It brought the end of a political and economic way of life that had dominated Russia and the Soviet Union since 1917. Subsequently the far-from-smooth transition from communism to capitalism has been fraught with many pitfalls, and its eventual success is by no means sure.
Coming to terms with its loss of superpower status, coupled with the loss of satellite states and the Eastern European empire, has been no easy task. In fact, many things trouble the Russians: a beleaguered national government; NATO expansion; an economy in tatters; a culture suffering from severe social strains; the worst potato and grain harvest in years; and the threat of imminent starvation in the coming months.
This last prospect most concerns Western nations. After all, Russia still has the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal. As Michael Binyon and Charles Bremmer reported for The Times (of London), "Russia is on the brink of severe food shortages that could pose a security threat to the West, intelligence sources have concluded. The fears confirm Moscow's predictions that supplies could run out in weeks."
However, the security threat is not the only thing to be worried about. The Times continued: "The worry in Western capitals is that food shortages could lead to demonstrations and rioting that might topple the government. This could lead to unpredictable political consequences [including a potential return to communism] as well as the possible flight of thousands of refugees to the West."
To help meet this threat, the European Union has proposed an emergency food package of some 285 million British pounds to stave off potential starvation. But even this solution troubles Western observers. "EU officials have said that if aid found its way into the wrong hands, it could end up back on world markets, helping no one," continued The Times. "Russia must promise not to re-export the food."
Some 70 years of communist rule is not going to be overcome easily. The needed transitions have caused, and will continue to exact, much suffering. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev wrote this year: "Russia's horizons stretch far beyond the desperate plans of those who see the year 2000 as a life-and-death political watershed." For everyone's sake, let us hope he is right. (Sources: The Times [London], International Herald Tribune [London], The Financial Times [London], The Houston Chronicle.)