Skip to main content

The Road Taken: Twenty Years after the Fall of the Soviet Union

The fall of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of dramatic change that saw a world power transform into a diverse region composed of 15 independent states. After 20 years of transition, how have the states of the former Soviet Union redefined their political, foreign policy, and social agendas?

Date & Time

Nov. 16, 2011
10:00am – 4:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


       Image removed.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the August 1991 attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.  To reflect on this important anniversary, The Center for Eurasian, Russia, and East European Studies (CERES), Georgetown University, and the Kennan Institute conducted a day-long conference on 16 November 2011 on “the road taken.”  The seminar looked backwards to better understand the options that presented themselves at the end of the Soviet period, and also examined the region afresh in light of the road traveled over the past 20 years.

Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics, Oxford University, began the first panel on “1991 in Perspective” by outlining Mikhail Gorbachev’s ideological evolution during his tenure in office.  In 1986, Gorbachev talked about the need for a “reconsideration of the Communist Party’s relations with social democracy.”  Gorbachev’s embrace in 1989 of the language of “democratic socialism” also represented a significant break with the past, as this term had always been rejected in the USSR.   By 1991, Brown argued, Gorbachev had been transformed into a western-oriented social democrat and was seeking a civilized divorce with the Communist Party. 

Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russian Federation, insisted that the U.S. was not surprised by the Soviet Union’s collapse.  In many ways, he argued, the U.S. was better informed about internal developments within the USSR than Gorbachev himself, who received unreliable information from the KGB.  Matlock added that the U.S., in fact, wanted Gorbachev to succeed—both to prevent a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear states, and because the U.S. came to recognize that Gorbachev genuinely wanted democratization.  At the same time—for various economic reasons as well as the rise of national independence movements in several republics—the U.S. thought it unlikely that Gorbachev could succeed.  In the final analysis, Matlock concluded, Gorbachev should be credited for the peaceful break-up of the Soviet Union. 

Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, reflected on why it has taken so long for Russia to “emancipate itself from the Soviet legacy.”  Indeed, as Kortunov noted, various aspects of Soviet society, including Brezhnev-era “stagnation” appear to be making a comeback.  Kortunov discussed various reasons for this Soviet revival, ranging from genuine nostalgia among older (and some younger) Russians for the Soviet Union, to blunders by Russia’s liberal reformers to the slow response of the West to embrace the new Russia.  Only with social modernization, argued Kortunov, will Russia finally be able to break the Soviet legacy.  

Lilia Shevtsova, Senior Associate, Moscow Carnegie Center, delivered the keynote speech on the post-Soviet malaise and Russia’s failure to find its place in a rapidly changing world.   Shevtsova noted that from a geopolitical standpoint, the Cold War global security architecture has largely remained in place over the past 20 years, with no re-balancing of interests or values among the leading international players.  Shevtsova further described the unsustainability of the Russian political system, and the failure to develop a contingency plan if Russia implodes (which she believes is occurring today).    Finally, Shevtsova emphasized that the world still relies on old policy solutions, such as gradualism and the need for engagement, despite the consistent failure of these policies to address Russia’s post-Soviet transformation. 

Cynthia Buckley, Program Director, Eurasia, Social Science Research Council, began the second panel on “How the post-Soviet Space is Studied”  by focusing on a “bottoms up” approach, that is, by looking at how people function in their everyday lives.  Buckley discussed the social resilience of the region’s population, and people’s ability to re-negotiate the “rules of the game” over the past 20 years.  Mobility in this region, Buckley emphasized, was stymied, especially in the sphere of education, and only by looking at the behaviors of individual people could one appreciate the possibilities for development in the region. 

Valerie Bunce, Professor of Government, Cornell University, discussed the importance of including the Soviet Union in the study of authoritarianism.  This approach has several advantages; most notably, she argued, it allowed for variation in the types of authoritarian regimes that can be compared.  Bunce closed by discussing the fundamental question of access to information under authoritarian regimes, and how the Soviet Union can be used to better understand how authoritarian leaders have tried to gain the benefits of pluralism, but without its costs.

Stephen Hanson, Professor of Government, College of William and Mary, noted another anniversary looming on the horizon: the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Hanson then discussed how the Soviet (and post-Soviet) experiment had knocked out three of the four major paradigms that have guided overarching social science research over the past century: Marxist theory, modernization, and the rational choice paradigm. The Soviet experience, for example, discredited Marxist theory, and the belief that a revolution of the proletariat could “propel humanity forward.”  Instead, Hanson stressed the need to look at the “subjective orientations of the world, and the environment that they interact with,” so as to best understand the rise and fall of the USSR, and Russia’s chaotic post-Soviet aftermath. 

Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government, Georgetown University, emphasized that the era of macro-level scholarly explanations of change in the post-Soviet region was over.  Indeed, rather than trying to impart a set of certainties about the region, King maintained that we should view the region as “full of puzzles that need explanation.”  Such a mindset, the speaker argued, would influence how scholars approach such issues as regime transition, nationalism, and violence. The puzzles of the region have yet to be solved, King concluded, thereby opening up the research possibilities for the next 20 years. 

By William E. Pomeranz

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 


Event Feedback