Russia's Post-Soviet Journey

From Europe to Eurasia

During a rehearsal for a Victory Day parade, Moscow, May 2012. Denis Sinyakov / REUTERS

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the hope among those Russians who welcomed its demise was that the newly created Russian Federation would return to Europe. Russia's victorious liberals and democrats dreamed of a market economy and Western political freedoms, while the bulk of the population longed for well-stocked supermarkets and the post-imperial, post-ideological stability of countries such as Germany and Sweden.

A quarter-century later, after a tumultuous economic and political transition, Russia has, in fact, moved away from Europe. Russian leaders regard their country as a self-sustained civilization related to Europe yet clearly separate from it. This worldview calls into question not just the legacies of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom looked at Europe as a model for Russia's own development, but also much of the Europeanizing Peter the Great's, as well. The key to understanding this shift lies in the Russian elite's and Russian public's experiences with their European counterparts over the last 25 years.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, August 1991.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, August 1991. Gennady Galperin / REUTERS


In the first years after the collapse of the USSR, there was hardly a European or Euro-Atlantic club that Russian leaders did not try to join. They made NATO and the European Union their prime targets, surprising those groups' existing members with their interest and forcing them, in view of Russia’s proximity and size, to meet them halfway through institutional partnerships. Those arrangements promised a great deal but did not offer the level of inclusion and involvement in decision making that Moscow coveted. Russia was, instead, admitted to the continent's second-tier bodies, such as the Council of Europe, which watches over the maintenance of democratic values and human rights. It also joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, along with all of the other former Soviet republics, thus collectively inheriting the seat on a forum that the USSR cofounded in 1975.

With Cold War–era restrictions gone,

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