Geopolitics For Dummies: What Does The Collapse Of The Soviet Union Really Mean?

Regardless of how one would characterize the collapse of the Soviet Union — as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" or just its "major geopolitical disaster" — everyone appears to agree that it was one of the 20th century's most fateful geopolitical events.  Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once called it a "genuine drama" for the Russian nation.  In contrast, many in the West celebrated the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a Cold War trophy and a sign of the "end of history."

While the fact that the Soviet Union has "collapsed" is not in dispute, little attention is being paid to what the Soviet Union, the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), actually was.  The only thing everyone seems to remember is that the USSR was composed of 15 so-called Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR).  So when the USSR was "collapsing", the "collapse" was supposed to proceed precisely along the borders separating the SSRs, resulting in the creation of 15 newly independent states.  Can it get any simpler than that?

Not so fast.  In 1991, the Soviet Union was a true administrative monster that held together as many as 173 different territorial entities: 15 above-mentioned SSRs, 20 Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs, parts of SSRs), 8 autonomous regions, 114 regions, 6 territories ("край"), and 10 autonomous districts. 

Countless changes to this administrative puzzle have occurred in almost 70 years (1922-1991) that the Soviet Union was in existence: new districts, regions and republics emerged and then disappeared with the speed of images on a slide show; borders between entities were drawn and redrawn, and then redrawn again, by a restless hand of a mysterious artist; shuffling smaller "republics" between bigger ones was taking place almost as often as shuffling cards in professional poker.  Just a few examples.  In 1936, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz ASSRs ceased being parts of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the largest SSR in the USSR, and were "upgraded" to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz SSRs, while the Karakalpak ASSR was transferred from the RSFSR to the Uzbek SSR.  In the 1950's, a swath of RSFSR territories bordering the Kazakh SSR went under the Kazakh SSR's jurisdiction.  In 1954, the Ukraine SSR got a gift from the RSFSR: Crimea (the Crimea region of the RSFSR).

Think about that for a moment.  Crimea has been an intrinsic part of Russia for almost 200 years, with the Russian Empire spending blood and treasure, during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, to keep the peninsula within its borders.  And then, a Communist apparatchik, Nikita Khrushchev, following the best traditions of the Soviet Union's arbitrariness, just transferred Crimea from Russia proper to Ukraine.  (The reason for Khrushchev's decision — to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia — sounds especially absurd today.)  Is it not incumbent upon anyone who wants to put away the legacy of the Soviet Union to condemn this act of supreme state stupidity (the term "state treason" would perhaps be more appropriate) and to demand that Crimea be returned to where it truly belongs: in Russia?

Granted, the borders of some Soviet Socialist Republics — the three Baltic SSRs (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) come to mind first — did reflect historically established demarcations between stable and mature nations.  But others did not.  Instead, they were created by the malicious mind of the world's most creative nation builder, Josef Stalin.  Take the Georgian SSR.  This product of Stalin's imaginative cartography included the Abkhaz ASSR and South Ossetia autonomous region, both placed under Georgian rule in contradiction to historic and common sense and despite protestations by both the Abkhazi and Ossetian people.  So when in 1991, Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia rightfully demanded their independence from Georgia.  They won it, after an armed rebellion, in 1992-1993.  But the Western governments have  refused to accept their de facto independence.  Western strategists apparently believed that in this part of the Soviet Union, its "collapse" should be partial, so that Georgia's independence from the USSR was legitimate, despite the fact that Georgia joined the USSR voluntarily, but the independence of Abkhasia and South Ossetia from Georgia was not, despite the fact that both entities were made part of Georgia by Stalin's order.

Our Secretary of State ought to consider this the next time she articulates U.S. policy in the region.  The Madam Secretary should remember that by vowing to uphold Georgia's "territorial integrity", she is attempting to preserve the legacy of the Soviet Union (and fulfill the dreams of its bloody dictator).  

(The Soviet Union is hardly the only place where creative geopolitical cartography was applied.  The West applauded the "collapse" of Yugoslavia, a mini-"evil empire" for many.  But for the NATO strategists, the "collapse" was not complete enough, so NATO took away, by brutal force, Kosovo from Serbia.  But when Serbs in Northern Kosovo wanted to join their compatriots in Serbia to stop the ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Kosovars, the West cried foul and vowed to uphold the "territorial integrity" of the narcomafia heaven that contemporary Kosovo is.)   

It will take time to heal all the wounds — political, economic, social, cultural, and psychological — the precipitious and disorderly desintegration of the Soviet Union has caused to Russia and its people.  It will also take time to fully understand what the Soviet Union was and was not in the history of the Russian state.  The burden of this work lies on the shoulders of the Russians themselves.  But we in the West can help, too.  First, by accepting that today's Russia is not a Soviet Union and will never be one.  Second, by realizing that the "collapse" of the Soviet Union is still going on, and we can't just end its history by whim.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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15 Responses to Geopolitics For Dummies: What Does The Collapse Of The Soviet Union Really Mean?

  1. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Igor,
    Nice to hear from you again. Thanks for pointing to the typo (Freudian slips are always unintended, are they not?:). Interestingly enough, a number of people read the piece and never noticed this “new” word. Should I keep using it?:)

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark, very much appreciate your nice words.
    I think that the Obama administration deserves some credit for resisting the calls (from McCain, Lieberman & Co) to resume arms sales to Georgia. However, I suspect that this is being done DESPITE Clinton’s wish. Again, I suspect that as a payback, Obama allowed Clinton to fancy herself in public with Georgia’s “territorial integrity.”

  3. Hi Eugene, Mark & Co.
    Greatly appreciate the subject of the above article, which deals with important strategic issues.
    I very respectfully note some additional points (albeit previously stated by yours truly, which I nevertheless consider worthwhile to bring up again).
    From a historical point of view, Georgia can make a claim that there’s a basis to maintain the former Georgian SSR territory, as it geographically existed prior to the Soviet breakup. At the same time, the Ossetians and Abkhaz can go back to history as a supporting point to their respective independence claim. At issue is what one chooses to highlight.
    Georgia’s first post-Soviet president didn’t help Georgia’s claims on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Instead of being big on Georgian nationalism, he could’ve taken a more federal approach.
    The 2008 Georgian government strike on South Ossetia greatly influenced Russia’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence.
    From a historical and human rights point of view, I don’t see how Kosovo, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have better independence claims than Pridnestrovie (Transnistria and several related spellings). Independence recognition is very much influenced by the preferences of the big powers.
    A great opportunity was missed in settling the dispute over Kosovo. Prior to any declared recognition of Kosovo’s independence, I believe that with Western and Russian support, a practical solution was available. This settlement would’ve Kosovo as an irrevocably autonomous republic within Serbia, inclusive of its own UN and Olympic delegations. There’re precedents for this kind of a scenario.
    In relation to a point Eugene brought up, one of the WikiLeaks details how crime ridden Kosovo has become since the Clinton administration led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Serbia & Montenegro) in 1999.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    A woman who fell in love with Bill Clinton might get attracted to Saakashvili too…
    Inappropriate jokes aside, and following up on my previous comment, Clinton, being a neolib of the Madeleine Albright school, still feels the urge to “spread democracy” around — sometimes at the expense of the national interest. What sets her aside from Obama who seems genuinely not to understand which national interests are at stake in Georgia.
    Besides, as I seem to have already mentioned elsewhere, Clinton doesn’t want to completely close the door for another presidential run. With this in mind, she doesn’t want to be potentially accused in being “soft” on Russia. Again, in contrast to Obama, whose re-election will be decided solely on domestic issues.
    Best Regards,

  5. Hi again Eugene,
    You’re welcome and thanks again for prompting great discussion.
    I patiently await what Srdja Trifkovic, Nebojsa Malic and Diane Johnstone have to say about the recent Kosovo related news.
    The timing of the announcement about Thaci comes one day after Richard Holbrooke’s death.
    Part of me wonders if there’s an underlying message having to do with displeasure over Holbrooke (who within reason is viewed to have been soft on Thaci) and Albanian nationalist transgressions.
    I’ve some issues with this piece:

  6. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    I now realize that I made a mistake by referring to the Serb-populated Northern Kosovo as “Western” Kosovo. That’s what happens when one leaves the area of his expertise. But… A lesson learned.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Privet Mark (and if I wanted to use a “home” version of your admittedly not very frequent Russian name, Privet Marik),
    A couple of short notes. Saakashvili is very GEORGIAN (and I’m saying that with a respect and even passion for Georgians, among whom I have a number of very good friends), part of which is being … hyberbolic, if I may say so. And this may explain his genuine popularity among ordinary Georgians outside Tbilisi (it’s Tbilisi “nobles” who despise him). However, it’s unfortunately very easy to become a “democrat” in the West: you just have to express your anti-Russian views.
    As for HRC, I’m not saying that she’ll run or she’s planning to run. What I’m saying is that, as smart and disciplined as she is, she’ll never do anything that may PREVENT her from running should anything unexpected happen.
    The only thing I’m disagreeing with you about — and this is the only disagreement with you that I remember for all these months we’ve been coomunicating:) — is that I believe that Hillary will beat Palin. Because pretty much everyone else will beat Palin. That’s why Palin won’t run lest lose her income and comfortable lifestyle (i.e. doing nothing for huge bucks).

  8. Eugene
    That bloop is minimal when compared to the misguided analysis of people who regularly deal with a given area in the role of expert. Good intuition is something which isn’t necessarily gained by academic degrees and high profile employment situations.
    On another particular raised at this thread, the anti-Charlie Rose:
    On a point brought up in your above post, NSK’s transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the USSR served to underscore a certain historical view. Back then, who knew what would happen a few decades later?
    Contrary to what anti-Russian/Ukrainian nationalists suggest, the Tatars aren’t so indigenuous to Crimea. The Rus Slav presence in Crimea pre-dated them. That Rus Slav presence involved peaceful trade unlike the slave trade undergone by the Tatar Khanate.
    The preceding comments aren’t made with the intent to foment anti-Crimean Tatar sentiment. Rather, it’s to serve as an offset to what is and isn’t highlighted in some of the reporting and commentary on the subject.

  9. Eugene, contrary to what some peddle, Russia doesn’t really go so much against the understanding of international norms in a “nationalist” manner.
    In a Machiavellian kind of way: from a Russian perspective, it’s not so bad to have Crimea in Ukraine.
    On another front, this is in relation to the last link posted at this thread:
    Brings balance to what I briefly saw on last night’s Charlie Rose and what I’ve seen aired on CNN, among some other outlets.

  10. Leo says:

    Let me be your target audience of geopolitical dummies for a second. I really don’t understand what “geopolitical catalstrophe” means and how it relates to the dissolution of the USSR. The latter was a humanitarian catastrophe, although WWII was the worst one in the 20th century. It was also a geopolitical defeat of a Russo-centric project. Catastrophic events in my mind inflict significant damage to all the parties involved, not just one party. So, if we are invaded by Marcians and the humankind is decimnated, that is a geopolitical catastrophe by my books.
    Now regaining my geopolitical acumen, Caucasus and Balkans (and Palestine for that matter) are small territories filled with great numbers of proudly incompatible ethnicities. Who have very selective memory of historical events – only those that help their cause. And have these memories mythologized and ingrained in their psyche. The borders inside those territories are arbitrary no matter how you look at them. They simply reflect (as Mike mentioned above) the force balance between outside powers. When the force balance is tipped one way or another, the borders get changed. Politics is all about double standards, so some secessionist movements get preferential treatment over others only because of shifting balances. It’s just balance, nothing personal, so to speak.
    All the best,

  11. Hi Leo
    Specifically, how was the USSR a “Russo-centric project?”
    One can note instances where the USSR arguably sacrificed Russian identity.

  12. Leo says:

    RSFSR was the largest constituent, Russian was national language, capital was in Moscow, was that Russo-centric enough?
    “Прежде всего, стоит признать, что крушение Советского Союза стало крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века, – подчеркнул Путин. – Для российского же народа оно стало настоящей драмой”. So geopolitical catastrophe it is, in Putin’s words.
    All the best,

  13. Leo
    Not really.
    Out of practicality, Russian was the primary language of the USSR.
    Consider the Russian territory that was taken out of Russia and put into some of the Soviet created republics.
    Kindly note the linguistic Ukrainianization campaign of the late 1920s/early 1930s on territory where Russian was the preferred language.
    There’s a somewhat famous Soviet propaganda poster of all of the Soviet nationalities in their respective folk clothing. There’s one notable exception. The featured Russian is wearing a modern business suit.
    Lenin spoke of the Russian Empire as a “prsion of nations.” The standards back then were different from today.
    The Russian Empire wasn’t so bad as some on the left and sheer Russia unfriendly folks suggest. Was Ireland treated better than Poland. Did Ireland ever threaten Britain the way Poland threatened Russia? Finland had arguably the greatest autonomy of any future European nation that was part of an empire.
    These points appear under-represented among Russia unfriendly and Soviet nostalgic circles.

  14. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I know that Putin said “катастрофа” in Russian; however, you can’t deny the importance of an official transcript in English. And as far as we’re emerging into depths of Russian language, Putin said “крупнейшая.” I’d translate it in English as “the major” (as the transcript does). But the Western translation is “the greatest”, that is, “величайшая” (which Putin didn’t say). And this brings our language competition to a respectable draw:), I guess.
    By the way, in every Soviet Socialist Republic, the native language (of the title nation) was the primary one. Trust me (I lived in Estonia): it really was, big time — to the extent of denying services to people who didn’t speak Estonian.

  15. Hi Igor
    At times, I can perhaps be sensitive to thoughts suggesting that the USSR benefitted Russia at the expense of others. This aspect doesn’t make my views on such subject matter invalid.
    In the West, anti-Communism (against a political system as implemented) has been corrupted by a bigoted anti-Russoism. A case in point is the Captive Nations Committee:
    In the West, saying that the Soviet Union benefitted Jews at the expense of others is (for the most part) appropriately dismissed as simplistically misleading and (whether intended or not) suggestively bigoted. That view should also apply when Russian is substituted for Jews in the aforementioned thought.
    As someone of Jewish and Russian Orthodox Christian backgrounds, I’m well aware of a selective sensitivity factor. My line of thinking and personal experience explains why I’m not particularly fond of the work of people who play up to anti-Russian biases, while getting rewarded for that spin.

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