News / Europe

After USSR, Russia Rode Roller Coaster for 20 Years

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When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia, the biggest member republic, embarked on 20 years of unsteady independence.

It was a Christmas gift that anti-communists had prayed for, for seven decades. Mikhail Gorbachev announces that the Soviet Union would cease to exist on December 25, 1991.

But Russians follow a different religious calendar. And the following 20 years of Russian history have been rocky.

Less than two years after the Soviet collapse, communists in Russia’s parliament tried to depose Russia’s first elected president, Boris Yeltsin.

In the heart of Moscow, tanks shelled the renegade parliament. When the fighting was over, more than 600 people were dead or wounded.

With the center weak, Russia’s Muslim fringes tried to secede. During the war in Chechnya, the capital, Grozny, was bombed so heavily, it looked like Stalingrad during World War II.

Peace was barely restored with the Chechens, when oil prices plummeted, triggering Russia’s financial collapse of 1998.

After the chaos of the 1990s, Russians gravitated to Vladimir Putin, a little known KGB officer, who was elected president in 2000.

With a public relations team building his action image, Mr. Putin dominated the decade.

He confronted Russia’s oligarchs, putting the nation’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail - where he sits seven years later.

The Chechens fought back, using mass kidnappings of civilians to confront the state.

Human rights abuses soared. And then someone killed the messenger on President Putin’s birthday.

In central Moscow, a gunman killed Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless reporter on Chechnya.

The outcry from the West had barely died down, when Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, a breakaway territory of Georgia.

Moscow said it was protecting its peacekeeping troops. But the tanks kept rolling into Georgia proper.

The war strengthened Mr. Putin to the point he seemed untouchable.

In September, he and President Dmitry Medvedev announced they would switch jobs after presidential elections next March.

But this backroom deal offends many Russians.

After a decade of economic growth, Russia’s new middle class wants more - political freedom.

Connected through the Internet, Russians are joining the largest demonstrations seen here since the fall of communism.

The next one will be December 24.


James Brooke

A foreign correspondent who has reported from five continents, Brooke, known universally as Jim, is the Voice of America bureau chief for Russia and former Soviet Union countries. From his base in Moscow, Jim roams Russia and Russia’s southern neighbors.

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