In August 1991, I visited the Soviet Union. My trip included a front-row seat to history: On Aug. 19, a hard-line communist coup detained the country's top leader to curb his reforms. Mikhail Gorbachev surfaced three days later, and the coup produced the opposite effect. During my visit, Gorbachev announced the termination of Soviet communism. Ukraine, followed by five more Soviet republics, declared independence. Dramatic events continued, with the Soviet Union's dissolution by year's end.
"What do these events mean?" I asked a young father. Picking up his kindergarten son, he replied, "We will not know until Slava grows up." Now Slava has grown up, and it is time to ask, "What have these events meant for people like Slava and his father?"
Many Americans assumed democracy, free enterprise and free expression would flourish automatically. But no framework existed for fashioning them, nor did leaders necessarily choose to steer there. Twenty years later, life has stabilized, in 15 new countries.
"Freedom was the best thing I felt," says Armenian lawyer Arpine Melikbekyan. Georgian musician Levan Khubulava felt this freedom as one of choice, in opinions, politics, consumer goods, education.
The transition from a planned to a market economy has been stressful. People must budget for services covered in Soviet times by the government, notably higher education and medical care. Many retirees live a sad life, with pensions geared to the old economy.
But now people enjoy an array of consumer goods. Entrepreneurs start businesses. They travel internationally and attend houses of worship.
Ethnic tensions suppressed in Soviet times erupt. Populations shift as people seek economic opportunity. "A lot of people left to become guest workers in Kazakhstan and Russia," says Azizbek Tashbaev, a university administrator in Kyrgyzstan. His country experienced two revolutions. Now, "we are the first nation in Central Asia where a parliament runs the country."
A new generation with initiative is replacing a generation accustomed to waiting for instructions. "That Armenians can create our country ourselves gives me hope," says Melikbekyan. "The new generation believes in building states that will be better than the Soviet Union," Khubulava says.
Despite political haggling, corruption, limits on journalistic expression and a gulf between the rich and the middle class, prospects overall look auspicious. Ukraine will host the 2012 European soccer cup and Russia the 2014 Winter Olympics. The number of colleges increased five-fold in Kyrgyzstan. The Baltic countries have joined the European Union and NATO.
Prospects look good for us, too. We are at peace with a former adversary, and the Cold War and Evil Empire exist only in history books. We can raise a glass of vodka to that!
Jan Sherbin co-owns Glasnost Communications, which facilitates communication with people in the former Soviet Union.