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25 Years After Collapse Of Soviet Union, Many Russians Remain Nostalgic


Twenty-five years ago today the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, resigned. And the next day, with the stroke of a pen, the USSR was dissolved. As the 15 constituent republics went their separate ways, the Russian republic remained as heir to the lost superpower. Our Russia correspondent Lucian Kim is in Moscow for this anniversary and joins me on the line now.

Hello, Lucian.


CHANG: Before we get to the anniversary, there was some tragic news today in Russia. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?

KIM: Well, what we know right now is that a military airplane carrying at least 92 people crashed into the Black Sea as it was heading out to Syria. And what's especially tragic about it is there was a famous military choir and a very well-known philanthropist on board.

CHANG: Well, were Russians planning on marking this 25th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR?

KIM: No. There weren't really any plans like that. It's not an anniversary that people here like to remember. Many people might recall that back in 2005, Vladimir Putin famously said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

In an interview with a German TV - a German journalist then asked him about that quote, and Putin said something very interesting. He said, we Russians say that if you don't regret the collapse, you don't have a heart. But if you do regret it, you don't have a brain. So he was really showing kind of the ambivalent feeling in the country. A poll conducted earlier this year by the Levada-Center - it's an independent polling agency - showed that 56 percent of Russians regret the collapse while 28 percent did not.

CHANG: I want to play a little tape from President Obama's recent news conference. This is how he described Russia.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don't innovate.

CHANG: OK. But now with Russia hacking the Democratic Party - according to the CIA - with the aim of helping Donald Trump and with Russian outlets spreading fake news, what do you think? Has President Obama underestimated Vladimir Putin and Russia?

KIM: Obama has consistently downplayed the role of Russia. And it's certainly true what he said about the economy. In the long run, Russia just doesn't have a sustainable economic model. When oil prices were high, nobody really cared about that innovation. And Putin himself has said that the economy needs to reorient.

I think the thing that Obama missed is that Putin - and also many other people in Russia - still think like a great power. And it's really that disconnect between what Russia has the ambition to do and what it can actually do that has brought us into the current situation.

CHANG: Soviet communism - it supplanted religion. It suppressed dissent. It became the reigning ideology for more than 70 years. What has replaced communism as Russia's national identity now that it's been a quarter century since the collapse of the USSR?

KIM: Well, Ailsa, I think that's really the crucial question. Right? I mean, the Soviet Union, as you said, consisted of 15 republics. Most of them had a very strong idea of national identity - the Lithuanians or the Georgians. The thing is that the Russians, who were the dominant nationality, just never really thought about their own identity. They were the empire.

So in some way, you could say that the last 25 years have been a search for identity. And Putin has tried to provide certain markers, for example, support for the Russian Orthodox Church or instilling pride from the Russian or Soviet victory in World War II. But it's really a balancing act. Russia is still a multiethnic country and has a very complex tapestry of ethnicities and religions. So really, I think the trauma of losing an empire back in 1991, in many ways, still molds and affects what we're seeing today.

CHANG: NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim.

Thank you, Lucian and merry Christmas to you.

KIM: Thanks, Ailsa. Merry Christmas to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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