Lessons From Russia and the former Soviet Republics

On 25 December 1991, after 74 years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics voted itself out of existence. In doing so an empire that spanned from Poland to the Pacific Ocean, from Iran to the Arctic Circle broke up into 16 separate nations. 250 million people had to begin to learn a whole new way of life where they found themselves in charge of their own socio-economic destiny, grappling with geopolitical challenges that just a few years earlier, most people would have said would not happen.

But the post-Cold War rehabilitation that one might have thought that the western powers would help with, having spent most of a century trying to destroy it, does not seem to have materialized. Nothing was done to help stabilize an economy used to the command format, the five year plans that kept resulting in overly ambitious targets not being met and factory machinery not being retooled or repaired in time. Far from accepting the economic rot that had set in, the U.S.S.R. was kicked to touch by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant reactor meltdown by exposing the inflexible nature of the state, the corruption indulged in to keep or maintain individual power.

From Ukraine and Moldova to Tajikistan, the Soviet republics were littered with the detritus of the Soviet involvement in the biggest arms race of all time.  Warships and submarines lay rusting, unmaintained at ports such as Sevastopol, Odessa, Murmansk, Archangel, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and others. Thousands of nuclear weapons were unprotected across the republics. No need for them existed in the early 1990’s with the hope that the world had somehow moved on from communism and that long term disarmament would become a thing. Thus no one should be surprised that the submarine Kursk had a catastrophic accident shortly after Mr Putin took office.

The same countries found themselves struggling with a smorgasbord of socio-environmental; socio-economic and socio-political issues.The devaluation of the rouble had rendered it just about useless; empty shop shelves became a common appearance; in the U.S.S.R. military establishment literally hundreds of thousands of people who had soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines quickly became redundant. The reforms ushered in by Mr Gorbachev may have delighted the west, but they angered political hardliners perhaps inspired by Josef Stalin’s concept of “towards the inevitable conflict”. This supported the idea where eventually some sort of confrontation between the east and the west would happen.

Yet nearly 30 years later from the collapse of the U.S.S.R, the west and Russia are no closer to a long lasting peaceful solution than they were in 1945. And yet, we in the west wonder how and why Russia came to be like it currently is: a semi-authoritarian state beset by corruption. A nation with poor regard for human rights, with ambitious leaders who see a role for growing Russian influence in this part of the world, Russia is in danger of repeating the reign of Tsar Nicholas II.



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