‘We got Christmas back’: readers mark 25 years since fall of Soviet Union

Russians in a Moscow apartment watch Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation speech

After years of food shortages, rising nationalist movements and an attempted coup, Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, resigned on Christmas Day 1991. His resignation 25 years ago was the final nail in the coffin of the USSR.

To mark the anniversary we asked our readers across the region to share their memories of the monumental events, and to tell us how they felt about the change from a communist, collective system, to a capitalist one.

For many readers who got in contact, these memories are tinged with feelings of confusion, and even disbelief, that something which seemed to strong could dissolve so quickly.

While Christmas Day was the official end of Gorbachev’s rule, declarations of independence in Soviet republics had begun the previous year, starting in the Baltic statesand culminating in the central Asian ones in autumn 1991.

Taron Ganjalyan, from Armenia, who had voted for independence in September that year, said that reaction came in three stages. “Disbelief, because it was unfathomable that such a strong system could collapse in an instant. Elation, because this was the chance to build Armenia’s independence. And concern, because despite its vices and problems the Soviet Union kept the lifestyle, safety and security in Armenia aligned with Europe,” he said.

“It was also uniquely discomforting to [be] one citizen of a small and globally irrelevant country.”

Valentina Baltag, from Moldova, another small country that had declared independence the previous August, learned what had happened to her country on the news. “I was 23 years old, born and raised in Soviet Union, and the idea seemed ridiculous to me,” she said.

“Not immediately, but later, I asked myself: who decided we go independent? I didn’t have a clue, I don’t think it was ever explained by anyone.”

For others, the announcement of independence came during an otherwise banal and unmemorable day – at school, working at scout camp or playing tennis.

Despite the fear and anxiety the slow-motion collapse brought, most readers we heard from said the aftermath had brought mostly positive changes, including easier access to information, exposure to different cultures, and the chance to travel abroad for the first time.

“Luckily the Soviet Union ended just in time for me. It was a good system for children but not for adults. In adulthood I would have gone crazy, restrained by the machine that promoted mediocrity and Kafkaesque society,” said Tanya from Kiev, who only wanted to give her first name.

For citizens across the Baltics, three countries that have forged the strongest ties with Europe since independence, the prevailing memories reported by our readers were a surge of economic fortunes and a subsequent 25-year battle to shake off the post-Soviet label.

Vitalija Kalvelienė, a single mother of four from Lithuania, said that behind the iron curtain she “could barely survive from one monthly payment to another despite the widely believed myths about robust social welfare system of the Soviets”. After independence her “economic circumstances improved markedly”, she said.

In Latvia, Maya Hazan’s experience after the breakup was more mixed. She remembers “shortages of everything, and having to stand in line for bread, sugar, salt … factories didn’t have money to pay salaries and relatives accumulated socks, soap, shoes for the future”.

Now living in the US, she looks back at her childhood and teenage years in the Sovet Union with rose-tinted glasses. “There was a strong emphasis on a healthy lifestyle, patriotic feeling for your motherland, [and] the unity of the 15 republics,” she said.

For Atiir, a reader in Estonia, the transition was about more than economics. It was emotional. “The happiness and joy to have our freedom back – to step up against the ‘big bully’. We also had our Christmas and Easter back,” she said. Under Soviet rule religion and celebrations of religious holidays were strongly discouraged.

For many people in the Baltics, the “post-Soviet” grouping remains problematic, 25 years on. “It would be great if Estonia could just be Estonia, without having the label of ‘country previously occupied by Soviet Union’. It isn’t the biggest or most important chapter in our history. Quite the opposite: it was a short and sad period of our history and we would like to move on,” said Atiir.

For Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya, who was in Moscow throughout 1991, the celebration was not about the return of Christmas but the arrival of “better books, more culture and more democracy but instead at first we got more jeans, cigarettes and condoms”.

She went on to study literature and open a publishing company to try and discover her dream before emigrating when she realised that “society in Russiacould not be changed for the better”.

Mikhail Molchanov, a Kiev resident,has mixed feelings about the arrival of western denim. He said people “were duped into believing that their lives would vastly improve”.

“Only people who lived in both systems can truly appreciate the system of guaranteed employment, (almost) guaranteed housing, free healthcare and free education. A capitalist society will never be able to match any of these. We sold our Soviet birthright for blue jeans and Iron Maiden records,” he said.

Readers in central Asia also painted a mixed picture of changing fortunes in the years that followed. Tajikistan, for example, was “plunged in to a civil war from 1992–1994, which delayed the opportunity to rebuild our democracy and our economy”, said Hamidiyon Mullo.

The war claimed 20,000 lives, but while country remains one of the poorest in central Asia, with a strong dependence on Moscow, Mullo maintains that the “value of independence is very important and better than economical success”.

In neighbouring Uzbekistan, Nilufar Sharipova’s life would also change for the better as her parents embraced capitalism. “Our living standards changed overnight. We bought a second car, new house and I did not have to wear my sister’s clothes,” she said.

“Looking back I think we had a kind of life people in North Korea experience now. While still many ex-Soviet people hate Mikhail Gorbachov, I am very grateful for what had happened.”




[Source:- The Gurdian]

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