On Christmas Day 1991 we were still wearing our funny hats and eating our mince pies when Mikhail Gorbachev came on television to tell the world that he had resigned as President of the Soviet Union. We looked out at the Kremlin on the other side of the Moscow River. The Red Flag was fluttering down for the last time.
So many hopes have been dashed since then. But that is no reason to abandon hope itself. Much of what is going on in Russia today is deeply unattractive. But contrary to what you might gather from the western press, Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is comparatively open and prosperous. Russians travel abroad in their hundreds of thousands. There are more Russians than Germans on the internet. And now the Russians who voted so enthusiastically for change in 1989 have begun to reclaim their right to be heard. Mr Putin’s decision to run again for the presidency may turn out to be his biggest political mistake as he begins to slither down the other side of the bell curve.
Historians will never settle on why the USSR collapsed: they still don’t agree about why the Roman Empire fell. But they may strip away some of the myths: that the event was foreseen by no one, for example, or that a more competent politician than Mr Gorbachev could have managed the transition better.
From the 1960s onwards there were clear signs that the Soviet system was in serious decay: the lack of consumer goods, the primitive living conditions, the decrepit factories, the dysfunctional agriculture, the lopsided emphasis on heavy industry and defence, the growth rates approaching zero. The USSR was already failing in its competition with its cold war rival. Khrushchev saw that, tried to reform the system, and was overthrown.
For the next 15 years the Union floated on a sea of high priced oil. Even so, the dissident Andrei Sakharov openly predicted that without genuine political reform the economy would stagnate. The head of the state planning body was equally gloomy in private. In 1985, desperate to find someone who could put things right, the old men in the Politburo elected Mr Gorbachev: imaginative, energetic and – they hoped – orthodox.
But he believed that the system could not be revived without radical change. His speech to the UN in December 1988 marked the first step in the withdrawal from empire. In March 1989 he organised the first serious elections in a communist country since the war. But he ran into a familiar problem: the attempt to reform a failing system can simply destabilise it further. At the beginning of 1990 – two years before the collapse – I wrote to London that a messy, but steady, disintegration of Russia’s empire was on the cards. I was not alone in that judgment.
So why did US intelligence analysts conclude, as late as April 1989, that the Soviet Union would remain the west’s main adversary for the foreseeable future? The answer is political, even sociological. During the cold war both sides saw things in black and white. Officials stuck to worst case analysis, because it was safer. Soldiers talked up the threat to get bigger budgets and more sophisticated weapons. In 1988 a CIA analyst told Congress that he and his colleagues never really looked at the factors that could have led to the end of the Soviet Union because “we would have been told we were crazy”. Other advisers on both sides of the divide were also telling their bosses what they wanted to hear.
In the west, Mr Gorbachev is criticised for foolishly setting out to reform the system rather than to abolish it. He too was a prisoner of his environment. But during his years of power, he moved a long way from communism to something like social democracy: a reasonable path for an honourable man to take.
He can be criticised for failing to tackle the economic problem. But he feared the disruption that a radical free market solution would bring. Yeltsin’s helter-skelter reforms did indeed bring runaway inflation and years of impoverishment to many Russians: the unavoidable price, perhaps, of necessary change.
The least convincing criticism is that Mr Gorbachev failed to manage the genie of nationalism. By 1989 that genie was right out of the bottle. He could have sent in the tanks. He chose instead to try to create a genuine and voluntary federation of the Soviet republics: a solution most western leaders far preferred to the nightmare alternative of “Yugoslavia with nukes”– the bloody disintegration of a nuclear superpower. His attempt was stymied by the August 1991 putsch against him, and by Yeltsin’s determination to seize all power for himself.
So Russia was reborn in that cold mid-winter – hungry, poverty-stricken, humiliated and deeply resentful of its loss of status. Even Russians who had welcomed the end of communism and the freedoms that Mr Gorbachev had brought them blamed him for the destruction of their great country.
Though Russians do not now believe it, there was a genuine upsurge of goodwill in the west, and a desire to help. In some quarters there was an unpleasant note of triumphalism, a feeling we could now bend the Russians to our will. Some called this realism, but it was not the language of statesmanship.
Western policy reflected both strands. We lectured the Russians on their corrupt politics and their violations of human rights. We gave them expensive and often irrelevant economic advice. We insisted they adopt western foreign policy aims, but ignored what they thought were their legitimate interests. We enlarged Nato despite our oral assurances to the contrary. We bombed their ally Serbia. We interfered in their neighbourhood. Our advice was discredited as Russians came to believe that we were untrue to our own principles and unable even to run our much vaunted liberal economy properly.
In parallel, though not necessarily in consequence, Russia’s politics became increasingly grubby. High oil riches again combined with political inertia to cripple any further attempts at fundamental reform.
Five months after that flag came fluttering down, I wrote it would take Russia decades, perhaps generations, to overcome its economic, imperial and other difficulties. But it was not, I told London, mindless optimism to think Russia might eventually develop its own, no doubt imperfect, democracy.
That was not a prediction. But it still seems a tenable proposition.
The writer was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992