Prospects and Perils of a Post-Soviet World

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Like the Joker to Batman or Lex Luthor to Superman, the Soviet Union gave America its post-war identity — by being its living antithesis. And the mortal struggle between the two defined and organized the wider world in which they lived, and their place and purpose in it. No surprise then that the optimism that greeted the Soviet Union's sudden collapse a decade ago has long-since given way to a profound identity crisis on both sides of the old divide.

The Russians have more cause for alarm, of course. Freedom and democracy were supposed to improve the lives of communism's huddled masses; instead most Russians today are considerably worse off than they had been under the red flag. No individual more memorably personified Russian antipathy to communism than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer who turned his horrific experiences inside Stalin's gulag into the defining novel of the Soviet era. And if Solzhenitsyn was a moral compass for Russian anti-communism, then his views on post-Soviet Russia offer pause for thought: "One might have imagined that things could not have got worse than the point to which Communism had brought us," Solzhenitsyn recently told the New Yorker. "It seemed that any effort at all would bring something better. On the contrary. Yeltsin managed to bring Russia even lower. He supported thieves. Our national riches and resources were privatized nearly for free, and even the new mobsters are not asked to pay any rent. The state has become a pauper."

Solzhenitsyn excoriated the West for supporting and guiding Moscow's first post-Soviet leader through an economic reform program that devastated Russia, and for lauding him as a champion of democracy even as he shelled his own parliament building and created an autocratic regime. For Solzhenitsyn, as for hundreds of millions of his countrymen, the post-Soviet years have been a mostly unmitigated disaster. Forty percent of Russians live in poverty today, ten times more than in 1991; the daily average calorie consumption has fallen by almost half since the mid-1980s, to a level below the World Health Organization's recommended daily minimum; life expectancy has plummeted; the population is shrinking; and so on.

And if, for Russians, the price of freedom has been a poverty unknown even amid the drudgery of communism at its wheezy end, for the wider world it has ushered in a mix of the promise (and perils) of a truly global capitalist economy and mounting geopolitical uncertainty. It seemed safe to assume, a decade ago, that the end of a conflict between two powers whose combined nuclear arsenals could destroy the planet 300 times over would leave the world a safer place. Instead, today's world is more dangerous than ever. The very power in those nuclear arsenals — once they confronted the reality of using them during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 — created an overriding incentive to avoid a direct confrontation at all costs, and to manage their own rivalry and the world's regional conflicts in ways that would prevent them spinning out of control. But Moscow is no longer a global power, and Washington is no longer sure if it wants to be. Into the vacuum have stepped all manner of secessionists, religious terrorists, criminal syndicates and old-fashioned power politicians to remind us how, paradoxically, the Cold War may have actually been a stabilizing factor precisely because of the dangers it embodied.

Even in Washington, Cold War victory has left an ambiguous legacy. An inevitable showdown with an "Evil Empire" is no longer the organizing principle of national politics. The symptoms of that absence are varied and often morbid, from the new depths of tabloid tawdriness plumbed in Washington's partisan battles over the past decade to the palpable absence of a sense of national purpose or global mission in the capital.

None of this, of course, detracts from the epic significance of the Soviet Union's collapse. It closed the book on an unhappy epoch and heralded the dawn of one brimming with boundless potential for expanding human freedom, realizing human potential and improving the quality of human life. There has been, and still is, great promise — even if, ten years on, most of it remains to be fulfilled.