The Soviet Union's Afterlife | The Nation


The Soviet Union's Afterlife

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Certainly, it is hard to imagine a political act more extreme than abolishing what was still a nuclear superpower state of 286 million citizens. And yet, Yeltsin did it, as even his sympathizers acknowledged, precipitously and in a way that was “neither legitimate nor democratic.” A profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism, Yeltsin’s actions were a return to the country’s “neo-Bolshevik” tradition of imposed change, as many Russian, and even a few Western, writers have characterized it. The ramifications were bound to endanger the unprecedented democratization achieved during the preceding six years of perestroika.

About the Author

Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and...

At the time of the breakup, Yeltsin and his aides promised, for example, that their extreme measures were “extraordinary” ones, but as had happened before in Russia, most recently during Stalin’s forcible collectivization of the peasantry in 1929–33, they grew into a system of rule. (Shock therapy was already being planned.) Those initial steps also had a further political logic. Having ended the Soviet state in a way that lacked legal or popular legitimacy—in a referendum only nine months before, 76 percent of the large turnout had voted to preserve the Union—the Yeltsin ruling group quickly began to fear real democracy. In particular, an independent, freely elected Parliament and the possibility of relinquishing power in any manner raised, according to Russians with impeccable democratic credentials, the specter of “going on trial and to prison.” And indeed Yeltsin’s armed overthrow of the Russian Parliament, in October 1993, soon followed.

The economic dimensions of Belovezh were no less portentous. Dissolving the Union without any preparatory stages shattered a highly integrated economy. It was a major cause of the collapse of production across the former Soviet territories, which fell by almost half in the 1990s. That in turn contributed to mass poverty and its attendant social pathologies, which still blight Russian life today.

The economic motivation behind Soviet elite support for Yeltsin in 1991, as opposed to the “socialist” Gorbachev, was even more ramifying. As a onetime Yeltsin supporter wrote thirteen years later, “Almost everything that happened in Russia after 1991 was determined to a significant extent by the divvying-up of the property of the former USSR.” Here too there were foreboding historical precedents. Twice before in twentieth-century Russia the nation’s fundamental property had been confiscated—the landlords’ vast estates and bourgeoisie’s industrial and other large assets in the revolution of 1917–18, and then the land and livestock of 25 million peasant farmers in Stalin’s collectivization drive. The aftereffects of both episodes plagued the country for years to come.

Soviet elites took much of the state’s enormous wealth, which for decades had been defined in law and ideology as the “property of all the people,” with no more regard for fair procedures or public opinion than Yeltsin had shown in abolishing the Union. To maintain their dominant position and enrich themselves, they wanted the most valuable state property, including the country’s vast natural resources, distributed from above, without the participation of legislatures or any other representatives of society. They achieved that goal first by themselves, through “spontaneous privatization,” and then, after 1991, through Kremlin decrees issued by Yeltsin, who played, as a former top aide put it, “first fiddle in this historic divvying-up.” But as a result, privatization has also been haunted from the beginning by, in the words of another Russian scholar, a “‘dual illegitimacy’—in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the population.”

The political and economic consequences should have been easy to anticipate. Fearful for their dubiously acquired assets and even for their lives, the new property holders, who formed the post-Soviet elite, were as determined as Yeltsin to limit or reverse the parliamentary electoral democracy initiated by Gorbachev. In its place, they strove to create a kind of praetorian political system devoted to and corrupted by their wealth, at best a “managed” democracy. (Hence, their choice of Vladimir Putin, a vigorous man from the security services, as a leader who could establish this system, or so they thought, to replace the enfeebled President Yeltsin in 1999.) And for much the same reason, uncertain how long they could actually retain their immense property, they were more interested in stripping its assets than investing in it. The result was an 80 percent decline in investment in Russia’s economy by the end of the 1990s and rather than the nation’s modernization, its actual demodernization. (The country’s basic infrastructures, amid urgent calls for a “new modernization,” are still disintegrating.)

* * *

Considering all of these ominous circumstances, why did so many American commentators—politicians, journalists and scholars—hail the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “breakthrough” to democracy and free-market capitalism? Where Russia was concerned, their reaction was, as usual, based mainly on anti-Communist ideology and hopeful myths, not historical or contemporary realities. Alluding to that myopia on the part of people who had sought the destruction of the Soviet state, a renowned Moscow philosopher, Aleksandr Zinoviev, later remarked bitterly, “They were aiming at Communism but hitting Russia.”

One of the most ideological myths surrounding the end of the Soviet Union was, to quote both another Times columnist and a leading American historian, that it “collapsed at the hands of its own people” and brought to power in Russia “Yeltsin and the democrats”—even “moral leaders”—who represented the people. (In this mythical rendition, their “achievements” have been reversed by Putin, most recently in the protested parliamentary election in December.) No popular revolution, national election or referendum having mandated or sanctioned the Soviet breakup, there was no empirical evidence for this supposition.

As for Yeltsin’s role, even the most event-making leaders need supporters. Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union in December 1991 with the backing of a self-interested alliance. All of its groups called themselves “democrats” and “reformers,” but the two most important were unlikely allies: the nomenklatura elites who were pursuing the “smell of property like a beast after prey,” in the revealing metaphor of Yeltsin’s own chief shock therapist, Yegor Gaidar, and wanted property much more than they wanted democracy or free-market competition; and an avowedly pro-democracy wing of the intelligentsia. Traditional enemies in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet system, they colluded in 1991 largely because the intelligentsia’s radical market ideas seemed to justify nomenklatura privatization.

But the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals, who played leading roles in his post-Soviet government, and who were hailed in Washington as “real reformers,” were neither coincidental fellow travelers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s, they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on a recalcitrant Russian society by an “iron hand” regime. This “great leap,” as they extolled it, would entail “tough and unpopular” policies resulting in “mass dissatisfaction” and thus would necessitate “anti-democratic measures.” Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia’s newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had brutally imposed economic change on Chile, they said of Yeltsin, now their leader, “Let him be a dictator!” Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the Clinton administration and the American mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia’s popularly elected Parliament.

Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991. Other fateful struggles and decisions lay ahead. And none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable or deterministic. But even if authentic democratic, market and nationalist aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread popular perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. All of these factors have continued to play a role since 1991, but it should have been clear at the time that the latter would prevail.

* * *

Twenty years later, an adage persists that probably best expresses how most Russians feel about their former state. It originated in the early 1990s but has been reiterated more recently both by Putin and by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch Putin’s regime imprisoned: “Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the Soviet Union has no heart. And anyone who thinks it can be reconstructed has no head.”

The product of historical legacies and specific political circumstances, the Soviet Union as it was cannot be re-created. In October, however, no doubt timed both for the twentieth anniversary of the breakup and his intended return to the Russian presidency in the March 2012 election, Putin proposed the creation of a “Eurasian Union” that would unite Russia and other former Soviet republics willing to join. Two, it seems—Kazakhstan and Belarus, which have already formed a Customs Union and Common Economic Space with Moscow—have agreed; other small ones may soon do so.

The idea of Eurasian reintegration around Russia arose with the end of the Soviet Union, but Putin, by making it his personal “project” and citing the European Union, has given it authority and priority. Not surprisingly, Western reactions have been largely negative, but even in Russia they have varied. An array of prominent political and intellectual figures, from right to left, agree with Putin about the economic imperative—that tearing apart Soviet suppliers, producers and consumers was a disastrous mistake and that the future belongs to large integrated economies. Others see in Putin’s plan a resurgence of Russian imperialism, czarist and Soviet. Still others think the project is unfeasible and being used mainly to abet Putin’s presidential campaign. (A majority of Russians surveyed in November favored some form of reintegration.)

Much will depend on how many former republics, now independent states, and perhaps Russians themselves, believe Putin’s assurance: “We are not talking about re-creating the USSR in one form or another. It is naïve to try to restore or copy something that is already in the past.” The Soviet Union may have died or, as many Russians believe, been killed, but as for its afterlife—too early to say.

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