20 years of the last century's greatest tragedy!



Growing up in a Bengali neighborhood, in Delhi's C.R.Park, meant even at an early age of ten, there were friends who knew the basic difference between capitalism and communism, and had clear-cut preferences! Of course, these preferences would be heavily influenced by their parents! And my father is perhaps the only Indian who did a full fledged Master’s Degree in National Economic Planning from an erstwhile communist nation, the erstwhile East Germany. Needless to say, my first story books were on Lenin's life and I had been totally charmed by him into believing in the positive aspects of communism, and till date remain so. And on the giant world map that hung in front of his study table, the country that I heard and studied most about till I passed out of my school in 1989 was a country many of my readers today aren't even aware of! A country called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics! Ruled by leaders who followed and most importantly understood to a large extent the ideology of Karl Marx – voted by the BBC as the world’s greatest intellectual of the last millennium – USSR on the world map looked like half of the world; and for Indians then, they were the nation which was there to protect us finally in the eventuality of any real war.

They had given us steel plants, military aircraft and were our biggest friends. And for those of us who used to hate the Americans for their military aid to Pakistan, celebrating every success of USSR was a must! Actually, India still was a distant ally, if one were to take a look at the East European countries that USSR protected and developed like their own nation. Those who have visited the East European regions in those days, would swear that the benevolence of USSR was such that they gave those countries invariably a better standard of living than that enjoyed by the Soviet people. To understand what USSR was in all its glory and magnanimity, one really needed to compare its development with that of USA till 1989! From CIA to topmost economists and historians of that time, all used to agree then that USSR had become 40% of the Americans in terms of standards of living. What it meant in essence was that despite bearing the biggest brunt of the second world war, thereafter investing about 33% of their GDP on defense, taking care of the entire Eastern Europe – from East Germany to Poland – USSR, in a short span of 45 years, had reached the enviable position of being 40% of the American per capita income; but more importantly, absolutely equal, if not superior, as far as military might and space war were concerned. It also meant that it was technologically extremely advanced, just that it had not yet started using that ability to make the consumer’s life more luxurious. But on the streets of USSR you could never spot a malnutritioned child, someone without full access to education or healthcare! That was USSR, the saviour of the world from greedy capitalist aggression, humane in terms of its development priorities and a country that was reason why the world spent 45 years in complete peace; compare that with the next 20 years that we have seen of unbridled capitalist greed driven aggression.

This difference between the far, far more peaceful time post the second world war and now, is a direct result of what happened exactly twenty years back! History was literally rewritten on December 25, 1991, at 7:20 pm when Mikhail Gorbachev – doubted by many as an ideological spy of CIA, if not an actual one – aired his speech announcing his resignation as President of the Soviet Union. A couple of minutes later, the flag of the Soviet Union from Kremlin was replaced with a new tricoloured flag of Russia. And thus, the whole world map was reconstructed with a demise of not only a union, but the demise of a political ideology in itself. The massive Soviet Union that had stood tall for seventy four years acting as a bulwark to the hegemony of United States and its allies, was broken to pieces as Mikhail Gorbachev (the General Secretary or the first secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union) could not handle a pro-democratic wave in the streets of Moscow and elsewhere led by Boris Yeltsin – later clearly branded as a fun-loving drunkard devoid of any ideology. Boris Yeltsin aspired to become the President of independent Russia, a country which till then was ruled by a spate of extremely ideologically driven leaders, who, albeit authoritarianism, were committed to not just their country but the globe on the whole.

During Gorbachev’s rule, the iron curtain and strict state control of political, economic and administrative machinery that was beyond all pedestal of criticism was liberalized under the set of reforms Gorbachev named “Perestroika" (restructuring) and "Glasnost" (openness); these were brought into the Soviet system in 1985. Concurrently, the oil prices dropped sharply in 1985 and 1986, thus lowering the country’s revenue and foreign exchange reserves that led to the import crisis of grains, attracting widespread public ire. The dried up revenue stream eventually portended the country’s bankruptcy and the end of the regime! In a nutshell, the bumbling rush to enjoy the glitters of prosperity that the US-led West enjoyed, along with the influence of Yeltsin who was a diehard crusader of democracy, brought the Soviet era to an unfortunate end.

Contrary to the popular belief, and despite him being a key factor in the disintegration of USSR, Gorbachev did try to keep Soviet Union united and bring in a transition through economic, social and cultural reforms – but was thwarted by Yeltsin’s intent who wanted a drastic change to democratization – the pro-West groups keep on hammering the point that it was an inevitable trajectory; yet, one should take lessons from China on how they managed the transition that the Soviet Union couldn’t. Gorbachev concurred with this point as he emphasized again and again on August 21, 1991 (the day the coup was orchestrated) that the Union could be preserved! Even though the coup didn’t last more than two days, it brought in the death knell for the Communist Party and demise of Soviet Union. Gorbachev couldn’t prevent the Soviet Union from being splintered, and history was made.

In spite of twenty years having passed since the Soviet collapse, Russia is still not a complete democracy – the objective that had formed the backbone of the great coup of August 1991, and which led to the sad dissolution of Soviet Union by the end of December 1991. Although, under the reign of Boris Yeltsin, many independent political parties surfaced and the media did gain independence to whatever extent, this change was also short-lived. With the emergence of Vladimir Putin – clearly a dictator similar to those that ruled in the erstwhile USSR, but unlike them, without any political ideology, commitment or understanding, and therefore perhaps the worst leader that the region has had in the last hundred years (no wonder, he was the ‘man of the year’ sometime back in the well known capitalist mouthpiece, TIME magazine) – as a strong leader, the social transition in Russia started to reverse. Putin who likes to flaunt his bare body more than his intellect, which arguably he has very less of, is an ex-KGB man, and a comparatively frivolous leader whose bigger claim to fame are his exploits with women and judo skills. From free media to democratic elections, everything has ceased to an extent that today, the Kremlin is dominated and controlled by Putin and Medvedev. The Russian election is more of a gimmick; and similarly, most of the former Soviet countries are ruled by oligarchic elites – created by Putin and his men – stonewalling others from making a presence among the electorates!

Thus, in spite of two decades, the Russian federation is still to materialise their dream of independence and democracy or the golden lifestyle of the West – for which they literally demolished the entire Union. The collapse of USSR also saw the emergence of numerous independent states. And from that day onwards, these states have traversed in their own chartered paths in various directions. Even today, most of these states are still not clear about their national identity and citizens in most of these states still are not able to garner up the feeling of nationalism. Most of them still feel connected to Russia with respect to the social and cultural structure and have a touch of the Soviet-style economic model. The series of coloured revolutions (Georgia's Rose Revolution, Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and Kyrgyzstan’s Pink Revolution) is a crying example of the way the people want social changes in these regions. These revolutions also to some extent overthrew old political power regimes; but then, they failed to replace the same with modern political leaders, and thus got stuck somewhere in the space between modern lifestyles and old political schools of thought. Probably the only two examples of democracies in the region are Ukraine and Georgia – the two countries, which have gone ballistic to prove themselves as true European nations and have a strong desire to integrate themselves with the West politically, economically, and culturally!

Recently, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – like I said, being an ex-KGB man, he still has the old USSR hangover – stated that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” But then, under the umbrella of this geopolitical tragedy, Putin has used his power to the extent he can. Putin still has plans to re-integrate post-soviet nations and bring the entire landmass under a single flag. This perhaps is the only good thing about Putin, (though he still is without any perspective or plan for economic development; quite unlike leaders of the past, who – however brutal they were – always had a practicable plan in place). The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 was one such attempt. Russia also formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and now plans to extend its circumference as a common economic space by January 2012. Even countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seem interested in joining the club. Russia has also, since the last 10 years, been promoting the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; this is in lines with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation a.k.a NATO.

In fact, Putin last month proposed his ambition to bring all post-Soviet states under the Eurasian Union; he said, “...We set a more ambitious goal to go to the next, higher level of integration – the Eurasian Union – which will be a blend of the experiences of the European Union and other regional coalitions.

Putin always wanted to unite post-Soviet states and this is one of his pivotal policies; but most of the post-Soviet union states feel the other way, so much so that there was a mass protest during Putin’s visit to Ukraine. But then, at the same time, the growing support among people for the concept of Soviet Union is something that will keep this desire of Putin burning for a very long time. This is evident from a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center that around 20 per cent of all Russians wanted to return to the Soviet Union. Whle the percentage of people wishing for the Soviet Union’s return may look very miniscule, it’s also a fact that the percentage in favour of Soviet Union has seen a surge of by around 10 per cent in the last 8 years. Of course, Russia still sees the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as their own ilk and their protectorate. That is why they cannot digest the fact that countries like Ukraine and Georgia are moving away from their sphere of influence towards Western Europe and NATO! It seems that Russia is going all out to try and reverse the movement of time and bring back the golden period of the Soviet Union.

But the reality is far different. Socially, Russia is today very weak. The political regime has always been more involved with their ambition of becoming a superpower; and in the quest for the same, neglected the society at large. Today, the country has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS rate and drug abuse rate in the world. The political parties (especially Putin’s) are more focused on their ambition of bringing back Russia to the global centrestage – whatever that means – thus, neglecting social development at large. Russia has lost its territory (the territory of Soviet Union as a whole), its economy, its military, its position; and now its education too. The Pisa (Program for International Student Assessment) carried out by OECD ranks Russian education at the 43rd position – a shame to a nation whose educational base produced notable advancements in areas like space programs, engineering, technology and research. The public funding is dwindling as teachers are measly paid ($480 per month on an average) that is driving away the talent from the educational sector! The final thorn to the Russian-way is that the drinking culture has crossed crisis levels, according the World Health Organization.

It is an insult that a country, which used to stand up to the might of United States and even make it bow down is now reduced to the status of a developing nation, and is being put in the same bracket with China, India and Brazil! Yes, USSR had a huge flaw. It was a dictatorship and dictatorships are bound to have human resistance eventually. Yes, USSR was throughout led by dictators, from Lenin to Stalin to Brezhnev, but all those leaders had a world vision and were men of ideology who took USSR economically forward on the basis of a clear plan. They followed the Marxian model of social development and equitable distribution religiously. They created a world order, a bipolar one that had a peaceful agenda. They showed the world how economic growth could happen at a pace that was unfathomable by the capitalist world; they showed how economic growth could be so well distributed that the gap between the rich and poor was really marginal; they showed how every human being could be given good education and health; and they showed how, in the tally of Olympics medals, they could be at the top! If today’s Beijing is a gigantic marvel, then the Moscow of fifty years back was a bigger marvel – even then! How I wish that they finally could have shown that such a society could eventually become democratic too. How I wish that USSR were present today in some form, even if much smaller in size. How I wish that Gorbachov should have been successful in his wish to bring democracy, but not at the cost of destroying the whole nation and leaving it in the hands of people who were uneducated, uninitiated and far too selfish to inherit such a great legacy. How I wish Russia still gets a great leader who can give the world the much needed other pole, that can stand up against greedy profit-motivated American and Western aggression against other nations, one after the other. How I wish Russia were a nation that could dictate to America and force it to stop the bombing of nations at will. How I wish Putin was that man. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride them, and the reality is that I can only look back with pain at the events that took place in USSR twenty years back. I know it can’t be reversed; but I know it didn't do any good to the Russians or the world at large. And that, my friends, is the story of 20 years of the last century’s greatest tragedy.

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