Staunton, Dec. 23 – Those in the West who in the 1980s discussed what the USSR would be like in 2000 were right, Kirill Martynov says. “The USSR did not fall apart overnight in 1991; instead, we continue to live in a disintegrating Soviet Union today,” one in which Moscow is trying to restore the empire minus its earlier communist ideology.
The political editor of Novaya gazeta suggests that historians a century or more from now will likely write that “after a brief era of the search for a new identity for Russia in the 1990s, an extended period of reaction” even as much of the past continued to fall apart, often at an accelerating rate (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/12/24/raspad-i-potom).
This reality, Martynov continues, is one of the reasons why few Russians are interested in marking the 30th anniversary of the demise of the USSR. For them, that was not so much a one-time event as “an extended and prosaic matter of everyday life,” one that is affecting them more than it did in the first 20 years of this era.
“After 2014, political nostalgia was combined with tragedy,” he says. “The early period of the disintegration of the USSR was accompanied by wars on the periphery of the empire; over the last eight years, this has come to its heart, to the former administrative border of the RSFSR and the UkrSSR,” something only fanatic nationalists could have imagined earlier.
The result of this war is “a new divided Europe,” with a wall between the two arising from the ashes. Now the wall exists not in Berlin “but far to the east, along the line of fire in parts of the districts of the Donets and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, at guard posts in the entrance to Crimea, and on the Belarusian-Polish border.”
This wall also “passes along the line of mutually blocked Internet sites” and the disrupted network of flights between Moscow and Tbilisi,” Martynov continues.
“Another side of the tragedy of 2014 has been the total disappointment of Russian society in the possibility of changes for the better and in the final analysis of the very possibility of a future.” Only two groups are thinking about the future: the young who do so because of their youth, and bureaucrats who have to engage in planning.
Almost everyone else in Russian society is thinking only about the here and now and is depressed, an entirely rational response given that “people understand that tomorrow will be worse than yesterday and want to try to live in a human way where this is still possible,” Martynov suggests.
Again as in Brezhnev’s time, “so-called stability” is based on the shared assumption that “we are not like Europe; we tried democracy but didn’t achieve it. In the final analysis, Russia remains a country in which not once in its history has power changed hands as the result of elections.”
“The total distrust of society in the government and in itself, something that has been highlighted by the pandemic, is a direct inherited result of the utopian struggle for ‘the new Soviet man,’ after which any form of collective action is viewed as something fraudulent,” he continues.
“The communist struggle for peace is no more and in its place is the cult of the great war,” Martynov says. As a result, today, “we are not returning to the USSR because we couldn’t leave it. The country has changed, but the image of the authorities about the country has remained unchanged.”
Germany has been able to advance since 1989 largely because there was a West Germany as well as an Eastern one. But “Russians do not have ‘their own ‘West Russia’ on that model.” However, “there is a growing diaspora up to ten million people with Russian passports permanently living beyond the borders of Russia.”
And in many ways, “the chief symbol of 2021 has become the new wave of political emigration from Russia.” This emigration is very different from the emigration after 1917 in that it is not cut off from Russian society but interlinked by the Internet, by Zoom, and by a world far more interconnected than it was in the 1920s and 1930s.
At the same time, Russian society has changed even if the Russian state has not. That provides a certain basis for hope as does the vitality of the new emigration. Together, the “extraterritorial” Russia of the diaspora and the new Russians at home, have the possibility of changing the Russian political system even though that seems as distant and difficult as ever.