John Thornhill: Russia's Past is No Sign of its Future

Roundup: Talking About History

The author is a former FT Moscow bureau chief.

Russians sometimes say it is impossible to predict anything in their country – even the past. The heroes of one era are airbrushed from the next. The brave advances of one leader are denounced by his successors as hare-brained schemes. It is often difficult, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, to distinguish victories from defeats.

This constantly shifting historical kaleidoscope applies to the failed hardline Communist party putsch of August 1991 that rapidly led to the unravelling of the Soviet Union a few months later. Over the past 20 years, those shattering events – which led to the disintegration of an empire, an economy, an ideology and a political regime – have caused ceaseless controversy. They have been variously interpreted, and endlessly reinterpreted, within Russia as a cause for celebration, despair, anger, disillusion or shame.

To some Russians, most notably Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-communist leader, the implosion of the Soviet Union was a liberation, for the peoples of Russia as much as for those of the other 14 countries to emerge from the rubble of the Soviet empire. The collapse of 74 years of Communist party rule cleared the way for a freer society, economy and political system to emerge – as well as entrench Yeltsin in power.

But his successor, Vladimir Putin, more moulded by a KGB view of the world, drew a different conclusion from those events and the chaos that ensued. According to him, the implosion of Soviet power was “the greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the 20th century” leaving Russia as the humiliated and impoverished rump of a superpower that had once stared eyeball to eyeball with the US. No wonder his presidency was so concerned with re-establishing the Kremlin’s power and reasserting Russia’s sphere of influence abroad... 

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