The Belovezh Accords – A Warning from the Dacha
By Lisa J Walters, on 7 April 2022
Author: Pippa Crawford, MA Russian Studies
On 8 December 1991, six men met in a hunting lodge in the ancient forest between Poland and Belarus. There they signed the Belovezh Accords, triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union. The signatories were the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and their respective prime ministers, with the leaders of the other Soviet republics conspicuously excluded from the dialogue. Whether or not the Belovezh Accords were legal remains difficult to prove, as the original document was destroyed. There are persistent rumours that none of the leaders came to the dacha with a coherent plan for the future of the Union, and that whiskey and vodka were involved. One thing is certain – the events of 8 December sent shock waves across the Soviet region, the effects of which are still palpable today.
Thirty years later, Yeltsin’s deputy, Gennady Burbulis, gave a talk to my Russian language class about his role in the signing of the Accords. The former Secretary of State appeared via a faltering Zoom link, and we were allowed to ask him anything we wanted. It was the beginning of February 2022, and everyone was worried about the movements of Russian troops in the Donbas. We also had questions about how our guest saw himself and his own legacy. However, Burbulis was a philosophical character, with a politician’s aversion to a direct answer. He quoted Kant, spoke about the good intentions he’d held at the time, and described the fall of the Soviet Union as an ‘optimistic tragedy.’ He still trusted in the values of perestroika, and believed young people were a positive force for change. When I asked about Yeltsin, Burbulis smiled. He stated that Boris Nikolaivich always addressed others using ‘vy’ – the Russian formal ‘you’ – he never swore and he was never late for meetings. Having seen extensive videos starring the inebriated Yeltsin, we found this funny. Nobody could get Burbulis to say a word against his old master. Clearly, if there were secrets left, he was taking them to the grave.
At the end of the meeting, Burbulis addressed my class directly. Always remember, he said, to consider your own role as a historic figure. Take responsibility, conduct yourself as peace-loving people.
Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed.
It was some time before I could think about anything except Ukraine. The footage of Kherson, Kharkiv and Mariupol demands to be seen. My interest in the region is primarily an academic one, but this seemed beside the point at a time when women were being pulled from buildings in the pains of labour, children were mined in ceasefires and my friends waited each morning for the news that their towns were still standing. Eventually, my thoughts did turn back to Russia. I thought about the last days of the Soviet Union, and those who’d hoped to build a new country from its ashes. I thought about Gorbachev, who has written at length about regret and missed turning points in his own essays and memoirs. 2 March was his ninety-first birthday, and I imagined him lighting the candles on his cake, watching the wall go back up again. I remembered Burbulis too, and that curious meeting which already seemed distant.
Initially, I was critical of Burbulis and his colleagues for failing to foresee the consequences of signing the Accords, for continuing to focus on minor details and vague platitudes. Now I have more sympathy – sympathy tempered by many questions. We tend to think that historic figures will hold all the answers, by virtue of having ‘been there’, but memories are personal things, regardless of whom they belong to. Attempts to piece together an objective record will always be thwarted by conflicting narratives – sometimes from people who are actively trying to lie, but more often from people who remember what theweather was like on the morning of the invasion, but not why the invasion happened. (I hope that Burbulis didn’t know about the invasion in advance. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
We are now living through a shocking historic event, which few predicted and fewer still have the power to directly influence. Putin and the members of his inner circle who started this war have been rightly outed as criminals who deserve the Hague or worse. However, this is a tiny group of people – seven or eight by some estimates. The U.S. Treasury list of compromised politicians and ‘oligarchs’ – defined as individuals tied to the Kremlin and/or with a net worth exceeding $1 billion – weighs in at 210 names. The oligarchs, with their visible assets – iceberg mansions, yachts and stadiums – can be condemned alongside the inner circle without straining the imagination. As the invasion progresses, the list grows longer –young conscripts quickly turning to looting and rape, demonstrators with full access to international media marching behind the ‘Z’ in Berlin and Belgrade and domestic supporters driving presidential approval ratings to their highest level since 2018. The moral problem concerns those on the fringes of the regime who have now turned against it. There are many thousands of people in this category, both inside and outside Russia. What do we say to the pundits who made the wrong predictions, to the liberal politicians who followed the whip once too often, to the ordinary people who supported Putin when his behaviour was less extreme? Many of these people are now experiencing guilt, confusion and shame. Like Burbulis, they may take years to come to terms with their actions. They might not ever be able to explain what they were trying to do.
We can’t predict history, but we can choose how we react to it. We have signed no fatal treaty, but all of us have become historic figures as Russia drifts into a bloody new era.