Maybe it is because 11 September so dominates our memories; maybe it is because the military campaign that it precipitated is not yet over. Or maybe it is just because we find it hard to focus on more than one foreign narrative at a time. Whatever the reason, it still seems strange that the 10th anniversary of one of the signal events of the 20th century should have passed with so little attention paid to it by the English-speaking world.
Ten years ago, on Christmas Day, Mikhail Gorbachev made his last presidential broadcast to the people of the Soviet Union, announcing the dissolution of their country and his own resignation. As he signed off, with a benediction to his compatriots that seemed to commit them to a long and perilous journey, the red flag on top of the Kremlin was lowered and the world's second superpower slipped into history.
It is difficult now to recapture the all-embracing uncertainty of those days. The forecasts were dire. Throughout the autumn and winter of 1991, the spectre of famine stalked the land as the central distribution system broke down. Western countries had large quantities of emergency food aid on stand-by. Countries that bordered the Soviet Union fortified their defences and refugee organisations prepared for the mass flight of starving and panicked Russians.
There were dark warnings of imminent civil war, with inter-ethnic skirmishes in the Soviet Republics, from Moldavia to Central Asia, seized upon grimly as mere rehearsals for the battles to come. A "red-brown" alliance of communists and nationalists was rumoured to be on the threshold of snatching power, while Western military chiefs fretted about nuclear weapons that might get into the wrong hands or run out of control.
Ten years on, it should be recorded that none of these prophecies was fulfilled – not in those insecure months immediately before and after the Soviet Union's collapse, nor in the years that followed. Not one. There was no famine, no civil war, no return to dictatorship (of any political complexion), no mass exodus, no nuclear misadventure. What is more, the passage of time has made each of these catastrophes seem less likely.
There was, to be sure, hardship and injustice, and there still is. Some individuals have profited handsomely from the change of system through little merit of their own, while many others have barely eked out a living. Many of those who were at the bottom of the pile under communism have remained there under capitalism. Those with nothing to sell, or no talent for selling, have languished. Some who were in the vanguard of the democracy movement when it was a dangerous minority pursuit have been brutally struck down; others were betrayed.
But the overall balance is positive, in the big picture and the small. The absence of catastrophe should not be overestimated: a vast and highly centralised empire was dismantled almost overnight with remarkably little disruption. Where there was one state, there are now 15; some – such as the Baltic states – are prospering; others – such as the Central Asian republics, rub along, and one, Belarus, lurches from crisis to crisis. But none is lawless; none is starving; none is branded a rogue state.
As the world moved into recession, Russia's lumbering economy quietly registered an upturn. Growth in the year 2000 was the highest in Europe, at 8 per cent; at more than 5 per cent this year, it is still bucking the global trend. This year's grain harvest is up almost 30 per cent on last year's. Employers are paying wages; individuals are paying their taxes. The country is settling into a routine.
To listen to its many critics, you might think that Russia is a black hole of failure. And it is easy to complain that the media are more inhibited than in the immediate post-Soviet free-for-all; that the new breed of politician, like the new breed of entrepreneur, can be bought; that there is more violence and crime. But how many national leaders could – or would – have sustained a live, no-holds-barred phone-in for two and a half hours, as President Putin did this week?
Through the late Eighties, as Gorbachev's glasnost afforded the then Soviet Union a cautiously opening window on the rest of the world, many Russians said wistfully that what they desired above all was to live in a "normal" country. Normality for them, in those days, was something so extraordinary as to seem far beyond reach. That Russia's day-to-day doings no longer command foreign headlines is no mean achievement, and our neglect of this 10th anniversary is a tribute to the normality that Russia has so rapidly attained.
The writer reported from Moscow, 1989-1992Reuse content