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The Soviet Union: Corpse or Phantom? 30 Years Later

The fall of the USSR was a tide-turning event that affected its constituent countries of, among others, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia in a wide range of different ways. The question remains, is the Soviet Union a corpse or a phantom 30 years into its non-existence, a question that the Polish public broadcaster TVP seeks to answer in a special edition of the programme “What Next?” aired on Tuesday, January 11.

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Providing an insight into the events accompanying the collapse of the Soviet Union, known as the Autumn of Nations in 1989, the episode entitled “The Soviet Union — Corpse or Phantom? 30 years later” helped to understand the baggage with which Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia was swallowed into the gargantuan union, as well as the consequences of its demise and the ensuing political transformations.

Francis Fukuyama said that the fall of the USSR would put an end to history. However, 30 years later history did not cease, as the Russian Federation pursues the ambitions of its red-coloured predecessor.

In his opening speech in the programme, TVP board member Mateusz Matyszkowicz said that “Russia is taking advantage of the unrest in Belarus.” He noted that while postcolonialism was widely criticised there seems to be “allowance for some nations dominating others” i.e., Russia expanding its sphere of influence over other states.

“Today many nations that were part of the USSR have the right to speak for themselves,” Mr Matyszkowicz said.


Ukrainians were deemed the 2nd nation in the hierarchy of the USSR after Russians. Most of them in the referendum chose independence. On December 1, 1991, 91 percent decided not to belong to the USSR.

Prof. Jaroslav Hrycak, Ukrainian historian, academic and guest of TVP said that “Ukrainians had a special status in the Russian Empire. There was quite a lot of Ukrainians in power. It was obvious that the USSR was managed by the Brezhnev family from Dnipropetrovs’k [today’s Dnipro]…. Nothing was obvious until the crisis of the USSR. The historical remembrance of Ukrainians did not exist until the 1980s. It was clear that when Brezhnev came to Ukraine the goal was to sovietise it… Ukrainians were very pragmatic about fleeing from the poverty they suffered as part of the USSR. This was the most important motif for Ukrainians to opt for independence and leave the Union”.

For his part, Mykola Riabchuk, Ukrainian public intellectual, journalist, political analyst, literary critic, translator and writer, felt that “if it were possible to maintain an independent Ukraine after 1919 it would perhaps have been a powerful state… You have to remember that Ukraine had a low starting position during the Perestroika period…”

Prof. Hrycak added that “Ukraine achieved its independence and support owing to the pragmatic alliance between Western Ukraine, Kyiv with its cultural elites.” “We saw Kravchuk as Ukraine’s president and the workers’ movement in Donbas that we tend to forget. The workers decided it would be better to join Kyiv, not Moscow… Those living at that time felt that Armageddon was coming and that is how they were prompted to collaborate under the conditions of compromise.”

Back in the day of the USSR, Ukraine was one of the most favoured of its constituent countries. However, for 3 decades the nation has been going its own path.

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Belarus used to be called the assembly factory of the USSR. The memories of the Afghanistan War when thousands of Belarusians were killed prevail within the society. Moreover, before the War in Afghanistan, Stalinists killed intellectuals and anyone who deemed themselves Belarusians.

After the USSR collapsed, the Belarusian authorities had no time to create democratic means of rule. That is how a Bolshevik-styled Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power.

Zianon Stanislavavič Pazniak, one of the founders of the Belarusian Popular Front and leader of the Conservative Christian Party — BPF, as well as the Belarusian Popular Front nominee for President of Belarus in the 1994 elections, told TVP that “when we had the freedom declaration in our grasp, never were we so overwhelmed with joy. Belarus celebrated the moment of rebirth and yet there was a large part of the population that followed Soviet ideals… I remember being interrogated by Soviet security services who were telling me ‘Belarus does not exist. It is a dream’. The discovery of the Kuropaty Massacre was like an atomic bomb…” that spearheaded the breakoff from the USSR.

Agnieszka Romaszewska, editor-in-chief of Belsat TV, said that “in Belarus with today’s people in power [i.e. Lukashenka and his clique], change cannot take place.“

Mr Paźniak went on to say that “Belarus was pretty much destroyed [following the separation from the USSR] and we needed some time to recover. We needed at least five years. People had the Soviet mindset, little did they understand what independence meant… There was not enough time to create a nation and self-awareness. Lukashenka came and utilised this attitude…”

The first decades of Belarus’ independence showed an inclination for Russia.

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Lithuania was the first USSR member state that proclaimed its independence. The Lithuanian Republic was remade into an independent state.

Algirdas Saudargas, a Lithuanian politician, the signatory of the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania and the post-Soviet Lithuania FM, told TVP that on the day of the Re-Establishment “the emotions were really elevated. It was a moment when the Lithuanian Republic was restored to pre-war shape… I remember after January 1991 I was in Poland and then I went to London and Brussels and Germany. I was then hosted by the German FM [Hans-Dietrich] Genscher. He asked me if we [Lithuanians] really wanted full independence. I answered that it was not a matter of whether we wanted that or not but that it was just what the nation desired, hence a duty of ours.”

Krystyna Adamowicz, deputy editor-in-chief of the Vilnius Courier said that “Poles were not ready to take up the new policy and order [following the regaining of Lithuania’s independence]. They were afraid that their reputation would be tarnished. Poles were afraid that Lithuania would be only for Lithuanians,” adding that “today we are citizens of Lithuania and we are happy because of it.”

Algirdas Saugardas went on to say that “in the context of what happened in Kazakhstan, this is a metaphor for Lithuania… Today we are a fully-fledged country. We follow that spirit. We need to set an example for other countries. Poland was an example for Lithuania. We were looking at Solidarity, at the times of Martial Law.”

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Dagmara Beitner Le-Galla, a Latvian MP, said that her country’s march towards independence from the USSR “started with [Saint] Pope John Paul II, [US President Ronald] Reagan and [UK PM] Margaret Thatcher. Latvia was declared independent in December 1990.”

Andris Sprutz, a political scientist and a member of the Institute of Latvian International Affairs said that “it was in 1991 that Latvia had a referendum. We could feel the pressure and it was pretty distinct. We were craving independence. In Riga, there was bloodshed too in January. There were barricades in Riga. I myself was part of it. They were trying to staunch these attempts to regain independence…. Because of the Soviet occupation, many people came to Latvia to settle there. There was an issue of how to ensure survival for the language and the culture. There was a very controversial decision to give citizenship only to those citizens who lived in Latvia previous to the Soviet occupation. Many Soviet citizens had to undergo a naturalisation process. Despite the move, there were still people with no Latvian citizenship.”

University Professor Aleksander Gubrynowicz said that “when we were talking about 1991, Moscow was already preoccupied with itself… The Soviet Union did not draw good conclusions from what was going on in East-central Europe.”

Dr Paweł Ukielski, the deputy head of Warsaw Rising Museum, said that “whereas Gorbachov was not able to draw conclusions from the Spring of Nations, those who desired independence learnt much more and brought that along with the fall of the Soviet Union.”

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Sergey Lebedev, a Russian writer, recalled that Russians “who used to live in the Soviet Union remember that it was communist. Today’s Russia has nothing to do with communism… Russia is still pretty nostalgic about the Soviet Union. It remains a fact that today’s Russia has no vision for the future… In this sense, the Soviet Union is a source of inspiration and myths for the contemporary Russian authorities. The Soviet Union is something mystical, a golden age that we all remember.”

Pavel Usov, a Russian analyst and political scientist said that when speaking “about Belarus, I think it’s the only country with an apparent wave of nostalgia for the USSR… Lukashenka, in restoring that nostalgia, has also tried integrating Belarus with Russia as a Soviet Union 2.0… Increasingly Russia is returning to the trifold identity consisting of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Russia has been trying to establish the so-called Russian world.”

Prof. Gubrynowicz recalled that “Poland was one of the last nations that the Red Army left its territories.”

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In recent days, droves of people have taken to the streets in Kazakhstan, including the former capital of Almaty, to protest the spike in gas prices. A curfew was imposed and martial law declared in the country.

Jerzy Rohoziński of the Pilecki Institute said that “the concept of the Russian World continues to apply. We need to remember that Russians constitute a large part of Kazakh society.” He also mentioned the turn of the Kazakh society towards Kazakh history and culture, a move away from the Soviet identity.

In addition to the abovementioned, among the guests invited to the debate were current and former politicians, political scientists, publicists, activists and journalists from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Statements of, among others, Polish FM Zbigniew Rau, and the signatories of the Belovezh Accords that formally put an end to the Soviet Union were displayed as well.

Apart from Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia were also involved in the implementation of the programme.

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