Choreographing the demise of the Soviet Union

It’s twenty years ago that the Soviet Union ceased to exist. That expansive state rapidly imploded without exploding, except at the edges. It was a surprisingly well-managed affair, which could so easily have descended into utter chaos or even civil war. It didn’t. The inside story of its managed downfall I was privileged to hear first hand during a panel discussion organized by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, with the ex-presidents of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania, and Boris Yeltsin’s former right-hand man.

People – students, staff, and others – crowded into the Concert Hall in Gothenburg, eager to hear from the key players at a critical moment in world history. Peter Johansson, a Swedish journalist, took us through the historical build-up to the critical moments of 1990 and 1991, when first of all the Baltic states declared their independence from the Soviet Union. Ex-president Landsbergis of Lithuania talked us through the events that led finally to Lithuania regaining its independence, when in 1990 he declared the state no longer a part of the USSR despite being surrounded Soviet tanks and under constant threat of attack.

We then had the events of December 1991 brought alive as Gennady Burbulis, Boris Yeltsin’s former secretary of state, ex-president Kravchuk of the Ukraine and ex-president Shushkevich of Belarus described what happened at the fateful secret meeting between the three presidents in the official residence at Belavezha near Brest, Belarus, on December 8, 1991: how they came to write the document declaring the dissolution of the Soviet Union; how they had to deceive some of the officials present as to what they were doing; how they shut out certain security people; and Burbulis, a philosopher by training, received much praise from the ex-presidents for his deft wording of the document (and a similar one dealing with nuclear missiles). We heard how they had difficulty contacting Michael Gorbachev afterwards, who was still president of the Soviet Union, though without real power since the attempted coup that August. They did not have difficulty contacting President Bush senior in Washington.

Why, oh why did I not take notes? Here was living history, with all the fascinating twists as experienced by the key players, and I took no record of what I listened to. And now I’ve forgotten most of the fascinating details of this critical meeting exactly 20 years ago. Whose young son locked the door so that security was left outside? Why Kravchuk took so long to read the draft and agree? And the meal the three presidents enjoyed to celebrate? Were they anxious? Wondering whether their fateful meeting would succeed? I think so, but they knew the old system of the Soviet Union was discredited, both the hard liners who had mounted the failed coup and the reformist communists under Gorbachev. And yet, I was left with a distinct feeling of nostalgia that emanated from their discussion. It was almost as though they longed for the old days of certainty. They certainly relished being in the spotlight again.

And then so did I – at least on the sidelines. What did Gennady Burbulis say to me when he shook my hand? My Russian was not good enough to understand. It took me back to one evening many years earlier, suitably anointed with lavish vodka-flavoured toasts to peace and literature, when I, unsuspectingly, came to be ‘appointed’ an ‘honorary citizen of the heroic Soviet Union’ by a senior Politburo advisor to Leonid Brezhnev. Oh, but that’s another story.

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