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Russia’s Big Backyard – An FP Photo Essay | Foreign Policy

August 27, 2011

Russia’s Big Backyard

A grand tour of the stunningly diverse former Soviet states.


From the free-market dynamos of the Baltic to central Asian plateau states grappling with Islamist insurgencies, the 15 former Soviet states are a wealth of contradictions once as unthinkable as the collapse of the USSR itself 20 years ago: democratic and authoritarian; Christian, Muslim, and vehemently secular; eager to join the Eurozone and also to ally with China; tied to their Soviet past, yet anxious to move on.

Two decades on, here are snapshots of 15 countries straddling East and West.


After gaining independence in 1991, Tajikistan’s Moscow-backed government saw the rise of an Islamist opposition movement. In response, President Emomali Rahmon, a former Soviet apparatchik, imposed a decade of forced secularism and continues to fear the specter of the blossoming religious fervor among Tajiks. Men with beards are randomly detained, women are prohibited from attending religious services, young people studying in Islamic countries like Egypt and Iran have been called home, and most recently, children under 18 were barred from mosques.

But keeping God out of the public square hasn’t helped the country’s moribund economy and society. Tajikistan is now battling problems that include widespread drug addiction, a series of food and energy crises, and the fallout from its post-independence civil war. Islamist radicalism is growing due in part to the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.

Above, a 41-foot high statue of revolutionary Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, reportedly the tallest monument to Lenin in central Asia, is lifted from its pedestal in Tajikistan’s second largest city, Khujand, on May 30. The statue has been moved to a park on the outskirts of the city.

-/AFP/Getty Images


Tajikistan enjoyed relatively strong economic growth over the past decade, and poverty rates fell from 83 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2009. Yet the World Bank warns that Tajik economic growth is especially precarious — much of it depends on external forces, including trade with Russia, which opened a military base in the country in 2004. Here, an elderly woman watches a young girl walking through a produce market on Sept. 30, 2007, in the capital city of Dushanbe.

Warrick Page/Getty Images


A young girl waits for her mother in the hallway of a United Nations-sponsored reproductive health clinic on Sept. 29, 2007, in Gham Khori, Tajikistan. Access to basic health and social services is poor, particularly in rural areas.

Warrick Page/Getty Images


A child of migrant laborers looks out the door of her family home on Oct. 1, 2007 in the town of Gharm. Thousands of Tajik men leave their homes each year to find work abroad with the hope of sending remittances home to their families. Many of these workers find new partners overseas, however, and leave their wives as sole providers back home in Tajikistan. Migrant workers’ wives are also among the highest risk group for contracting HIV/AIDS due to the levels of infidelity among the workers.

Warrick Page/Getty Images




Uzbekistan’s Soviet-era leader, Islam Karimov, has only tightened his authoritarian grip over the country 20 years after the fall of the communist regime. His hold on the country’s massive energy wealth and ties to regional powers like China and India means that Karimov faces few significant threats to his rule. His reign has been marked by a particular brand of ruthlessness: Political opponents are regularly jailed and tortured — in 2003, two political prisoners were boiled to death — and in 2005, Karimov’s troops massacred several hundred peaceful protesters.

Above, an Uzbek baker works at his bakery in the capital of Tashkent on Dec. 22, 2007.



An Uzbek man holds a cup of tea at a Tashkent tea house on Dec. 22, 2007. Tashkent has been the target of bombings, tragedies President Karimov has used to justify labeling his political opponents as “Islamic terrorists.”



Two members of a youth dance ensemble prepare for a performance for foreign workers and senior citizens from France and Germany on June 7, 2007, in Tashkent. The ensemble, named “Topotushki,” specializes in Russian folk dance. Tashkent has a large Russian minority, although as much as 85 percent of the community has fled the country since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images




After a rough start in the 1990s, newly independent Ukraine found its groove with the nonviolent Orange Revolution in late 2004 and early 2005. The protest movement, which arose in response to the fraudulent 2004 presidential runoff election, brought the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power. As the revolutionary fervor faded, however, his erstwhile opponent, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, was elected in 2010. Under his rule, Freedom House lowered the country’s rating from “free” to “partly free” in 2011.

Above, supporters of the Ukraine nationalist movement rally in the city of Lviv on April 28.



A man mourns for the victims of Chernobyl’s 1986 nuclear catastrophe at a newly opened memorial in the city, now in Ukraine, on April 23. He has stopped in front of a cross labeled “Benivka,” commemorating the victims from that village who lost their lives. The meltdown of the nuclear power station, which caused untold damage in human lives, preceded the collapse of the Soviet system and became a symbol of its mismanagement.



A building under construction in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk’s Lenin Square on June 6. The eastern parts of Ukraine are significantly more pro-Russian than their western counterparts, and vote accordingly.





Landlocked, isolated, and impoverished, post-Soviet Armenia has been wracked by dismal economic growth and brain drain, thanks in large part to tensions with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan, notably including a longstanding and unresolved dispute with the latter over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian won reelection in 2008 with 52.9 percent of the vote, although the opposition cried foul. Above, more than 10,000 opposition supporters rally in the capital of Yerevan on March 1. The demonstrators called for the government’s resignation on the third anniversary of clashes between riot police and opposition members that left 10 people dead.



Armenians hold flags and a cross in Yerevan early in the morning of April 24, 2010, as they mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.



Members of Armenia’s “emo” subculture walk in a tunnel in Yerevan, the capital and largest city, on Dec. 17, 2010. Police in Yerevan have been conducting a campaign against the capital’s small but controversial community since the recent suicides of two teenagers, who were rumored to have been emo fans.




Thanks to its enormous energy wealth, Kazakhstan’s economy has grown quickly since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the country now boasts a higher GDP per capita than Russia. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has held onto power for 21 years, however, and shows little sign of relinquishing it anytime soon. Freedom House continues to designate Kazakhstan as “not free.”

In this photo, a Kazakh woman lights a candle during mass at the Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral in the city of Almaty on Jan. 30.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


The Khan Shatyr, an entertainment complex in Astana, is shown on June 11, 2010. The world’s largest tent, it is part of a massive construction boom in the Kazakh capital, conceived by Nazarbayev as a showpiece of the new Kazakhstan. The structure is 500 feet tall and features shops, a cinema, a monorail, and a beach on the top floor.

Will Webster/Getty Images


A Kazakh berkutchi (eagle hunter) launches his golden eagle during a traditional hunting festival in Nura on Dec. 4, 2010. The small village of Nura, a favorite feeding and nesting area for Central Asian birds of prey, is home to about 14 berkutchi. Kazakhstan only has about 40 or so officially recognized eagle hunters.



Muslim worshippers gather outside Almaty’s Great Mosque during Friday prayers on Aug. 11, 2006. About 60 percent of Kazakhs practice Islam.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images



Tiny, remote Kyrgyzstan has grappled with widespread corruption, ethnic conflict, and a struggle for influence between the United States and Russia since independence. In 2010, a popular uprising forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from office and precipitated a campaign of ethnic violence against the country’s Uzbek and Tajik minorities.

Above, Kyrgyz soldiers lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in central Bishkek on May 9, 2010, to mark the 65th anniversary of World War II.



Kyrgyz men ride horses during a traditional folk festival held at Son-Kul Lake, about 300 miles south of Bishkek, on July 20.




Belarus, often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, has been governed by President Aleksandr Lukahshenko since 1994 through a state security apparatus that still proudly calls itself the KGB. Its record in providing security, however, is mixed at best: In April, the Metro system in the capital Minsk was rocked by a bombing that killed 14 people. Although the government arrested two suspects, the public still questions the attack’s motives, leaving a cloud of mystery over the bombing. Lukashenko offered little explanation, but used the attacks to urge his security service to “Detain and question. Don’t pay attention to any kind of democracy and the wails and groans of the pathetic Westerners.”

Above, Belarusian Catholics attend a procession during the annual Icon of the Mother of God celebration in Budslav, north of Minsk, on July 1.



Belarusian soldiers march during an Independence Day parade in Minsk on July 3.



A woman cries as she stands near the April 11 blast site at a metro station in Minsk on April 14. Human rights activists worried that the search for the attack’s perpetrators would be used to extend the regime’s “witch hunt.”



Members of the Belarusian “Pioneers” state youth organization salute during an official ceremony marking National Flag Day in Minsk on May 8. Two decades after independence, Belarusian national identity remains weak and the country depends heavily on Russia.





Turkmenistan’s Soviet-era-leader-turned-President Saparmurat Niyazov – better known as “Turkmenbashi” — used the post-independence years to foster a personality cult of epic proportions, going so far as to rename the months of the year after himself and his family. When Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a former dentist and later Niyazov’s deputy prime minister, assumed the presidency after Niyazov’s death in 2006, he put the country on a course toward economic modernization, opening its rich natural gas reserves to foreign investment, notably from China. Berdimuhamedov’s economic policy changes haven’t been accompanied by political reform, however.

Above, Turkmen women wearing traditional embroidered caps walk past the National Press Building on Nov. 17, 2001. 



A Turkmen livestock trader herds camels at the Tolkuckhka market outside the capital of Ashgabat on July 6, 2008. Turkmenistan recently announced plans to build a facility to commercially prepare and process camel milk. The global market for camel milk is estimated at $10 billion.



A large statue in Ashgabat features 10 horses, pictured here on Nov. 17, 2010. An equestrian fan, President Berdimuhamedov recently issued a presidential decree ordering that national beauty contests for Turkmen thoroughbreds should be held every April, coinciding with a celebration of the “annual horse days.”




Latvia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and was the first of three Baltic states admitted to the World Trade Organization in 1999. After a tough turn economically during the Great Recession, Latvia was forced to come to the European Union hat in hand looking for bailout loans, a process that led to the government’s collapse in 2009. The country has recovered quickly, however, achieving some of the highest first-quarter growth among the Eurozone economies this year.

Above, a pedestrian walks past Saint Roland’s Statue and the House of the Blackheads in the capital of Riga on Feb. 27, 2009.

Bloomberg via Getty Images


Several hundred people protest against a proposed budget and tax hike in front of the Latvian Parliament in Riga on Dec. 1, 2009. Latvia had an extraordinarily painful recession — unemployment reached 20.5 percent and GDP dropped 25 percent from its peak.



A woman sells traditional grass bouquets and wreaths during the Grass Fair in Riga, part of Latvia’s summer solstice celebrations, on June 22, 2010. Riga’s historical center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due in part to its extensive German Art Nouveau architecture.




Estonia, another post-Soviet success story, is proud of its EU membership, a flourishing high-tech sector, and strong economic growth. Although it was hit hard by the global financial crisis, the country has shown signs of recovery, most recently outpacing all other 16 eurozone countries in the second quarter of this year, thanks in part to trade with Sweden and Finland. The country’s credit rating was raised to AA- by Standard & Poor’s earlier this month.

Above, an Estonian man feeds swans in Tallinn Bay on March 30.



Some 22,000 candles light up the capital of Tallinn’s central square during a March 25, 2010, rally commemorating the 61st anniversary of the deportation of 20,000 Estonians to Siberia by the former Soviet government. The Estonian government has been quick to demonize all things Soviet: Many in Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority complain of discrimination and the country has gone as far as to criminalize displays of Soviet symbols like the hammer and sickle.




Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence and, since then, has been among the most politically and economically successful of the post-Soviet states, thanks to liberal economic policies and growing domestic consumption. It is a member of NATO and the European Union and looks to join the eurozone in 2014.

Above, Lithuanians carry a 200 meter-long Lithuanian flag during a march celebrating the 20th Defenders of Freedom Day in Vilnius on Jan. 13. The commemoration marks the anniversary of a bloody Soviet assault that tried, and failed, to stop Lithuania’s drive for independence.



Lina Mackonyte takes a break from sightseeing at Gruto Park to write emails to friends beside a statue of Lenin in Druskininkai, Lithuania on Aug. 9. 

Monika Abraityte/Getty Images



Georgia’s history since independence has been tumultuous. Most recently, the small Caucasian state faced off against Russia, which launched a major military offensive in 2008 in response to Georgian efforts to consolidate control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia subsequently lost control over a fifth of its territory. A staunch U.S. ally, the tiny republic received a $1 billion aid package from Washington after the 2008 war.

Above, churchgoers carry candles as they walk around a cathedral during an Orthodox Easter ceremony in the capital of Tbilisi on April 3, 2010. The majority of Georgians are Orthodox, but the country is also home to a sizable Muslim minority.



A man rummages through debris near a huge papier mâché head of Lenin at an abandoned factory in Tbilisi on April 21. Since independence, the Georgian economy has lurched and sputtered as its trade ties with Russia have deteriorated.



A street vendor sells hubcaps in Tbilisi on Jan. 29. In May 2010, Tbilisi voters were able to directly elect their mayor for the first time.



Georgian riot police officers disperse an opposition rally demanding the resignation of Western-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili in front of the parliament in Tbilisi late on May 25. Saakashvili’s reforms haven’t mollified his critics, who claim his administration fosters corruption and that Georgia’s economic growth has led to more inequality.



A boy jumps in the river to cool himself in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7, 2010. South Ossetia has been independent in all but name since ethnic fighting began in the early 1990s.




Russians have ridden a rollercoaster of highs and lows, both politically and economically, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been the country’s dominant force since assuming the presidency in 2000, overseeing an aggressive posture abroad and growing political repression and corruption at home. But nationalist chest-thumping and a focus on public order have proven popular, and as elections loom in 2012, Putin and his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev seem likely to consolidate their power.

Above, Russian teenagers cool themselves off in a fountain in Moscow during a heat wave on July 3.



Pro-Kremlin youth activists dance in front of a portrait of Medvedev and Putin at a summer camp near Lake Seliger, 300 miles northwest of Moscow, on Aug. 1. Nashi is the largest of a group of youth movements created by Putin to foster ideological allegiance to the Kremlin. It has about 10,000 members.



Members of the Russian Orthodox faithful plunge into a pond’s icy waters in celebration of the Epiphany holiday on Jan. 19 in Moscow. Putin has embraced his Orthodox faith in public in a seeming bid to appeal to rising religiousity among Russian voters.

Getty Images/Dmitry Korotayev


The spire of a Stalin-era skyscraper is seen through forest-fire smoke as a couple kisses in central Moscow on Aug. 15, 2010. Last summer’s wildfires and record-high temperatures killed thousands.

While Russia and the other former Soviet states face environmental disasters, political upheaval, ethnic tensions, and economic distress, as David Hoffman wrote in the July/August 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, when it comes to the fall of the Soviet Union, “It’s also worth remembering what didn’t go wrong. After the Soviet implosion, it could have been so much worse.”




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