On The Mark: Invasion thwarts democracy
April 1, 2022
Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, a peaceful independent nation, can only be explained by revisiting late 20th-century history. I am rusty on much of this, so I’ve spent some time reviewing the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The totalitarian Soviet Union began to change course in the mid-1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev, as general secretary of the Communist Party, initiated glasnost, supporting more open discussion of political and social issues and ushering in democratization of the Soviet Union. Over successive years, the power of the Communist Party waned. Multicandidate elections were held. Glasnost permitted criticism of government officials and allowed the media freer dissemination of news and information.
Gorbachev’s economic initiative perestroika sought to bring the Soviet Union up to par with capitalist countries such as Germany, Japan and the United States. Concurrently, several of the Soviet republics, including Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Baltic States, challenged Russia’s dominance of the Soviet Union. The reemergence of Russian nationalism seriously weakened then-president Gorbachev as the leader of the Soviet empire. He was not prepared to use systematic force to reestablish Moscow’s control. An August 1991 coup initiated by hardline Communists against him, although unsuccessful, diminished his power. In December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, became the first elected leader in Russia’s history in 1991, and led the country for nine years, prioritizing greater autonomy of Soviet republics and a multiparty political system. In the late 1990s, Vladimir Putin became the director of the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB. In August of 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin acting prime minister.
Putin has since reversed most of the democratizing gains of the Yeltsin period.
As I wrote in these pages in November of 2019, I spent most of a week in Ukraine in 1991 with a dozen other U.S. regional scientists. We traveled by bus to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where for decades, the USSR had been building huge military industrial factories, importing and resettling hundreds of thousands of skilled Russian nationals. I learned a great deal from our interpreter, a young woman with a family who traveled with us and shared with me her grievances. In Kyiv, we spent several days in research meetings and in the evenings, wandered the joyful streets buzzing with young student activists who wanted to talk with us about democracy and their hopes and prayers.
And now, what an imperialist disaster. Among other atrocities, the Russians bombed Babi Yar, where Nazi invaders in 1941 shot and killed more than 33,000 Jewish women, men and children over two days, now the site of moving memorials to the victims. During the Nazi rampage into Russia during World War II, Russia was aligned with the western nations, including the U.S. in fighting facism. Why would Putin want to destroy this testimony of compassion for Ukrainian Jews?
Ukraine rid itself of the rampant corruption of Soviet domination. The country gained freedom of the press, and citizens exercised their rights to elect their leaders and to assemble and engage in protest. Ukrainians dreamt of and supported a thoroughly democratic turn. In 2019, they elected Volodymyr Zelensky as their president with more than 70 percent of the popular vote. Campaigning against corruption and poverty, Zelensky also committed to ending the war in eastern Ukraine. His victory can be credited to voters prioritizing an end to corruption. Two months later, Zelensky’s party won a majority of parliamentary seats.
For more than two decades, Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Biden and members of Congress have prioritized honoring and nurturing Ukraine’s emergence from communism and corruption.
Russia, our ally in fighting Nazi imperialism and Hitler’s extermination of Jews, has again been transformed into a wholly undemocratic dictatorship. Putin’s unprovoked invasion into Ukraine and his troops’ terrifying and senseless destruction of lives, home and infrastructure bring to mind the incursions of the Japanese into China at the onset of World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death chambers of the Nazis, and the American obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Our international movement against the Vietnam War was ultimately successful. It’s time for us to become peace activists once again.
Columnist Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota. A Pine Knot board member, she lives in Red Clover Township.