Twenty years ago this morning, Russians awoke not just to a new day, but to a new world – and so did everyone else. It had been only hours since Mikhail Gorbachev had announced in a momentous broadcast that he was resigning as President of the USSR, having failed to gain support for a new federal treaty.
As a consequence, he said, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. The red flag that had flown over the Kremlin was lowered that night, never to be raised again.
Although the end had seemed inevitable through a fractious and tense autumn, Mr Gorbachev's declaration, when it came, still reverberated around the globe, prompting both joy and alarm. This was the victory that émigrés from the communist state, old and new, had dreamt of, but never expected to see. It was the objective, stated or not, of every Western cold warrior: the reversal of the Bolshevik revolution, and the completion of the process that had begun two years before, with the wave of European revolutions and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But it also brought the prospect of a terrifying uncertainty. In the very short term, the fear was of famine, a refugee crisis and civil war – which in most parts of the former Soviet Union were mercifully avoided. In the longer term, it was the struggle for all those schooled in Soviet ways to adapt. And in the much longer term, it was how the 15 new or resurrected states would find their place in this transformed world.
For Russia, that process has been slower and more frustrating than many hoped. When the red flag came down, power passed to the mercurial Boris Yeltsin, and thus began a decade of confusion, in which freedom, crime, soaring wealth and grinding poverty jostled side by side. It was a decade most were happy to banish, when Vladimir Putin was handed the reins of power.
Mr Putin restored stability, showed himself a good steward of the country's energy resources and gave most Russians the highest living standards they have ever known. As this year's anniversary approached, however, the economic benefits were tailing off and the prevailing sentiment was overwhelmingly one of disappointment: with the slow pace of change, with corruption, with the failure to develop truly democratic institutions, with the contrast between the Soviet Union's global reach and Russia's nuclear-armed isolation. The notion that Russia would swiftly become a Scandinavian-style state after 70 years of communism was always wildly unrealistic. But even by the standards of its own more modest aspirations, Russia often failed to make the grade.
What might have been a thoroughly demoralising anniversary however – both for the many Russians whose hopes have been thwarted over the years and for an outside world losing faith in Russia's capacity to change – has suddenly to be seen in a different light. In a pleasing symmetry, this anniversary weekend witnessed the largest mass demonstrations in Moscow and other Russian cities since the democracy movement, spurred by Mr Gorbachev's reforms, began to crack the Soviet monolith 25 years ago.
Not only this, but the last Soviet leader took to the airwaves to call on Mr Putin to abandon his plans to return to the presidency. The irony was rich – the one-time communist speaking the language of democracy to his successor-but-one – yet it was a measure, too, of how much Russia has changed: not just in 20 years, but in almost the same number of days.
On 4 December, Russians went to the polls to elect their new parliament. What had seemed a routine exercise in flawed post-Soviet democracy turned into something else. As has often been said, the secret of winning elections is not in the voting, but in the counting. And it was in the counting that the old system started to come to grief. Saturday's demonstrations were distinguished by their numbers and by the cheerfulness and discipline of participants. The celebratory atmosphere, though, was reinforced by Mr Putin's acceptance in his recent annual telethon that peaceful protest was legitimate, by President Dmitry Medvedev's talk of electoral reform, and – most conspicuously – by the absence from Moscow's streets of riot troops.
It would be premature to hail such changes as permanent. But the political context in which March's presidential elections will take place has changed in a way that will be hard to reverse. It must be hoped that, 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a generation of Russians liberated from fear by the Gorbachev reforms will now come into its own.
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