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what is the basis for this commonly-quoted statement by Vladimir Putin? As reported on Politifact:

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

Several newspapers have attributed the Associated Press translation of this speech as saying "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe," rather than merely a "major" catastrophe; unfortunately I cannot find such a translation online. The Kremlin translation may have chosen softer wording to try to steer foreign reactions, or the AP translation may be wrong.

This is a strong claim, and a contentious one. For example, one could argue for any of these 20th century events as a greater catastrophe:

  • The partition of India, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, several wars, and a nuclear standoff.
  • The dissolution of the British and French empires, which (aside from causing chaos across half the globe) set up the events for the continuing trials in the Middle East.
  • The Holocaust, depending on one's definition of "geopolitical catastrophe."
  • The end of the Austrian and German monarchies after WWI, which led to WWII, and (arguably) all of the above catastrophes.

One could also argue that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical success of the 20th century, given that it largely eliminated the risk of nuclear annihilation of human civilization. I'm not interested in debating what event deserves the claim of "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," I'm merely pointing out that Putin's claim is contentious.

When someone makes a contentious claim, one may reasonably ask what basis he or she has made for that claim. This is what I am asking. It's clear that Putin has, or at least claims, a strong nostalgia for the Soviet days, but it's not clear why beyond woolly concepts of stability and respect. Does he have a more specific basis for this event to be a greater catastrophe than everything else from that turbulent century? Did the rest of his speech clarify matters? Has he discussed this claim in interviews? Has this statement been evaluated in any of his biographies? While it's possible that Putin was simply making a rhetorical flourish, not meant to be taken seriously, the specificity of his words ("greatest" catastrophe) suggests otherwise.

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    The reasons in the quote itself aren't sufficient? Tens of millions of Russians ended up outside of Russian territory, which obviously the president of Russia is not too pleased about. It does not have to compare to the holocaust to qualify as "major", as nothing does.
    – J Doe
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 19:04
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    Indeed, but he does not merely describe it as "major." It is, in his words, "the greatest catastrophe." Does he offer any arguments for this claim, beyond some people being (largely peacefully) displaced? The breakup of India and Pakistan, for example, was arguably more of a catastrophe. Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 19:07
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    First, the collapse of a superpower is more relevant to geopolitics than the genocide of millions, as horrendous as that genocide may be. Second, you never quoted him saying "greatest" nor mentioned it in your question.
    – J Doe
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 19:11
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    @JonofAllTrades, ru: "крупнейшая" stands for the greatest / the biggest / the largest. Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 19:13
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    As long as those Russians are allowed to freely immigrate into Russia, assuming they even want to in the 1st place, I don't see the problem. If they're more attached to Russia, immigrate (there's enough room, considering how large Russia is), if they are more attached to the country in which they live, then stay, and they can enjoy happy lives outside of Putin's dictatorship. So yeah I don't see the problem.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 20:40

5 Answers 5

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This is pretty trivial. Putin did indeed mean "strongest-of-all" catastrophe (I can confirm that as a native Russian speaker). Looking at the history of 20th century, we can see that that was the largest disintegration in the whole century (USSR was 1 of 2 world's superpowers). The fall of 3rd Reich and Russian Empire doesn't come close: 3rd Reich did exist for a very short period of time, and the Russian Empire was by no means a superpower. Fall of British Empire doesn't come close, either: it already wasn't a superpower when it disintegrated. Speaking of holocaust, or genocide of Russians by Hitler, or any other such event - these are humanitarian catastrophes, not geopolitical ones.

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    So you disagree with Matt's translation ?
    – user 1
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 11:42
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    Absolutely. His logic is valid (and very clever for a foreigner), but it can be used in that sense in slightly different cases, which is very clear to a native speaker. I.e. if Putin didn't specify "of 20th century", it would be just a "very big catastrophe" as Matt suggested. For example, "Крупнейший/largest grocery store" can mean absolutely nothing ("largest in this block", for example). However, when specific conditions are applied in the phrase, this word means "largest of all in this building.. this city.. 20th century.. etc". Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 12:08
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    The German Empire existed for 74 years when it collapsed (1871-1945), just about as long as the soviet union (1919-1990, 71 years). Also the Soviet Union collapse was a peaceful one, very different from loosing a war they were responsible of. And what about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then? Considering how unstable are the regions that became independent from it, I think it can indeed be considered "the biggest catastrophe". I think Russians are often too self-centered and they forgot about the rest of the world, so they have trouble to see the world in a 3rd eye view.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 7:04
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    The German Empire fell in 1918, not in 1945. What's more, it didn't disintegrate - it just became a republic. The fall of Ottoman Empire is comparable, but it wasn't a superpower, just a regional power back then. Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 8:09
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    @Bregalad Also the Soviet Union collapse was a peaceful one North Ossetia, Chechnya, Tajikistan civil war, Georgia civil war, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh, Transnistria - is this peaceful?!
    – Matt
    Commented Apr 15, 2016 at 6:03
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Does he have a more specific basis for this event to be a greater catastrophe than everything else from that turbulent century?

Your assumption is based upon wrong translation / understanding of Russian language.

Russian superlative may have two different (concurrent) forms: compound (kind of "most + adjective") and simple (formed with suffix -айш or -ейш). The latter is one which Putin used: "Крупнейшая".

And the simple superlative is usually used to denote very strong quality, rather than the strongest-of-all. It's very much like Italian Superlativo Assoluto: Крупнейшая = Grandissima.

Returning to English, although "major" isn't absolutely exact translation, yet it's still far better than "the greatest" or "the biggest".

So there was absolutely no comparison with holocaust or anything else in Putin's speech.

Did the rest of his speech clarify matters?

Well, after harsh critics on Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's times and complaining about their "legacy", he talks about current advances of democracy in Russia, human rights, state reforms and such. Nothing interesting.

Actually his speech is purely "domestic" one. He never mentions any of World's major events. So I take his words about the collapse of the Soviet Union as a hidden contrast to the Russian Empire breakup. Of course, it should be considered only as a rhetorical exaggeration, as revolutions of 1917 with the subsequent civil war were far more tragic than any of the Post-Soviet conflicts until now.

One could also argue that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical success of the 20th century, given that it largely eliminated the risk of nuclear annihilation of human civilization.

That's wrong. Just look at the Doomsday clock.

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    That's the thing people often overlook with translations; they're almost always inaccurate since there generally isn't a one-to-one mapping between words and concepts. For example, the French equivalent of the quaint English "calm as a millpond" translates literally to "calm as oil" (and Google translate gets this wrong!). In this case it's a language with more than the three english types of adjectives, so direct translation is impossible.
    – Phil Lello
    Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 22:12
  • @user1 As you see he writes mostly of "the-greatest-of-which-ones", and that's for a good reason: such an "emotional" superlative is never about "fair" comparison. It's rather like those labels "the greatest hits", "the most pure water" etc. But unless something is written below in a smaller script, they mean nothing.
    – Matt
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 12:22
  • In other words, it should have been translated as "colossal" rather than "the greatest."
    – wrod
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 0:27
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The following is from the official transcript of the speech Putin gave to Russian parliament in 2005:

Прежде всего следует признать, что крушение Советского Союза было крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века. Десятки миллионов наших сограждан и соотечественников оказались за пределами российской территории. Эпидемия распада к тому же перекинулась на саму Россию.

My translation: "First of all, we must admit that Soviet Union's collapse was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. Tens of millions of our citizens and compatriots ended up outside the Russian borders. Also, the epidemy of decay spread to Russia itself."

That's your basis right from the Web site of the president himself. He listed other grievances in that speech, but seemed to have pointed to the above as the main reasoning.

For instance, this is what he said in an interview to a government controlled news channel in 2017:

Во-первых, и самое главное, заключается в том, что после развала Советского Союза 25 миллионов русских людей в одну ночь оказались за границей, и это реально одна из крупнейших катастроф XX века

My translation: "First of all, and most importantly, after the breakup of the Soviet Union 25 million [ethnic] Russians ended up outside the border over night, and this is really one of the greatest catastrophes of XX century".

Notice, it's clear from the context of his speeches that he means not citizens of Russia but ethnic Russians. No matter where they are he claims patronage of them consistently in public appearances and written speeches.

Note, he uses a word "русских", which is often translated into English as Russians. That would be incorrect because in modern English Russian refers to all citizens of Russia, including for instance ethnic Chechens. This nuance is often overlooked in translations as the concept of ethnicity is not as prominent in the Western world at the moment.

Russian media started using a word "Россиянин" since 1990s, which sounds awkward, because its purpose is to refer to all citizens of Russia without calling them "русский", reserving the latter for ethnic Russian.

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  • When you say “the guy” who are referring to?
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 21:11
  • @JoeW thanks, edited it
    – Aksakal
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 21:25
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On April 25, 2005, V.Putin addressed the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, stating the following reasons why it has been a great catastrophe:

  • Tens of millions of ethnic Russians found themselves outside Russian territory.
  • Individual savings were lost to inflation.
  • Old ideals of Communism destroyed.
  • Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly.
  • Former states of Russia started they fight for independence (V.Putin mentions Chechnya).
  • Oligarchic groups—possessing absolute control over information channels— served exclusively their own corporate interests.
  • Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm.
  • Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system.

I am not sure if these losses are comparable to other catastrophes that happened in that century. Surely ethnic Russians needed to learn the local languages, but Holocaust has been way and way more than just forcing all Jews to learn fluent German. Other claims seem having some grounds but I think that dissolution of the Soviet Union has been relatively "soft". Unlike in the former Yugoslavia, there were no massive ethnic clashes or wars at least anywhere in the Soviet Union territory that then covered the Easter Europe. There was nothing like mass famine with people dying, or total loss of water, electricity or heating anywhere. I think all this could have gone much worse. Anyway, V.Putin states the reasons as above.

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  • Easter Europe? Is there a Pentecost Europe, too? Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 9:03
  • But the past 12 months belong to XXI century already. During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were no real massive conflicts in places like Baltic states or Ukraine, even with Russia doing all they best to provoke such conflicts. Many ethnic Russians in Baltic states are now respected citizens of these states and EU, so the level of suffering looks questionable.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 9:04
  • Outstanding, thank you! I agree that his claim is... debatable... but I wanted to understand his reasons, and this is exactly that. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 20:10
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My nickel on one of the questions.

Does he have a more specific basis for this event to be a greater catastrophe than everything else from that turbulent century?

I don't see that Putin claims to make a comparison. On the world level it was a major event. For the Russians, it was the event.

What I remember most strongly of the time when the Berlin Wall fell, and consequently the collapse of Russia, was the West's lack of aid when it was asked for. Russia was in dire straights, and collectively, on a political basis, we didn't help them. That social upheaval could have been mitigated.

My understanding is that Putin has been hard pressed to take the country back from organised crime groups. I agree with Putin's statement, but I also say he stopped short in pointing out how the west failed Russia.

Now, reading between the lines, I see Putin's statement as a possible precursor to justify some action Russia may take against the world. The Nazi's had a similar claim against the French after the first world war before rolling over France in a blitzkrieg.

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    Russian have gone through a civil war, one of the worst dictatorship the history have ever recorded, two famines that lasted more than 1-year even after the civil war was over, the "great purges" which got every 6th Russian assassinated by the regime, and then the "great patriotic war" (as they call it) which again saw levels of destructions never seen before, and again killed every 6th Russian. How could a peaceful dislocation of the USSR been seen as worse than all those elements? This makes absolutely no sense.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 12:12
  • Are you saying that, although not explicitly spelled out, his statement is implied to be "...greatest catastrophe [for the Russian people]"? Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 12:28
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    "The major catastrophe" of the century for Russia is my estimation of what he's getting at.
    – r3mnant
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 18:39
  • @Bregalad Putin called it greatest geopolitical catastrophe and not greatest humanitarial catastrophe. This are 2 diferent types of catastrophes.
    – convert
    Commented Jan 30, 2022 at 21:56
  • @Bregalad None of the things you have mentioned caused dozens of millions of Russians to be ejected from Russia. This one did.
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 23:14

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