Vladimir Putin: The Soviet Union’s collapse wasn’t to blame for Russia’s problems

In a speech last week, Vladimir Putin attributed part of Russia’s woes to the demise of the Soviet Union, arguing that the effects of its breakup had not been properly accounted for.

“We don’t know how extensive this crisis is and why it didn’t occur in the Soviet Union,” Putin said at the opening of an investment forum in Saint Petersburg. “In the United States, Europe, China, no other country is suffering as much from the failure of the attempts of those who survived the collapse of the Soviet Union to build a new model of development.”

He pointed to a lack of data, citing that those issues had persisted despite subsequent reforms. A Russian prime minister said in 2017 that the country was officially on the brink of “social catastrophe.”

Putin argued the reason the collapse happened was that in the early years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s finances were fueled by a positive environment of great domestic production — a narrative that he touted over the past eight years.

“In a country where both to construct homes and to construct factories and shipyards had become virtually an almost infinite source of employment, many people simply didn’t have the means to pay back the debts incurred through looting by the expropriation of our industries,” he said.

Despite the public popularity for the idea that the failure of the communist system was in part to blame for the ensuing economic difficulties, Kremlin critics say Putin’s words have long been intended to hide Russia’s ongoing structural problems.

Some foreign observers have suggested Putin’s failure to see the evidence more clearly may stem from the fact that his own identity has been partially shaped by the Soviet regime.

“Much of Russia’s recent history was shaped by the Soviet Union. A much greater percentage of the leadership came from the period after the Soviet collapse than that following the collapse itself,” the National Security Archive director Scott Horton said in an interview with Russia Insider. “[President] Putin may be able to hear the logic of the argument because he grew up with it, but it’s hard to discern inside a personality that is driven by such a fixed idea of identity.”

But more recently, he added, some may have been persuaded that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a factor in Russia’s international decline.

“It’s difficult to know if or when Putin genuinely understands the historical circumstances that defined him,” he said. “I think it’s hard to unsee them.”

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