I have this recurring dream. I'm back in my old neighborhood climbing the fourth floor to apartment 12. I knock on the door. What happens next changes in every dream, but there are two basic themes. In one, I'm back in the 1980s Soviet apartment of my childhood. A piano, a rug hanging on the wall, a black and white TV screen. In the other, I'm a stranger in a stranger's home. It's no longer the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, but Belarus. I feel cold, rootless, sad. I go to check the mailbox, but there's nothing there for me. There's been nothing there for me for almost three decades. As soon as I wake up, I quiz myself. 200 Pushkin. I still remember the old address. 22017. I still remember the old phone number. How can I be a stranger when I still remember everything?
Мой адрес не дом и не улица. Мой адрес Советский Союз. Moi adres ne dom i ne ulitsa. Moi adres—Sovetskii Soiuz. My address is neither house nor street. My address is USSR. So promised this popular song. On December 8, 1991, this figurative address disappeared. The USSR was dissolved.
Why do you think you keep having these dreams?
I think it's because I never resolved what happened. It's like I'm a ghost haunting this poor house. I'm Yelena Biberman.
And I'm Zach Troyanovsky.
Welcome to the Harvard Davis Center's How to Kill a Superpower: Lessons from USSR. When I was a child, a member of the last generation that could still remember life in the Soviet Union, I knew something was wrong. It was as if everything I knew was being devoured by the Langoliers of Stephen King. When my plane landed in New York City's John F. Kennedy airport, on December 8, 1992, it was to a completely different world, but the old one was still inside me like this undigested sandwich. Everything happened so suddenly, so quickly. I became a political scientist to understand why big and confusing things happen. They don't just happen, they happen to us. They disorient, confuse, scare, and excite us. Sometimes all at once. It's how I felt on December 8, 1992, the day I arrived in the United States as a refugee, a person between countries, and in my case, a person between worlds. This is also how I continue to feel about December 8, 1991, the day the Soviet Union was dissolved. This podcast is about figuring out or digesting what happened that day and why.
My parents also came to the United States as refugees from the Soviet Union. When I was 10 years old, they took me and my brother to Russia for the first time. The only time. Back to all the places that I guess had haunted them in their dreams. I remember in the weeks leading up to their trip, my mom would tell us about this one donut shop that she had dreamed about since leaving in 1991, that she was really excited to return to. And even back then, I was a little worried. I couldn't imagine any donut living up to expectations that have been set that high. And we arrived at this dingy old shop with cats roaming freely in the kitchen, and we ordered a box of plain powdered ponchiki and sat down on a creaky window seat. And I remember my whole family held our breath while my mom took her first bite and she smiled, and she said, "Just as I remembered."
I'm literally salivating right now. Well, when I started going to school and learning English, I was really surprised by the ideas my American classmates had about the Soviet Union. I mean, don't get me wrong, there was a reason why we left. That was mostly antisemitism. But when my classmates were asking me things like if I ever showered, and my teachers did not think that I could handle basic math, something felt off. I remember my art teacher had us watch the film Fiddler on the Roof. And afterwards she asked me in a really well-meaning tone if it felt familiar. It really didn't. Not at all what my life was like.
Ronald Reagan had famously called the USSR an evil empire and the focus of evil in the modern world. It was in a speech he made in 1983 to the National Association of Evangelicals.
I mean, I could be wrong, but it didn't feel that way to me. It felt pretty normal. The people around me were just ordinary boring people. Times were tough, but the wind of change was in the air.
Is there a reason that you waited so long to talk about all of this?
Well, it always felt very personal and confusing. I always felt too close to make proper sense of it. But then I listened to a podcast called Wind of Change. The podcast is about the song written by the Scorpions. There was a rumor that it may have been written for the CIA as this weapon—a cultural weapon, so to speak. The podcasters embarked on the journey to figure out something that they knew they may never fully figure out, but the journey was so fascinating that the destination didn't matter. I don't know why, but I immediately thought of the Belavezha Accords that dissolved the Soviet Union.
I thought, "What if I try to figure out what happened at that hunting lodge in the Belavezha forest on December 8, 1991?" And then I thought of you, Zach. You had taken my introductory course. Teaching a first-generation Russian student was really strange. A generational cycle had clearly passed, and I was now unfortunately at the other end of it. I was also a new mother and it offered me this weird glance at how my son might turn out. Do you remember the presentation you gave in my class?
The one about Alexey Stakhanov.
Yeah, that was a really strange topic, I thought.
So you asked this to critically examine a story a nation, any nation, tells itself.
Yeah, I was inspired by a book that I read by newspaper columnist George Monbiot. Stories, he says, are the means by which we navigate the world. Then he argues that there's this recurring story in politics, that goes something like, "Disorder afflicts the land caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interest of humanity. The hero, who might be one person or a group of people, revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes great odds, and restores order."
My group and I chose the story of Stakhanov, a Soviet coal miner. In the 1930s, he was made famous for his superhuman productivity. In 1935, Time magazine even featured him on the cover. The Soviet Communist Party had Stakhanov travel around the country and talked about how intuitive thinking could help workers increase their productivity. We picked this story because I'd recently read some post online that claimed that Stakhanov's productivity rate was impossible with the technology available to workers at that time.
It's interesting, there's so much obsession with productivity in the United States these days, too. I wonder if there's any lessons that could be drawn from Stakhanov. But your presentation really challenged one of the stories with which I grew up. To me, Stakhanov was someone to look up to. He inspired people to go above and beyond in transforming a country of peasants, former slaves, into an industrial powerhouse, a global superpower. Your presentation made an impression on me because you're applying a critical lens to something I had taken for granted. But you also did not treat it as a caricature to be dismissed as laughable. So I thought you'd make for a good partner for the Belavezha project. You'd helped me see things from enough of a distance to be critical and analytical. I would also at the same time be able to stay closely connected to the material in a personal way.
I also believe that this moment we're examining has much broader implications, not just for us understanding ourselves, but also for understanding how politics works. Before you came to me with this project, I had never heard the story.
That's really strange. Neither has anyone in my family, despite having lived close to where it happened at the time it happened.
I knew the Soviet Union dissolved, but I guess I never thought about how, or rather, I never thought about the specifics of how. I just assumed that it was doomed to failure. I grew up with this idea that the country was always doomed to fail because it was founded on these flawed beliefs espoused by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Take what Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union between 1987 and 1991, said in an interview about the founding principles of the USSR, "I don't see much difference between a communist regime and a fascist regime. In fact, I think one of the greatest intellectual confusions they many have had over these decades is the whole right and left thing. Fascists are on the right, communist are on the left. Nonsense. They come together and overlap. They are natural allies because they are authoritarians by nature. And more than authoritarians, they tend to be totalitarians, which means that they tend to destroy all of the elements of the civil society."
The collapse of the Soviet Union re-cemented in the minds of Americans this notion that command economies or any form of socialism were doomed to failure. And at the end of this long tunnel of socialism, there was no communist utopia to be found, but instead it was tyranny. This justified the feeling famously expressed by Ronald Reagan, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"
But it wasn't just a battle of political economies, but also a battle of cultures. One thing I was struck by when listening to the song "Wind of Change" was the lyric, "For peace of mind, let your balalaika sing what my guitar wants to say." I mean, did the writers really assume that there were no guitars in the Soviet Union, that people there only played the balalaika?
Yep, jeans, jazz, McDonald's, those are all not just cultural products, but also Cold War weapons. There were to show off the presumably superior culture of the United States. The use of culture as a political tool or weapon is what we call a business soft power.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last ideological alternative to liberalism had been eliminated. So if you view history as the process by which liberal institutions—i.e. representative government, free markets, and consumers culture—become universal, it's understandable that the Soviet collapse could be viewed as history reaching its end. Former U.S. president Barack Obama is fond of often referencing Martin Luther King's quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." At that moment, we appeared to finally be at the end of that arc. The story was simple. The Soviet Union was communist, and therefore evil, and after World War II and the destruction of fascism, it was the last thing standing between us and our rightful place on top of the hill.
This tale is as old as time, of hero versus the villain, of Rocky versus Ivan Drago.
But the cultural battles weren't just limited to cinema. Take, for example, the 1972 world chess championship, Bobby Fisher defeats Boris Spassky to claim the title of world champion. This event was publicized as a Cold War confrontation and was the most-viewed chess match of all time. After the match, chess gained widespread popularity in the United States and Fisher was even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Interestingly chess recently made a comeback thanks to the Netflix series called The Queen's Gambit. I remember reading it was impossible to buy chess at that moment. In the miniseries, the main character, chess prodigy Beth Harmon, ends up playing chess in Moscow, and she ends up winning. Except the Soviet characters are portrayed as normal people, not like Ivan Drago. To me, the most striking scene is when she's in a cab on her way to the airport, and then she decides to step out. We are kind of worried for her because she doesn't speak the language—a young woman all by herself in a completely foreign country. But then at this park, ordinary people were just sitting around and playing chess and they saw her, they recognized her, and then she and some ordinary person at the park began playing chess.
You know, funnily enough, I read that Beth Harmon's character was loosely based on Bobby Fisher. So the shift in perspective is still tied to the past. Though it's also worth noting that Bobby Fisher once claimed that he could beat any woman in a chess match, even without his knights. But chess isn't the only place where these confrontations occurred. In 1980 at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, a team of young amateur American hockey players triumphed over a team of Russian professionals.
Sports Illustrated named it the top sports moment of the 20th century, and it's since been viewed as one of the great Cold War victories. When I was a kid, I remember watching superhero movies and wondering why the bad guy was always Russian, be it a supervillain like Ivan Durango or a cunning spy.
The fact that you even noticed this probably attests to the fact that you're of a different generation—of a generation that did not grow up during the Cold War. Although I do remember watching movies like Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams and hoping against all odds that the Russian-speaking characters were not going to be portrayed in some embarrassing or infantilizing way. I didn't want my classmates and teachers to apply those stereotypes to me.
There does seem to be a generational shift. Back in 2013, a Pew Research poll found that around the world, negative opinions of Russia were far more common than positive ones, but it also found that those aged 18 to 29 held significantly more favorable opinions of Russia than any other age group. Here's what professor Kate Graney had to say on the shift in perspective about the Soviet Union.
It's been interesting to me over the past 30 years to find, or to watch, people who lived through that try to find that point of balance of not buying into this idea that it was all evil and all rotten, and of course it had to collapse, and that's why it did, but say, "No, this was our life and it meant something."
Last year, a viral TikTok depicting scenes from a young adult's former life in St. Petersburg catapulted this Belarusian post-punk band Molchat Doma into the international arena. The band's dreary and existential electronic music became the soundtrack for the aestheticization of Russia. One college content creator, who went viral with a video featuring the band, explained that "a lot of kids in their early 20s like to alleviate the stresses of modern-day capitalist society by entrenching themselves in a very romanticized version of Soviet Russia, and what society might have been like in the 80s." In American politics, you see the rise of leftist figures who identify more and more with socialist values, and here at Skidmore, I know many students who openly identify as communists. This is all to say, I think the narrative around the Soviet Union, and I guess communism, is changing, and there's no better time than now to examine how it was created in the first place.
Yeah. I'm really shocked by this. The fact that there's this whole new generation that has this completely different lens and perspective on the Soviet Union. Well, let's not keep our listeners in suspense. What happened at the Viskuli hunting lodge on December 8, 1991—so, we'll be dissecting the entire incident in the rest of this episode. "Wherever I look, there's something living growing on something dead." This is a quote from an article describing the Belavezha forest, which is one of Europe's oldest primeval forests. A primeval forest, also known as an old growth forest, is one that has been around for a long time without any significant disturbances, so it contains a variety of unusual ecological features.
There was this movie that came out in 2012 called Project X about a bunch of high school kids who throw this big party when their parents are out of town and it gets really out of hand. The movie itself is relatively unremarkable, but the concept struck a chord. It became a joke for kids in my generation to refer to parties that got way out of hand as "Like Project X." I also have this one friend who had walked into really lame parties and be like, "Whoa, this is exactly like Project X." The meeting where these Soviet leaders unexpectedly dissolved the USSR had a bit of a Project X vibe to it.
It's December 7, 1991, and Boris Yeltsin, the head of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk, the head of Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich, the head of Belarus, were convening in Belarus for a weekend at the Viskuli hunting lodge in the Belavezha forest. Kravchuk, who had been elected less than a week prior, arrived Minsk early that day, along with a delegation of Ukrainian legislators and advisors. Shushkevich reached him at the airport with his own delegation and updated him on the agenda for the weekend—hammer out the details of a new gas and oil trade agreement and cement relations between the three leaders in light of Mikhail Gorbachev's recent displays of ineptitude. Kravchuk shook Shushkevich's hand, smirked, and said, "I didn't have to come all the way here for that."
The two groups made their way to Viskuli hunting lodge in the Belavezha forest. Having barely set their stuff down, Kravchuk and the Ukrainians left the lodge to go hunting. Later that day, Yeltsin arrives in Belarus. And he didn't come empty-handed. He presents the Belarusian parliament with the original 17th-century tsarist charter taking the city of Orsha under Russian protection.
So a symbol of Russian imperialism.
Well, that's how I see it. And that's also how the Belarusian parliament saw it. But Yeltsin wanted to start things off on the right foot and present them with this gift, which to him symbolized Russian-Belarusian friendship. And as you guessed, it didn't go as planned. The parliament met him with shouts of shame, and after fleeing the scene Yeltsin and the Russian delegation made their way to Viskuli. After all three groups had arrived, dinner was served.
Yeltsin was a few minutes late to dinner, so when he arrived at the table, the only seat left was directly across from Kravchuk. He sat down and quickly afterwards the negotiations began. Yeltsin had promised Gorbachev that he would present the latest draft of Gorbachev's revised union treaty, and he kept that promise. When he presented this new draft to Kravchuk, Kravchuk smiled, looked Yeltsin in the eyes, and said, "No." From there, the negotiations took a different course. Kravchuk and Yeltsin argued back and forth while the others chipped in occasionally, and the negotiations lasted through dinner. And as they progressed, they grew further and further away from the initial topic of the gas and oil trade agreement. But then one question changed the whole situation.
Gennady Burbulis, Yeltsin's right-hand man, stood and asked, "Gentleman, would you agree to put your signature under the following proposition? The USSR as a geopolitical reality and subject of international law ends its existence." Immediately, it dawned on everyone present that their trip to Belavezha had taken a sharp turn. Suddenly it wasn't any specific set of policies on the chopping block. It was the Soviet Union itself. So one by one, they each stood and agreed. And as they all did this, they were keenly aware that their actions constituted high treason and that if they didn't approach this with caution, they'd never make it out of these woods. That night, the experts that the leaders had brought with them stayed up until 6:00 a.m. drafting an agreement and trying to locate a typewriter and typists. And as the sun rose over the Belavezha woods, the typist finalized their draft and slipped it under the door of one of the leaders before drifting off to sleep.
Later that morning, a cleaning lady who was making her rounds saw a piece of paper jutting out from under the door and she grabbed it and tossed it away. So on the morning of the final day of the Soviet Union, members of all three delegations, in union, dug through the trash to find that piece of paper. And after they retrieved the paper, the negotiations began once again. Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich, and a few other members of the Russian and Belarusian delegations gathered in the billiard room after breakfast, at which point Kravchuk grabs a pen and paper and proclaims that he'll draft the new agreement from scratch, completely ignoring the draft that others dug through the trash for that very morning. Kravchuk excluded the Ukrainian delegates from the negotiations, and they ended up waiting outside the door. They all recall that for the first 30 to 40 minutes, there was absolutely no noise from the room, until Burbulis emerged briefly to consult with his experts. Fifteen minutes later, a collective hurrah is heard.
It's a girl.
At 2:00 p.m. that day, a signing ceremony was held at the lodge with a small number of journalists. They told the journalists to not ask Yeltsin any questions because he had gotten too drunk before the ceremony, and after the new treaty was signed, the conference ended with Yeltsin drunkenly grabbing the mic and speaking to the journalists before Belarus's prime minister, Vyacheslav Kebich, physically subdued him. A few hours later, four outgoing calls were placed from the Viskuli lodge phones. The first to Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, Soviet minister of defense. The second to the Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the last two to Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush.
These calls were the last four nails in the Soviet Union's coffin. Finally, the following morning, Yeltsin flew to Moscow to discuss the decision with Gorbachev. He had spoken with Gorbachev the previous day and asked if Gorbachev could assure his safety on his way to Moscow. Gorbachev said he could. But Yeltsin was so nervous about his plane being shot down that he got incredibly drunk on the ride and had to be carried off when they got there. And thus, the Project X weekend that destroyed one of the world's two superpowers came to a close.
What a weekend. That's not even the entire story.
Not at all.
Join us in the next episode, where we will be getting inside the heads of our main characters and looking at the historical forces that brought the men to Belavezha.
This podcast was made possible by the generous support of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and the John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative at Skidmore College. A special thanks to Adam Tinkle, Jesse O'Connell, Alexandra Vacroux, and Cris Martin.
The Soviet Union, the largest communist land,
had 15 republics that were centrally planned.
In the Soviet structure, Moscow organized all,
the big Republic of Russia, plus the ones that were small.
This communist form of public big industries
had central planning providing all the necessities.
But up to date little goods come faster if there's competitors.
They could not stay modern with just big central leaders.
And since World War II East Europe had been divided
in ways that were not what each place would've decided.
There was not enough freedom, just one old gang in the middle.
The war budget, too large and people's voices too little.
Then 1985 brought a younger guy to the top.
And this guy, Gorbachev wanted these problems to stop.
Gorbachev started Glasnost, more free speech and free news.
It was fine for the first time to express many views.
Gorbachev's Perestroika brought democratizations.
For the first time, elections let people steer their own nations.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev was surprised,
but he slowed the arms race and won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Then all through East Europe, former Soviet states voted to break
from the union and control their own fates.
So Gorbachev sighed, but chose democracy's course.
He said he'd keep things together, just with discussions, not force.
Old Communist leaders feared big changes too fast.
The whole strength of the union might be lost in the past.
But new leaders and voters all wanted to change to come faster.
Gorby's middle reform plan soon were facing disaster.
See as Soviet president, Gorbachev wasn't defeated,
but each Republic's president now had strengths just like he did.
And Russia's president, Yeltsin, wanted more strength by far.
So they drafted new plans for a looser USSR.
But before this new compromise could be implemented,
eight conservative communists launched a coup to prevent it.
They kept Gorbachev trapped, but people rushed out to help
defend the Soviet congress that they had elected themselves.
And Yeltsin joined with the people and the coup met defeat.
But the old communist party now really looked obsolete.
So when Gorby returned, he was the leader of zero.
The union structure was dead. Each nation had its own hero.
The USSR is now no more he announced
and Gorbachy sadly resigned, and Russia's president pounced.
Yeltsin said it was time for the big free market test.
Public resources should open for the rich to invest.
But when the parliament leaders and the public protested,
Yeltsin ordered the army to have them killed or arrested.
So all profits went private or were bought up offshore.
Millions and millions of normal people turned poor.
And that's how the Soviet Union died before it enjoyed
the system Gorbachev wanted fixed instead of destroyed.
Lyrics to "The Fall of the Soviet Union" © 2012 Jeffrey Lewis
How to Kill a Superpower: Lessons from the USSR