Today we run a guest post from Timothy Spence, TOL’s former managing editor.

Inspired by TOL’s Twenty Years After series and its retrospective look at the former Soviet Union, I dusted off a copy of Tiziano Terzani’s Goodnight, Mister Lenin, written as the Soviet Union was dissolving around the author.

Though the pages are yellowed and frayed with age, the book by the adventurous Italian journalist offers a timeless reminder that in certain reaches of the old Soviet Union, some things don’t change.

Terzani’s journey across the southern flank of the Soviet Union began in August 1991, when the USSR was mostly intact. Starting from the Amur River in the Far East and moving westward (by boat, train, and rickety planes) through Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, he arrived in Moscow in the autumn as the union was falling apart like pieces of a puzzle.

Names changed, statues fell, old languages and faiths were revived. But for those in power, things were static. One greedy system replaced another. The old rulers carried Soviet power, privileges, and ruthlessness with them to their new posts.

Twenty years is not enough to wash away the past, so nearly all leaders in the former USSR – Putin, Otunbayeva, Saakashvili, Sargsyan, Yanukovych, Lukashenka among them – have an inexorable link to Soviet power. In some places, the names scarcely changed at all. Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev is the son of a Soviet-era ruler, and then post-independence boss, Heydar Aliev. On the other side of the Caspian, Soviet leftovers Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoy power as if independence never happened. (Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon has been around nearly as long, having headed the state assembly right after independence before becoming president in 1994.)

They all outlasted Terzani, who died in 2004. If he were around now, he’d see how prophetic his 1991 dispatches were.

Here’s what Terzani wrote from Alma Ata (Almaty) on 4 September, not long after the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev:

“Immediately after Gorbachev’s return to Moscow[,] President Nazarbaev, the strong man of Kazakhstan, resigned as Party secretary, closed the communist offices and ordered the confiscation of state property, but he remained President of the Republic. In the same way the deputies of the local Parliament stayed in their places, though 70 per cent of them were elected on the communist ticket. Power has not changed hands. Those who had it before called themselves communists. Now they no longer do, but they are the same people.”

And from Tashkent on 13 September 1991:

“Islam Karimov, the local strong man, the Party secretary and President of the Republic, has called a Congress of the C.P. [Communist Party] for tomorrow to decide its future. Everyone knows already that the congress, with a bare minimum of discussion or self-criticism, will simply decide to change its name. The Party will no longer be called communist, but will now be the Popular Democratic Party. Nothing will change in substance, just as nothing has changed in the other republics. To avoid useless confusion, the new party will declare itself to be the ‘legal successor’ of the old one and will automatically inherit all its properties and bank accounts. … Karimov will still be the strong man of Uzbekistan and the object of a personality cult of the old Stalinist type.”

Twenty years later, the Lenin statues that Terzani saw felled during his travels have been replaced by monuments to new-old leaders. But independence doesn’t have much meaning when nothing changes.

Timothy Spence is a European-based freelance writer, editor, and journalism trainer. Photo by Serge Lachinov, from Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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