Sweet 16

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Some anniversaries go unmarked and are all the more significant for that. Maybe it was the excitement when President Vladimir Putin named First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, while Putin was named Time magazine's Person of the Year. At the same time, the 16th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25 was neither mourned nor celebrated by public or pundits.

So what does that tell us? That the Soviet Union belongs to another century and that its resurgence, unlike Russia's, is entirely out of the question. Soviet elements persist in the current society and mentality and will for some time, just as elements of tsarist Russia persisted in Soviet times and persist to this day. Forming a realistic picture of today's Russia means being able to identify the Soviet elements still at work without imposing a neo-Soviet paradigm on the present situation.

The trickier question -- one that can be asked by foreigners but answered only by Russians themselves -- is whether the Soviet phase was consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history a little too fast and whether Russia may have benefited from a more formal process of de-Sovietification.

One of the reasons Russia has still not assumed a clear and definite new identity is because it has not worked out a sufficiently clear and definite view of its Soviet past. Perhaps one way to begin the needed discussion on that subject would be to propose making Dec. 25 a national holiday -- Fall of the U.S.S.R. Day. And if so, should it be a day of jubilation or sorrow, shame or pride?

Coincidentally, it was on Dec. 25 that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, launching a long, losing war that drained the country of blood, treasure and confidence. The war was the beginning of the Soviet decline that would culminate a dozen years later to the day. Germany had a similar problem: The fall of the Berlin Wall coinciding with the date of Kristallnacht. But why not remember both -- the criminal folly and the deliverance.

But there are also simpler reasons that Dec. 25 went unmarked and unremarked this year. There are times when the immediate future seems an open field of possibilities and not a wall on which reruns are screened. Russia is releasing decades of pent-up energy -- the pleasures of being free to make money, to travel, to live as one sees fit. Whatever Medvedev's actual powers and responsibilities will be, he does seem the right face for a young Russia flexing its muscles and feeling its oats.

The fact that 16 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union means a generation of Russians born in post-Soviet times is now turning 16. Many will begin having their first serious dreams of what to do with their life after school. It was at that age that Putin, fed on Soviet films and books about KGB derring-do, decided to become a spy. "What amazed me most of all was how one man's efforts could achieve what whole armies could not," Putin said in his book "First Person." "One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people."

And just as Putin was turning 16, his country invaded Czechoslovakia, which was attempting to reform its system and create "socialism with a human face." It would be the Soviet Union's similar attempts at reform under Mikhail Gorbachev that would destroy the system and open up all sorts of incredible possibilities, including that an obscure former KGB officer could end up as president.

We know what Putin was dreaming of then, but what about Russian 16-year-olds now? Are all their heads just crammed with brand names, statistics and Internet pixels, or is there one who dreams of changing "the fate of thousands"?

Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred for Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."