Unrest & turbulence in parts of former Soviet Union means its collapse has NOT been accomplished
We need to rethink the timescale of political history. 30 years after the collapse of the USSR, it is too early to tell what it meant on a global scale and whether the process has been completed.
Many international commentators are gleefully considering the unrest now engulfing Belarus, Eastern Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan as nothing more than challenges to Russia’s (and, personally, Vladimir Putin’s) sphere of influence in the so-called “post-Soviet space.” The UK’s Financial Times declares “Russia’s neighborhood” to be “in flames”; Bloomberg News gloats that “it’s harder and harder for Vladimir Putin to call the shots” in Russia’s “near abroad”; The New York Times proclaims that “Putin, long the sower of instability, is now surrounded by it.”
What these and many other, related analyses have in common is their historical shortsightedness, which has come to dominate our epoch of clickbait news, soundbites, and on-demand mass production of opinions.
It is assumed that the collapse of the USSR is an event that happened in the past, a roughly three-year process of dissolution that culminated in replacing the Soviet red flag with the Russian tricolor over the Kremlin on December 25, 1991.
But are things really that simple? The USSR was a political entity that was born from the first successful workers’ revolution, that was crucial in defeating the Nazis in World War II, and that was engaged in a protracted Cold War with the other superpower, the United States. Can the disappearance of such a political actor limit itself to a meager three-year frame?
In order to put in its proper context the upheaval some of the former Soviet republics are engulfed in, we need to develop a robust philosophy of history, above all of political history. I do not mean that what is necessary is a hairsplitting production of academic articles and books, reveling in jargon that remains inaccessible to common folk. Rather, at the level of our public consciousness, (now shaped by rather one-dimensional commentators working for mainstream news organizations), we need to imagine political history differently, with all its gaps, protracted subterranean processes, and time lags between causes and effects.
There is a well-known anecdote about the conversation US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in the early 1970s. When asked what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789, Enlai said: “Too early to tell.”
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In an attempt to explain away this puzzling response to an event that had taken place nearly 200 years prior to the conversation, it was said that it was a translation glitch, leading Zhou Enlai to assume he was being asked about the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. To Western commentators it was simply inconceivable that something that had happened so long ago was still not open to historical judgment. But, even if some sort of confusion between French events in the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries took place, it was wholly justified: were not the uprisings of 1968 the afterglows of the French Revolution, alongside the Russian, the Chinese, the Cuban, and other revolutions striving for universal human liberation through the emancipation of the worker?
And so, to us, living less than 30 years after the “official” collapse of the Soviet Union, it should be obvious that it is still too early to tell what this event has meant and whether it has even been completed. In the East and in the West, our lives are invisibly molded by its aftermath, as though our recent histories are a comet tail of that momentous occurrence.
The ongoing dismantling of the welfare state in Canada, the US, and Europe is largely explicable with respect to the disappearance of the Soviet adversary and the related global ideological struggle, which required a quasi-socialist placating of workers in the West. The short-lived assertion of a hegemonic world superpower status by the US, reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s narrative of the neoliberal end of history, was equally an outcome of the collapse, whose consequences are still far from exhausted.
Within Russia itself, an intergenerational cultural and even communicational or linguistic gap marks a visible scar on the body politic. In Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan, various contestations of the status quo are symptoms of the non-resolved legacies of the USSR’s collapse.
It is against this background that our relation to big historical events needs to be carefully recalibrated. Once again, cosmic analogies come to mind: it takes solar energy, traveling at the speed of light, 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach the Earth. Similarly, there is a delay between a significant event and its “arrival,” the full unfolding of its consequences. With reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union, our historical existence is still happening in this delay, just like a ray of the Sun that has not yet hit the Earth.
This means two things.
First, we know that we can make sense of history only in retrospect, but the exact point in time when such making-sense can happen is, itself, unclear. Unlike in astrophysics, where a set of calculations allows us to predict when the energy released by the Sun would make it to our planet, there is no such technique in the field of historical studies.
Second, the indeterminacy of an event and of its many consequences implies that it is radically open, unstable even. It follows that, still on its way, an event may come to the fullness of its accomplishment or be counteracted and derailed: the collapse of the USSR may, itself, collapse, or be brought to its final completion. In this sense, possibility, with all its indeterminacy, derives from a living past, not from the unknowable future.
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