Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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San Jose Mercury News
December 16, 2001
Russians yearn for past power, not communism
DANIEL SNEIDER, the national/foreign editor of the Mercury News, was the Moscow bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor from 1990 to 1994.

Ten years ago in Moscow, on a cold Christmas Day, the Soviet Union came to an end.

In a brief, televised address, the last president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics announced his resignation. The story I filed that day began: ``With sadness, anger and flashes of defiance, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev ends a momentous 6 1/2 years at the helm of his nation.''

That night, the red flag of the Soviet Union was hauled down from the Kremlin's floodlit tower, replaced by the tricolor of the Russian Federation. From a single once-powerful state, some 15 independent nations, former republics of the Soviet Union, now emerged.

For Gorbachev this was a sad, even foreboding, moment. ``I am concerned,'' he said that day, ``about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with.''

History has proved Gorbachev right.

Americans tend to focus on the end of communism as a system and an ideology as the signal event of this time -- something that was actually marked by the failure of the attempted hard-line Communist coup in August 1991. Dec. 25 marks, instead, the 10th anniversary of a more disturbing moment for Russians: the end of an empire.

And although there remains some nostalgia for the order of the communist era, there is little real desire among Russians or other citizens of former Soviet states to return to their communist past. Distorted by corruption and inefficiency as they are, market economics and political pluralism, if not democracy, seem rooted in Russia.

But what continues to trouble Russians is, as Gorbachev predicted, the disappearance of empire and of Russia's claim to great power status.

The Soviet Union, despite the Bolshevik rhetoric about national self-determination, was in many ways a mere continuation of the czarist Russian Empire that preceded it. Stalin was as ruthless an enforcer of Slavic domination over the peoples of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Baltics as any czar. And Stalin could even claim to have pushed the empire to its greatest extent, taking all of Eastern Europe under Russian tutelage.

Moment of liberation

The collapse of that empire, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and paralleled by the rise of independence movements in the Baltics, Armenia and other Soviet republics, was stunningly rapid. Many Russians lamented these events. But this was a moment of liberation for the peoples under their rule. As a journalist covering the Soviet Union during the years before the fall, I traveled throughout the former republics and found almost universal yearning for freedom from Russian rule.

The strength of that yearning eventually made a continuing union impossible. On Dec. 1, 1991, I covered a referendum in Ukraine for independence. Ukrainians were unlike most other peoples of the Soviet Union. They were fellow Slavs and, like the Byelorussians, treated almost as equals to the Russians; many held positions of trust and power. Yet even there, the sentiment for separation from the empire was overwhelming. Ukrainians defied Gorbachev's last-minute appeals and backed independence by an 83 percent vote. It proved to be the final, decisive blow against the Soviet Union.

A week later, Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Federation and Gorbachev's rival for power, met with the Ukrainian and Byelorussian leaders in a dacha outside Minsk to declare a new commonwealth, effectively replacing the Soviet Union. Within weeks, most of the other former republics had joined them, leaving Gorbachev alone and powerless in the Kremlin.

In the beginning many Russians, like Yeltsin, welcomed the loss of empire as a relief from an economic burden. Without having to subsidize Central Asia and other far-flung regions, Russia would finally prosper, they argued.

Of course, the economic benefits did not come so easily. As life in Russia worsened, many began to see the end of the Soviet Union as the origin of their decline.

And when the glow of the brief honeymoon with the West dimmed, many Russians saw the American embrace of the former republics as its way to reduce Russia to second-rate status. Russian strategists began to plot the restoration of their former sphere of domination -- from the oil fields of the Caspian to the reaches of Central Asia.

The same fear of being diminished drove the disastrous Russian wars in Chechnya, beginning in 1994 and continuing today. Advocates of force reason that the independence of that small North Caucasian region could bring even further loss of empire. They worry that if Moscow cannot control Chechnya, how can it credibly assert its will in the rest of the vast territory of the Russian Federation, much less in the former Soviet Union?

The yearning

Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who now sits in the Kremlin, embodies the yearning to restore Russia's great power status. He has aggressively expanded Russia's presence around its borders -- even back into Afghanistan, where the failed Soviet military campaign in the 1980s helped sow the seeds for the Soviet collapse.

He sees Russia's massive oil reserves as a tool to rebuild its power and influence. Russia is putting the squeeze as well on the oil-rich former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, situated around the Caspian Sea, by controlling the pipeline access to their energy deposits.

The imperial nostalgia that still fills the Russian soul, even a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, should be expected. Britain and France, not to mention Turkey, are still coping with the loss of influence that came with the end of their empires many more decades ago. But Russia's imperial loss is freshest, and therefore more painful.

For Russians, coping with the end of empire remains, as Gorbachev foresaw, the most difficult challenge emerging from the historic watershed we witnessed some 10 years ago.

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