The post-Soviet space exists as long as there are disputes about it. But it is spreading and turning into a former post-Soviet space right before our eyes; before the eyes of those who still remember which countries were part of the USSR and which were not, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Iskandaryan.
Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the term “post-Soviet” is beginning to be revised. Among other things, over the years, a new generation has grown up and entered adulthood, who have little or no memory of liа чfe in the USSR. As the Soviet era recedes into the historical past, societies attempt to comprehend the space in which they live, to understand where it begins and ends, and whether it is united by anything other than inertia.
There are everyday and journalistic discourses on this topic; they are often politicised. A certain continuum has already formed, the extreme points of which are, at one pole, a complete denial of the existence of a post-Soviet community, and at the other, various forms of denial of differences between post-Soviet countries, from the artificiality of dividing the post-Soviet space into separate states up to calls for the restoration of the USSR. It can be assumed that the watershed partly passes through generations, and partly lies on the “liberalism — conservatism” axis.
However, the politicisation here is also not continuous: both deniers of unity and those who recognise it may have different attitudes towards the Soviet past, ranging from contempt for all things “Sovok” to nostalgia for the “great country”. It is not the assessment of the past that is important, but the perception of the present: does the post-Soviet space still exist, or is it no more? Now, as the countries that emerged in the place of the USSR are entering a new stage of development, when the decision-making is being transferred to people without a Soviet past, is there any reason to believe that they still exist in some unified paradigm?
Discussions on this topic sometimes begin with the phrase “the space of the former USSR is only a geographic community — and nothing else”. It seems to me that the opposite is true. For example, Vladivostok and Dushanbe do not have any geographical commonality and they have never had any. But a person who visits both of these cities may well notice something in common.
First of all, this space is united by history. For example, today’s Vladivostok and Dushanbe were part of the same states: first within the empire of Genghis Khan, later within the Russian Empire, and then within the USSR. In this sense, historians can mechanically call this space post-Soviet simply by virtue of the existence of the USSR in the past, as, for example, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe can be called part of the post-British space, although it is unlikely that many features uniting these countries can be found at present.
Secondly, they are part of a cultural community. The USSR collapsed recently enough for elements of a cultural community to be noticeable from the outside, and so that it is felt by the inhabitants of the space in which it existed. Phenomena such as the massive use of the Russian language at least by the older generations, the specifics of Soviet architecture and the organisation of urban space, even elements of food and ceremonial culture, such as borsch or New Year’s celebrations, unite and, apparently, will unite post-Soviet countries for a long time to come. Some of this may persist for a long time, as some cultural components, for example, Roman or Byzantine heritage. Cultural patterns are often inertial, their disappearance is not an act, but a process, and a long one. But even now it is clear that the common elements of culture are gradually diminishing. The language skills of children are often completely different from those of their parents, and this varies greatly from country to country. The faces of cities are changing, and the cuisine is undergoing various new influences. Although in Moscow sushi has become a part of everyday life, and humus has made inroads in Yerevan, Olivier salad is still prepared in both capitals.
There is no need to talk about a similar internal political structure. This raises, however, the question of how uniform — or at least similar — were the political systems of the republics that were part of the USSR. Often, a formal unification was underscored with completely different content. Now, the differences between, for instance, Estonia and Turkmenistan are so great that two more politically dissimilar countries must be specifically looked for. Today’s Tajikistan is more like Egypt than Moldova in its structure, and Lithuania has more in common with Slovakia than with Georgia. Contrary to popular beliefs, the political regimes that have taken shape in the post-Soviet space over the years are already very far from each other and continue to differentiate themselves. Moreover, the roads away from Soviet unity lead not only towards modernity, but also towards archaism and de-industrialisation.
One can argue that despite their diversity, the post-Soviet countries have common elements to their respective political systems, which are considered to be direct legacy of the USSR. These are, in particular, the hybridity of regimes, neo-patrimonialism, paternalism, widespread informal practices and corruption, even in such spheres as education, including primary education. However, these phenomena are typical not only for the post-Soviet space, but in general for the “third world”, that is, for almost all countries outside Western Europe and North America. There is nothing uniquely Soviet in these phenomena. They can be found in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Latin America.
This is not the case with foreign policy, or, more broadly, geopolitics. The entire post-Soviet space is united by one country, around which this space, in fact, is being built. This distinguishes the former USSR: it is not only different from the maritime empires, such as those of the British or French, whose former colonies, sometimes huge, for example, India and Algeria, are far removed from the former metropolises, but also from other territorial empires, in particular, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, where the former metropolis is comparable in its power to the states that broke away from it.
In terms of population, territory, and economic and military potential, Russia is more than all the other states of the former USSR taken together. This creates a specific situation where in Russia, too, they tend to regard the former Soviet republics as the “near abroad”, and in these republics Russia is treated not just as a former metropolis, but also as a special country. Moreover, it does not matter whether they repel from it or vice versa, gravitate towards it. Repulsion is also, in its own way, a special attitude: Russia occupies a lot more space on the mental maps of Georgia and the Baltic countries than Norway. What might otherwise seem geographically absurd becomes clear and meaningful: Tajikistan, separated from Russia by two rather large countries, is the near abroad, whereas Norway, which borders Russia, is an alien Western state.
However, the geopolitical community is also spreading. Other regional players are becoming contenders in the so-called zone of Russian interests and are gradually changing reality. In the north-west it is Poland, in the south-west — Romania, in the South Caucasus — Turkey, and in Central Asia — China. The vector is aimed at increasing diversity of the space, which until recently was part of one country. It is not hard to imagine that in a generation or two, the leaders of these countries will speak through translators, and politicians will be guided by different centres of power; even the most widely known Soviet films and holiday traditions will only be intelligible to cultural historians. The post-Soviet space exists as long as there are disputes about it. But it is spreading and turning into a former post-Soviet space right before our eyes; before the eyes of those who still remember which countries were part of the USSR and which were not.