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

  1. Igor says:

    Hi, Eugene
    The “Madame Secretary as a defender of Stalin’s legacy” line was (imho) excellent.
    (and an unimportant, but accidentally interesting typo in the last paragraph – “physological “. Could mean a combined psycho – and physio-logical damage. The latter being mostly to the frontal lobes of certain groups of the population there🙂
    Cheers

  2. Mark says:

    Brilliant piece, Eugene. I don’t pay any attention to anything Mrs. Clinton says on the subject of Georgia, because she’s totally bought into the Georgia’s-greatest-hope-lies-with-Saakashvili thing, and seems to believe he can do no wrong. America loves him for the irritant value he provides against Russia, and throws money at him largely for that service. It’s inconceivable to most people that someone with a university education could be an idiot.
    I’ve used the “Georgia declared itself independent, and everyone cheered; Abkhazia and South Ossetia did the same, and everyone acted like they farted in church” argument before and doubtless will again, but this will make an excellent reference.

  3. Mark says:

    Saakashvili came to power with the stated intent of bringing the “rebel provinces” to heel, and under Georgian control. Everybody was all, like, wow, get a clue – Georgia doesn’t want to be part of Russia. But apparently Georgians are the only ones in the region expected to exercise free will; everybody else just doesn’t know what’s good for them.
    For some reason that eludes me, there’s something romantic in the Georgian breakaway for Mrs. Clinton, and she goes all soft and idealistic whenever she visits, and says things her hard and pragmatic mind would never permit in other circumstances. Perhaps she finds Saakashvili physically attractive. If so, that’d be something else that eludes me.

  4. Re: Third and fourth paragraphs of last set of comments
    “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.”
    ****
    Referring to the pre-Soviet era.
    Concerning the fourth paragraph reference to Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader, he had a tweaking manner when it came to Russia. That attitude along with his not so federal approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia didn’t help Georgian territorial claims.

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    Thanks much for your great comments. With this line “Independence recognition is very much influenced by the preferences of the big powers”, you’ve nailed it.
    Definitely, didn’t intend to step into your territory when discussing Kosovo, but the temptation to mention it was way too strong to resist. And with recent news on Thaci, I perhaps need to update my definition of Kosovo: it’s not only drugs but organs too that they make money on…
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  6. Mark says:

    Privet, Zhenya – once again, you are a cut-up; that was funny about Bill Clinton. Still, I think he was a thousand times more presidential (while he was president; the big problem was he couldn’t seem to let go of it when he wasn’t) than Saakashvili, who just comes across as a giant avaricious rat. Still, your point stands.
    A great deal of national interest is vested in geographical proximity, as well. Russia can hardly look down and shuffle its feet while the west builds up a military power on its doorstep. The USA wouldn’t, either, if Russia successfully negotiated siting of a military base at Windsor, Ontario, with only a river separating it from Detroit. I’m sure that’s not lost on Obama, or Mrs. Clinton, either. However, she’s old enough to remember the Cold War better than he.
    Tolerance of Saakashvili’s excesses as well as his generally poor record of keeping promises while injecting even more hyperbole into his rhetoric (remember his boasting that crime is so low in Georgia, people don’t even lock their doors – and how about that projection, just this past June, that Georgia would be “as rich as Dubai” in no more than 7 years? That’d be annual economic growth of 39%. Ha, ha.) suggests Saakashvili has a blank check where the west is concerned, because anyone else would have been dropped by now for being such an embarrassment.
    I’d be surprised to see Hillary Clinton try for another presidential run. I’m sure she rages in private at “what a mess” Obama’s made of it from her viewpoint, probably not noting that his own party betrays him more often than not, as they would do to her in the same circumstances. But she’ll be getting pretty long in the tooth by the time the next chance comes up. It’s not impossible, but I’d rate her chances even lower this time around. I hope she’s a realist, because she probably couldn’t win. Not even against Palin, who is blindingly stupid and quite scary.

  7. 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.
    Best,
    Eugene

  8. 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).
    Best,
    Eugene

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Mike,
    Totally agreed. Besides, isn’t it kind of anti-historic, so to speak, that now Russia has to pay rent to Ukraine to host its Black Sea Fleet?
    Cheers,
    Eugene

  10. 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:
    http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2010/12/15/richard-holbrooke-an-american-diplomat/
    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.
    Salut!
    Mike

  11. Leo says:

    Eugene,
    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,
    Leo

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Hi Leo,
    Nice having you back. The first paragraph was an attempt to play a bit with the controversy surrounding English translation of what Putin said about the collapse of the SU in Russian. The official transcript calls the SU disintegration a “major geopolitical disaster” — and what Putin meant by that was the fact about 20% of Russians suddency found themselves “foreigners” in newly-independent countries (plus collapse of economic ties, etc.). But literally all Western sources translated his line as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” — with the implication that as former KGB officer (but of course!) Putin was nostalgic about the SU and wanted (but of course!) to restore it. By the way, Putin once said (and no one in the West naturally quotes him): those who doesn’t regret the disappearance of the SU, have no heart; those who want to restore it, have no brain.
    I completely agree with your second paragraph. But I also added one important point: let’s not rush with locking the current borders of the FSU. They are still too fluid. Perhaps, it’s worth admitting that the “collapse” of the SU is still on, and its “final” borders will be eventually different from what they are today.
    Just preventing a possible question: no, I do not advocate — in fact, I condemn — using force to re-draw them.
    Best,
    Eugene

  13. Leo says:

    Mike,
    RSFSR was the largest constituent, Russian was national language, capital was in Moscow, was that Russo-centric enough?
    Eugene,
    “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,
    Leo

  14. 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.
    Best,
    Mike

  15. Igor says:

    I can offer an unorthodox POV on this subject:
    1. To quote the US own JFK : “The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war”. USSR was this “check” & “challenge” to the US, thus, according to JFK, saving the world from WWIIII🙂
    2. Indirectly, the dissolution of USSR stimulated propagation of neo-liberalism & Friedmanism in economy(-ies) – also “unchecked & unchallenged” – with at least some consequences very well known by now.

    And from my own experience living in a “republic” of USSR, I confirm Eugene’s (and Mike’s) sentiment that despite (or even due to) the official “title” of “Big Brother Nation”, the Russians (and Russia) were effectively reduced to the role of a (free) credit agency & servant для своих младших братьев по разуму.
    Cheers
    Cheers

  16. David says:

    Georgia has not joined the USSR voluntarily. Read the history, year 1919, Ivanov.

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