Ideas Archipelago USSR | Russia
Pripyat (Ukraine), September 2020. Soviet propaganda fresco in the postal office. The city was abandoned after the 1985 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. | Photo: Guillaume Teillet

The Soviet Union’s neverending disintegration

Thirty years ago, the Belovezhy Agreement formally put an end to the Soviet Union. With the exception of the Baltic countries, the USSR disintegrated into smaller post-Soviet entities that still carry the legacy of totalitarianism. This is a major obstacle to pro-democracy movements and democratic transition, writes prominent Russian author Sergei Lebedev.

Published on 13 January 2022 at 13:00
Pripyat (Ukraine), September 2020. Soviet propaganda fresco in the postal office. The city was abandoned after the 1985 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. | Photo: Guillaume Teillet

Thirty years ago, on 8 December 1991, in the village of Viskuli close to the Belarus-Polish border, the presidents of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed the so-called Belovezh Accords​​, which legally formulated and constituted the end of the existence of the USSR. Today, three decades later, these areas – Brest Oblast, Belovezh Forest, and the Belarus-Polish border – are the territory of an unprecedented conflict for this region and probably for the entire post-socialist Europe as a whole.

The Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, with obvious technical and military aid as well as political support from Russia, is using migrants from Asian countries to create a large-scale “hybrid conflict” on the border of the European Union. With winter coming, the proven cruelty of Belarus troops that are using the migrants as hostages, especially fierce in the suppression of mass protests a year ago, and the tough position of the Polish government that has effectively shut the border, mass human losses in the near future are almost guaranteed.

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Belarus: Back in the USSR – again
Russia: the Soviet Union’s neverending disintegration

I believe that this conflict, taking place in the frozen forests near the border, is also a signal: the collapse of the Soviet Union is far from finished. “The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence,” reads the 1991 Belovezh Accords. Now, more than a quarter century later, this phrase should be edited. The USSR in fact did disappear as a subject of international law, although there is a remnant of it in Russia, an underground movement that denies the legitimacy of the accords and therefore considers the USSR still existing; they continue using Soviet money, passports, and symbols among themselves.

However, as a geopolitical reality, in the sense of a number of key practices of political culture and concepts of the relationship between human rights and state rights, the USSR is, as Soviet propagandists used to write about Lenin, “more alive than all the living.” I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the Soviet Union, with the obvious exception of the three Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, fell apart into mini ussrs, the USSR on a smaller scale, into nation-state formations that preserved the fatal grain at birth, the totalitarian stamp that in most cases meant the succession of ruling classes and structures, easily descending into authoritarianism.

Again, with the exception of the Baltic states, the new leaders of the former Soviet republics were representatives of the Soviet elites, men of the past: Party secretaries, Soviet ministers, KGB generals, bearers of authoritarian consciousness; there were almost no alternative pro-democratic movements strong enough to form and implement a democratic agenda.

Let’s look at the former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. All four have autocratic regimes, differing in the degree of freedoms, with a soupçon of Eastern despotism: gold statues of rulers, sacred books written by then, capitals renamed in their honor, and so on. The former Soviet republics of Transcaucasia: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. There were late liberal revolutions in Georgia and Armenia in the twentieth century, but the general tensions in the region and involvement in lasting military conflicts do not allow them to completely shed the legacy of  Soviet authoritarianism. The former Soviet republics of the European part of the USSR: Ukraine,  Belarus, and Moldova. There is a territorial conflict in Transnistria in Moldova; Ukraine has been in an undeclared was with Russia for the last seven years; Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, which ruthlessly crushed peaceful civil protests in 2020, is gradually losing its independence and becoming a political appendage of Russia.

Thus, it could be said that the Soviet Union still exists and acts: as a combination of missed opportunities for democratic transformation and as a lasting legacy of the communist policies of the twentieth century; like the radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl atomic station catastrophe, which will last for decades. Empires must have a period of half-life, they do not disappear when agreements are signed, like the Belovezh, they continue to exist as a sum of political practices, unredeemed sins of the past, crimes unpunished, and learned social apathy; much work for changes is required to make them vanish forever, rest in their graves.

The consensus narrative is that the USSR collapsed bloodlessly, with a few victims as he cost; thus, the 1991 August putsch and the accords in December fit into the context and continuity of the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe, which truly were bloodless or with very few victims, like the Ceaușescus.

Unfortunately, that is not true. The national policy of the Communist Party implemented for seventy years left an explosive legacy. The deportation of nationalities under Stalin (Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Karachays, and many others) and their subsequent return to their homeland, their houses occupied and holy places destroyed, created a demand for justice and autonomy, a bitter bill to be paid by the center, by Moscow.

The Soviet authorities changed historical borders with great ease to suit the political moment, creating, deleting, and moving around quasi-political subjects like autonomous republics of the USSR, just below Union republics in rank, thereby creating future territorial accounts and hopes for autonomy. There were also old national disputes from pre-Soviet times, such as the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The USSR created this minefield of conflicts, but thanks to authoritarian rule managed to restrain them in a frozen state until the final phase of perestroika, when national agitation broke out in every autonomous or union republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union moved these conflicts into an open, active phase, and they are exploding still, like gun shells in a campfire.

The Soviet Union still exists and acts: as a combination of missed opportunities for democratic transformation and as a lasting legacy of the communist policies of the twentieth century

This is why post-Soviet history is the history of wars, ethnic conflicts, territorial seizures, civil bloodshed. The civil war in Georgia (1991-1991); civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1993); wars in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan (1992-1994, 2020), the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in 1992 and two wars in Chechnya (1994-1996, 1999-2009) which took place on Russian Federation territory; wars in Abkhazia (1992-1993) and South Ossetia (1991-1992, 2008) and war in Transnistria (1991-1992) that took place with Russian interference; the armed annexation of the Crimea (2014) and Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine (2014-the present) – this is an incomplete list of post-Soviet armed conflicts.   

Their cost is hundreds of thousands killed and millions of refugees; destroyed cities, destroyed international relations for decades ahead, widespread violence that created a circle of deniable responsibility and complicating an already complicated transition to democracy. It should be said that under President Boris Yeltsin, Russia became, if I can put it that way, the operator and beneficiary of many of the wars listed above; it used them to create hotbeds of manageable tension in the newly independent republics and use it to influence their domestic and foreign policy.

Today, the European Union is experiencing this method. Russian aggression against Ukraine is taking place less than a thousand kilometers from European borders; the distance from annexed Crimea to the borders of Turkey, a NATO member, is only 260 kilometers. That is very close both in the military and the sociopolitical sense.

We could say that the Iron Curtain as a symbol of East-West conflict is returning, except that now it is located farther east: the border between Russia and Ukraine is the battlefield, with trenches, barbed wire, reports from the front, regular losses by the Ukrainian Army; Poland is hastily strengthening its border with Belarus, forcing closure of passport points, increasing border guards and police presence. The European world, already separated and disconnected by Covid that made forgotten internal borders actual again, is once again in the situation of the confrontation between West and East, for which it is not prepared.

In the meantime, another attack is taking place in Russia; on 28 December, Russia’s Supreme court ruled that  Memorial Society, the oldest and most famous and influential organization of Russia’s civil sector, should be shut down. There are two Memorials: the historical and educational International Memorial Society, which deals with the preservation of the memory of Stalin’s arrests and other crimes of the Soviet period, and Memorial Human Rights Centre, which investigates contemporary rights violations in Russia, primarily those during the two Chechen wars: lawless reprisals, torture, kidnapping, and ethnic cleansing. 

Founded in 1989, Memorial became the greatest symbol of no possibility of return to the repressive Soviet past and the greatest Russian civil initiative to memorialise the victims of Soviet political criminality. The very existence of Memorial was a sign that the Soviet pages of history had been turned forever. Yet, both Memorials were branded “foreign agents” years ago (the Center in 2013, the Society in 2016).

The branding term is borrowed from American legislation but in the Russian context it bears a historically repressive shade; many victims of the Stalin period were falsely accused of being “agents” of foreign intelligence agencies and political forces hostile to the USSR. The Court ruled in favour of the prosecution, which charged Memorial with systematic violations of the law on foreign agents, intentionally set up so that it is almost impossible technically to follow (the “foreign agent” label must be put on all materials, texts, letters, and webpages) and huge fines are levied if they are not observed.

Memorial was created in the final years of perestroika. The history of the creation has social and symbolic significance in itself, for it reveals the lost opportunities of that period. Perestroika and glasnost exposed and made public the existence in Soviet society of the delayed demand for revealing the truth about the past, for restoring justice to the victims of Soviet crimes. However, the Communist Party USSR (CPSS) and the Committee for State Security (KGB) did not want independent initiatives in this field, fearing the process would become uncontrollable, and therefore they tried to overtake events.

While admitting the existence of a large number of victims and the need to make the names public and to erect memorials, the authorities were also trying to limit the discussion of Soviet crimes to the Stalin period, squashing the question of the legal responsibility of those who organised and executed the Soviet mass crimes, and keeping the KGB archives closed. At the creation of Memorial there were two possibilities: the initiative group had members who insisted on a radical, conflict agenda, a refusal to work directly with the authorities, a demand to shut down the KGB, to have open access to the archives, to prosecute the guilty, and to politicise the movement. Open access to the archives, as the history of most post-socialist countries shows, is the key to the restoration of rule of law and the implementation of lustration measures.

But in Russia, the moderate line was forced to prevail: focus on memorializing the victims, on a limited version of “working through the past,” and on historical research and education, and no politics. It is notable that this line was not reconsidered after 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, when there were many more social and political possibilities, and polls showed that the public was ready for legal punishment of the guilty, for a legal settling of accounts with the past. The example of the former GDR, where the driving force was the East German dissidents and not the West German politicians in obtaining the Stasi files, lustration, and criminal prosecution of those who violated human rights, shows how large-scale and fateful acts of “working through the past” can be if they become the actual political agenda.

Memorial performed colossal work over three decades in restoring the memory of victims; their electronic databases with more than three million names are fantastical instruments simplifying archival research and bringing different times closer together; their civil ceremonies held on October 30 to remember the victims of political repression were an important cultural institution that united civil society.

The Russian authorities need a completely different perception of the Soviet past: an idealised one that can legitimise Vladimir Putin’s regime

However, the main possibilities for changes that could lead to the appearance in Russia of a democratic political culture and alternating accession to power through elections were missed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At that point, civil society essentially rejected any attempt at a political and legal working through the past on the West German model, which could have blocked any chance that that the Soviet elites and state security organs could return to power. 

The current authoritarian Russian regime was not worried that Memorial might have become a protagonist in political change.  Essentially, the Russian authorities need a completely different perception of the Soviet past: an idealised one that can legitimise Vladimir Putin’s regime. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the issue of the past in Russia today is a political one. The symbolic legacy of the past is being used to consolidate the nation and to create not a political (there are no free elections) but an ideologised and indoctrinated majority, which in this sense is apolitical.

So let us return to the main point in the Belovezh Accords: “The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.” It left out the third component, not legal or geopolitical: the symbolic reality of the USSR, consisting of ideologically sanctified cultural objects; however, it is not regulated by documents of this sort in any case. The Soviet Union was an incredibly intensive producer of symbols, and perhaps this may be the only area where the socialist plan was always overfulfilled. 

Monuments, architectural ensembles, songs, films, books, solemn ceremonies – the Soviet Union mass produced them, creating a closed cultural sphere of complementary cults. The cult of the revolution, the cult of socialism, the cult of victory in World War II – the Soviet religion was polytheist, with numerous altars and heroic pantheons. By the late 1980s this ensemble was no longer replenished, and it atrophied and then fell apart, dying.

One might propose that the USSR fell apart not just through political erosion. It collapsed under the excess weight of symbolic overload that lay like dead weight on the consciousness of each single person and on everyone; the live experience of symbols was exhausted as a mental resource and turned into its opposite, into cynicism: the heroes of sacred texts became the heroes of jokes, and the last drops of faith in the socialist futuristic project died in the hours-long line for bread and sausages.

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However, now, thirty years later, the Soviet sphere of symbolism is undergoing a second, postmodernist rebirth. Russian stores have products with faux Soviet packaging: a nostalgia for the never-existing quality of Soviet food. The cult of the Great Patriotic War is the main justification for today’s aggressive and militaristic foreign policy, the source of a perverted public morality that glorifies the right of the mighty. The pantheon of Soviet heroes is being restored; their exploits, whether real or invented by propagandists, are meant to sanctify the past and make it immutable and not subject to discussion.

In parallel, historical discussion of the past is being criminalised, and some topics – like World War II – are gradually turning into a no-go zone, the memorial domain of the state. 

Why is this happening?

There is an interesting paradox here combining time, history, and politics.

The Soviet project (within the framework of each of its epochs) built from the past and legitimised itself through the future, through a futuristic prophetic goal: the construction of Communism. The past explains everything that was bad and problematic in the Soviet present, in any of its present times; the future was everything good, as if it had already been achieved, had already happened. Actually, this legitimization through the future (the most important will happen there) remained until the very end of the USSR.

But Putin’s Russia is located in time in a very different way. It is a conservationist project. There is no clear talk about the future, it is not defined or desired. The future is the combination of things that should not happen; it bears corruption, the contagion of liberalism, the virus of human rights. Essentially, there are no positive features in the future, and there is no desire to get there, no desire to live in that time. On the contrary, the farther away from Soviet time the more it is seen as the Golden Age, the period of great victories, the time when the Soviet Union held the cards in the geopolitical game; it was no accident that Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

In this logic, any republic of the former USSR that creates its own historical narrative that speaks of Soviet occupation and crimes, that is involved in destroying relics of the Communist past, as is Ukraine, where thousands of Lenin statues were demolished, is inevitably considered a political opponent of Russia. The point is not in Lenin per se, Russian politicians don’t care a fig about him, the point is the expected unity of the symbolic space and the absence of any historical criticism that could weaken or undermine the Russian authoritarian historical discourse, which has become a domestic and foreign political instrument.

… Well, I suppose we will have decades more to deal with the post-existence of the USSR, with the lengthy decay of the empire in people’s minds and not only on the map. In the 1990s, economic reformers hoped that the free market by itself could lead Russia to democracy and create a free society. The result was a semi-feudal economy, where the right of personal property is conditional and can be taken away at any moment by the whim of the authorities, which was first dominated by oligarchs and then the siloviki (men from security and military services), who privatised the state’s power agencies. They need political nostalgia for the USSR and a return to Soviet symbols as a way of forming a pro-authority majority and politically manipulating neighbouring countries.

The history of the collapse of the USSR shows that on their own such changes, despite their tectonic scale, do not guarantee an alteration in the political course. What is needed is a complex of measures for “transitional justice,” which Russian civil society lacked the courage to implement thirty years ago. The question of whether it will in the future remains open because Russia has not yet learned the lessons of 1991.

This article was first published on Weekendavisen.

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