URR here. Christmas Day 1991 would prove an unforgettable one on the political scene. Twenty-five years ago today, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his office, bowing to the inevitable forces which pulled apart the increasingly coercive union of Soviet states behind the Iron Curtain in Europe. This day twenty five years ago, the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin for the final time. Gorbachev's stepping down brought an end to the irretrievably brutal and repressive Bolshevik regime which had come in to being during the bloody revolt of 1917.
The Soviet Union had been invaded twice in its existence, in 1921 and again in 1941, wars which took the lives of countless millions. However, the terror of the Stalinist state would be responsible for the deaths of more of its own citizens than were external invaders. Brutal crackdowns on Lenin's NEP-men, the Great Hunger in the Ukraine (a result of agricultural collectivization), and the Great Terror purges of the Army and the intellectuals from 1936-39 are just the major incidences which led to the death of as many as forty million souls at the hands of their own Soviet government.
There had been previous attempts by Soviet satellite states to throw off the Yoke of Moscovite Communism. Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, however, were quickly and ruthlessly crushed. Increasingly, though, the near-omnipotence of Soviet Russia eroded. The 1980 establishment of Lech Walesa's Solidarity, the first Soviet-bloc independent trade union, in the Polish shipyard city of Gdansk, represented the first real challenge to Communist authority.
[Quick anecdote: I drew a political cartoon for a school project, showing a candle (labeled "Solidarity") in a room full of powder kegs labeled Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Lithuania, with a massive candle snuffer (with hammer and sickle) coming down on top of the candle flame. The caption was "We can't let this get out of hand, comrade." That cartoon won a district-wide competition. ]
Then in 1989, more fissures in the Iron Curtain appeared. Hungary opened its borders to Austria in August. In November, passage between East and West Germany opened as well. The Berlin Wall officially "fell" on 9-10 November. In mid-November 1989, the so-called "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia began, signaling a bloodless transition of power and independence from Soviet Russia. In Rumania, the coup was far from bloodless, at least for Nicoale Ceausescu and his wife. They were overthrown and arrested on 21 December, and brought to trial four days later, Christmas Day 1989. A drum-head Court Martial sentenced them to be executed, and they were shot later that afternoon. By the decisive year of 1991, the Soviet Union was in its death throes. The Baltic satellite of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in January. The other Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, followed in August.
Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted to reform the moribund political and economic situation in the Soviet Union beginning in 1985. His policies of Glasnost, the increasing of political freedoms, and Perestroika, an economic move toward market economy, met with fierce opposition and were crippled by decades of a corrupt and inefficient command economy and oppression of political dissent. So, on Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev resigned his office, effective the next day. In his speech that next day, Gorbachev laid out his case for reform, and identified succinctly the fundamental and fatal flaw of the Communist system:
I find it important because there have been a lot of controversial, superficial, and unbiased judgments made on this score. Destiny so ruled that when I found myself at the helm of this state it already was clear that something was wrong in this country.
We had a lot of everything -- land, oil and gas, other natural resources -- and there was intellect and talent in abundance. However, we were living much worse than people in the industrialized countries were living and we were increasingly lagging behind them. The reason was obvious even then. This country was suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system. Doomed to cater to ideology, and suffer and carry the onerous burden of the arms race, it found itself at the breaking point.
All the half-hearted reforms -- and there have been a lot of them -- fell through, one after another. This country was going nowhere and we couldn't possibly live the way we did. We had to change everything radically.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many in the US, somewhat arrogantly and incredibly shortsightedly, believed that we were witnessing the "end of history". But Fukuyama's assertion of the final triumph of liberal democracy ignored the fact that the Cold War, all 45 years of it, represented a departure from the norm of many centuries, and not as significant a departure as believed. As I once wrote elsewhere, "like a person stepping away from a massive structure whose grandeur is lost in the visible details" some perspective on those events is an absolute must. Soviet Russia was far more Russian than Soviet. Like her Imperial predecessor, she was never as strong nor as weak as she seemed. Indeed, such is true today, as well. For the Russia of today, as well as the Russia of 1930, and of 1830, it is also true that, given the choice between order and freedom, the Russian will choose order every time.
In 1992, I watched a piece on the then-new CNN in which a little old bubushka was being interviewed in St Petersburg. It was during the first really serious economic downturn of Yeltsin's Presidency. She admitted that Stalin was a butcher, and had killed her uncle and her grandparents. But when Stalin was in power, they had toilet paper. And she wanted toilet paper. I remember thinking immediately that her admonitions were positively indecipherable to the Western political thinkers, but to a Russian, she made perfect sense.
So it is true today, as we see, especially in this Administration, a complete lack of understanding of Russia and her history, and why Vladimir Putin is so popular to his people. (Of course, Putin is now considered a brutal autocrat by the American far-left, the same far-left that mourned Fidel Castro as a revolutionary hero....) Not surprisingly, an entire generation of adults have no recollection whatever of the horrors of the Soviet Union, and in the textbooks and classrooms of America's education system, those horrors are minimized, misrepresented, or ignored entirely. Instead, the evils of capitalism are constantly trumpeted, and are often represented as being far worse than the Bolshevism of the Soviet state. Indeed, with those in the far-left that were (and remain) out-and-out communist sympathizers, the Soviet Union was no different than the United States, and is often recalled with a touch of nostalgia, despite the tens of millions of victims.
Yet, to those who lived through those dark and dangerous days on either side of the Iron Curtain, the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991 was a longed-for gift of incomparable treasure. And it was a quarter century ago, today.