In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” A fast-food commercial featured a matronly Russian woman in a drab, ill-fitting outfit. “Day wear,” droned the Russian-accented announcer. The woman shone a flashlight to turn the outfit into “evening wear” and carried a beach ball for “swimwear.”
Back then, we didn’t hold a high opinion of the Soviet Union.
We didn’t realize that the Soviet Union’s people held it in similar low regard. It seemed more of a surprise to us than to them that their country imploded in late August 1991.
I happened to be visiting the Soviet Union during those historic days 20 years ago. On Aug. 19, our group heard that President Mikhail Gorbachev had disappeared. The truth soon came clear: There was a coup to halt his reforms. On Aug. 22, Mr. Gorbachev reappeared. In a shocking payback on Aug. 24, he terminated Soviet communism. Ukraine seized the opportunity to declare independence, and other Soviet republics followed in the weeks to come. Things never would be the same in the Soviet Union or in the world.
Looking back, I recall that we Americans took the dramatic events more seriously than the locals. They wondered why we asked to watch TV. We said we wanted news. The locals laughed; they knew that when something unsettling happened, Soviet TV aired the “Swan Lake” ballet.
We learned to garner information the same way the locals did - via shortwave radio. In Kiev the day the coup started, we joined the crowd at October Revolution Square, where people huddled around shortwaves, catching news from the BBC and Voice of America.
We Americans presumed a people’s uprising was brewing. We agreed to let our guide show us the Kiev sights if we could return to the square in the evening. When we returned, there was no uprising. In fact, there were hardly any people.
A couple of days after Kiev, I became a houseguest in Kharkov. I asked my hosts why we Americans seemed more upset by the coup than did the local people. “It’s because we have lived through so much that our souls are empty,” the husband told me.
Over my days in Kharkov, I heard perspectives on the coup and whether the Soviet Union should stay together. Importantly, I realized that people would continue to live their daily lives, no matter how the coup resolved or whether the Soviet republics stayed together. I heard a lot of talk about “democracy,” though no one had much idea about how to make it happen or what to do with it when they got it.
On Aug. 24, I was dining with as many people as we could fit around the table in a Kharkov flat. We turned on the 9 p.m. newscast, learning of Ukraine’s declaration of independence. Our host opened a bottle of champagne. One guest became glum. “We will have chaos and even worse economic conditions if the Ukraine breaks away,” she said. A little later, the phone rang with news from the shortwave of the end of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party, which had dictated the only life my hosts had ever known.
Since those remarkable days, I have met more people of the former Soviet Union. I’ve seen people struggle to emerge from the turmoil of August 1991 as winners. I’ve also seen perplexed people unable to function in their new world. Americans may think everyone naturally grasps democracy and free enterprise, but this is not so. Democracy and free enterprise are learned skills. They require initiative and personal responsibility, not encouraged in the Soviet Union.
Today, 15 new countries work on nation-building and new relationships, including with us. Reinventing themselves is a long, contentious process. A new generation is coming to the fore with a fresh outlook. American assistance is providing invaluable nation-building education. It is an effective contribution and quieter, cheaper and safer than Afghan-istan, Iraq and the “Arab Spring.”
People-to-people communication has led us to regard residents of the former Soviet Union more highly than we did two decades ago. They hold a higher opinion of themselves as well. It’s not just outward appearances; with consumerism and Internet access, there’s no more drab apparel posing as “swimwear” for them. Inwardly, progress and hope are replenishing even drained souls.
Jan Sherbin, co-owner of Glasnost Communications.