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History As It Happens

Dec 21, 2023

As Americans opened their Christmas gifts 32 years ago, the beleaguered president of a superpower on the other side of the world endured a unique humiliation. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose open mind and magnetism had captivated Western publics after coming to power in 1985, announced his resignation as leader of the Soviet Union. The nation-state he had tried to reform into something better was swept into the dustbin of history. December 25, 1991: Gorbachev was gone; the country he led no longer existed. The moment was celebrated in the West. But if democracy and market economies were on the march as the curtain fell on the Cold War, their advance halted in Russia during the disastrous Yeltsin years of the 1990s. In this episode, historian Vladislav Zubok, who was born in Moscow in the 1950s and witnessed the rise and fall of perestroika and glasnost, takes on a provocative question: what if some kind of union had survived the tumult of 1991? A proto-democratic, voluntary confederation with decision-making authority devolved to the now former Soviet republics? The question matters today. A revanchist, chauvinist Russia under Vladimir Putin seeks to dominate its neighbors. Western commentators worry about the fate of the "liberal world order" and the waning of U.S. hegemony just a generation after they appeared triumphant.