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Events in Ukraine over recent months have transfixed the world. Protests which at first seemed confined to a few streets in the capital Kiev, with echoes in the western regions, have now escalated across the country. Crimea has already become Russian territory; there was a horrific loss of life in Odessa ten days ago; and this weekend’s referendum makes the fate of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east seem increasingly uncertain. As an historian of the Soviet Union, I’ve been asked a number of times by friends and colleagues for my views, and in particular, to give some kind of assessment as to what the future might hold. Will Russia invade? Can Ukraine survive? I have no idea.

In his history of Ukraine, Andrew Wilson called Ukraine an ‘unexpected nation’ [1]. In another recent history, Serhy Yekelchyk has argued that modern Ukraine is not the result of ‘any historical inevitability’ [2]. Nationalist movements certainly existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century but the cities – the natural centres for this kind of nation-building project – were cosmopolitan, with large Russian and Jewish communities. The First World War, and the revolutions of 1917, gave new energy to the nationalist movements, and were aided, at least in the 1920s, by the Bolsheviks’ desire to avoid the Russifying policies of the Tsars. But the territories that make up post-Soviet Ukraine were brought together into a single political unity only in the wake of the Second World War. All this makes Ukraine a relatively new nation-state. As the violence escalates, it feels increasingly difficult to predict whether this ‘unexpected nation’ state will hold together, and I wouldn’t like to make any prophecies.

So, if the future is opaque, can current events tell us anything about the past? One of the news stories which caught my attention recently was the attempt of five Russian MPs to bring Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, to trial. He is accused of a ‘betrayal of national interests’. His crime is to have allowed the Soviet Union’s disintegration, which went against popular sentiment: a referendum in March 1991 found 76.4% of those who voted in favour of establishing a union of sovereign republics, i.e. retaining the Soviet Union, albeit with greater power devolved from Moscow. (Six republics did not participate in the referendum; Ukraine did.) [3] Gorbachev himself has dismissed their attempts as simply a PR stunt, and called it ‘absolutely unreasonable’ from a historical point of view. He is of course right: he fought until the end to reform and preserve the Union. The historian Stephen Cohen has described him as ‘a Lincolnesque figure determined to “preserve the Union”’ at any cost.[4]

But this, and the current Ukrainian crisis, raises questions about how the end of the Soviet Union is understood in Russia today. There is no doubt that there is support for Russian claims to Crimea: for years, I have heard Russian friends nostalgically remembering childhood holidays in Yalta or Feodosiia, and claiming that the peninsula was by rights ‘theirs’. But more than that, many Russians bitterly feel the loss of empire. The 1990s were a traumatic decade: with average wages and pensions plummeting, many felt not only that Russian / Soviet prestige had been lost, but that the country was itself now a victim of a kind of economic colonisation. With the economic recovery of the last ten to fifteen years, Russian nationalism has revived, often taking bellicose forms under Putin’s leadership. The Soviet past has, in some quarters, become an attractive myth, and it is this which has made the partial rehabilitation of Stalin as some kind of national hero possible.

How far should this change the way we think and write about, and teach, Soviet history? Is nostalgia for the Soviet past simply a product of the last two and half decades of Russian history? Of the country’s plunge into economic, demographical and geopolitical ignominy, and its subsequent, brittle, resurgence under Putin? Or does it also tell us something about the Soviet past itself? Narratives of the Soviet Union abound in metaphors of decay and decline, some starting the descent into stagnation and collapse as early as 1940s. There’s a tendency to see the Soviet experiment as flawed, its citizens hungry for the kind of political and economic freedoms promised by the ‘west’. But present-day nostalgia for the Soviet past gives pause for thought. Of course, it’s much to do with patriotism and a sense of national pride; of course, the Soviet past people are remembering is an invented one. But if the Soviet ideal was so moribund, for so long, could it be resurrected so easily?

I do not have straight-forward answers to these questions either, but it certainly seems important to reflect on how, and if, our accounts of the Soviet past should be revisited by the reinvention it’s experiencing in Russia today.

Miriam Dobson is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History in Sheffield. You can read her other blog posts here. She also writes for the Russia History Blog.

Image: Falling of Lenin in Khmelnytskyi Park (February 2014) [Wikicommons]

[1] Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: unexpected nation (New Haven, 2002)
[2] Serhy Yekelchyk, Ukraine: birth of a modern nation (New York, 2007), p. 6
[3] Ronal G. Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford, 1993), p. 150
[4] Stephen F. Cohen, ‘Was the Soviet System Reformable?’, Slavic Review, 63 (2004), p. 482.

Tags : Mikhail GorbachevnationalismRussiaRussian historySoviet historyUkraineUkraine crisisUkrainian independenceUSSR
Miriam Dobson

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