The Soviet Union died a prolonged and painful death. Initially forged upon dreams of a more equal, socialist world, its eventual demise took more than two years, fuelled by the preceding decades of economic mismanagement, political repression, and imperial zealousness.
Nations began tearing themselves away from the bloc in 1990, when Lithuania and Latvia declared their independence. Their Baltic neighbour, Estonia, followed suit on 20 August 1991, triggering an avalanche of similar declarations from other nations asserting their own sovereignty: Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan.
By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had splintered into 15 newly-formed countries. As new, capitalist economies and ostensibly democratic ballot boxes were unveiled, many hungered to get down to the real work: building freer and more prosperous societies.
In this new world, artists had never been more in demand for the precarious job of nation-building. Generations of creatives had been at the frontline of rebellion against Soviet rule, chafing against censorship, state quotas, and the repression of national identities. Yet just as corruption, conflict, and economic instability appeared to plague once-hopeful electorates, financial woes and, in some countries, the reemergence of oppression and war, soon found their way into artists’ studios. Just as the Soviet Union before them, many of these newly-independent states found that building an idealistic new nation is no easy task.
Three tumultuous decades on from the end of the Soviet Union, the newly formed nations have grown to maturity. Many have overcome their challenges, and are claiming their place on the forefront of global culture. Others are similarly dynamic, but continue to shake off the legacies of stilted, unimaginative arts education, and meddling, controlling oligarchs and politicians. Spread across Eurasia, from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, they are now vastly different places. Arguably, they always were.
In After the fall: 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union, The Calvert Journal is inviting creatives to reflect on the last three decades: the art that has shaped individual nations, the experiences that has formed them as artists, and even if the term “post-Soviet” itself has relevance at all in the modern world. While we’re launching this project on 20 August — the day that Estonia redeclared its statehood in 1991 — we’ll be keeping it updated throughout 2021, releasing new articles and features to celebrate each individual nation on their independence days.
But the project also seeks to look to the future. All of these countries — and the artists within them — are still forging new paths. Amidst challenges old and new, there are always opportunities.