Cold War Legacies in the Former Soviet Union
The Cold War had a significant impact on the way Americans saw their country and themselves. It influenced their perspective on the United States’ role in international affairs, both as the presumed champion of democracy and freedom as well as the foil to the Soviet Union. They experienced the fear of apocalyptic weapons as the Nuclear Age dawned. They saw Europe divided between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) composed of the United States and its allies and the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union. They went to war in Vietnam, and they also protested that war. They saw the Soviets soar off into space, and they watched their own astronauts follow them, reaching the moon. It was a formative time, especially for the generation of “baby boomers” born after World War II.
On the other side of the world, the events of the Cold War had a similarly formative effect on the people who grew up in the Soviet Union. Historian Donald J. Raleigh conducted interviews with Soviet “baby boomers,” whose experiences were full of many of the same hopes and fears as their American counterparts. To be sure, their understandings and reactions were sometimes different, but there was a great deal in common among members of the same generation who grew up on opposite sides of the Cold War.
One of the most defining features of the Cold War was the fierce animosity between the Soviet Union and the United States. However, Soviet people who grew up in the height of the Cold War did not necessarily feel this way. “You know,” said Arkadii Darchenko, “I never harbored a hostile attitude toward [the United States]. I never felt that we were enemies.” For another Soviet “baby boomer,” it was difficult to reconcile what he was told by the Soviet state about Americans and what he learned from other sources. “On the one hand,” recalled Aleksandr Trubnikov, “there was the influence… of everything that I read and heard in school and over the radio and on television. On the other hand, it always seemed strange to me that, if they were all such terrible capitalists, then why do they have… such a high standard of living?” Trubnikov concluded that the disparity between the different narratives about America was too wide for either one to be fully believed.
While Soviet citizens did not necessarily harbor animosity toward Americans, they did sometimes fear the dangers of a nuclear war. For Americans, one of the most frightening Cold War episodes was the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the edge of nuclear confrontation. This was a was a troubling time for Soviet people as well; according to Olga Kamaiurova, “the crisis was terrible, of course… after all, we were on the brink of nuclear war.” Just as Americans feared Soviet aggression, Kamaiurova “was afraid of America.” Darchenko agreed. “I recall that it was a real nightmare during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he recounted, “when at any moment bombs might be strewn down on us… If I’m not mistaken, such feelings were mutual. People probably reacted the same way in America.” Darchenko was correct; this same feeling was shared by millions of Americans.
The final years of the Cold War saw growing unrest in the Soviet sphere of influence. The Berlin Wall, a powerful physical symbol of the divide between the capitalist and socialist camps, was torn down, and several Soviet republics experienced massive protest movements. The Warsaw Pact, the military alliance formed to oppose NATO, was ended in July 1991. Finally, in December of that year, the Soviet Union was dissolved, breaking up into fifteen separate countries, of which Russia was the largest.
Although almost all post-Soviet states suffered a major economic depression after the collapse of the Soviet Union, their experiences have also diverged. In places like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the old Communist leadership stayed in place with very few changes, whereas Tajikistan collapsed into civil war. Kyrgyzstan fared much better, despite its relative lack of natural resources, under leaders who established a more democratic system. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania developed robust democracies and market economies, eventually joining the European Union and NATO. Russian leaders have seen NATO’s eastward expansion in the post-Cold War era as a military threat. Some former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, have become areas of competition between factions seeking to align with the West and those seeking closer ties with Russia.
Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s legacy in Russia and the former Soviet states is mixed. There is generally an acknowledgment of the harsh repressions of the Stalin era. However, many Russians also recall a sense of pride in their country’s former strength, as well as its relative economic stability. In the Soviet period, they made great strides in education, with an adult literacy rate near 100 percent, and a strong emphasis on math and science. According to polling since 1992, between 49 and 75 percent of Russians have said that they regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has commented that the fall of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”5 Its collapse coincided with economic devastation, and it led to a diminished place on the world stage for Russia. Many experts see President Putin’s policies as driven by a desire to reassert Russia’s role as a global superpower.
University of Kansas
Questions for Discussion
1. What are some words you would use to describe the experiences of everyday people in the Cold War? Would these words be the same or different if you were describing Americans and Russians?
2. What do you think the value is of learning about how Russian people saw major Cold War events like the Cuban Missile Crisis?
3. Donald Raleigh’s study found similarities between “baby boomers” on both sides of the Cold War? In what ways do you think Russians of your generation have experiences similar to yours? In what ways might their experiences be different?
4. Why do some Russians regret the collapse of the Soviet Union?
5. Do you think Russia should feel threatened by the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance? How do you think this expansion has affected Russian feelings toward the United States since the end of the Cold War?
- Donald J. Raleigh, Russia’s Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk About Their Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 128.
- Raleigh, Russia’s Sputnik Generation, 234.
- Raleigh, Russia’s Sputnik Generation, 212-3.
- Raleigh, Russia’s Sputnik Generation, 132.
- Adam Taylor, “Putin Says He Wishes the Soviet Union Had Not Collapsed. Many Russians Agree,” The Washington Post, March 3, 2017.