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Leonid Bershidsky

Thirty Years Gone, the Soviet Union Is Not Quite Dead

Like the body of its founder Vladimir Lenin, the USSR is an unburied corpse, and some of its worst ideas could yet come back to life. 

Comeback kid?

Comeback kid?

Photographer: Heritage Images/Hulton Archive

The Soviet Union officially ended 30 years ago — if one had to pick a specific date, then on Dec. 25, 1991, with the lowering of the Soviet flag from the roof of the Kremlin’s Senate Palace and the handover of the nuclear button from the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. But the USSR is not really gone. It’s an unburied corpse, like the body of its founder Vladimir Lenin still on display from 10 a.m. till 1 p.m. in a granite mausoleum on Red Square. Its stench still lingers in many a corner of the world, not just in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its legal and — though Putin would deny it — spiritual successor.

I should know: My Soviet childhood and young adulthood shaped me so that even now, in 2021, I must admit I’m still in many ways part of “a new historic community, the Soviet people,” which my namesake, Leonid Brezhnev, proudly proclaimed in 1971, the year of my birth.

In a freshly released propaganda documentary meant to present the official view of Russia’s post-Soviet history, Putin said the Soviet Union’s breakup was “the breakup of historic Russia under the name ‘Soviet Union.’” Like many of Putin’s forays into history, the statement falls somewhere between cringeworthy and questionable. The borders of “historic Russia” have fluctuated across the ages as it seized and ceded territory in constant wars and deals. It’s unclear at what point the empire, or even the core nation-state, could be considered complete or optimally balanced. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia lost some territories acquired in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries but kept many of the more recent acquisitions: The parts of Karelia ceded by Finland in 1940; the former East Prussia, Sakhalin and the Kuril islands, won in World War II; the vast Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, which joined voluntarily in 1944.