Collapse and Rebirth:

A Living Archive on the Collapse of the Soviet Union and Beyond

The USSR effectively ceased to exist on December 25, 1991, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, featured above, gave his televised national resignation address, which was widely broadcast and published in leading international news outlets.

The rapid collapse of the USSR was a defining moment as a global superpower dissolved into 15 sovereign countries, brought down by its citizens demands for political and economic freedom. Over three hundred million people of the USSR’s myriad of national, ethnic and religious communities had their lives uprooted, often as the result of conflicting claims to their histories. And unfortunately, too often in the post-Soviet space the winners are busy rewriting history, including distorting their opponents’ claims.

For some, dissolution brought independence and the end of what the majority of the citizens of these new states viewed as the period of colonial rule or government by an occupying power that they understood Soviet rule to represent. For others, it meant becoming a new minority, fearing forced exile and losing previous rights. And tragically for some tens of millions of people it meant living through war or war like conditions when opportunities for statehood clashed with the grievances of colonization and occupation. All of this speaks to the need to preserve the record of how and why this occurred, through the voices and materials of ordinary citizens from these communities and not just from the policy-makers whose decisions impacted their lives. This is now possible given the technological means at our disposal.

As the thirtieth anniversary of these events approaches, it will soon be too late to hear directly from those who participated in them. Their struggles could disappear from history, as some of their accounts are already being removed from their country’s archival collections and written out of the historic narratives. This project tries to fill that gap at least in part through first-hand accounts representing the voices of aggrieved populations of the former Soviet Union, including indigenous communities, ethnic and religious minorities. The digital archive strives to include materials representing multiple and conflicting individual and national narratives. These are drawn from media coverage at the time as well as retrospective views of participants gathered through crowdsourcing and community outreach.

The website is designed to meet the needs of different kinds of readers: descriptive materials for general readers; instructions for students and teachers who want to use the archival material to write their own “stories”; and for specialists a back-end of hard to find newspaper accounts, unpublished biographical materials and rare political ephemera, as well as bibliographic resources. And all this is being made available in a publicly accessible digital form.

We consider this a “Living Archive” as it will preserve the voices of a generation that will otherwise be unheard by people in the US and help preserve their legacy in their home countries as well.