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Analysis & Opinion
26.12.11 Turning The Page
By Dan Peleschuk

Twenty years ago today, Russia opened a new chapter and lived out its first, post-Soviet day of independence. Yet while most of the successor states regularly mark their anniversaries of independence from the Soviet Union, celebrations of the event – or even recognition of it – in Russia are virtually nowhere to be found. And although a wave of protests and growing discontent is now washing over the country, seemingly reviving popular politics in Russia, experts said the legacy of a lost empire remains far from clear.

The symbolic event continues to live on in the collective memory of both foreign and domestic observers: on December 25, Christmas Day in the West, the red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered over the Kremlin for the final time and replaced with the Russian tricolor flag. The Soviet Union was officially dead and Russia was reborn, for the first time in its history, as an independent country – free from the fetters of empire and the burden of ruling over the vast, often foreign territory that made up the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it.

Today, the Soviet Union’s successor states – from Ukraine to the Baltics, from the Caucasus to Central Asia – mark their independence, in most cases, with pride and healthy celebration. But in Russia, no such commemorations take place. Indeed, the biggest and most important holidays in post-Soviet Russia remain Victory Day on May 9, commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, and International Women’s Day, a Soviet holdover celebrated perhaps more widely in Russia than anywhere else in the world.

If sociological polls are good indicators of the public mood, then the numbers are less than encouraging. According to the latest polls from the Levada Center, an independent think tank and polling agency, 55 percent of Russians say they regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. And perhaps more disconcerting, only eight percent believe the aborted August 1991 coup, which in large part sealed the fate of the dying empire and catapulted democratic forces to the forefront of politics, was a victory for democratic revolution.

These numbers, experts said, reflect the mass dissatisfaction with the collapse of a onetime superpower, the dizzying descent into the chaotic, pseudo-democratic politics of the 1990s, as well as the financial ruin that followed shortly thereafter. “The disruption in [Russians’] mother country was not compensated by any advantages in the material sphere,” said Alexei Levenson, a Levada Center researcher. “So it was a double effect, both in the spiritual and the material spheres of their lives: Russians thought about themselves as number one in this so-called family of brotherly republics, and all of a sudden, they lost their position.”

But all of this was brought to an end with the entrance of Vladimir Putin onto the stage, reviving Russia’s status as a global player and consolidating power as part of an unwritten social contract. Russians were to enjoy new economic freedoms in exchange for their tacit acceptance of Putin’s – and chief Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov’s – version of “managed democracy.”

Today, however, the system is unraveling before observers’ eyes. The unprecedented protests that have shaken the political establishment in recent weeks have seemingly revived Russians’ sense of entitlement to their state, prompting many to discuss a rebirth of a politics in modern Russia. But how does this growing tide of opposition sentiment affect the Russian post-Soviet legacy?

Levenson noted that despite the growing democratic movement, much still remains unclear. He said that today’s youth, scores of whom have flooded the streets in protest, have experienced neither the Soviet Union nor democratic politics, and so they battle between two “myths,” neither of which this new generation can truly relate to. “We should not expect to have a clear view into the minds of this new generation,” he said. “The picture will be obscure for a very long time. Neither a liberal democratic vision nor a pro-Soviet vision will have a definite and decisive victory over one another.”

Others, however, are more positive. Veteran political observer Kontanstin von Eggert commented on Kommersant FM radio that today’s version of the “‘Soviet Union Lite’ died on Prospect Sakharova,” the sight of the December 24 rally – the biggest to date – against the current authorities. “In Russia, unfortunately, there was no follow-up de-Sovietization or decommunization. But either way, it is gradually coming – simply because this dead man called the ‘Soviet Union’ was carried away to the cemetery of history 20 years ago,” he said. “And into life entered an entire generation knowing nothing of Soviet life…Just as 20 years ago, I feel anxiety. But along with it – just as then – hope.”
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