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Marking 10 Years After Soviet Union's Demise

Ten years ago - December 25, 1991 - marked one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century. It was the day the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist, ending more than 70 years of communist rule and decades of Cold War tensions.

The disintegration led to the creation of several newly-independent nations and new alliances. Yet at the core remains Russia: the once mighty center of the Soviet superpower, now in the throes of change and in search of a new post-Cold War identity.

On a cold winter day, the bells of the Kremlin clock tower ring out over Red Square. The tower has long adorned this historic square, but only in recent years have church hymns again become commonplace.

Public religious worship was not allowed under the atheistic communist state. Now, the little church on the far corner of Red Square is packed with worshippers.

The square also gets plenty of visitors. Fifty-three year old Yevgeny Solomkin comes to Red Square often and remembers being here during Communist holidays.

He says even from childhood he remembers the big parades on May 1 to mark victories of the Communist Revolution.

For decades Red Square was where Soviet leaders watched as row upon row of troops, tanks, missiles and other military hardware paraded by in a show of force designed to impress and intimidate.

Moscow was the core of Soviet might, whose control spread from the Berlin Wall to the Pacific Ocean, from the Arctic Circle to the steppes of Central Asia. The superpower rivalry with the United States and Cold War animosity resulted in tensions and proxy wars that spanned the globe from Cuba to Angola, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

All that has changed. The Soviet superpower is no more. Oddly enough, the beginning of the end was ushered in by a young party functionary, who was determined to open up and reform the system in the 1980s. His name was Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of "perestroika" and "glasnost" became household words around the world.

In a speech in 1989, he signaled an important departure from the Soviet past.

"We have refused the monopoly of truth. We don't think we are necessarily the best and that we are always right in everything and that whoever doesn't agree with us is our enemy. From now on we will be led by the principle of freedom of choice by the principle of dialogue and acceptance," Mr. Gorbachev said.

Mr. Gorbachev never intended to abandon Communism, just reform it. But what followed was the unraveling of the Communist system and the USSR. On August 18, 1991, Communist hard-liners launched a coup - a last ditch effort to hold on to power.

Mr. Gobarchev, vacationing in the Crimea, was placed under house arrest and troops were called out into the streets. Thousands of Russians also came out to demonstrate against the coup. Irina Donskaya was among those outside the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament in Moscow. She says she was angry at the hard-liners, those who had detained Mr. Gorbachev and now wanted to turn back the clock.

"I was angry because Gorbachev gave us a gulp of freedom at that time and [the hard-liners) wanted us to live according to their rules, telling us what we are to think about, how we are to think and even what we should eat and drink. I stood for freedom, if I can say so for freedom to just live my own life, not the life these communist leaders wanted me to live, but my own life," she said.

There to encourage the opponents of the coup and to convince the military not to move against them was Boris Yeltsin, head of the Russian Republic within the USSR. Standing atop a tank outside the White House, Mr. Yeltsin denounced the coup plotters.

"Citizens of Russia, on the night of 18-19 of August, the legally elected president of the country was removed from power. Regardless of the reasons given for his removal, we are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup accordingly, we proclaim all decision and instructions of this committee to be unlawful," Mr. Yeltsin said.

In the end the coup failed, and one by one the former Soviet republics proclaimed their independence. On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

"Dear Compatriots, due to the current situation and considering the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I quit my activities as President of the USSR. I am taking this decision based on my principles. I leave my post in concern, but also with hope, with belief in you, your wisdom and strength of spirit," Mr. Gorbachev said.

Heady days of change and reform followed under Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But there was also growing corruption in high places while the rewards, especially in economic terms, did not come as quickly as most Russians had hoped. Even now many Russians are barely making ends meet and they often despair at how little political prestige their nation enjoys on the world stage.

But Russian journalist and political analyst Masha Lipman says despite these problems and setbacks so much has changed for the better in the past 10 years.

"This is a different world today," she said. "It's an open country with open borders, one can travel even though not everyone can take advantage of it. The political system is entirely different. It is impossible to imagine Russia today without elections. It's a part of democracy that has been adopted by the Russian people, even though civil society is weak ... The extremely important factor is that that a whole generation has grown up without fear, fear of the state," Ms. Lipman said.

Few could have foreseen the effects of "glasnost" and "perestroika." Despite the political and economic reforms he implemented, President Yeltsin became immensely unpopular due in part to growing corruption and in part to the unpopular war in Chechnya and a humiliating Russian defeat in 1996 in the breakaway republic.

In a surprise move on December 31, 1999, he announced his resignation on national television and handed over power to a little known former KGB agent and bureaucrat from St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.

Georgy Satarov was a senior aide to President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. He says the progression from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin to Valdimir Putin is a logical one, tracing the path of a peaceful and bloodless revolution.

"Mikhail Gorbachev started the revolution with a moderate beginning which ended with the coup in August 1991. Then came the more radical stage with Boris Yeltsin who helped lay the fundamentals of Russian democracy and of a free market economy. Then came Valdimir Putin whose action are a continuation of the Yeltsin trend. A revolution is always a weakening of the state. A post-revolutionary period is a strengthening of the state and that is what Putin is doing," Mr. Satarov explained.

Vladimir Putin won an easy election victory in March 2000. He vowed to bring about what he called a "dictatorship of law" and restore some of Russia's glory and prestige. He has set about centralizing the power of the state, reining in the often unwieldy regional governments and consolidating economic gains.

His supporters applaud his efforts, his critics say he is a benign dictator at best. It seems most Russians support him. According to opinion polls, Mr. Putin enjoys an approval rating of some 70 percent. Most recently, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, President Putin took another bold step. He quickly threw his support behind the United States and is seen as having moved Russia squarely into the Western camp.

But, says political analyst Masha Lipman, despite bold initiatives Mr. Putin is dealing with a major weakness: a passive and apathetic public not used to taking the initiative.

"What is needed is a public awakening and call it a change of generations. The sad fact is that the old attitudes did not go away. It's true that the new generation did not have a history of living under a totalitarian regime, but this is not a generation with a strong urge to make the country better," she said.

Ms. Lipman said there is no going back to the old communist days, but she says too many Russians still simply look to the state to make things better.

As for Red Square, for many Russians it definitely remains a symbol of the glory of Russia.

Emma Scherbakova, 52, remembers coming here for demonstrations. While she is of the "Soviet" generation she says she feels pride for her country and she says Red Square is associated with the power of the state.

Her daughter Olga sees it in a more historical context. She says it goes back much farther, to the power of the tsars. And she says it's also a place where people now gather today to celebrate the New Year.

And then there is seven year old Zhanna Ardzhimanova, who is unencumbered by history or politics.

"Red Square is beautiful," she said. "It's nice both in winter and summer."

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001