New Internationalist

The former Soviet republics: 15 siblings with little in common

What do the 15 former ‘brotherly republics’ of the deceased USSR have in common today? Our past, certainly. But not much in the present, apart from the label; our futures seem as diverse as the meals on an extremely hospitable Georgian’s table.

So does a region called ‘the former USSR’ still exist? And how long must we wait before we can shake off the ‘former Soviet republics’ definition?

Not all statues of Lenin have been taken down. This one is in St Petersburg. Photo by Giedre Steikunaite.

The last two decades of independence have witnessed high ambitions, broken dreams, painful reforms, economic mess, Soviet nostalgia, elections – some free, some not really – and, in the case of the three Baltic States, a ‘coming back home’ to Europe. But in the background, there’s always been Russia, traumatized by the loss of empire and eager to retain power over her naughty breakaway children – Moscow’s ‘privileged sphere of interests’. She’s still the gospodin who can turn the gas tap off in freezing winters to teach us a lesson.

In some weird way, we’re more united by our (troubled) relationships with Moscow than with each other.

Yes, we do share such great Soviet legacies as widespread despair, poverty, mass emigration and ugly blocks of communal flats; but generally, it seems we have more differences than similarities. The spectrum of government, for one.  It varies from Central Asia’s khans to the Baltics’ democracies, Belarus’s textbook dictatorship, Russia’s tsars and ‘managed democracy’, Orange, Rose and Tulip revolutions and Turkmenistan’s personality cult which Stalin would be proud of. Border issues start with ‘new’ EU members and wannabe-members, continue with disputes over the fate of places such as South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh, and round up with visas many of us need to enter each other’s countries (on this side of the Iron Curtain, Soviet citizens used to be able to travel anywhere).

‘Luchy restoran v Borjomi’ - The best restaurant in Borjomi [resort in south-central Georgia]. Alcoholism is a serious problem in many parts of the former USSR. Photo by Karolis Kaupinis.

Politically, some of us look East, some West, some – such as Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenka – nowhere; but never our own true way.

Our resources are different, and so are our landscapes, climate, architecture and food. Culturally, we don’t share a language – we each have our own; we use different scripts; we believe in different gods; we have distinct customs and traditions. When the USSR fell, we started from scratch, but even our scratches were dissimilar: the yurt-building nomads in Kyrgyzstan’s steppes had little to do with the heavily industrialized Ukraine, even though we all sang the same anthem not long ago.

Estonia is now IT innovators’ heaven (the first country in the world to introduce electronic voting in parliamentary elections), promoting itself as E-stonia. Lithuania, home to the EU’s Institute for Gender Equality, is close to passing homophobic laws. Moldova is Europe’s poorest country with a GDP per capita of about $1,600. Turkmenistan’s now-deceased ‘president for life’ Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, banned ballet, opera and beards, among other things; his book – the Ruhnama, The Book of the Soul – is a mandatory bible for all Turkmens. And Russia is a special case altogether.

So the ‘former Soviet republics’ are not a one-piece puzzle but rather greatly distinct states united by the simple fact that Soviet Russia once occupied them. Moreover, says Harry Tamrazian of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Armenian service, ‘[The post-Soviet space] is another invention because there is no post-Soviet space… It’s a fiction.’ Separate galaxies, yes, but a single space, no.

The glitz of St Petersburg. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Russia is extreme. Photo by Giedre Steikunaite.

This raises another question: would we stand up for each other today as we did then? On 23 August 1989, some two million people joined hands – literally – to show Moscow and the world that they wanted freedom, a human chain spanning some 600 kilometres from Vilnius to Tallinn via Riga. It was called the Baltic Way (video here) and, many believe, it wouldn’t be possible today.

Today it’s everyone for themselves.

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