On the End of an Empire

Empires come and go. They have done so since the beginning of history. It is the way of the world, isn’t it? The mighty Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Mongol, Turk, Spanish, French, and English empires all saw the sun set on them. Those who feel that this fate could not possibly happen to their empire are in for a rude historical awakening.

Such a fate befell the empire of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest at the time. As I write this, we have passed the 30 year anniversary of the dissolution of that empire. The story began in August of 1991…well, it actually began much earlier when Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in the USSR and introduced openness and restructuring to Soviet society. The communist party structure that held power was shaken to its core as Gorby’s reforms began to rumble through the 16 republics that made up the empire. The leader wanted to bring true democracy (or, at least, a semblance of it) to the people and those lands. Opposing the communist bureaucratic power structure were grass-roots calls for reform and a desire on the part of many of the republics (specifically the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) for independence from the Soviet state.

In August, 1991, as most Europeans did, Gorbachev went on vacation. That’s when the coup plotters decided to act. The problem was that both sides seemed to choose that moment when the leader was out of town to make their moves. The hard-core communists sought to overthrow Gorbachev and roll back his progressive agenda. The change agents and anti-Soviet groups also decided that it was the perfect time to declare their independence from the USSR. A third party, Moscow Mayor Boris Yeltsin, also stepped in when both of these opposite parties struck.

Meanwhile, Vassily* continued his job at the Kremlin, the Soviet government building complex, because no one told him not to do so. Every day, he made sure that the task he was assigned was carried out. His salary was still paid, so, he really didn’t care what the government was. He had one job, he took it seriously, and he did it well, day in and day out. Oh, when he arrived home during that hot, tumultuous August, he watched the official government news channel as everyone did, but, again, none of that affected his job. Common people like Vassily and his family are often only pawns in the rises and falls of empires, and this case was no exception.

And no one told him to stop what he was doing. Throughout that autumn, when the republics began to leave the Soviet Union, no one advised Vassily to not come to work or to change his job in any way. No one seemed to know what to tell him to do differently. When Yeltsin climbed on the tanks and spoke to the people of Moscow, he kept on with his work. Day in, day out. When Gorbachev returned to the capital and to a crumbling empire, Vassily still did his job.

Finally, in December, 1991, Gorbachev realized that he was the leader of an empire that no longer existed, and he resigned as the last leader of the once-mighty Soviet Union–a gesture that seemed completely empty in one sense. That is when Vassily’s job changed in one major aspect.

That night, December 25, 1991, as the Moscow church bells tolled the end of the Soviet Union, Vassily Pavlichenko climbed the stairs, as he did every day, to the rooftop of the Kremlin, and, for the last time, he lowered the red flag of the Soviet Union that had flown there since 1917.

In its place, he raised the white, blue, and red flag of the nation of Russia.

*Not his real name

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