The end of the Soviet road

December 22, 2011

There were Russians who cried in spite of themselves when the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time on Dec. 25, 1991. Yelena Ilingina was one. It had to happen, she realized that, but still, this was her country.

Ilingina got together with friends. There was much vodka and laughter, and someone had a guitar. “We sang all the old songs,” she remembers. “And of course, we cried.”

The following morning, dry-eyed, they woke up in a new nation.

In those days, Ilingina was teaching Russian grammar to foreigners. Now, 20 years later, her hours are filled with English lessons for Russians. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West started paying considerably less attention to Moscow. But the people of the former Soviet Union found that they were joining an increasingly integrated world. Vacations, opportunities, new cars, new clothes, along with new languages beckoned.

The end of Soviet power led to a fundamental shift in the way Russians think about themselves and their country. Expectations are dramatically different.

In the jammed box-store supermarkets of contemporary Moscow, where crowds of jostling shoppers pick up South African oranges and Costa Rican bananas and English Stilton cheese and French oysters. It’s clear that few would be content to go back to the Soviet economy where a grocery store would call itself “Meat,” “Milk” or “Vegetables.” and where shoppers had to stand in line three times — to select, pay for and pick up their grimly unpalatable purchases.

Yet Russians frequently express nostalgia for the Soviet past. They reminisce about when were citizens of a great nation that provided top-notch culture, education and, most important, order.

Eight years and a week after that cold December night when the Soviet banner came down, a former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president. He was intensely popular. Putin brought back the Soviet anthem, and he brought major businesses back under state control. He once called the Soviet downfall the greatest tragedy of the 20th century — an honor for which it had plenty of serious competition.

Soviet citizens had long regarded politics as something that didn’t concern them. Whatever disputes might be taking place within the Kremlin — so what? Then in the late 1980s they gave it a try, but the results weren’t pretty: a whole country, and its economy, on the rocks. Starting a decade ago, Putin put politics out of bounds again. It wasn’t something for ordinary Russians to worry about. And then, this month, thousands begged to differ.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the system, and to make it face up to reality and logic. He loosened the screws — and it fell apart. Now Russia is at another turning point.

A political system carefully reconstructed by Soviet-era apparatchiks is up against a generation on the streets that was in high school, or younger, when the red banner was lowered. One or the other has to give.

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