Conference reports Armageddon averted. Thank you for the music

Baltic Worlds was one of the organizers of the seminar on the breakup of the Soviet Union during the “Global Week” at the University of Gothenburg in November. Here a report from the seminar 2Armageddon Averted: Insiders’ Reports from the Dissolution of the Soviet Union".

Published on on December 21, 2011

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Strolling up the “Avenyn” in Gothenburg one November afternoon I finally reached Stenhammarsalen – a functional but intimate concert hall from the mid 1930s. This was the perfect setting on that particular day for a unique seminar, organized by the University of Gothenburg, on the late Soviet era. In my imagination, warheads, satellites, and concert halls represented the highest degree of compatibility between the East and the West during the Cold War.

But, sitting there in the dark, I also gradually realized that the musical setting underlined that the character of this unique seminar, entitled Armageddon Averted: Insiders’ Reports from the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, was somewhat more musical than historiographical.

The name Armageddon Averted, which the organizers had picked up from Stephen Kotkin’s famous book, could in fact as well have been the name of some forgotten Baroque opera. . . .

And the insiders’ stories and exhilarating details from that evening of December 8, 1991, in the CPSU headquarters in Bela Vezha, when the dismantling of the Soviet Empire was formally decided, did nothing to stop this Baroque stream of associations.

“Armageddon averted”, thus, with former late Soviet political stars Gennady Burbulis, Leonid Kravchuk, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Stanislav Shushkevich in the main roles. And the Swedish journalist and writer Peter Johnson on the scene, waving his arms, shouting, while commenting and underlining the bon mots of the four gentlemen.

With hell burning at their feet and the breeze of salvation inflating their souls, and with a sort of omitted but all-pervading happy end somewhere in the pipeline.

What did our performers actually perform? Wonderful opera. They performed themselves, polyphonically, skillfully, as truly nice and reliable guys. They convinced us that they had hardly ever been communists, a statement which was not surprising coming from Landsbergis, Shushkevich, or Burbulis – but lacked some nuance and complexity coming from a former Soviet leader like Kravchuk, who pretended not to have had access to the Ukrainian Party archives before 1989 and to have been a reader of both “Lenin and Kafka”.

Our understanding of their historical importance and the impact of the Bela Vezha agreement did not become very much clearer than it was before. In fact, did those historical personalities meet there, in Bela Vezha, and write what they wrote because of historical necessity, or did they change history in any essential way on that December evening? This remains still to be elucidated by historians – and maybe also by history itself, since the consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union are still producing contemporary history. Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev come out of the “overcoat” of Bela Vezha.

So, if those wonderful performers there on the scene may not have been the ones who ended the Cold War, nor the ones who averted Armageddon, and did not institute democracy in the post-Soviet space and could never guarantee the statehood and autonomy of the new, independent states that were created as a consequence of the agreement of the Bela Vezha – what did they do?

They created out of a matter they already possessed. With their diverse backgrounds, in that very space-time somewhere in the Belorussian forests, they had a common vision for a better world. Maybe the beauty of their vision was compensatory; maybe it could never become part of an action.

Still – the vision was there, of goodness, democracy, peace and freedom, shared by some prominent anti-Soviet, but still, on that day, Soviet citizens. A vision of a character that had never been expressed before with the same clarity, sentiment, and hope in that part of the world.

It was a brilliant performance. Thank you for the music.