Exactly 30 years ago today, on December 3rd 1989, the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the US President George Bush (father) made a truly historic joint news conference on board the Soviet cruise ship Maxim Gorky, during the Malta Summit and officially declared an end to the Cold War.
The Malta summit has being hailed as the most important since 1945 when Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt agreed a post-war plan for Europe at the Yalta Conference.
At the end of 1989 Eastern Europe was in turmoil. In the few weeks preceding the summit Hungary had opened its borders with the West, the Berlin Wall had fallen, followed by the government of Czechoslovakia. The leaders of the two world superpowers, the USA and the USSR, spoke hopefully of the changes sweeping Eastern Europe – but they also spoke of the need for caution, particularly with regard to the future of Germany and the prospect of reunification, which was to happen less than a year later.
1989 was the culminating year of the so called Autumn of Nations, or the series of revolutions that took place in the Warsaw Pact nations, and these events are a decisive contributing factor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a process that ended on 26 December 1991, when the USSR itself was voted out of existence by the Supreme Soviet, following the Belavezha Accords.
This is also where the historical perspectives of Russia and “the West” invariably diverge.
Gorbachev: a Hero or a Zero?
While in most countries around the world Mikhail Gorbachev is hailed as a hero, as the man who brought an end to the Cold War and long lasting peace between former enemies (he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990), in Russia – and this comes as a surprise to most foreigners – he is mostly regarded as a criminal, a traitor and the worst leader the country has ever had.
This wave of unpopularity began as soon as his popularity started to rise in the West.
In Russia (and beyond) Gorbachev is considered the major, if not singlehandedly, responsible for what happened to the country in the 1990s, the worst decade (at least in Peace times) for Russia.
I write extensively about it in the post The Russian Economic miracle, but a quick recap is that in 1990 the Economy was shrinking by 3% a year and two years later it had already precipitated to -14.5% . Times were bad. really, really bad. But the worst was yet to come, especially with the financial crisis of 1998.
A memory of a different time
It is not surprising for everyone familiar with the history of the 1990s in Russia that the Country doesn’t want to celebrate almost anything associated with Gorbachev or Yeltsin (the only exception that I know of is that of Russia Day, celebrated every year on June 12th since 1992).
Most Russian do not associate December 3rd to the anniversary of the end of the Cold War. Since 2014 December 3rd is celebrated as the Day of the Unknown Soldier. The (rightful) celebration of the millions who gave their life to defeat the Nazi tyranny in post-soviet Russia actually dates a few years before 2014.
In 1997, possibly to restore some hope in dark times and a sense of a possible brighter future through sacrifice, a Guard of Honour of the Kremlin Regiment (which had previously guarded the Lenin Mausoleum) was restored at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the federal law of December 8, 1997, “On Immortalizing the Soviet People’s Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945“. Still today a Changing of the Guard Ceremony takes place every hour.
This day actually has even older roots, as on December 3rd, 1966, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were buried along the Kremlin walls with a solemn ceremony.
There is a place, in Moscow, that I feel epitomises better than any other the memory of Soviet Times and the change Russia has undergone since.
I wrote a long post on the Bunker 42 in the past , but now I just want to point out how this once top-secret doomsday bunker has been divided into two sections.
One is a museum, giving visitors a realistic and chilling danger of the danger that hung over the world during the Cold War with its Mutually Assured Destruction policy (aptly abbreviated in MAD policy!) and the Soviet military effort and might. It truly is a voyage back in time to the Soviet era.
The other one is likely the farthest possible thing from the former nuclear command bunker: a fancy, elegant, posh restaurant and bar, for all new bourgeois, Russian and foreign alike to enjoy.
And where now you can freely talk about anything without fearing that the enemy is listening in.
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