In a recent opinion piece Garry Kasparov, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, wrote eloquently about the end of the Soviet Union, which was tossed into the ash heap of history in 1991. Timing his essay in late December to coincide with what is generally considered the end of the Soviet Union, Kasparov noted that “on December 25, 1991…the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned after a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive.” However, I take exception to this commonly-held view marking December 25, 1991, as the end of the Soviet Union.
Before getting into why December 25 is off by a few months, it’s important to echo some of Mr. Kasparov’s insights. A quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet state—and nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe—it’s deeply troubling that “the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them,” as Mr. Kasparov observes. The words of Kennedy and Reagan, who rallied the world to the defense and expansion of freedom, seem quaint, if not irrelevant to too many Western leaders today, including President Obama, who downplayed freedom in his foreign policy agenda.
The consequence of an America less engaged in the defense and expansion of freedom are on full display. Consider the recent findings from Freedom House, which reports that global freedom declined in 2016 for the tenth straight year. “The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year—72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began…Over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.”
We live in “a time when dictatorship is not seen as a discrete problem—when in fact it is the dominant crisis that enables so many others, including war, terror and refugees,” Mr. Kasparov observes, adding that “the West has lost the will to defend itself and its values.” For evidence, see Ukraine and Syria. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has capitalized on the West’s ambivalence, intervening in Ukraine to weaken a democracy and in Syria to prop up a dictator. Washington and the West have stood aside.
While I share in Mr. Kasparov’s relief and happiness about the fall of the Soviet state—and his worries about the West’s benign neglect in the intervening years, Putin’s rise as a latter-day czar, and Moscow’s designs on the Baltics and other parts of the former Soviet Union—I must take issue with using December 25, 1991, as the date of death for the Soviet Union.
It pays to recall that Azerbaijan declared sovereignty in 1989; Russia, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in 1990. Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Armenia went a step further and declared their independence in 1990. In late August 1991, after the failed hardline coup, Ukraine declared independence, and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
On August 24, 1991 Gorbachev resigned as the head of the Communist Party. As The New York Times reported at the time, Gorbachev “in effect banned the once-monolithic party from any role in ruling the vast country over which it had held iron control for more than seven decades.” Since the Soviet Union and the Communist Party were so symbiotic and so intimately linked, Gorbachev’s actions that summer effectively ended the Soviet Union. “The stripping of the party of its last grips on Soviet power signaled the end of an experiment that began in the flames of the Russian Revolution,” the Times concluded.
In September of 1991, the Congress of People’s Deputies voted to dissolve the Soviet Union. In early November 1991, the Russian Federation banned the Communist Party.
To be sure, on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. Of course, because of all the declarations of secession in 1990 and the shutting down of the Communist Party in the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union was already out of business by that time.
Some may see this as a technicality, but I think the downfall of the Soviet Union is too important not to keep the history in order.
Fischer is president and CEO of the American Security Council Foundation.