Yesterday, for the first time in years, I decided to brave the crowds of manic shoppers and visit a Boxing Day sale at a nearby outlet centre.
This was more for sociological and anthropological reasons rather than with any expectation of actual genuine bargains, which most of the Australian retailers have stopped offering a long time ago. Hence I spent my leisurely stroll through the shopping mall largely shooting a wildlife nature doco in my head with a Sir David Attenborough voice-over (“Here you see a large group of the males of the species congregating in front of a shop while the females hunt inside. The males’ task is to watch their young and guard the bags of previously acquired prey…”). Forget about Jesus and his birthday; this is the true reason for the season and these are the new temples of our society, bursting at the seams with eager worshippers caught up in a quasi-religious ecstasy. There is no danger that anyone will ever wage a war on Christmas sales; we’ll keep boxes in the Boxing Day, and bags too.
As it happened, the only store offering some good discounts (including many items at 80% off) was Tommy Hilfiger. Not surprisingly, a line probably 50 metres-long already snaked around the entire perimeter of the shop towards the only two cash registers some twenty minutes after the doors opened. As much as the length of the queue and the glacial speed of the service brought back some fond memories of childhood in Communist Poland, after a half an hour and having inched forward about 7 metres, I decided I would rather not spend the next few hours in this seventh circle of the shopping hell, no matter how much I liked the three items I held in my hand.
This “first world problem”-type of a shopping nightmare made me think of another Christmas Sale a quarter of a century ago, when on the Boxing Day 1991, the Soviet Union was officially and rather unceremoniously dissolved. After 74 years, the Evil Empire ended not with a bang but with a whimper – and just as well, because a bang would have likely ended us as well. The night before, at 7:32pm on Christmas Day, the hammer and sickle red flag was lowered for the last time from the Kremlin and replaced by the pre-revolutionary Russian tri-colour. Mikhail Gorbachev, having made his brief TV broadcast, left the office – and the world stage – and went home. The next day, the upper chamber of the Union’s Supreme Soviet issued a formal declaration of dissolution.
More of a “closing down” rather than a “Christmas” sale (also not forgetting that the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in January), out went the the ex-Soviet republics at bargain basement prices. In the subsequent years, hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of state assets were “privatised” to a handful of well-connected and mostly well-shady “businessmen” in what some called the Sale of the Century, and others the largest larceny in human history. This, among other factors, was to sour the taste for democracy and capitalism across the former communist block, with consequences that are haunting us to this day.
The 1990s were an exuberant time, coming as they did after decades of the Cold War spent in the shadow of a mushroom cloud. Now we could finally live – and live up to the humanity’s true potential. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and ended South Africa’s apartheid, and in the Northern Ireland, in the Good Friday Agreement, the Catholics and the Protestants closed the book on more than half a millennium of heartache and 30 years of the Troubles. Germany reunited peacefully and the European project looked like it might actually work – from Atlantic to the Baltic, if not the Urals. We would beat the swords into ploughshares, end world hunger and poverty, build a peaceful New World Order, and splurge the “peace dividend” on some nice trinkets for a change. Democracy was resurgent around the world and capitalism seemingly triumphant. The history has come to an end and the drink was on us.
Alas, there was no ending; certainly not a happy ending. While we were all enjoying “Seinfeld” and watching the President of the United States splitting hairs over the exact nature of oral sex, troubles were brewing all around the world. They would erupt in the first decade of the new millennium with the twin menace of Al Qaeda’s jihadism and Russia’s Putinism. Both are with us still, in some ways bigger and more dangerous than ever. Vlad “Ras” Putin has certainly used his 16 years in power to put the Soviet Humptski Dumptski back together, if not in the form than at least in spirit and influence.
Is there a moral to this story? If there is one, it’s probably this: it’s important to celebrate good turns in history, but it’s equally important not to allow ourselves to get lulled into a false sense of security. Resting on our laurels, we might no longer be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics certainly continues to be interested in us, to paraphrase my doppelganger Trotsky. Nothing is permanent and nothing is certain except impermanence and uncertainty. Good riddance the Evil Empire, hello New World Disorder.