Growing up, we knew that the world had two superpowers - the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), better known as the Soviet Union.
I believed that the USSR was stronger because it had more letters! Both nuclear-armed, the two superpowers just sabre-rattled with nuclear tests. They recruited other countries to their camps.
They gave them either weapons or other aid like training their manpower. But for decades, they never fought each other directly except through proxies like in the Vietnam war.
USSR was the dream that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had envisioned in their 1848 communist manifesto. They wrote it in London of all places. While the United Kingdom (UK) was exporting textiles and other merchandise, the two gentlemen exported an ideology.
It is not clear why they did not test it in the UK or Germany where they came from or lived respectively.
Paradoxically, both were dead by the time communism was finding root in the USSR.
The Russian Revolution (1917-1923) ended the Tsarist monarchy.
Communism easily filled the political vacuum and flowered for the next 50 years. It was the antithesis of capitalism. Governments owned most assets, including land and in some cases, even your thoughts.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm and “1984” are the best satires about communism and its excesses.
For 50 years, we never knew what has happened in this vast region - from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Controlling information was the hallmark of the Soviet Union’s communist regime, just as we do not know what’s happening in North Korea. A few episodes gave us an idea of what was happening. One was the Cuban missile crisis of 1961 where the USSR backed down.
The second was Afghanistan where the Soviet Union fought for a decade and finally withdrew just like the Britons a hundred years earlier and the Americans last year.
I would love to visit this country of pomegranates. Why has no one ever subdued it? The two episodes left no doubt that the USSR was weaker than it was portrayed. It just needed to be shaken for the truth to emerge.
Fast forward to 1985 when 55-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev became the Secretary-General and later USSR President, he quickly noted that the Soviet Union needed to change, more like Kenya under one-party rule.
One change was openness or glasnost. The other was economic restructuring and perestroika. This opened Pandora’s box. With the long-held grudge by far-flung regions against the centre, the power in Moscow came to the surface. They saw an opportunity to claim their independence, and they did. Gorbachev’s intention was probably good.
I doubt if he wanted to dissolve the Soviet Union. He realised that the Soviet Union wouldn’t go on as it was. But he underestimated the power of the forces allied against him.
The most potent power was emotional, pent-up for 50 years. The Soviet Union was a forced marriage, and a lack of innovation and growth gnawed at its citizens’ spirit.
Within a year into his presidency in 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved into 15 republics, with Russia as the epicentre and inheritor of nuclear weapons. America was left as a lonely superpower.
It’s the end of the old Soviet in 1991 that haunts Russia today. Russian President Vladimir Putin would love to go against the tide of history and rebuild the old Soviet Union.
He still longs for the prestige that went with the label “superpower.” Gorbachev, who made all this happen, died on August 30 at the age of 91. Curiously, the West paid glowing tributes to him. Not so surprising because he opened up the country to Western investment.
That came out clearly when the Ukraine-Russia war broke out and American and other Western businesses left in droves. The old Soviet Union was a virgin market for American and other Western brands.
We could debate what ended the Soviet Union, called “the evil empire” by President Ronald Reagan.
We are sure the dream of Karl Marx became a nightmare. He forgot that the government that was to control everything was made of human beings and their weaknesses.
Others say the star war system proposed but never developed by Ronald Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union as they tried to compete. But the main reason why the Soviet Union died was that communism was a contradiction.
You can’t control people and expect them to be innovative and creative. Igor Sikorsky, the inventor of the helicopter, came from the Soviet Union and so did Sergey Brin one of the founders of Google. The list is long.
It’s a trap many governments and firms get into. Over-controlling people kills innovation and subdues creativity. It seems Marx and Engels forgot governments are made of people.
Covid-19 demonstrated how governments are always ready and willing to take more power, given a chance.
One reason why our economy flourished during the Kibaki era was because of freedom after long years of KANU rule. The new Constitution ushered in more freedom.
This freedom is being replaced by fear. Can anyone explain? The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) lost because of the belief that it was timed to roll back some of these freedoms.
Gorbachev will be remembered as the man who ended the Cold War and dissolved USSR, the bastion of communism or a failed experiment.
He was born in 1931 in Russia and educated at Moscow State University - graduating with a law degree.
He may not have ended the Soviet Union single-handedly, but he was the trigger. He left a legacy that will outlive him. We could call him a history-maker. But events in Ukraine seem to suggest he could be viewed differently.
A man who let the Soviet power and superpower status dissipate. His decision to dissolve the Soviet Union confirms what we have said, history has no manners and rarely respects anyone.
Like a river, it sometimes charts its path. I wish I could listen to a conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wherever they are today.