The Birth of ‘Absurdistan’

How I experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Those of us who write history have a way of sanitizing the past. It can’t be helped, I suppose. After all, it’s the job of the historian to make sense of events, to find coherence amid the messiness of human doings. To understand the past is, to a certain degree, to tame it, smoothing off the rough edges and seeking pattern amid the noise. Yet surely the textures of life, those random details that are such an important part of our experience, are worth preserving, too.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. This month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event that I was lucky enough to witness from a privileged perspective. In late November 1991, I arrived in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to help set up a government-sponsored business education program. I stayed for the next 13 months — long enough to witness the collapse of the Soviet empire and the birth of new nations from its ashes.

It was an extraordinary experience, and I made a point of keeping a detailed journal of everything I witnessed. But while my notes capture some of the same landmark moments that feature in the best scholarly accounts of the period — most notably Serhii Plokhy’s The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union — they do so from a decidedly more modest perspective.


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I should probably note that I wasn’t around on Aug. 19, when communist hard-liners launched their coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Though the plotters had hoped to coerce him into re-establishing the hegemony of the Soviet Communist Party, their failure to do so ended up merely speeding up the process of dissolution they had hoped to thwart.

I arrived in the then Kazakh capital of Almaty, some 200 miles from the Chinese border, just a few days before Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for the independence of their republic on Dec. 1, 1991. I wondered, as did my friends, how the Soviet Union could possibly survive the loss of the Ukrainians, who made up its second-most populous republic. The answer came soon enough. On Dec. 8, the news emerged that Russian President Boris Yeltsin had met with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to discuss plans for dismantling the Soviet Union and replacing it with a sort of loose confederation — the Commonwealth of Independent States. Would that include only the three Slavic republics, or would others be allowed to join as well? (The Kazakhs, whose economy was deeply dependent on the industrial centers of Russia and the other European republics, were especially worried about this.)

I vividly remember sitting in front of the TV in our snowed-in government residence, late on the evening of Christmas Day, as Gorbachev tendered his resignation. I wasn’t especially sorry to see the Soviet Union go, given its long history of oppression and mass murder, but there was no denying the human drama of Gorbachev’s situation: The man who had brought undreamed-of freedoms to his compatriots was now being dispatched by them into the political wilderness. After Gorbachev ended his speech, we watched dumbfounded as the guardians of the Kremlin lowered the hammer-and-sickle flag for the last time and then replaced it with the Russian tricolor.

Most Westerners, like me, were thrilled by this turn of events. But my friends in Almaty — Russians, Kazakhs, and a bewildering variety of other “ex-Soviet citizens” — were more confused than anything. The laws, institutions, and habits of thought that had structured their lives were crashing down around them, and it was far from clear what was supposed to take their place. Why had all this happened? What did the future hold? How were they going to make a living? And what were they supposed to believe? Younger people and those politically opposed to the old system found these questions exciting. Others found them horrific.

Coping with the constantly shifting reality sometimes resulted in surreal outcomes. A friend in Moscow told me a joke making the rounds: “There are two scenarios for our present predicament, a realistic one and a fantastic one,” he said. “In the realistic one, aliens land from outer space and solve all our problems for us. In the fantastic one, we roll up our shirtsleeves and start fixing everything ourselves.” Another friend coined a term for the everyday craziness: For him, the now-not-quite-Soviet Union was simply “Absurdistan.”

Spreading economic chaos didn’t help. The rigid centralization of the Soviet system proved a massive liability at a moment of rapid change. Soaring inflation ate away at pensions and savings accounts. Shortages of fuel and groceries were everywhere. The Russians were rumored to be holding back the electricity they normally transferred to Kazakhstan; the Ukrainians didn’t want to share their much-needed grain. “Eighty-year-old dies in line for butter,” read one Almaty newspaper headline soon after my arrival. “Frantic shoppers ignore body for one hour.” An American friend who was booked on a flight out had to delay his departure for several days because the airport ran out of jet fuel. The workers at a television factory got into some sort of big dispute with their sole foreign investor, a South Korean businessman who had irked them with his highhanded approach, and armed themselves with Kalashnikovs to defend their plant.

Something called “market economics” was supposed to bring relief to all these problems. Everyone had heard the phrase, but no one really understood what it was supposed to mean, since they’d never really seen its workings first hand. For gangsters and certain well-connected politicians, it seemed to translate into “grab whatever you can while the moment’s right.” Even some foreigners were getting into the act. A couple of Americans (ex-military, I was told) had somehow managed to set up the city’s first casino in the basement of a local hotel. (A Russian friend of mine had drinks there with a couple of Kazakhs who bragged about selling fake radioactive materials to a couple of shifty Iranians.) For most people, the “market” remained a force of chaos, a source of mystery and fear, not something that would lead to a better life. One man I saw on the way to Moscow had picked two books for his in-flight reading: Principles of Market Economics and The Practice of Extrasensory Perception.

Left: The author, right, during a meeting with World War II veterans in May 1992. Right: Recently arrived U.S. diplomats visit the author's institute in 1992.

My own project, the Kazakhstan Institute of Management and Economics, aspired to help locals make sense of it all. With promised funding from the European Community (as it was then known), we hoped to hire some foreign professors with an eye to awarding our first MBA degrees at the end of fall 1992. I took one early arrival, an American economist, on a tour of the local economy. “Wouldn’t you like to have more customers?” he asked one bewildered shop owner. “Why would I want that?” the man answered. “To make more money,” the American said. “Why would I want to do that?” the man replied. Such encounters drove home the message that banishing the world’s greatest empire had been a cinch compared with transforming its economy.

It’s important to remember that the citizens of the Soviet Union bid the empire farewell without, in most cases, having a particularly clear idea of where they were supposed to go next. The three Baltic republics, which boasted well-defined national identities, closeness to Western Europe, and even a fairly recent memory of statehood, hadn’t even waited for Gorbachev’s resignation to declare their independence. Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, now faced the task of redefining itself in a radically changed world. For the five Central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan, ethnic identities and national traditions were much blurrier. Should the Kazakhs, whose republic was fabulously well-endowed with oil and other natural wealth, aim to become a market-oriented liberal democracy? Should it adopt a form of despotic capitalism, like Singapore or Malaysia? Or was it more suited to a sort of sultanist kleptocracy, à la the Persian Gulf?

When I attended a Dec. 17 rally in Almaty’s central square that was a billed as a celebration of the country’s newly attained independence, I was struck by the conspicuous lack of nationalist passion: President Nursultan Nazarbayev took to the dais to address a small and notably unenthusiastic crowd, which obediently dispersed as soon as he left. (A few radical Kazakh nationalists then tried to make a speech their own — but, fancy that, the microphones had stopped working.)

Left: Camels walk through the center of Almaty in 1992. E. Center: A Soviet Union sign in front of an apartment building in Almaty in 1992. Right: The author standing in front of a Communist Party sanatorium in Kazakhstan in 1992.

Later in the same day, the republic’s vice president invited me and a few colleagues over for a meeting to discuss plans for our institute. As a top member of the Soviet Communist Party until just a few weeks before, he was entitled to an immense office with 15-foot ceilings, a conference table that sat 25, and one wall covered by a vast relief map of Kazakhstan and its environs, each industrial facility marked by light bulbs. Portraits of Lenin and Gorbachev hung on the wall behind his desk. (When I returned to his office a few weeks later, Gorbachev had vanished, but Lenin was still there.)

At the end of our discussion, I happened to ask the vice president about some colorful fabric swatches lying on a table in one corner. “Ah,” he said, “I’m the head of the design committee for the new flag. They were in here a little while ago, and we were tossing around some ideas.” Kazakhstan had declared its independence the day before, but the new country could hardly hope to take its anticipated seat at the United Nations without having a decent flag at the ready. He showed us several versions, finishing with the one he liked best. It soon became the official flag, and I think of that day every time I see it.

So that was one problem solved. But figuring out national symbols certainly didn’t offer answers to all the questions. I was reminded of that a few weeks later, in mid-January 1992, when I paid a visit to the Almaty residential registration office. My Soviet visa was about to expire, and I needed to get it renewed.

The bureaucrat in charge gratefully accepted the proffered box of expensive chocolates, and then we got down to business. Sure, she could issue my new visa, but she’d have to impose some new conditions, just to be on the safe side.

It took a while to understand her caution. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Russia, which until just two weeks before had been part of the same country, now registered as “abroad”?

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging apologetically. “We don’t really know yet. We haven’t really figured it out.”

Top photo credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Christian Caryl is the editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in conjunction with the London-based Legatum Institute. A former reporter at Newsweek, he's also the author of Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. He is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and a contributing editor at the National Interest. (@ccaryl)