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World: Was Soviet Collapse Last Century's Worst Geopolitical Catastrophe?

Putin (in file photo) called the USSR's breakup the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" In his state-of-the-nation address on 25 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the West by calling the Soviet Union's collapse the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." His declaration, however, has caused little stir at home. Political analysts view the Russian president's comments as simply an attempt to lift his declining popularity rating among the elderly.

Moscow, 29 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to the nation in his annual address, Putin used some of his strongest language to describe his country's fate over the past 14 years.

"The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," Putin said. "For the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and countrymen found themselves outside Russian territory. The epidemic of disintegration also spread to Russia itself."

Outside Russia, Putin's declaration has sparked debate over the gravity of the Soviet Union's demise compared to other geopolitical catastrophes such as World War II.

Some Western publications have suggested that the rise -- rather than the fall -- of the Soviet Union might have been the real catastrophe of the 20th century.

In Russia, however, Putin's statement has failed to create much controversy. Instead, it has been met largely with indifference, tacit agreement, and even enthusiasm.

Boris Kagarlitskii, the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow, said he tends to agree with the Russian president.

Kagarlitskii said the fall of the Soviet Union and its ensuing chaos affected, at least initially, tens of millions of lives across a massive territory. And the changes, he argued, were not always for the best.

"It is very clear that for the great majority of Russian people, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a personal catastrophe," Kagarlitskii said. "It was also a catastrophe for a tremendous majority of people in Tajikistan, quite a lot of people in Uzbekistan, and so on, including many people in Ukraine. Because families were divided, people's lives were ruined, living standards collapsed, the minimal standards of human justice, and very often of freedom, were also neglected."

Another reason Putin's statement has failed to surprise Russians is the fact that it comes from a former member of the Soviet secret services.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said Putin's comment indicates some personal nostalgia for the Soviet Union, since its collapse marked the end of his career as a KGB officer.

Putin's declaration, he said, was mainly intended as an olive branch to Russia's elderly and veterans ahead of the 9 May celebrations in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The reform in January of Soviet-era social benefits had riled pensioners, thousands of whom had staged protests for weeks across the country.

Petrov said Putin's Soviet nostalgia would have found a receptive audience in older Russians who have seen their living standards steadily decline since 1991.

"[Putin's declaration] has to be understood in the broader context of the president's address, which was pronounced in such a tone as to be pleasant to all categories of citizens," Petrov said. "Such thoughts are particularly popular among the elderly and the veterans, in whose eyes Putin's image was greatly tarnished by the monetization of benefits at the beginning of the year."

Traditionally, the state-of-the-nation address is devoted to reviewing the government's performance in the past year and outlining its future course.

Analysts were therefore perplexed by the prominence of historical events in Putin's speech, and why he sought to place the fall of the Soviet Union in a global context.

Petrov said Putin is obviously concerned by the recent protests that toppled governments in former Soviet republics Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Russia had been very critical of the protests, but had failed to curb them.

"I think that [Putin's declaration] is definitely linked to the events that are taking place on post-Soviet territory," Petrov said. "It is in part a reaction to global tectonic processes, changes -- to the transition from a post-Soviet existence to a fundamentally new life on this territory."

Putin also used his state-of-the-nation address to make clear he would not tolerate similar events on Russian territory. He said authorities would react to any unrest with what he called "legal but tough means."

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