Video-conference “20th Anniversary since Disintegration of the Soviet Union” OREM, Utah -- On Monday, November 21, 2011, in the campus library auditorium at Utah Valley University, there was a special conference commemorating the twentieth anniversary of what Dr. Rusty Butler calls a monumental, historical moment—the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This was a three-panel teleconference via Skype with guests participating from Russia and Washington, D.C. This event was sponsored by the Utah International Mountain Forum, the Office of International Affairs and Diplomacy at UVU, and the Department of History and Political Science at UVU. The conference was free and the public was invited to come, and a question-and-answer period concluded each panel.
Dr. Rusty Butler, Associate Vice-President, International Affairs/Diplomacy, UVU ( L ) and John McClure, cochair, Utah International Mountain Forum ( R ) during the video-conference
The first panel, titled “View from Russia”, featured Dr. Frederick White, Associate Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UVU, Dr. Natalia Gronskaya of Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia, representatives of the Sakharov Museum and students in Nizhniy Novgorod,
and Alexey Semyonov, President of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, and was moderated by Dr. Rusty Butler, Associate Vice President of International Affairs and Diplomacy at UVU. These views from Russia gave some perspectives of Soviet citizens during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There were fascinating stories of fear, uneasiness, hope, and anticipation. One of the students was at sea on a boat at the time and they didn’t have any reliable information. The captain was unsure of which flag to sail into port under—they left the Soviet Union, but that didn’t exist anymore (they made the “right choice” and raised the tricolor imperial flag that Russia adopted). Others, who were out of the country during the transformation, expressed similar views of leaving one country and the daunting journey going home to a different place without a name. For Russians, it was hard to make sense of this strange time. The whole transformation seemed so sudden and rapid when it happened, but many people had noticed increasingly ubiquitous signs of change in the years prior to 1991 as the communist government was loosening restrictions and losing their ironfisted grip on the state. Dr. Gronskaya noted that the mentality of the country was changing, fostering greater desires for liberties and human rights. Russians could feel a hint of freedom in the air. Opposition to the state was no longer aggressively quashed and communist leaders, especially Lenin, were openly criticized. Alexey Semyonov explained that there was no doubt that change was inevitable, and it was understood that the Soviet Union couldn’t sustain itself much longer. Semyonov clarified that the only question was how the dissolution would happen—peacefully or violently? What could have been catastrophic ended up being a much more “peaceful” political dissolution. Many leaders, like Andrei Sakharov, had been working on restructuring the union under more democratic structures while keeping the same territory, similar to the current European Union, but the peripheral states desired independence, and the union fragmented. For people in the
collapsing country, the time of turmoil and incoherency was also a time of hope for the future and romantic expectations. For everyone, regardless of their view or their trepidation, it was a time to say goodbye to the past and to take the next steps into the future. Dr. Fred White described that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a major turning point in world history, leading to the emergence of a new country with a new identity, political and economic system, and culture. According to Alexey Semyonov, although Russia has had relative success in the transition, progress in the other former Soviet republics has been varied and some of the promise that came out of the dissolution has been realized, yet democracy isn’t as free flowing throughout the territory as was hoped. There were new opportunities, but not all of the states were able to successfully progress in post-Soviet transition. It became clear that democracy needed to be built on something more substantive than destroying communism. The Baltic States have quickly advanced and developed, but the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia continue to struggle as they face their new challenges. There is still hope for progress, much opportunity for success, and the future may be bright for the states. The second panel, titled “View from Washington, D.C.”, featured former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Miller, and Dr. William Hill, professor of national security at the National War College in Washington, D.C. and two-time former head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, and was moderated by Alexey Semyonov. In this panel, the distinguished guests presented a United States government view of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Each of the panelists gained interest in Russia in their youth, as they were children of the Cold War—the U.S.-Soviet Union relationship was a daily factor in
life. Ambassador Matlock gave insight into the thoughts and feelings of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. President in the 1980s. President Reagan was concerned with the arms race between the two states and the conditions in the Soviet Union, especially concerning human rights. The American efforts were aimed at encouraging internal change in the Soviet Union, which efforts were effective. Ambassador Matlock also described the agenda and goals of the United States relating to relations with the Soviet Union. He explained that, by 1987, Premier Gorbachev was accepting the U.S. four-point agenda of arms reduction (eliminating nuclear weapons), withdrawal from military action around the world (an end to proxy wars), protecting human rights, and establishing a working relationship (dismantling the Iron Curtain). These goals helped to open the country and allowed for the beginnings of democratization in the late 1980s. Ambassador Matlock also shared his unique perspective as United States representative to the Soviet Union, regarding the dissolution of the union. By mid-1990, it was clear to the United States that the Soviet Union was on a track toward dissolution, although the United States was encouraging a transition to a democratic union—similar to Gorbachev’s, Sakharov’s, and others’ ideal—instead of a complete disbanding of the union. Dissenting from Gorbachev’s position, other Russian government leaders, especially Yeltsin, weren’t as interested in maintaining a unified territory as they were in democratizing and sustaining a viable Russia. Dr. William Hill described how the United States knew that the end of communism was imminent—evidenced by the fundamental changes and substantial reforms including Yeltsin’s presidential campaign—yet surprised by how fast the situation progressed and how quickly power shifted from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. William Miller’s experience was very fascinating. Through his position as head of the International Foundation in Moscow, he was able to regularly meet with and become friends with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and was able to witness firsthand the personal dynamic
between the two leaders. He described the “war” between their personalities, experiences, and ideas as individuals—Gorbachev was reforming the system, cultivating and accepting opposing views, and ending single-party rule in hopes of developing a stronger union while Yeltsin wished to end the Soviet Union completely. It was definitely a unique time in American and world history and the dissolution of a global superpower forever altered everyone’s perception of the world. Democratization and progress became a topic of the second panel also. Ambassador Matlock explained that in the United States’ view, Russia is the primary trustee of regional stability, and they should do more for the future success and progress of the former Soviet republics. It was mentioned again that the Baltic States have progressed democratically and have had great success in their development, and that the other regions have struggled. There are still some “messy events” according to Alexey Semyonov. Ambassadors Matlock and Miller and Dr. Hill described some of these messy events. Central Asia struggles with dictatorships and is being affected by the operations in Afghanistan, Ukraine is politically divided and experiencing high levels of corruption, there are at least five serious and unresolved wars in the peripheral states, human rights are limited in many of the new states, there is no standard procedure for the handling of disputes between the states (the major actors handled the breakup of Yugoslavia and the crisis in Kosovo one way, then take a drastically different approach to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the crises in the Caucasus), and tensions are high between the U.S. and the Russian Federation over the handling of conflicts in the region—especially the Russia-Georgia conflict. Dr. Hill mentioned that the outlook of peace in the region is grim and some of the situations are very dangerous, but there is still some hope that cooperation and third-party actors can, while respecting states’ sovereignty, help resolve many of the “unsolved and insolvable”
basic issues that threaten the stability of the republics. Ambassador Miller was hopeful that people in the region would return to living together peacefully, like they had for centuries. Ambassador Matlock concluded that there is also hope that collaboration and respect between the United States and Russia can strengthen their relationships and bolster their cooperation, and that pure reason will always prevail.
Students of UVU at the audience
The final panel, titled “View from New Generation of Leaders”, was an informal roundtable with participation from Lindsay Funk, the U.S. President of the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) currently living in Moscow, Nikita Alentyev, SURF officer in the Moscow Higher School of Education, Richard Portwood, co-founder of the Center for American-Russian Engagement of Emerging Leaders (CAREEL) and former UVU Student Body President, and Cooper Henderson, co-founder of CAREEL and former Westminster College Student Body President, and was moderated by John McClure, SURF delegate and co-president of UVU’s Russian and Foreign Affairs Club.
Because of the efforts of emerging leaders, the future really is bright as common ambitions to improve relationships and create something meaningful bring the United States and Russia closer together. Each of the panelists emphasized that through hands-on exchanges and cooperative engagement efforts, future leaders are able to learn and recognize others’ viewpoints, tear down historical misconceptions and stereotypes, and create opportunities for interaction beyond government engagements. Lindsay Funk noted that people haven’t forgotten the politics and issues of the past—which causes an uneasy relationship—but they are open to each other and to cooperation. One encouraging sign is the increasingly positive perception between the United States and Russia following the official reset of the relationship between the two countries. There are fundamental differences between Russia and the U.S. Lindsay Funk and John McClure explained that it is important to acknowledge and accept those differences, and as long as they are understood, ties can be created and gaps bridged. Richard Portwood was hopeful because the current “Millennial” generation is motivated to understand and seems ready and able to move out of the past and into the future.
Organizers and participants of the video-conference:
Covi King, co-chair, Utah International Mountain Forum, Cooper Henderson, former Westminster College Student Body President, Chris Heaton, co-chair, Utah International Mountain Forum, Carlos Alarco, Designer - Instructional Technologist, DL Development Support Center, UVU Library, John McClure, co-chair, Utah International Mountain Forum, Dallin Kauffman, Administrative Support , International Affairs and Diplomacyof UVU
When an idea or nugget of information is important, it is repeated. This conference had two main facts that bore repetition. The major recurring theme during the presentations was that the disintegration of the Soviet Union started before 1991, and many people were predicting the collapse of communism for years prior to the actual events. Secondly, it was an uneasy period of history; many former republics are still struggling to transition fully into the modern world yet there is still some hope.
By Troy Bradley, UVU Political Science student