25 years later: 7 shockwaves from breakup of Soviet Union

“The Soviet Union broke up without a civil war, thank God,” says Yevgeny Roizman, a historian and mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s third-largest city. “But huge empires always go down with a lot of noise. The process is not over. It will be many years before all the damage can be undone. Now, it’s like the Soviet era is a phantom pain,” Roizman adds.

People who remember living under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR—have mixed feelings about it.

Some people recall Soviet life as a time of chronic food shortages. They would wait for hours in long lines outside local stores in hope of buying items before they ran out. Andreev says, “If I was among the first few, we would get cottage cheese or sour cream. If not, only milk,” he says.

Andreev’s wife, Tatiana says, “I was worried about the children. We were constantly adding things to the food to make it go further,” she says. “Now, within reason, we can buy anything. We don’t want to go back.”

But her husband is nostalgic. While he did not admire Communism, the Soviet Union encouraged “real unity” between the people of the different republics. “In this way, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin was right,” Andreev says. “The breakup was the worst thing that happened to us.”

Since the 1991 breakup:

  1. Wealth Gap Grows: Russia is one of the world’s most unequal countries: 75% of its wealth is controlled by the richest 1%. Today, there are 77 billionaires with a combined net worth of $283 billion.
  2. Change Is Traumatic: The transition to new systems was very difficult. The economic depression was far harsher than the Great Depression in the United States.
  3. Baltics Look West: The Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania adopted a Western liberal democratic order and joined the European Union and NATO. They are nervous about their vulnerability to Russian expansion.
  4. Satellites Veer Off: Former Soviet-aligned nations in Europe —Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Romania— are now members of the EU and NATO.
  5. Repression Persists: Belarus is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, where criticizing the president can lead to a lengthy jail term. Uzbekistan and other ex-Soviet Central Asian countries have records of corruption and human rights abuses. Russia's predominantly Muslim and restive province of Chechnya uses public shaming, torture and abductions to keep control over the province.
  6. Russian Democracy Fades: Russia embraced democracy after the Soviet breakup but has been sliding back toward authoritarianism. Putin has jailed critics, imposed restrictions on media, reclaimed Crimea from West-leaning Ukraine, abetted pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, cracked down on foreign non-profit groups and promoted right-wing nationalism.
  7. Russia Tilts to Trump: President Trump spoke positively about Putin. Russia and the U.S. under Trump had a level of international cooperation that would have been inconceivable after Russia reclaimed Crimea in 2014.

  8. Source: 25 years later: 7 shockwaves from breakup of Soviet Union
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