The current global media focus on Ukraine, where a long standoff between a group of pro- EU protesters and the government has ensued, illustrates an interesting and rather odd trend: the media’s obsessive reference to the Soviet and communist past in any discussion on the countries of Central-Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
A quick glance at the countless journalistic and academic publications reveals that, just like practically all of its neighbors, Ukraine is always presented to the readers as “a former Soviet Republic” or a “post-Soviet country.” And that is despite the fact that over 20 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Empire and with no regard to the obvious and dramatic transformations that have taken place both in Ukraine and in the region.
Without a doubt, the collapse of the Soviet Union had a seismic effect on international relations, ending 40-odd years of Cold War rivalry and ushering in a period of US dominance. However, the memorialization of the Soviet Union in our language still two decades later is somewhat puzzling. It is as if the time froze in the early 1990s.
Indeed, given that the disintegration of the Soviet Union gave (re)birth to 15 countries, it was practical to tag, identify and contextualize the newly created political entities as either “former Soviet” or “post-Soviet.”
However, the irony is that now more than 20 years later, the average person, which the initial characterization was presumably created to help, likely has a better understanding of the individual countries than they do of the Soviet Union.
One argument for the continued evocation of the Soviet period is that the communist legacies are still important in the contemporary nature of the respective countries. Such an argument is appealing on the surface until you consider that the entire erstwhile Soviet region has experienced tremendous and varied socioeconomic and geopolitical changes since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
In reality, lumping countries such as Estonia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Georgia together under the moniker “the former Soviet republics” does more to confuse than to clarify their current political or economic situation.
This is even more the case with the 10 former Eastern Bloc countries which subsequently joined the EU, all of which have undertaken massive social, economic and political transitions. Despite being arguably as Western as France; they are still commonly referred to as “former communist” or “former Soviet” countries.
A less innocent, more insidious explanation is that the reason journalists enjoy making references to the Soviet past lies in the simplistic image that it creates. “A former Soviet republic” conjures all sorts of negative images. It suggests corruption, violence, poverty, pollution, old industry and a certain level of backwardness. It ostensibly explains all possible political and economic developments in the region. No detailed explanation or analysis is necessary – it can all be explained by the past.
In this sense, the people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are mere pawns, mindless puppets forever enslaved by their past. Certainly, the Soviet period left a number of skeletons in the closet and the general negative connotations associated with the name are understandable. However, the continued memorialization of the period in countries which bear little resemblance to that time is completely unjustified and perpetuates a subordination of the East under the West. It would be considered abhorrent to still refer to Germany as “former Nazi” or Italy and Spain as “former fascist,” so why must we be continually reminded of a country’s Soviet past? Our plea is simple: it is time to remove the veil of history from the erstwhile Soviet and communist countries and start treating them as the fascinating, individual and varied entities that they are. To do so would stop the aggrandizement of the West and remove the subordination of the East and treat both on their merits, rather than simply categorizing them according to historical legacies.
Even at a practical level, the justification for using the Soviet moniker is weak as today’s readers are likely to know more of the current nature of these countries than their Soviet histories.
As the current situation in Ukraine illustrates, its precarious domestic situation, which is exacerbated by its geopolitical positioning between the EU and Russia, is not simply a product of Soviet legacies but rather a more complicated and multifaceted phenomenon which requires a much deeper and thorough focus.
Pigeon-holing it as “former Soviet” detracts from the real issues and props up a worn-out stereotype.
The people of the countries once part of the Soviet Union deserve better.
Nicholas Ross Smith and Zbigniew Dumienski are PhD candidates in international relations and political economy respectively at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.