by Serhii Plokhy
Originally published in Spanish under the title, “El retorno de la historia,” Política exterior, 204 (November/December 2021): 40-50.
In December 1991, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, I asked my students in a course on “The USSR in Crisis: The Nationality Question” to play a little game. Its basic premise was that as of December 1991 all Soviet citizens had the right to move wherever they wished in their own republic or any other Union republic, an opportunity that would be lost once the republics became independent states. The students were asked to choose in which region or republic they would like to settle: in other words, which successor states of the USSR would do best in the following decade or two.
The most popular choices were two regions of the Russian Federation: the Kaliningrad enclave, a part of East Prussia around the city of Königsberg seized by the Red Army in 1945, since it was considered a natural bridge for the political and economic integration of the new Russia into Europe, and the Far East region around Vladivostok, which was expected to perform the same function with regard to the booming Pacific rim. Others chose Ukraine, for which experts at the Deutsche Bank had predicted the brightest economic future of any Soviet republic.
Thirty years later, the hopes and expectations of my students and of most experts and forecasters have failed to materialize. The regions that allegedly had the best chances of success are now among the worst in economic performance and standard of living. In assessing the economic potential of the post-Soviet space, it was not only my students but also the professors and pundits who proved mistaken about the prospects of democratic development in the successor states. Francis Fukuyama in particular hailed the end of the Cold War and the Soviet collapse as “the end of history as such: that is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
The future looked bright, and whatever one thought of Fukuyama’s prognosis, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was generally perceived as a discrete event—one that seemed to have taken place miraculously, almost overnight; a turning point in some process or other—but not a process in its own right. “I find it hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance more inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance from the international scene…of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union,” wrote the dean of American Sovietology, George F. Kennan, in 1995.
Looking back, we see that 1991 marked no end to history either as the ideological evolution of humankind or as the discipline that has documented the lengthy and painful disintegration of most of the world’s empires. What we see today in the post-Soviet space is the continuing process of the disintegration of the USSR, complete with efforts to establish spheres of influence, border disputes, and open warfare. We also see Russia’s return to the international scene as it attempts the role not only of a regional but also of a global power akin to that played by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
With the euphoria of the early 1990s gone, we can now make a more sober assessment of the Soviet Union’s disintegration and the reasons for it. We can also define the direction in which that process continues to develop and perhaps make better predictions about its future. One thing is immediately obvious: post-Soviet space has disintegrated into more than a dozen smaller polities that move to their own drumbeats, often in different directions. History, in particular pre-Soviet history, played an important role in defining the post-Soviet developments in the region.
The downfall of the Soviet Union began in the most recent additions to its territory—the lands annexed in the course of World War II, first in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and then recaptured from Nazi Germany in 1944–45 as a result of the Yalta agreements. In the forefront of mobilization against the Soviet center were the Baltic states, especially Estonia and Lithuania. The former was the first Soviet republic to declare its sovereignty, meaning that its laws took precedence over those of the Union.
Lithuania, for its part, was the first republic to declare itself completely independent of the Soviet Union. It did so in March 1990 at the first session of the freely elected Lithuanian parliament. Even the Communist Party of Lithuania abandoned the USSR, declaring its secession from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Leadership passed to representatives of an alternative elite from the ranks of intellectuals and technocrats, not unlike the process in Eastern Europe a few years later.
The Baltic drive to regain the independence lost in the flames of World War II had a ripple effect throughout the Soviet Union. To deal with the Baltic “Popular Fronts”—pro-independence organizations that sent hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to achieve their goal—Moscow and the local party elites organized “International Fronts” that sought to mobilize Russian and Russian-speaking minorities in the republics.
Russian mobilization in the western borderlands of the USSR soon spilled over into Russia itself. The “Russia first” approach united Russian nationalists and democrats, propelling Gorbachev’s former protégé and then his sworn enemy Boris Yeltsin to the position first of head of the Russian parliament and then to that of Russian president. Yeltsin’s victory resulted from several mobilizations, first of nationalists and then of democratic activists in the major cities. Finally, there was the backing of newly organized workers who went on strike over economic conditions, expecting that Russian authorities could help them when Union officials had failed.
By June 1991 Moscow had two presidents, one of Russia and the other of the USSR. But in Russia, unlike in the Baltic republics, opposition to the center was led by a former party boss, not by an intellectual, as was the case in Lithuania, where the former music professor Vytautas Landsbergis played roughly the same role as Yeltsin. Even though Yeltsin publicly abandoned the Communist Party and then suspended its activities, the new Russian elite never made a clean break with the communist past, as did its counterparts in the Baltics. That was a consequential difference.
The mobilization in Ukraine, the second-largest Soviet republic after Russia in size of population and economy, combined elements of the Baltic and Russian mobilizations. In the parts of western Ukraine annexed by the Soviet Union on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it followed the Baltic model, focusing on issues of history, language, culture, and national sovereignty. Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup in Moscow came not only as a result of the alliance between nationalists, democrats, and striking workers in the Donbas region but also thanks to the support of the party apparatus, which had been threatened by Boris Yeltsin’s suspension of Communist Party activity.
On December 1, 1991, Ukrainians delivered the final blow to the Soviet Union by voting overwhelmingly for independence. The Baltics were effectively gone by that time, as was Moldova and a good part of the Caucasus. But the Belarusians and Central Asians, who counted on a continuing supply of subsidized gas and oil from Russia, were in no hurry to leave. Even resource- rich Kazakhstan was hesitant about independence, partly because of its large Russian and Slavic population. But Russia’s decision to recognize Ukrainian independence and not bear the economic burden of the Union without Ukraine’s substantial human and economic resources spelled the end of the USSR. The Belarusians and Central Asians had to leave as well, willingly or not.
On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as president after the Soviet Union had already ceased to exist as a legal entity, having been formally dissolved by the leaders of the Union republics. That turned out to be the beginning of the process of disintegration, not its end.
The fall of the USSR, far from being a universal triumph of democracy, as was imagined back in 1991, was a victory to a different degree of nationalists, democrats, and party apparatchiks, with their roles and ideologies varying from one republic to another. In some cases, it was the most conservative elements of the Soviet elite that consolidated power.
The various paths to independence taken by different republics could not but influence the post-Soviet trajectory of the now formally independent states. With the notable exception of the Central Asian states, they began by democratizing their political life and institutions to a significant degree, but not every state was able to maintain or enhance that level of democracy throughout the tumultuous years of post-Soviet transition. In fact, most of them failed to do so.
Democracy was fully successful only in the Baltic states, where it turned out to be more durable and resistant to authoritarian pressures than even in the countries of the former East European communist bloc, most notably Hungary and Poland. Democracy in the form of competitive elections survived in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and, to a degree, in Kyrgyzstan (an outlier among Central Asian states in that regard). It never took off in the rest of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In Belarus, the slide into authoritarianism began in the mid-1990s after the election of Aliaksandr Lukashenka as president. His regime became a virtual dictatorship by 2020, when he used unrestricted violence against peaceful demonstrators who protested the government’s widespread electoral fraud committed to keep Lukashenka in office.
In Russia, the beacon of democracy for the more conservative republics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, authoritarianism began to gather strength after the failed coup of 1993 against Boris Yeltsin. The Russian president ordered his military to crush the coup with tanks and rewrote the Russian constitution to strengthen the powers of his office. On arriving in the Kremlin as president in 2000, Vladimir Putin made full use of those powers. In 2021, having been prime minister twice and already serving his third term as president, Putin rewrote the constitution once again, allowing himself two more presidential terms, each extended from the original five years to seven.
Numerous indexes of democratic development invariably put the three Baltic states far ahead of the other post-Soviet countries. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index divides them into three categories. Ukraine, with a score of 6.81, is followed by Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova in the so-called “limited democracy” camp. Russia, scoring 5.3, leads the “very limited democracy” group. It is followed by Kazakhstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. At the bottom are Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, with respective scores of 3.32 and 2.71. This is the “failed democracy” camp.
Contrary to expectations in 1991, liberal democracy failed to encompass most of the former Soviet Union, and the majority of post-Soviet states, including Russia, are now on the path of authoritarianism, not democracy.
History did appear to reach its end in 1991 in one respect—the abandonment of monopolistic state ownership and planning in every new polity and the adoption to a different degree the principles of private property, free enterprise, and market economy.
Unfortunately, the rule of law did not generally become the defining principle of political, social, and economic life. Heavy state regulation and manipulation accompanied by corruption became the ever present features of the economic life in the region. Once again, the Baltic states are the only exception to this general rule. There, democracy and the rule of law go hand in hand with the highest GDP per capita in the post-Soviet space (in 2020, Estonia led with $23,000 per annum).
Where democracy is not accompanied by the rule of law, the economic transformation of the last thirty years has produced less than modest results. Ukraine, with the highest level of democratic development, is close to the bottom of the list of post-Soviet countries, with a mere $3,500 GDP per capita. The same applies, in different degrees, to other countries of the “limited democracy” group: Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, whose 2020 GDP per capita was less than $4,500. All those countries are further disadvantaged by arrested or ongoing military conflicts: Russian forces remain in Transnistria, Armenia has a not so frozen conflict with Azerbaijan, Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008, and Ukraine is in its eighth year of fighting the Russian invasion of the Donbas.
Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan belong to the “very limited democracy” or even “failed democracy” group. In economic terms, they are behind the Baltics but ahead of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia. GDP per capita is close to $10,000 in Russia, close to $9,000 in Kazakhstan, and slightly more than $8,000 in Turkmenistan. The relative wealth of these countries is due in no small measure to their natural resources and their ability to sell them in foreign markets. The profits of that trade help to support authoritarian rulers and limit the spread of democracy in all three countries. Russian and Azeri oil earnings also help to fund those countries’ wars.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, one of the most encouraging features of its collapse was the absence of large-scale wars between the republics. The scenario that concerned many in the West, “Yugoslavia with nukes,” never materialized.
The presence of nuclear weapons on Soviet territory should be credited not only with the peaceful end of the Cold War but also with the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, where four republics, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, found themselves in possession, although not always in control, of nuclear weapons. The United States worked hand in hand with Russia to bring about nuclear disarmament, forcing Ukraine and the other republics to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for security assurances. These turned out to be worthless once Russia invaded Ukraine in the spring of 2014.
The 1990s marked the high point of Russo-American cooperation. The two countries reached agreement on a number of key issues, from further cuts to nuclear arsenals to the resolution of regional conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, where Moscow stopped supporting its clients. But there was one major exception: Russia and the United States never reached an understanding about the future of the post-Soviet space.
Despite his decision in December 1991 to allow the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin never envisioned the post-Soviet space as an area in which the former republics of the USSR would acquire a free hand in deciding their affairs. The Commonwealth of Independent States, formed in December 1991, was there among other things to ensure Russia’s leading role in the region. Other republics, Ukraine in particular, regarded the Commonwealth as an international institution that would make possible the orderly dissolution of the Union or, as they called it in Kyiv, a “civilized divorce.”
The United States remained a strong supporter of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union until the last weeks of the Union’s existence, but once the USSR was gone, Washington endorsed the full independence of the post-Soviet states as opposed to the limited sovereignty advocated for them by Yeltsin and his advisers. The conflict between these two visions came to the forefront at the start of the twenty-first century.
Ukraine found itself at the very center of the battle for full sovereignty of the republics. It never fully joined the Commonwealth, which it had helped to create, and with the departure of former party officials from the political scene, pro-democratic forces made a push to reorient Ukraine toward the West. The Orange Revolution—mass protests in Kyiv in the fall of 2004 triggered by the government’s attempt to rig elections in favor of a presidential candidate supported by Russia—put membership in the European Union on Ukraine’s political agenda. The United States supported Ukraine’s democratic choice, but Russia considered the Orange Revolution a form of American aggression and encroachment on its sphere of influence.
While Putin’s liberal allies, such as Anatoly Chubais, advocated the formation of a Russian liberal empire in which the other republics would be linked to Russia by economic dependence and soft power, Putin concluded that his only effective instrument to keep the post-Soviet space under Russian control was the use of military force. In the first months of 2014, as Ukrainians revolted against their president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had promised them to sign an association agreement with the European Union but reneged under pressure from Russia, Putin sent his troops into Ukraine’s Crimea and seized the peninsula. A few months later he opened another front in his war on Ukraine, this time in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas.
The war that began there in the spring and early summer of 2014 is still going on, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 people, with at least twice as many wounded, hundreds of thousands without shelter, and millions forced to become refugees. What are Russia’s motives? First, to arrest Ukraine’s drift toward the West: Putin claimed that if he had not annexed the peninsula, it would have become a launching pad for NATO forces. Second, to undermine and discredit Ukrainian democracy, whose success would send an undesirable signal to the Russians: if Ukraine can be democratic and successful, why cannot Russia do the same?
Moscow’s efforts to establish or retain a Russian sphere of influence are not limited to Ukraine. The same rationale is apparent in neighboring Belarus, where Russia supports the highly unpopular president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, whose legitimacy is not recognized by the country’s European neighbors. The western front of Russia’s confrontation with the collective West also includes the Baltic states, the post-Soviet success story. They joined both the European Union and NATO, but Russia considers them contested territory and is using new methods of cyber warfare against its former subjects.
Further south, Russia maintains its military and economic support of Transnistria, a diplomatically unrecognized enclave created in Moldova to keep that country’s Western aspirations in check. In the Caucasus, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and took over the region of South Ossetia, adding it to another Georgian enclave already under Russian control, the republic of Abkhazia. The war was a direct response to Georgia’s desire to join NATO.
Many observers speak of a return of the Cold War to the now redefined Eastern Europe, consisting of the former Soviet republics of the USSR’s western and, in part, southern periphery. But in reality, the new Cold War started there as soon as the original one was over. What is truly unprecedented in the developments of the last decade is the emergence of new international actors in the post-Soviet space. The recent resumption of the military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh ended with Azerbaijan’s victory, thanks in large part to the backing of its ally, Turkey. Russia brought its “peacekeepers” into the area but was constrained to accept the defeat of its client, Armenia.
The whole region is emerging as a new battleground of a different Cold War, that between the United States and China, in which Moscow figures as a junior partner of Beijing—a return to the old Sino-Soviet alliance, with the partners’ roles reversed. China, which is extending its economic and political influence in Central Asia and beyond (it is Ukraine’s largest trading partner), refrains from challenging Russia directly in those areas, but its growing economic power, as opposed to Russia’s stagnant economy, leaves little doubt about the eventual winner of that contest.
This is hardly a scenario that anyone envisioned thirty years ago. Nor did observers accurately foresee the fate of democracy, the economy, and the rule of law in the post-Soviet space. The triumph of democracy materialized in some republics but not in others. And Russia, after some hesitation, simply refused to give up its ambitions as the sole master of the post-Soviet space.
But not all the news is grim. The scale of the new Cold War is much smaller than that of the old one. The Iron Curtain has fallen, and people are free to travel. The dictates of communist ideology are gone, along with its social experiments and the Gulag. No one is forcing farmers to join collectives by starving them to death, nor is anyone killing writers to arrest the development of non-Russian cultures. Most of the post-Soviet countries are much freer today than they were even during Gorbachev’s perestroika, to say nothing of Stalin’s murderous dictatorship. The rule of law is slowly making progress in the region, and the vast majority of post-Soviet economies have grown since 1991, with concomitant improvements in the standard of living. All this allows us to look to the future without the euphoria of 1991, but with cautious optimism.
History did not end in 1991, the empire did not collapse overnight, and we no longer expect miracles. In that sense the return of history comes with a bonus: we can now learn from the past experiences and guess what comes next. Historical developments in similar post-imperial situations elsewhere in the world leave no doubt about the direction of the processes taking place today in the region once called the USSR. No empire was able to revive itself and keep imposing its will or ideology on its former subjects indefinitely. One freedom that the former republics of the USSR have won and are not willing to give up is freedom of choice. That freedom should be supported by the international community not just with words, but with deeds.