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USSR Breakup: Historian Explains Phenomenon Of 'Soviet Nostalgia' (Part 3)

To some, the passing of the Soviet Union 10 years ago hardly seems an event worth mourning. The USSR left a grim legacy. The one-party rule system erected there left millions dead or rotting in the gulag. Millions more lived in a state of fear and oppression as the state monitored nearly every aspect of their lives. But was it really as bad as some think? In the last of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky puts that question to U.S. Sovietologist Stephen Cohen.

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In a speech delivered in 1983, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire." Given the USSR's often brutal and bloody history, it was a title many found fitting.

But Stephen Cohen, a Soviet historian at New York University, says the majority of the people living in the Soviet Union -- particularly in Russia -- didn't see their country that way. Like the citizens of most countries, they tended to see the good in their homeland. They pointed to the Soviet Union's rapid industrialization and cities such as the famous steel-making center of Magnitogorsk, which was built from the ground up according to Stalin's first Five-Year Plan. The Soviet Union also boasted many technological and scientific achievements, and was the first nation to put a man in space in 1961. And Soviet citizens also remembered with pride and sorrow the sacrifices their country made during the so-called Great Patriotic War, or World War II -- during which over 20 million Soviets perished.

And then, in December 1991, the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed. In its place arose new freedoms and opportunities, but also a lasting nostalgia for the "good old days." Cohen says that for the elderly who lived most of their lives during the Soviet era, it is still hard to come to grips with the fact that the country they grew up in has been consigned to history's dustbin. He also says nostalgia for the past is being fueled by the hardships of the present.

For most people, Cohen says, newfound freedoms have yet to add up to a better way of life.

"But a second thing," he says, "is that a way of life has been lost. And what has yet to be gained -- if it is to be positive [in comparison to] the end of the Soviet Union -- remains for the great majority of people -- both in Russia and the former territories, except possibly the Baltics -- futuristic and theoretical, sort of like communism was under the Soviet system. It's a radiant future, but it's in stark contrast with a very grim present."

According to Cohen, the shining achievement of the Soviet Union was its comprehensive social-welfare system.

"For most Soviet citizens, what the system achieved -- particularly after Stalin -- was what we would call in the West a fairly modern welfare state, which I've called occasionally a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The state provided all sorts of entitlements and subsidies so that you were born, educated, had work, lived fairly comfortably, and died -- if you didn't challenge the political rules of the game -- with great certainty and predictability. That -- for, I would guess, 80 percent to 90 percent of the citizens of the former Soviet Union, except in the Baltics -- is gone, lost. That security of life, that sense of entitlement and welfare privileges and subsidies is gone."

A troubled transition period in the former Soviet republics has meant a rise in poverty, crime, disease, and mortality rates. A 1999 transition report by the United Nations Development Program warned "a human crisis of monumental proportions is emerging in the former Soviet Union."

A 2000 World Bank report on poverty in the former Soviet states -- which includes the countries of Eastern Europe -- said more than one-fifth of the region's population was living below the poverty line, with the highest poverty rates in Tajikistan (70 percent), Moldova (55 percent), and Kyrgyzstan (50 percent). The report also said the number of people living in poverty in the region has increased more than 10 times over the last decade. In its 2001 annual survey, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions said "the wage gap between an increasingly pauperized majority and a tiny rich elite is widening" in the transition states of the former Soviet Union and former Eastern Bloc states.

One of the countries hardest hit is Moldova, where poverty levels are among the highest in Europe. Last year, the country's biggest export was its ".md" Internet domain suffix, which it sells to medical professionals, primarily in the U.S. Moldova has also become a hub for the illicit trade in human organs.

Such desperate poverty is in marked contrast to the days of the Soviet era, when many aspects of life in the republics were subsidized by Moscow. In this respect, Cohen says, the Soviet Union should not be thought of as an empire in the traditional sense. Whereas a dominating power like Britain took more from its colonies -- like India -- than it gave back, the Soviet Union assured its republics a more or less even standard of living.

"The problem [with looking at the Soviet Union as an empire] is that it begs the question of whether it truly was that kind of traditional empire -- whether we should look at the republics as colonies [and] at Russia as a metropolis that exploited them. And clearly the Soviet Union did not qualify in important respects. For one thing, economic flows show that many of the republics were the beneficiaries, economically, of Moscow. They received so many subsidies, energy, and things like that. So you can't see a clear pattern of colonial economic exploitation."

What if the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed in 1991, but instead Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost had somehow managed to reform the country into a more democratic entity? It's a question Cohen likes to ponder. He contends such a scenario could have meant a smoother path to democracy for many of the former republics -- in particular, the Central Asian states.

"Would political reform [and] democratization have proceeded better, more steadily and further, in the non-Slavic republics -- say, in Central Asia -- had the Soviet Union continued to exist, because the leaders of Central Asia would have been compelled to follow the democratization policies of Moscow? That's a hypothetical [question]. But it's an important question to ask, because democratization really no longer exists in Central Asia -- not only in Central Asia, but it's become a new form of authoritarianism where the old communist elites have turned into clan families which monopolize the wealth and the politics of the country."

As proof of public support for the USSR, Cohen points to the fact that nine of the 15 republics voted to preserve the union -- albeit a repackaged, looser version -- in a March 1991 referendum. He contends that what made the collapse of the Soviet Union palatable to many citizens was the belief that it would quickly be replaced by a new, more flexible, version of itself.

"Because remember that when [Boris] Yeltsin, [Ukraine's Leonid] Kravchuk and [Belarus's Stanislau] Shushkevich announced the end of the Soviet Union, they said there would continue to be a single economic and military space."

None of that happened, despite the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States on 8 December 1991. The CIS has largely failed as a surrogate for the Soviet Union, but Cohen says he remains optimistic. The USSR is a relic of the past, he says, but a strong CIS could someday prove a more perfect union.

(This is the final part of a three-part series.)

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.