A Christ­mas wish for Rus­sia

A leader like Gor­bachev would put his peo­ple’s well-be­ing above his own

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Jan Sherbin Jan Sherbin is a Cincinnati writer who first vis­ited the Soviet Union dur­ing the Au­gust 1991 coup.

Twenty-five years ago this Christ­mas Day, the Soviet Union dis­solved qui­etly and peace­fully, ef­fec­tively end­ing the Cold War. Mikhail Gor­bachev re­signed as the Soviet Union’s leader, and its 15 con­stituent re­publics went their sep­a­rate ways. This de­vel­op­ment sur­prised even Mr. Gor­bachev, who in­tended only to up­date his na­tion, not to de­stroy it.

“Re­form­ing and re­fresh­ing the Soviet Union was nec­es­sary and pos­si­ble,” he told Rus­sia’s TASS news ser­vice ear­lier this month. “I was de­fend­ing the USSR till the very end. … No one thought the USSR could be elim­i­nated. … It fell into pieces by it­self.”

Sev­eral of the for­mer Soviet re­publics have, in fact, re­formed and re­freshed since then. Over­all, peo­ple in Rus­sia, Ukraine and the Baltics en­joy more free­dom to speak and travel, and the lat­est fash­ions and con­sumer goods are avail­able. Th­ese free­doms and goods come more slowly to Be­larus, which for 22 years has been un­der the lead­er­ship of a pres­i­dent groomed dur­ing Soviet times.

The Baltics had en­joyed a cou­ple of decades of in­de­pen­dence be­fore be­com­ing an­nexed to the Soviet Union in the pre­lude to World War II and are fa­vor­ably po­si­tioned for a West­ern life­style, hav­ing joined the Euro­pean Union. Peo­ple in the for­mer re­publics of Rus­sia and Ukraine had only a lim­ited win­dow to the out­side world and a longer com­mu­nist tra­di­tion in en­ter­prise and gov­ern­ment, which makes their path longer.

“It was a dif­fer­ent world,” says Ukrainian col­lege stu­dent Natalya Iva­nenko. If it still ex­isted, she imag­ines, “ev­ery­thing would be more closed. Do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion would be em­pha­sized; there would be a much smaller choice of goods avail­able. Tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment would con­tinue, but the gov­ern­ment could re­strict the use of IT.”

The new gen­er­a­tion, born post-USSR and com­ing into adult­hood in the In­ter­net era, agrees with Mr. Gor­bachev that “re­form and re­fresh” im­plies loss in or­der to gain. Tran­si­tion­ing from a com­mu­nist econ­omy, with guar­an­teed em­ploy­ment, free med­i­cal care and heav­ily sub­si­dized hous­ing and util­i­ties, re­quires that peo­ple learn ini­tia­tive, squelched in Soviet times. They also ex­pe­ri­ence more stress re­gard­ing pro­vid­ing for them­selves.

“My grand­fa­ther of­ten com­pares life now and then,” says Anna Myas­nikova, an­other col­lege stu­dent in Ukraine. “For ex­am­ple, he says, ‘In the USSR, I could buy a lot of choco­lates for 10 rubles.’ ” Now, he “can­not buy even one choco­late” with a com­pa­ra­ble amount of to­day’s money.

Twenty-five years after Mr. Gor­bachev fought for changes, they look more palat­able. “I am glad that our coun­try strives to be­come more demo­cratic,” Ms. Myas­nikova says. “I am not say­ing that we do not have any re­straints now, but I be­lieve the bound­aries are not as rigid.”

“Per­haps, in some re­spects, we would live bet­ter [if still in the Soviet Union], but we would be de­prived of many charms of cap­i­tal­ism,” Ms. Iva­nenko says. “It is un­likely that we would have as many in­ter­na­tional busi­nesses in our coun­try as we do.”

Who in the Soviet Union would have pre­dicted the in­ter­nal and trans­bor­der con­flicts we see to­day in the post-Soviet coun­tries, es­pe­cially that Rus­sia and Ukraine would grow so far apart and bring the world closer to a sec­ond Cold War?

Many in Rus­sia and Ukraine har­bor no ill will against their neigh­bors and for­mer brethren. They of­ten talk about be­ing “ma­nip­u­lated” by what they call an “in­for­ma­tion war,” mean­ing that pro­pa­ganda and in­flam­ma­tory lan­guage man­u­fac­ture ten­sions in or­der to fur­ther each coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives.

Ms. Iva­nenko ad­vises gov­ern­ment lead­ers to com­pro­mise. “I think that the gov­ern­ments should be suf­fi­ciently wise and re­spon­si­ble to place the world’s public in­ter­ests above their own and try to reach a mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able con­sen­sus.”

Mr. Gor­bachev says he was think­ing along those lines when he gave up lead­er­ship of one of the world’s two su­per­pow­ers. The price of pre­serv­ing the Soviet Union would have been too high, he told TASS. “The fire would have en­gulfed the whole coun­try. … I re­signed to avoid blood­shed.”

If only to­day’s brew­ing Cold War could dis­ap­pear as peace­fully as the Soviet Union dis­banded on Christ­mas Day in 1991. Mr. Gor­bachev had the wis­dom to put his peo­ple’s well-be­ing above his own. Dear Santa, please bring us such wis­dom this Christ­mas.

Twenty-five years after Mr. Gor­bachev fought for changes, they look more palat­able.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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