25 Years After the USSR

Television sets manufactured in the USSR would sometimes spontaneously explode. It’s hard to say exactly what the problem was–bad fuses, shoddy workmanship, power surges?–but thousands of TVs caught fire every year. To protect their homes, people would unplug TVs between uses.

On December 25, 1991, there was a collective plugging in of TV sets all across what remained of the  Soviet Union to watch President Mikhail Gorbachev address the nation. He sat behind a desk, tea cup and saucer off to one side, a bare wall behind him, and a red flag slouched on a pole, the yellow sickle and hammer not visible. The scene looked unstately, like a stage in a budget theatre performance.

“Dear fellow countrymen, compatriots,” Gorbachev said, reading from a sheaf of papers, “…I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Citizens of what were already becoming known as the “former Soviet Republics” (by December 25, all but Russia had seceded from the USSR), watched as the Soviet flag was lowered from where it had flown for seven decades over the Kremlin building. Spotlights that once illuminated the sickle and hammer, day and night, now shown on a bare flagpole. What flag would take its place – in Russia, as well as on the flag poles of the 14 other newly-independent nations – was one of many questions to address. People had to rethink nearly every aspect of daily life, from their form of governance, to their concepts about money and private property.

For those who didn’t experience it (like me), it’s impossible to understand how it felt to have your society upended. The past twenty five years have tested the fortitude of many people to weather difficult political, social, and economic forces. Yet, the challenges haven’t been all bad. For the citizens in in nations like Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where the Soviets had oppressed their native traditions, the post-USSR era been a time of cultural rediscovery.


In 2010, I began an unexpected period in my career as a photojournalist that allowed me to travel extensively through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Along the way, I took over 50,000 images. To commemorate 25 years of life after the Soviet Union, I’ve curated a collection of my favorite images that I hope will challenge stereotypes about Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. They leave me with a feeling of respect for what these people have been through. The human condition is inspiring.

Happy New Year!/ С новым годом!/ Жаңа жыл құтты болсын!/ Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе!



One thought on “25 Years After the USSR

  1. Ryan Bell has become a one-person Citizen Diplomat inspiration! Because of this innovation and his creativity and writing skills and photography, these skills, knowledge, and insights have made a significant contribution for Russians and Americans to understand one another much better.

    Ryan’s Citizen Diplomat learning model serves as a coaching-mentoring-teaching guide that universities and other organizations should try to replicate, if possible.

    Thanks to Ryan for all of his great stories!!

    Randy Piper, Ph.D., M.B.A.

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