How many people do you know who were actually in the USSR? Well, JT, your flyingnorth blogmaster, actually was – barely. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик] officially dissolved in December of 1991. Specifically on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and shortly thereafter the twelve constituent republics emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union as independent post-Soviet states. I traveled to the Soviet Union in November of 1991 [and yes, I had long hair back then].
At the time, the country was at the height of crisis: stores literally had nothing on their shelves, and inflation was spinning out of control. At the time, US$100 would get you 55 rubles, whereas today, even with the recent devaluation of the ruble, US$100 will get you 6500 rubles. I can remember bartering jeans and t-shirts for Soviet hats and pins — and even though I am not a smoker — bringing in cigarettes to barter as well. Locals lined up for blocks at the one McDonalds only to buy Big Macs to sell on the black market. It sounds crazy, but its quite true.
To give a little history, The Soviet Union had its roots in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks, the majority faction of the Social Democratic Labor Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, then led a second revolution which overthrew the provisional government and established the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, beginning a civil war between pro-revolution Reds and counter-revolution Whites. The Red Army entered several territories of the former Russian Empire, and helped local Communists take power through soviets that nominally acted on behalf of workers and peasants. In 1922, the Communists were victorious, forming the Soviet Union with the unification of the Russian, Transcaucasian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, a troika collective leadership and a brief power struggle, Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920s. Stalin suppressed political opposition to him, committed the state ideology to Marxism–Leninism and initiated a centrally planned economy. As a result, the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization and collectivization which laid the basis for its later war effort and dominance after World War II. However, Stalin established political paranoia, and introduced arbitrary arrests on a massive scale after which the authorities transferred many people to correctional labor camps or sentenced them to execution.
In the beginning of World War II, after the United Kingdom and France rejected an alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Germany; the treaty delayed confrontation between the two countries but was disregarded in 1941 when the Nazis invaded, opening the largest and bloodiest theatre of combat in history. Soviet war casualties accounted for the highest proportion of the conflict in the cost of acquiring the upper hand over Axis forces at intense battles such as Stalingrad. Soviet forces eventually drove through Eastern Europe and captured Berlin in 1945, inflicting the vast majority of German losses. Soviet occupied territory conquered from Axis forces in Central and Eastern Europe became satellite states of the Eastern Bloc. Ideological and political differences with Western Bloc counterparts directed by the United States led to the forming of economic and military pacts, culminating in the prolonged Cold War.
Following Stalin’s death in 1953, a period of moderate social and economic liberalization [de-Stalinization] occurred under the administration of Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union then went on to initiate significant technological achievements of the 20th century, including launching the first ever satellite and world’s first human spaceflight, which led it into the Space Race. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis marked a period of extreme tension between the US and USSR, considered the closest to a mutual nuclear confrontation. In the 1970s, a relaxation of relations followed, but tensions resumed when the Soviet Union began providing military assistance in Afghanistan at the request of its new socialist government in 1979. The campaign drained economic resources and dragged on without achieving meaningful political results [sound familiar?].
In the late 1980s the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to reform the Union and move it in the direction of Nordic-style social democracy, introducing the policies of glasnost and perestroika in an attempt to end the period of economic stagnation and democratize the government. However, this led to the rise of strong nationalist and separatist movements. Central authorities initiated a referendum, boycotted by the Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova, which resulted in the majority of participating citizens voting in favor of preserving the Union as a renewed federation.
Finally, the situation came to a head in August of 1991. In a last-ditch effort to save the Soviet Union, which was floundering under the impact of the political movements which had emerged since the implementation of Gorbachev’s glasnost, a group of hard-line Communists organized a coup d’etat. They kidnapped Gorbachev, and then, on August 19 of 1991, they announced on state television that Gorbachev was very ill and would no longer be able to govern. The country went into an uproar. Massive protests were staged in Moscow, Leningrad, and many of the other major cities of the Soviet Union. When the coup organizers tried to bring in the military to quell the protestors, the soldiers themselves rebelled, saying that they could not fire on their fellow countrymen. After three days of massive protest, the coup organizers surrendered, realizing that without the cooperation of the military, they did not have the power to overcome the power of the entire population of the country.
After the failed coup attempt, it was only a few months until the Soviet Union completely collapsed. Both the government and the people realized that there was no way to turn back the clock; the massive demonstrations of the “August days” had demonstrated that the population would accept nothing less than democracy. Gorbachev conceded power, realizing that he could no longer contain the power of the population. On December 25, 1991, he resigned. By January of 1992, by popular demand, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Even though the flyingnorthblog would be created some twenty years later, this, and other experiences like it, set the stage for my later adventures, and plays into the narrative of JT as the witness to history. Fourteen years later I would visit Russia again, and by some strange twist of fate, actually stayed in the same hotel complex I had stayed in in 1991. I remembered strange details such as doors, door handles, transoms and the like, as well as the unique design of the hotel complex quite vividly. It was truly an incredible moment of deja vu realized.