USSR

Astronomy of the Bizarre in Eurasia

I discovered a little late during college that I really liked astronomy. Too bad, but at least I also loved what I did study.

I remember learning how stars are believed to form and change and die, and how that process creates what we’re made out of (carbon, nitrogen, iron, etc.). My favorite class was “Astronomy of the Bizarre,” where we studied things like black holes and quasars.

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Courtesy pixabay.com

When we covered supernovas, it occurred to me that this could be a metaphor for what had happened to the Soviet Union.

In one theoretical version of events, a super-massive star gradually burns through its fuel, with the nuclear reaction turning the star’s material into heavier and heavier elements. At some point the pull of gravity within the core overcomes the outward pressure generated by the star’s heat, and the star collapses under its own weight.

It immediately rebounds in an enormous explosion that sends a shell of matter flying off into space. The remaining core can become a neutron star or a black hole, depending on the star’s mass.

If it’s massive enough, the core becomes a black hole. Even light can’t escape from it, and anything that comes too close gets sucked in—being torn apart in the process. A neutron star is not a threat, but it can become a black hole if it steals enough mass from a nearby star. That in itself qualifies as bizarre.

Binary system with one star taking mass from the other

Binary system with one star accreting mass from the other. Courtesy wikimedia

You could say the USSR collapsed under its own weight, too, and it lost its outer shell of Soviet republics. Those turned into Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the other so-called Newly Independent States.

I used to wonder during the 1990s if Russia would prove to be a black hole and threaten to pull its shell back in. Eventually it looked like the answer was no. Moscow has made things hard for some of its neighbors, but they have stayed independent. Whether Moscow and the Russian people accept that independence is another question.

However, this year things have started to look different, considering that Russia has actually begun stealing “matter.” It has taken Crimea from Ukraine, and who knows what Putin will do next. Russia may turn into a black hole after all.

You’re Not The Boss Of Me

Putin subtle bird

Russia’s prickly president, Vladimir Putin

The expression “You’re not the boss of me!” has always bothered me from a grammatical point of view, but it’s been on my mind (on the mind of me?) since the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea story started making the news. It captures my impression of Moscow’s attitude toward Washington and perhaps the West in general.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Russian officials have emphasized their desire for Equal Partnership when interacting with us, and not being dictated to. “We have our own interests, thank you very much, and do not feel the need to do things your way.” They’ve complained about the unipolar world order that resulted when the USSR collapsed, and they have constantly pushed for establishing a multipolar system that would give them more of a voice in international affairs.

They’ve also asserted since then that Russia remains a great power, if no longer a superpower. In other words, “We must be reckoned with, we will not be relegated to the kids’ table, and need we remind you that we still have nuclear weapons?”

Scar Tissue

Rhetoric aside, it’s fair to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Russia. We know Putin has said he considers it one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. Whatever you may believe about who won or lost the Cold War, the aftermath meant political, economic, social, and psychological upheaval for Russians and many others. Not only were people having trouble surviving, but Russia was no longer viewed as a formidable opponent, as the USSR had been. Russia was actually feared for its weakness and the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to keep nuclear material out of the hands of radicals or smugglers.

Crimea has shown that this scar tissue is obviously still relevant. In recent weeks, the Russian press has run plenty of stories about what the annexation of Crimea means for Russia and the world, good and bad. An editorial in Vedomosti said it is “presented by the authorities and accepted by the [Russian] population as an answer to defeat in the Cold War.” The paper says it might seem odd that 90% of Russians support the annexation, according to VTsIOM, but “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

An earlier editorial from the same paper wrote, “Vladimir Putin can feel triumphant. Russia refused to follow rules” established in the Belovezha Accords that formally ended the USSR, which Putin “considered unfair. He demonstrated his leadership in the former Soviet space, showing his wavering neighbors his readiness to energetically oppose the West.”

“Leader among the Losers”

Not everyone in Russia is euphoric, however. For example, writer and psychologist Leonid Radzikhovsky was apparently very angry about what this move will cost Russia. After the UN General Assembly approved a resolution rejecting the Crimean referendum on independence, Radzikhovsky railed in a blog post that Russia had voluntarily taken its place at the head of the global “F students.” The 10 countries that voted with Russia against the resolution included “democratic beggars” like North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former Soviet republics that depend completely on Moscow — Belarus and Armenia.

It’s sad, he said: “The USSR held a similar position, but it still occupied Eastern Europe. And like the Russian Federation, it knew how to build relations only on the basis of brute force and subordination.”

He criticized the pridefulness that says it’s “better to follow your own path at the head of the losers (which Russian society deeply despises…) than to be one among the masses of polite Western countries.”

Ouch.