Me, the Kremlin, and the Fall of an Empire: Moscow, 1991

In the summer of 1991, I toured the Soviet Union with a group of “student ambassadors.”

Just a few months later, that entity no longer existed. The U.S.S.R. had collapsed, splintered into 15 separate states.

Student Ambassadors

We crossed 11 time zones over four weeks, traveling by train, bus, and plane. We went as far east as Irkutsk, Siberia, north of the Mongolian Border, to Lake Baikal, the deepest lake on Earth. We traveled to Almaty, Kazakhstan and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a country that borders Afghanistan. We visited Tallinn, Estonia, rerouted from Latvia, our original destination, due to political turmoil. We had entered the U.S.S.R by train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, then still known as Leningrad.

Our last stop on the tour was Moscow, where we went to the Russian Circus and attended a dinner theater where I got tipsy on Russian Vodka.

Me and friends in Red Square, summer 1991
Me (right) and friends in Red Square, summer 1991, wearing our “People to People Student Ambassador” polos. My bag bears the “People to People” logo.

I also descended into the dark, dramatic mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, “founder of the Russian Communist Party, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, and architect and first head of the Soviet state1.” I had expected some signs of decay, but no, he was, of course, preserved perfectly, as if immortal, lying suited and dignified underneath Red Square.

A Failed Coup

Two weeks after our group returned to the states, I sat in my family’s living room watching TV images of the place I’d so recently visited. In the very space I’d milled around days before, a naive teenage tourist, the biggest news story in the world was transpiring: protesters packed Red Square, putting their bodies in front of tanks approaching the Kremlin. A group of political hardliners were mounting a coup. Gorbachev was being held at his dacha in the Crimea. All of his recent reforms seemed on the verge of reversal and the threat of a rapid and brutal return to previous repression loomed.

But the ill-conceived coup failed, and soon after that, the entire Soviet Union collapsed.

Leningrad became St. Petersburg again. And Lenin himself–whose body I’d recently seen, his skin waxen and glowing under the artificial lights–was literally toppled from his perch as citizens tore down statues across his former domain.

Violent Endings and Disintegrations

The regime my great uncle Stefan had fled at the end of WWII was no more. It had fallen, disintegrated, though the body of its founder was, and still is, meticulously preserved, as if something precious and pure could be salvaged from the wreckage of history or the principle of change itself could be held back indefinitely.

Lenin’s preserved body outlasted the government he founded and remains in Red Square to this day.

Throughout history, some regimes have ended with great violence and some have disintegrated, as if the passage of time had worn them through like the fabric of a garment. Born in Eastern Europe between world wars, my great uncle Stefan experienced and survived many violent endings, and I had unknowingly experienced a brief moment in time when a world power, an empire, stood quietly on the brink of its own demise.
___
1“Vladimir Lenin.” Biography.com.
https://www.biography.com/people/vladimir-lenin-9379007 (accessed May 28, 2017).

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