Twenty-five years ago this Christmas, the Soviet Union quietly disbanded. The superpower acknowledged itself as outdated, sending its 15 component republics off to pursue independent paths.
There have been flashpoints along the way:
▪ Ukraine’s turmoil is the current crisis, with 10,000 lives lost. Ukraine has locked horns with Russia, which is striving to reclaim superpower status.
▪ Meanwhile, Belarus lives unobtrusively under the leadership of the same man for 22 of the past 25 years.
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▪ The three Baltic countries, independent for two decades until annexed to the Soviet Union in the prelude to World War II, now belong to the European Union and NATO.
▪ New economies in Central Asia, with its unique cultures, range from the prosperity of oil-rich Kazakhstan to the poverty of Tajikistan.
As they moved forward in their new post-Soviet lives, these countries looked to the United States for lessons in democracy. In addition to overall free and fair elections, we showed them first the Bush-Gore “hanging chads” election and then, this year, the Donald Trump circus.
Chuckles from their side. Fair enough. Even the beacon of democracy doesn’t function perfectly.
Russia and Ukraine, most in our headlines today, enjoy far more personal freedom now, including in speech, travel and access to information. Life for the upcoming generation is vastly different from that of their parents, and they look only forward.
When I asked a young man, a newborn when the Soviet Union broke up, how life has changed since then he responded with a puzzled “How would I know?”
It is this new generation, divorcing themselves from their countries’ previous era, who will set the course. Yes, they acknowledge, they pay a lot of attention to material goods introduced since the drab, spartan Soviet era.
Cell phones, computers, fashionable clothing. Most importantly, they have internet linking them to the world and influencing their view. Only limited access to the outside world existed during Soviet times.
“It is hard to say how different our life would be if we had no internet,” Ukrainian college student Anna Myasnikova told me. “Our contemporary society is more democratic; internet contributed to that.”
“We are more focused not only on material things,” says her colleague Natalya Ivanenko, “but also on career growth and realizing our potential.”
Life was simpler and less hectic in the Soviet years. Looking through the lens of nostalgia, the pre-1991 generation often laments days gone by. Americans may dismiss this notion, but we have never known the comfort of a society with guaranteed employment, few choices and risks required, and so many services provided, such as free education and medical care and heavily subsided utilities.
“We may have had only one kind of sausage instead of five, but we were not unhappy,” a man of the Soviet generation told me anonymously. “Anyone who grew up before 1991 has to regret losing part of our heritage. Part of our soul died along with the Soviet Union.”
Don’t worry, Ivanenko reassures. “Many values are still relevant: family, friendship, faith.”
A quarter-century is not long when it comes to forming new countries and rebuilding societies from the foundation up, to establishing democracy and free enterprise where before there was totalitarianism and communism.
The first completely post-Soviet generation is only now coming onto the scene. Its bright young people may not be terribly interested in what went wrong before their time, but they are eager to set things right. We can look confidently to them to do that.
Jan Sherbin of Cincinnati works to facilitate communication between Americans and the people of the former Soviet Union.