The collapse of the USSR
The world is constantly changing and ever evolving. Events are happening today, this week and this month that will have repercussions which will be felt for years to come. How we view those events currently and how we may look back at them in 10 or 20 years time will change as we ourselves change, learn and grow. 25 years ago one such event took place when one of the world’s largest super powers dissolved in a move which changed the landscape of the world geographically and politically, the effects of which we are still feeling today.
As a nine year old school girl I remember thinking that something wonderful had just happened. The news and media told me that the collapse of the USSR meant people would have the freedom to choose what they read in the newspapers, watched on television and bought in the shops. That they could choose for themselves who they wanted to vote for, their government’s policies and the way they interacted with the rest of the world. My naivety had me believing that this was the way everyone would feel about such events and it really wasn’t until I met my now husband’s mother, that I ever had the opportunity to test that theory.
A council of republics
The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was formed in 1922 following years of revolutionary unrest in Russia and outlaying territories of the former Russian Empire. The word Soviet translates as ‘council’ and essentially this was the idea behind the union – a council of republics who all were committed to the communist cause, representing the working people with a centralised government sitting in Moscow. What transpired was a period of political paranoia internally within the Communist Party and power struggles between Eastern and Western Europe as each vied for control over all things industrial, economical and geographical.
On 25th December 1991, the USSR disbanded and in its place 15 separate new countries emerged or were re-established: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in Central Asia, and in Eastern Europe; Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.
Growing up under Soviet rule
My husband spent his formative years growing up under Soviet rule yet for his mother this had been all she had known for the vast majority of her life. When I first visited her apartment in Ardu, a small township about an hours drive from the capital city of Tallinn, I noticed she had a map of the world on her wall which still showed Estonia and the other 14 countries as part of the USSR. I mentioned to my husband that the map was very out of date and that we needed to buy her a new one. He laughed and said she would not want a new map as this reminded her of the ‘good old days’ when Estonia and its people were looked after by Russia.
The confusion must have shown on my face as he went on to explain that his mother wished that Estonia was still under Soviet rule, that when she first married her husband the state gave them a house and some land and made sure they both had jobs. That she was able to bring up and provide for her family in equality with her neighbours and that times were much better than they were now.
I felt extremely naïve and ashamed by my assumption that everyone would have viewed the breakup of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. An event that I hadn’t really given any further thought to after it had taken place and one which I had taken for granted, altered people’s lives in a way I had never really considered before. Although I was well travelled and well educated I realised that I had been somewhat sheltered from differing political opinions, having grown up with my friends, family, classmates and colleagues who all, to some extent, agreed with my view of the world. These opinions had been formed at a young age and had never been tested before in the way they were during this first meeting with my mother-in-law to be.
Allowing young people to form their own opinions
This memory acts as a constant reminder of how important it is to allow young people to form their own opinions on events, but to ensure that we expose them to as many different cultures, view points and experiences as possible in order for them to become well-rounded individuals. The local guides we use out in Russia offer the students a different viewpoint to those they have been taught in the classroom or have seen in books. They pose questions to them that get them thinking about Russian history and politics in a way they may not have previously and give them the opportunity to debate amongst themselves the effects of these important events and the way they have changed our futures.
As is always the case, not everyone who lived through the same experience agrees with my mother-in-law’s view. My husband, for example, as a teenager was delighted that he was able to eat American food previously unavailable to him and was able to learn English from American television programmes he previously had no access to. This exposure to the ‘West’ and Western culture ultimately led to his love of all things English and was the catalyst for him to move to England where we eventually met and married.
‘The actions of today will have consequences’
I do not know what the future holds, political and social uncertainty is heightened today in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. However, I do know that the actions of today will have consequences for nine year olds in 25 years in ways we can’t begin to imagine. I had no way of knowing as a nine year old school girl that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would ultimately affect the course of my life, allowing me to meet the man I would eventually marry, but on a purely selfish note I am glad it did!