Twenty-five years ago this Christmas Day, the Soviet Union dissolved quietly and peacefully, effectively ending the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the Soviet Union’s leader, and its 15 constituent republics went their separate ways. This development surprised even Mr. Gorbachev, who intended only to update his nation, not to destroy it.
“Reforming and refreshing the Soviet Union was necessary and possible,” he told Russia’s TASS news service earlier this month. “I was defending the USSR till the very end. No one thought the USSR could be eliminated. It fell into pieces by itself.”
Several of the former Soviet republics have, in fact, reformed and refreshed since then. Overall, people in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics enjoy more freedom to speak and travel, and the latest fashions and consumer goods are available. These freedoms and goods come more slowly to Belarus, which for 22 years has been under the leadership of a president groomed during Soviet times.
The Baltics had enjoyed a couple of decades of independence before becoming annexed to the Soviet Union in the prelude to World War II and are favorably positioned for a Western lifestyle, having joined the European Union. People in the former republics of Russia and Ukraine had only a limited window to the outside world and a longer communist tradition in enterprise and government, which makes their path longer.
“It was a different world,” says Ukrainian college student Natalya Ivanenko. If it still existed, she imagines, “everything would be more closed. Domestic production would be emphasized; there would be a much smaller choice of goods available. Technology development would continue, but the government could restrict the use of IT.”
The new generation, born post-USSR and coming into adulthood in the internet era, agrees with Mr. Gorbachev that “reform and refresh” implies loss in order to gain. Transitioning from a communist economy, with guaranteed employment, free medical care and heavily subsidized housing and utilities, requires that people learn initiative, squelched in Soviet times. They also experience more stress regarding providing for themselves.
“My grandfather often compares life now and then,” says Anna Myasnikova, another college student in Ukraine. “For example, he says, ‘In the USSR, I could buy a lot of chocolates for 10 rubles.’ ” Now, he “cannot buy even one chocolate” with a comparable amount of today’s money.
Twenty-five years after Mr. Gorbachev fought for changes, they look more palatable. “I am glad that our country strives to become more democratic,” Ms. Myasnikova says. “I am not saying that we do not have any restraints now, but I believe the boundaries are not as rigid.”
“Perhaps, in some respects, we would live better [if still in the Soviet Union], but we would be deprived of many charms of capitalism,” Ms. Ivanenko says. “It is unlikely that we would have as many international businesses in our country as we do.”
Who in the Soviet Union would have predicted the internal and trans-border conflicts we see today in the post-Soviet countries, especially that Russia and Ukraine would grow so far apart and bring the world closer to a second Cold War?
Many in Russia and Ukraine harbor no ill will against their neighbors and former brethren. They often talk about being “manipulated” by what they call an “information war,” meaning that propaganda and inflammatory language manufacture tensions in order to further each country’s political objectives.
Ms. Ivanenko advises government leaders to compromise. “I think that the governments should be sufficiently wise and responsible to place the world’s public interests above their own and try to reach a mutually acceptable consensus.”
Mr. Gorbachev says he was thinking along those lines when he gave up leadership of one of the world’s two superpowers. The price of preserving the Soviet Union would have been too high, he told TASS. “The fire would have engulfed the whole country. I resigned to avoid bloodshed.”
If only today’s brewing Cold War could disappear as peacefully as the Soviet Union disbanded on Christmas Day in 1991. Mr. Gorbachev had the wisdom to put his people’s well-being above his own. Dear Santa, please bring us such wisdom this Christmas.
• Jan Sherbin is a Cincinnati writer who first visited the Soviet Union during the August 1991 coup.