In August 1991, I visited the Soviet Union on a people-to-people mission. My trip included a front-row seat to history: On Aug. 19, a hard-line communist coup detained the country's top leader, to curb his reforms. Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev surfaced three days later, and the coup had the opposite effect.
Just during my short visit, Gorbachev shockingly announced the termination of Soviet communism. Ukraine, followed by five more Soviet republics, declared independence. Dramatic events continued after my departure, with the Soviet Union's dissolution by year's end.
"What do these events mean?" I asked a young father who treated me to a post-coup afternoon at his little dacha. Picking up his kindergarten son, he responded, "We will not know until Slava grows up."
Now Slava has grown up, and it is time to ask, "What have these events meant for people like Slava and his father?"
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Many Americans assumed democracy, free enterprise and free expression would flourish instantly. But no framework existed for fashioning them from the debris of communism, nor did leaders necessarily choose to steer there. The new era opened with euphoria and hurtled into disarray. Everything from living conditions to politics degenerated. Twenty years later, life has settled into a more stable reality, in 15 new countries.
"The sense of freedom was the best thing I felt," says Armenian lawyer Arpine Melikbekyan. Georgian musician Levan Khubulava felt this freedom as one of choice, in opinions, politics, consumer goods, education.
Before the collapse, many Soviet people recognized their system was rotting. By the late 1980s, everyday life had deteriorated such that goods disappeared from stores. "I remember walking into a food store and seeing nothing but salt," says Yana Yablonovskaya, who was in primary school in Irkutsk, Siberia. "I remember lines for bread, milk, meat and, yes, vodka."
The transition from a planned to a market economy has been stressful. People must budget for services covered in Soviet times by the government, notably higher education and medical care. Many retirees live sad lives with pensions geared to the old economy.
But now people enjoy a wide array of consumer goods, replacing the dull, limited Soviet goods. Entrepreneurs start businesses. Traffic and parking become congested as people buy cars. People travel internationally and attend houses of worship.
New identities have surfaced; without one hub, one people became many. Ethnic tensions suppressed in Soviet times, such as in Georgia and Chechnya, erupt. Populations shift as people seek economic opportunity.
"A lot of our people left to become guest workers in Kazakhstan and Russia," says Azizbek Tashbaev, a university administrator in Kyrgyzstan. His country experienced two revolutions. Now, he says, "we are the first nation in Central Asia where a parliament runs the country."
A new generation with initiative is replacing a generation accustomed to waiting for instructions. "The idea that we Armenians can create our country ourselves gives me hope," says Melikbekyan. "The new generation believes in building new states that will be better than the Soviet Union," Khubulava echoes. U.S.-funded educational programs and people-to-people diplomacy are facilitating nation building.
Despite political haggling, corruption, limits on journalistic expression and a gulf between rich and middle class, prospects overall look auspicious.
Ukraine will host the 2012 European soccer cup and Russia the 2014 Winter Olympics. Kyrgyzstan has experienced a five-fold increase in the number of colleges. The Baltic countries have joined the European Union and NATO.
Prospects look good for us, too. We are at peace with a former enemy, and the Cold War and Evil Empire exist only in history books. An excellent resolution, without a missile fired. We can raise a glass of vodka to that.