30 years ago the USSR today is Russia
Nearly 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and yet vivid memories of the once-mighty empire remain steadfast in our collective memory.
Thirty years ago, the largest state in the world was dissolved, and on December 25, 1991, at 19.32, the flag of the USSR with the Hammer and Sickle in the Kremlin was lowered and the tricolor flag of the Russian Federation was hoisted with a ceremony. Within a few days, the Russian Federation assumed many responsibilities of the USSR, and the Soviet Union representative in the United Nations became the representative of Russia. All of this happened without a war and internal conflict.
In the three months following the August coup, the 22.4 million square kilometer country had been split into negotiationally self-contained fragments in an unusual and perhaps unexpected way. Although the resulting structure was called the Commonwealth of Independent States, its legal existence resembled an international organization rather than a state. It gave the impression that it was thought of as a mechanism to facilitate the transition to independence.
The first ruptures had already begun, and the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe had hit the Soviet geography, especially the Baltic countries, in August 1989. On August 23, 1989, about 2 million people held hands in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in 1940 with a 600-kilometer chain, the occupation of their country, and their becoming a part of the USSR in 1944.
Similar demonstrations were also seen in Georgia and Azerbaijan, albeit for different reasons, and nationalism on the one hand, democracy on the other, and of course the desire for a better life began to shake the Soviet Union. At the end of May 1990, the Baltic states either declared or registered their independence one by one. The situation was not very different in other republics, according to many historians, the Soviet Union could not withstand the reforms of its last leader, Gorbachev.
The process, which started with Glasnost and Perestroika in 1985 and was shaped by different concepts and understandings, brought the end of the country by the end of 1991. Openness and democracy did not feel good to the Soviet Union. The country, which could compete with the world while closed and lived largely at peace with itself, was torn apart by the loosening of control. When the failed coup attempt in August 1991 was added, the process accelerated.
It is difficult to predict whether the Soviet Union would have survived if there had been no coup, no reforms, or if Eastern Europe had not been given freedom and self-determination. Whatever we say about it, there is a high probability that it will not go beyond speculation. Because history is not a laboratory. Conditions cannot be changed and the flow cannot be reconstructed. But those who live in it and shape history may look at the situation differently.
They may think that even after the coup attempt, at least some of them, the Soviet Union can survive even if it shrinks, that it can survive with new reforms. They might say that even if the Baltic states are separated, there is a possibility to hold the others together. For this reason, it is useful to listen to those who witnessed history first hand and those who lived through the process. Their intention may be to acquit themselves, but in the end, they share their testimonies with us.
Boris Pankin, the last Foreign Minister of the USSR and the first Ambassador to London, is one of them. Pankin wrote a book called ‘The Last Hundred Days of the Soviet Union’, which tells about the last 100 days of the Soviet Union. I think I bought the book published by Tauris in 1996 a few years later. I took a look at it, underlined some irrelevant parts for some reason, put it in the Russia section of my library and left it to sleep.
When I saw the long article on the collapse of the USSR in the last issue of The Economist, it came to my mind and I read it breathlessly in a few days. It was interesting to me what Pankin told me, who was called to Moscow by Gorbachev personally due to his opposition to the putschists in Prague, where he was the Soviet Union Ambassador during the coup attempt, and was made the Minister of Foreign Affairs that day.
I learned a lot from his sincere narrative of the inner workings of the Soviet system, which goes beyond the visible and the known. It would be unfair to the book, to it, and to me, if I didn’t try to summarize what it said here. However, I can say that he saw Yeltsin’s ambition as the biggest problem that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the last part of his book, although he is close to the leaders of other republics and their attitudes, he places the responsibility largely on Yeltsin. He tells how he turned his resistance against the coup into power, tried to replace Russia with the Soviets, frightened the democrats of other republics who sought salvation in reform and dragged them to seek independence.
He said that leaders such as Mutallibov in Azerbaijan, Kravchuk in Ukraine, Snegur in Moldova, Nabiyev in Tajikistan were engaged in politics with this fear, consolidated their position, and expressed the work of the State Council, which was established after the coup attempt, sometimes by silence, sometimes by speaking differently in different countries in Moscow. He says they sabotaged it. He enriches his stories with anecdotes and observations. The book even includes how Turkmenbashi came to be Turkmenbashi.
But he blames Yeltsin for the collapse, the failure to transform the Soviet Union into the Union of Independent States. While Gorbachev sought ways to maintain unity after Ukraine’s independence referendum, Yeltsin emphasizes that he thinks Russia should do the same. On December 8, 1991, in a mansion in the Belarusian forests (Belovezhskaya), he questions the decision he made with the Ukrainian and Belarusian presidents, which ended the USSR.
It is hard to agree with all of his comments, analyzes, and especially to believe that Russia’s Western friends are as innocent as he describes them. But still, Pankin’s book deserves to be read. It describes developments beyond stereotypes, prejudices and especially theories. If you read it, I say read it without comparing it with anyone, including us, without learning a lesson.
Let’s not forget that for those who are interested in world politics in one way or another, the USSR was important in the past, and it is important now. In the USSR you find not only the past, but also the future. The understanding of that time sheds light on today, you can understand the course of some problems more easily. You better describe the Ukraine-Russia tension and the escalating crisis between the West and Russia. You also enjoy reading these types of books.