The Year The Light Turned On

I was technically alive when the Cold War ended, but I was young enough that I didn't real grasp the full ramifications of what the hell was happening until much later. The Fall of the Berlin Wall is something I've seen so much on television that I'm not sure if I can remember seeing it live or just remember the replays.

What I do remember, however, is how different the map became. I recently stumbled across National Geographic's excellent cartography blog, All Over The Map and immediately fell in love. (Ditto for Atlas Obscura! Awesome website1) I've always loved maps.  I could sit and pour over an atlas for days. The Times Atlas of European History that's somewhere in the Parentals' basement is dogeared and page worn because I'd spend hours with that too- watch the rise and fall of nations evolve over the page.

In short, I dig maps. Hand me a globe and I'll spin it around and around and around until I can tell you  how old it is.

So while commentators were spinning out pieces marking the 25th Anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union in late December, I wanted to wait until after the New Year- not just because I was on a break for the holidays, but because it was 1992 when I really began to wake up to the world around me. I began learning all the new capitals and the countries. I remember the Olympics in Albertville, watching Linford Christie win the Gold for Great Britain in Barcelona sitting in my Grandma's living room in her old house on St. Michael's Road in Leeds. Hurricane Andrew was a major deal. The Los Angeles Riots. I proudly cast my vote for Ross Perot in my very first, entirely fake election in 4th Grade. (Thus beginning my streak of political independence that I'm proud to continue until this day.) Yugoslavia began it's long break-up and it's bloody civil war. Czechoslovakia got divorced.

1992 was the year the light switch turned on for me. It was the year I began to realize just how big the world was.

It's been 25 years since the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In many ways, we live still live in the rubble of it's collapse. The international order had been defined by the conflict between the United States and the USSR for so long it was a shock wave probably on the magnitude of Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in terms of what it did to the established international order. So many of the problems and resentments that the United States faces today are remnants of the Cold War. The fact that we have so many nuclear weapons still left and the ability to incinerate the planet and wipe out civilization is proof that even 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we still haven't really let go of the Cold War. The fact that our military-industrial establishment so eagerly embraced terrorism as the 'new enemy' and speak in terms of a 'generational struggle' in the never-ending War on Terror just hammers the point home all the more. Never mind the Russians and what they've gone through. We still haven't figured out how to function in a post-Cold War, post-Soviet world.

Do I think the world is more dangerous now? You look around at the chaos today and you'd think that it must be more dangerous- but in fact, it's the opposite. I take some comfort in the fact that my kids (I hope) won't have to grow up with duck and cover drills at school. They won't have to live in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse. (Again, I hope. I really, really hope that's the case.) Twenty five years after the Soviet Union fell and I think the world is a better place. But I also think that the arc of history is long and we don't really know what kind of world we have yet. Maybe in another twenty five years or another fifty years after that it might make more sense. We might be able to see the outlines of what emerged from the end of the Cold War with more clarity than we can now. All I know right now is that it feels and seems to be a better world. That's not to say we cannot and should not do better for this world of ours, but for right now, I'll take it.

It seems incredible that's it's already been a quarter century since the Soviet Union fell, but then again, on a historical scale, America is a relatively young country. We think in the immediate, not the long term. Our historical memory is short- all this printer ink people spent on trying to dissect whether or not the Iraq War was a good or bad thing probably wasted their time. In fifty years it'll either the smartest thing we ever did or the dumbest thing we ever did. There won't be any in between.

But it's a New Year. A time for renewal and change. Twenty five years ago, my eyes opened to the size and scope of a world that suddenly became very very big. The possibilities seemed endless and nothing was out of reach. Hopefully by the end of this year I can feel that way again.


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