The Fall of the USSR – When journalists really wrote the first draft of history
Representative image of the former flag of the USSR | Pixabay
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The Soviet anthem celebrated the socialist union, which it celebrated as “indestructible”. But this week, 30 years ago, the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the agreement establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus. It was the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The events took place in a deliberately discreet place: a hunting lodge of the Soviet elite, hidden in a forest in Belarus. As the historian Vladislav Zubok writes in his new book Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, previous guests included the Cuban President Fidel Castro and the GDR communist leader Erich Honecker. By Sunday, December 8th, he wrote: “Around 160 journalists had come, fascinated by the procedure.”
Their presence was more than appropriate. This was one of the cases when journalism really had written the first draft of history. Since the beginning of perestroika reforms in the mid-1980s, Soviet and international correspondents have been given unprecedented freedom to write about the USSR. A seat in the front row in the audience should not be withheld for this final act.
Perestroika – meaning “reconstruction” – was the policy that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev intended to revive the dying Soviet system. Instead, it led to his demise and finally confirmed the cold weekend in late 1991.
Gorbachev had not expected that the road ahead would be easy. Nonetheless, Zubok argues, he could have prepared better. Instead, as he says, Gorbachev already overlooked the history lessons that became apparent to those who had read a lot about world history and Russian history. Many conservative elements of the Soviet political elite were suspicious of change. So along with perestroika came glasnost – which means “openness” – the license for an unprecedented public discussion of the problems that beset the Soviet system.
Journalists were able to report on stories that were previously taboo. In fact, Gorbachev recruited them to further his cause. They willingly accepted the role. As the journalist and academic Ivan Zassoursky put it in his 2004 book Media and Power in Post-Soviet Russia: “With the sanction of the Secretary General, journalists also attacked the party establishment”.
also read: Who do we blame for today’s intense corporate culture in the workplace? A Soviet miner
An “amazing time”
Both Soviet and international reporting of the time were optimistic. This was the era of “the end of history” – to use Francis Fukuyama’s phrase – a time when he and many others welcomed what they believed they were seeing to come: “an unabashed victory for economic and political liberalism.”
Even those who may not have shared this great enthusiasm for the triumph of Western liberalism remember a more exciting time than any other. “You could talk to practically anyone, the fear evaporated, it was an extraordinary time,” recalled the Canadian journalist Fred Weir, who lives in Moscow, in an interview for my book from 2020: Mission Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin .
Weir first arrived in Moscow in 1986, a year after Gorbachev came to power. He came to the Soviet Union as a correspondent for the communist newspaper The Canadian Tribune. So he was not a natural ally of those who enthusiastically welcomed the collapse of Soviet Socialism. He still remembers “a great time”.
The end of communism was the beginning of my own career in international news coverage. I went to Moscow as a producer for the Visnews TV news agency (later Reuters Television). I was just in time to see the world I grew up in forever changing. The Cold War, in which the rival power blocs of Soviet communism and American capitalism faced each other, was coming to an end.
Three decades later, I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between journalism and history. I remember how quickly those feelings of excitement and optimism fizzled out in Russia’s relations with the West. The consequences of the Soviet collapse can still be felt today in the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting confrontation between the Kremlin and the West.
Part of this confrontation is due to different interpretations of World War II. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the excellent 2020 paper by Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert on Russian domestic policy at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on: Our Dark Past is our Bright Future.
I would argue that we are now at a time when, more than ever, journalists need to understand how history is used to advance political narratives in current events. History influences both contemporary political and journalistic discourse both within the West and between the West and Russia. So we’re starting a new course in journalism, politics and history at City, University of London, where I teach journalism.
Think Black Lives Matter and the discussion it has had about the legacy of empire and slavery. Or how both sides in the Brexit debate co-opted Britain’s role in World War II. Also think of Vladimir Putin’s broadside against the West on the 75th anniversary of the end of this conflict, when he warned in an article for the national interest: The subject of World War II and its outcome is dangerous. “
Today, 30 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia’s relations with the West are worse than they have been since the end of the Cold War. In June 2021, Putin emphasized – with reference to the current focus of the greatest tensions between Russia and the West, Ukraine – that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people – one whole”. More recently, UK and US foreign policy leaders have emphasized their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Here are two very different interpretations of distant and recent history that cast a shadow over current events. So if you want to write the first draft of the story, you have to know the story yourself.
James Rodgers, Lecturer in International Journalism, City, University of London
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
also read: India and the US need to know that the new Cold War is a different beast – China is not the USSR
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