Except for a fishing trip to northern Canada in the 1960s, my first visit to a foreign country was to the old Soviet Union in March 1985. It was the month in which Soviet leadership passed from the aging old guard of communist hardliners into the hands of a younger and less rigid generation personified by Mikhail Gorbachev. Almost immediately, life loosened up.
The Fall of Communism
Between 1985 and 1991, I traveled four more times to the USSR. On my fifth visit, two weeks before the August 1991 failed coup against Gorbachev, I stopped in Kiev, Ukraine, and participated in a mass demonstration for Ukrainian independence from the Evil Empire. Other former satellites from Poland to Romania had already liberated themselves, and in December 1991, the USSR itself ceased to exist. Ukraine and 14 other constituent parts of the USSR became independent nations again.
Transformative ideas, circumstances, and personalities—the three elements that must be aligned to produce big changes—assembled in an extraordinary constellation.
Those were heady days. Transformative ideas, circumstances, and personalities—the three elements that must be aligned to produce big changes—assembled in an extraordinary constellation. It yielded the most explosive geopolitical alterations of my lifetime. As a person whose first appreciation of liberty sprung from a teenage aversion to communist tyranny, witnessing its collapse was downright intoxicating.
After 1991, it was 25 years before I went back to Moscow and St. Petersburg. That was in March 2016. Then, in November 2018, I went again, and something I saw will forever affect me as much as did the tumultuous events of 1989-91.
The Rise of Liberty
I was invited to Russia last year by my friend Vera Kichanova, author of this FEE piece entitled “There Is a Grassroots Revolution Brewing in Moscow.” Vera is a brilliant young activist and the first member of the Russian Libertarian Party to be elected to public office. Russia under Putin may be freer than Russia under Brezhnev, but liberty is still very much under duress. You can glimpse that from her short piece here about arrests made at the Adam Smith Forum where I spoke.
I arrived at the conference hall on Saturday morning, November 4, to talk about liberty and character to an audience of young people. It was the largest gathering of Russian libertarians in the post-communist era. There were some 1,600 students crammed into the main hall and an adjacent overflow room. Every seat was taken. Several hundred stood on their feet for the whole day or sat on the window sills. Many others tried to get in but left for want of a place to sit or stand. It was electrifying!
One of the best-known among pro-liberty dissidents in Russia these days is Mikhail Svetov. A courageous 34-year-old blogger, Mikhail has been in and out of jail for expressing his beliefs. Like Vera, he is not afraid to speak truth to power. On my way to the conference that Saturday morning, I sat down with Mikhail for an interview in his apartment. I invite you to watch it here:
The world needs to know that ideas of liberty are alive and growing in Putin’s Russia. Brave, young libertarians are leading the charge. I applaud them. I encourage them. And I ask you to do the same. Check out the web site of the Adam Smith Forum here.
Россия будет свободной!