FLASHBACK: How the Media Covered the Demise of the U.S.S.R.

December 23rd, 2023 8:45 AM

It was 32 years ago — on Christmas Day, December 25, 1991 — that the world rejoiced at the final dissolution of the Soviet Union after seven decades in which the totalitarian communist state inflicted war, poverty and despair on its own people and the rest of the world.

The end had been in sight since communist hardliners failed in their coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev four months earlier. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and throngs of ordinary citizens stood against the coup, and Gorbachev was freed after 48 hours of house arrest. Following the coup, power quickly flowed from the communist party and the central Soviet government to the U.S.S.R.’s 15 individual republics, of which Russia was by far the largest.

For a world that had for decades feared the Cold War might lead to a global thermonuclear apocalypse, this was the best possible outcome — for the long-suffering people of the now-defunct Soviet Union, as well as those in the free nations they threatened. But some in the media refused to blame the communist system for its failures, even as they treated Gorbachev, the last communist, better than his Western counterparts and his anti-communist successors.

The sniping began in August 1991, after Yeltsin’s forces thwarted the coup and rescued Gorbachev from captivity. The next step was to dismantle the communist party’s architecture of oppression, which drew some weird media protests. “A purge is a purge, and even if it’s Boris Yeltsin conducting the purge and the coup plotters who are purged, I think that’s a setback for the Soviet Union,” NPR’s Linda Wertheimer griped on CNN’s Capital Gang on August 24.  

“Yeah, one thing I don’t like is he’s shut down Pravda [the official communist party newspaper],” Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift echoed that same day on The McLaughlin Group. “Not that I’m any big fan of Pravda, but I think that is flirting with censorship.”

On the August 23 Crossfire on CNN, CBS’s Russia expert Stephen Cohen warned about a post-communist “witch hunt,” adding: “You will see a blood bath in Russia like you have never seen before.”

Never before? The blood bath of Stalin’s Great Purge killed between 950,000 and 1.2 million in the late 1930s, so Cohen’s expectations were set a tad too high for the post-communist “witch hunts.”

“There is a danger that the forces of democracy, as they are called, will now go too far. There is a spirit of revenge in the air,” former New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith echoed on ABC’s Good Morning America on August 26. “They may get into witch hunts where they’re actually having kangaroo courts.”

On August 21, the day the coup collapsed, NBC Nightly News commentator John Chancellor bizarrely attempted to absolve communist mismanagement from the economic misery they caused: “[The Soviet Union is] short of soap, so there are lice in hospitals. It’s short of pantyhose, so women’s legs go bare. It’s short snow suits, so babies stay home in winter...The problem isn’t communism; nobody even talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages.”



ABC’s Sam Donaldson chortled at his own suggestion that conservatives would lament the Soviet Union’s demise. “The right wing is going to have to hang it up as an anti-communist boom-boom-boom-boom-boom,” he crowed on ABC’s This Week on August 25. “You’re gonna have to find someone else to hate and someone else to say is a great threat to the United States. You don’t have the commies anymore.”

Over on CBS, Moscow correspondent Jonathan Sanders used the word “crime” to refer to the collapse of communism. “There is discussion that this is the last chance to prevent the crime of the Soviet Union breaking apart,” he intoned August 28 on CBS This Morning.

“In towns like Pushkino (pop. 90,000), many Russians view the tumult sweeping Moscow with more anxiety and skepticism than do their big-city compatriots,” Time’s James Carney wrote in his magazine’s September 9 edition. (Yes, that’s same person who would later serve as Biden and Obama’s White House press secretary.) “They wonder if the destruction of Soviet communism will bring them anything more than uncertainty and hardship.”

Two weeks later, Carney’s colleague George Church was just as fretful about a post-communist Russia: “Inefficient as the old communist economy was, it did provide jobs of a sort for everybody and a steady, if meager, supply of basic goods at low, subsidized prices; Soviet citizens for more than 70 years were conditioned to expect that from their government. Says a Moscow worker: ‘We had everything during [Leonid] Brezhnev’s times. There was sausage in the stores. We could buy vodka. Things were normal.’”

That same month, USA Today readers were treated to this from reporter Kevin Maney: “But for a long time communism worked OK. Soviet people consistently say their economic life was better 20 years ago when communism was in full bloom under Leonid Brezhnev.”

In December, the inevitable end arrived, and the Soviet Union was consigned to the ash heap of history. Even though a host of Western leaders, from Truman and Churchill to Reagan and Thatcher, had worked to keep the poison of communism from leaching into the Free World, the media instead chose to toast Mikhail Gorbachev as the man of the hour.

“The Nobel Prize he received for ending the Cold War was well deserved. Every man, woman and child in this country should be eternally grateful. His statue should stand in the center of every east European capital,” the Boston Globe’s H.D.S. Greenway declared in a December 27 column. “No Russian has done more to free his people from bondage since Alexander II who freed the serfs.”

“By American presidential standards, Mikhail Gorbachev accomplished enough in his seven-year term to qualify for a bust on Mount Rushmore.” NBC’s Jim Maceda toasted on the December 25 Nightly News.

“Perhaps in time with help and work, people here will improve their everyday lives and remember Gorbachev’s accomplishments,” longtime NBC Moscow reporter Bob Abernethy argued on that same program. “He seems to me to have done more good in the world than any other national leader of my lifetime.”

In the wake of the U.S.S.R.’s demise, there was a minor moment of media progress, however. Seven years earlier (May 21, 1984), Time magazine had characteristically blasted then-President Ronald Reagan for making “a bad situation worse” when he called “the U.S.S.R. an ‘evil empire’ doomed to fail,” referring to a speech the President had given to the National Association of Evangelicals the year before.

But post-communism, their opinion had shifted. “Gorbachev presided over the dissolution of a truly evil empire,” Time senior writer Bruce Nelan stated in the January 6, 1992 issue. For once, Time got it right.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.