The collapse of the Soviet Union: Russia’s imperial agony
“THE dying process has begun”, wrote Alexander Kugel, a journalist and theatre critic, a few months after the bloody Bolshevik revolution of 1917. “Everything that we see now is just part of the agony. Bolshevism is the death of Russia. And a body the size of Russia cannot die in one hour. It groans.” The agony lasted over 70 years. On December 25th 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, on television, relinquished his duties as the last president of the USSR. The hammer and sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin without fanfare. The empire expired with a sigh.
There was almost no blood on the streets of Moscow that year; the only deaths were those of three young men killed on the night of the failed coup in August 1991. (Today almost no one in Russia remembers their names or celebrates their sacrifice.) The disintegration of the Soviet empire was “relatively peaceful and orderly”, as Dmitri Trenin writes in a sober and analytical book, “Post-Imperium”. It could certainly have been worse, but the collapse unleashed civil and ethnic wars on the periphery—in the Caucasus, Moldova and the most deadly one, Tajikistan. Estimates vary, but about 200,000 people are believed to have died in the post-Soviet conflicts.
“8 Pieces of Empire” by Lawrence Scott Sheets, an American reporter who spent 20 years covering the post-Soviet conflagrations for Reuters and National Public Radio, is a powerful reminder of how relative the words “peaceful and orderly” really were. His book takes the reader inside some of these wars, which were largely ignored by a world preoccupied with the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Different in genre and scope, both books are nonetheless shaped by personal experience.
Mr Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Centre, served the empire as a military officer in East Germany. Mr Sheets, who now works for the International Crisis Group in South Caucasus, went to the Soviet Union to study Russian in 1987 and returned shortly before Mr Gorbachev’s final presidential speech, hoping to become a foreign correspondent. His book is an invaluable eyewitness account of the traumas of the Soviet collapse told through the lives of those who were caught up in it and often buried under it. The book is written with a disarming honesty, sympathy and humility.
The “pieces” in the title refers not only to geography but to people who were scattered: a Bulgakov-loving, rebellious racketeer in Leningrad; a Russian officer left behind at a forlorn border post between Armenia and Turkey, guarding a foreign frontier with another foreign state and trying to flog snake venom to passing journalists; an ageing former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who helped to end the cold war but failed to prevent a hot one from starting in his native Georgia, which he came to rule in the 1990s.