Russia’s 1990s: Global Perspectives – An Interview with Andreas Hilger

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Russia’s 1990s: Global Perspectives” which will take place on October 28-29 2021 at the German Historical Institute in Moscow. We talked to one of the conveners Andreas Hilger, deputy director of the GHI Moscow, about the event. Please find more information on the workshop here.

As one of the conveners of the upcoming workshop “Russia’s 1990s: Global Perspectives”, which narratives do you miss in the international discourse about the end of the USSR?

One can summarize the gaps under the terms ‘multiperspectivity’ and ‘interconnectedness’.
With regard to the international developments of the 1990s, historiography often focuses on the dominance of the United States, on progress concerning the integration and expansion of the European Union, on problems of international humanitarian intervention, on cooperation and contradictions in international environmental or human rights politics, on new development perspectives of the Global South, on the growth of the role of non-state actors. Nevertheless, these important developments during the 1990s continue processes from the time before, that is from the period of the Cold War. Consequentially, it is indispensable to take a look at corresponding Russian and generally post-Soviet positions on these points. In addition, without close attention to this period of post-Soviet orientations, attempts, and experiences in international affairs, one cannot adequately analyze the international aggravations of the 2000s and 2010s. Already during the 1990s it was true that, as Odd Arne Westad put it, “Russia under all circumstances because of its sheer size would remain a very important state in any international system”. All in all, given these thematic and chronological interconnections, a true international and global history of the period cannot be written without Russian perspectives and positions. The point I would like to make is not about developing counter-narratives, but to achieve more complete descriptions of global and international developments. This point applies to the overall field of international relations, i.e. also to non-state activities.
Indeed, Russian international contributions over the years were ambivalent and unsteady, as were international expectations of Russia. States like India or Syria, for example, regarded the dissolution of the USSR as a loss of an important partner and hoped that Russia would continue traditional support. States such as China or Brazil did not expect much from a unipolar world à la USA. Different social groups worldwide perceived the collapse of the USSR as the loss of a socialist alternative to globalization. At the same time, Washington’s promotion of free world trade and human rights in its relations with China and Russia seemed to apply different standards. Finally, in Moscow, the extent of rapprochement with the West, the design of the relationship with other post-Soviet republics as well as general chances and limits of relations with competing parts – and visions – of the world were disputed. All in all, debates on form and rules of the so-called ‘multipolar order’ predated the 2000s. A multi-perspectivity that grasps these dynamics has yet to be comprehensively elaborated. Recently, there have been corresponding approaches. The conference wants to bundle questions and topics and move forward in this promising and important direction.

Your call for papers addresses a wide array of topics, from “free world trade” to “international environmental politics” – how do these topics relate to each other (and why do we need to consider them when researching Russia’s role in 1990s world politics?)

If I take the mentioned fields of international economic and environmental politics as an example for thematic interconnections: Here, for instance, the long lasting discussions of international protagonists and observers reveal the close interdependence between measures for climate protection on the one hand and, on the other hand, ideas of the Global South about its own economic opportunities or assumptions of the EU and the USA about the advantages of market-based solutions to all kind of problems. In addition, the ongoing debates on these interconnected fields are linked to arguments about human rights to development, health, etc. Such international complexities also posed a particular challenge for Russia: In the early 1990s, Moscow, for example, wondered why emerging China in complex international agreements on climate protection enjoyed advantages with regard to climate-damaging emissions, while Russia, with its extremely weak economic performance, did not.

Smog in the centre of Moscow (Kurskya metro station). 6th August 2010, Picture: Polly clip. | CC BY-SA 3.0

Russia’s politics and society of that period had to address all international challenges and problems – poverty, refugee issues, AIDS/HIV, climate, minority rights, armaments, peace, etc. – and had to develop national responses and to contribute to international approaches.

Moscow developed answers which were to contribute to a new order for international coexistence after the end of the Cold War – and which had to address the tensions between international and national perspectives and between state and individual rights as well. Without Russia’s participation – think of the later ratification of the Kyoto Protocol – global problems could not be adequately solved. The extent to which Russian ideas and activities were integrated into international approaches, could be integrated at all, and presented viable solutions has yet to be determined.

You also planned a workshop at the GHI Moscow on the Peacekeeping process of the socialist and post-socialist states – are there any conceptual or thematic connections between these two events?

The question of Russia’s international positioning indeed provides a connection between the two conferences; incidentally, I am very glad that we will now be able to hold the peacekeeping-conference (originally planned for 2020) in October 2021, and that with even broader participation. In the field of international security policy, the aforementioned interconnections and ambivalences became particularly clear during the 1990s: the increasingly sharp criticism from Moscow of the actions of the UN and the NATO states in Yugoslavia and Kosovo went hand in hand with cooperation in central peace missions in these regions. Therefore, these aspects constitute also a possible topic for discussion at the upcoming conference on “Russia’s 1990s”.

The upcoming workshop on Russia’s 1990s will convey past challenges of post-socialist states and will set them in the global context – do you see parallels to today’s challenges of world politics?

With regard to Russia the concrete interconnection between global, post-socialist and post-imperial challenges are still to explore. The American debate about the United States’ decline and the rise of the Others is not new. China and other states continue to argue with catch-up demands and demands for equality. At this stage, I would prefer rather to look for accentuations and stages in protracted, contradictory, and dynamic processes and less for parallels between, for instance, the global 1990s and the years after 2000 or since 2007/8. Caesuras of historical research seem to support this approach: here, the 1970s now overarch the end of the Cold War as a decisive period of upheaval, and discussions of the significance of the Corona crisis as a historical caesura have just started.


Andreas Hilger studied in Cologne and Volgograd and graduated in 1998 with a PhD thesis on German prisoners of war in the USSR 1941-1956. His habilitation dealt with the Soviet-Indian relations from 1941-1965/66 and was submitted at the Helmut-Schmidt-University Hamburg in 2015. He is currently the deputy director of the German Historical Institute Moscow and his research interests include the history of international relations and the German, Russian and South Asian history after the 19th century.


Citation: Russia’s 1990s: Global Perspectives – An Interview with Andreas Hilger, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.03.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/27423.


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