for instructions.
“The idea that we can create our country ourselves gives me hope,” says Armenian lawyer Arpine Melikbekyan.
“The new generation believes in building new, independent states that will be better than the Soviet Union,” Georgian musician Levan Khubulava echoes.
Despite political haggling, widespread corruption, limits on journalistic expression and a gulf between rich and middle class, prospects overall look auspicious. Ukraine will host international travelers for the 2012 European soccer cup and Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Kyrgyzstan has experienced a five-fold increase in the number of colleges. The Baltic countries have joined the European Union and NATO.
Prospects look good for us, too. We are now at peace with a former enemy, thanks to that Christmas gift 20 years ago.
Jan Sherbin co-owns Glasnost Communications, a Cincinnati firm that facilitates communication between Americans and people in the former Soviet Union.