The Soviet Union's Afterlife | The Nation


The Soviet Union's Afterlife

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A Communist Muscovite waves his former USSR banner during a rally in Moscow, December 1, 1992. The crowd of almost 2,000 protested against Russian President Boris Yeltsin's policies and the current economic situation in Russia. (AP-Photo/Denis Paquin) 

This essay is an expanded version of an article that appeared in
The Nation on the fifteenth anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union.

Asked to evaluate the French Revolution nearly 200 years later, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was famously reported to have replied, “Too early to say.” Though apocryphal, the long perspective attributed to Zhou is better informed than the certitudes of American commentators about the causes and consequences of the end of the Soviet Union only twenty years ago.

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

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Consider four explanations routinely given. The Soviet Union ended because it was “illegitimate.” The Communist state was toppled by a democratic revolution from below. The system crumbled because “its economy collapsed.” The Soviet Union was an empire, and “all empires die.” In addition to contradicting one another, all these explanations are flawed: the first is simply ideological; no real evidence exists for the second or the third; and academic specialists disagree as to whether the Soviet Union, not to be confused with its satellite governments in Eastern Europe, was an empire or a multiethnic state.

As for the consequences of the Soviet breakup, mainstream American commentators, almost without exception, have only applauded them. Most former Soviet citizens, on the other hand, are still weighing, as Russians say, the “pluses and minuses.” But whatever anyone thinks today, the Soviet Union is certain to have a long historical, and therefore political, afterlife. Because its seventy-four-year role in the twentieth century is still bitterly disputed, because the way it ended remains so controversial and because the full ramifications of its disappearance are still unclear, its fate can only confirm the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s axiom, “History is indeed an argument without end.”

* * *

This history-changing event took place surreptitiously at a secluded hunting lodge in the Belovezh Forest near Minsk, in what is now Belarus. On December 8, 1991, heads of three of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, led by Boris Yeltsin of Russia, met there to sign documents abolishing the Soviet state.

Reactions to the end of the Soviet Union were profoundly different. It quickly became the defining moment in a new American triumphalist narrative. The US government’s hope, expressed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, that Mikhail Gorbachev’s pro-Soviet democratic and market reforms of 1985–91, or perestroika, would succeed was forgotten. In the media, all the diverse complexity of Soviet history was now presented as “Russia’s seven decades as a rigid and ruthless police state,” a history “every bit as evil as we had thought—indeed more so.” A New York Times columnist even suggested that a “fascist Russia” would have been a “much better thing.”

American academic specialists reacted similarly, though in their own way. With few exceptions, they also reverted—forgetting what they had only recently written about Gorbachev’s policies—to previous Sovietological axioms that the system had always been unreformable and doomed. The opposing scholarly view that there had been other possibilities in Soviet history, “roads not taken,” was again dismissed as an “improbable idea” based on “dubious” notions. Gorbachev’s reforms, despite having so remarkably dismantled the Communist Party dictatorship by 1990, had been “a chimera,” and the Soviet Union therefore died from a “lack of alternatives.”

Accordingly, most American specialists no longer asked, even in light of the large-scale human tragedies that followed in the 1990s, if a reforming Soviet Union might have been the best hope for the post-Communist future of Russia or any of the other former republics. On the contrary, they concluded, as a leading university authority insisted, that everything Soviet had to be discarded by “the razing of the entire edifice of political and economic relations.” That kind of nihilism underlay the “shock therapy” so assiduously urged on Russia in the 1990s by the Clinton administration, which turned the country, as a columnist in the centrist Literary Gazette recently recalled, into “a zone of catastrophe.” None of the policy’s leading proponents, such as Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs and former President Clinton himself, have ever publicly regretted the near-destruction of essential consumer industries, from pharmaceuticals to poultry, or the mass poverty it caused.

Nor have any US policy-makers or mainstream media commentators asked if the survival of a democratically reconstituted Soviet Union—one with at least three or four fewer republics—would have been better for the world: If during the past twenty years there would have been less ideological zealotry, aggressive nationalism, civil war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, unwise American and NATO military interventions, unregulated global finance and even divisions in Europe. Almost certainly there would have been, but here too triumphalist certitudes continue to dominate the US political and media establishments.

A majority of Russians, on the other hand, as they have repeatedly made clear in opinion surveys, still lament the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for “Communism” but because they lost a familiar state and secure way of life. In March 2011, to take a recent example, 59 percent of those surveyed said they “regret” the Soviet breakup while only 24 percent did not. Indeed, in December, 74 percent of readers of even a liberal Moscow newspaper said they regretted it.

No less important, most Russians do not share the nearly unanimous Western view that the Soviet Union’s “collapse” was “inevitable” because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good empirical reasons, that three “subjective” factors broke it up: the unduly rapid and radical way—not too slowly and cautiously, as is said in the West—Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev, and to occupy the Kremlin; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in “privatizing” the state’s enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it.

In addition, a growing number of Russian intellectuals have come to believe that something essential was tragically lost—a historic opportunity, thwarted for centuries, to achieve the nation’s political and economic modernization by continuing, with or without Gorbachev, his Soviet reformation. While the Soviet breakup led American specialists back to cold war–era concepts of historical inevitability, it convinced many of their Russian counterparts that “there are always alternatives in history” and that a Soviet reformation had been one of the “lost alternatives”—a chance to democratize and marketize Russia by methods more gradualist, consensual and less traumatic, and thus more fruitful and less costly, than those adopted after 1991.

* * *

Whether or not the jettisoning of Gorbachev’s perestroika was a missed opportunity for Russia’s “noncatastrophic transformation,” instead of its recurring “modernization through catastrophe,” may be for historians to decide. But it was already clear at the time, or should have been, that the way the Soviet Union ended—in fateful circumstances about which standard American accounts are largely silent or mythical—boded ill for the future. (One myth, promoted by Yeltsin’s supporters to claim he saved the country from Yugoslavia’s bloody fate, is that the dissolution was “peaceful.” In reality, ethnic civil wars and other strife soon erupted in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, killing hundreds of thousands of former Soviet citizens and brutally displacing even more, a process still under way.)

Most generally, there were ominous parallels between the Soviet breakup and the collapse of czarism in 1917. In both cases, the end of the old order resulted in a near total destruction of Russian statehood that plunged the country into prolonged chaos, conflict and misery. Russians call what ensued smuta, a term full of dread derived from previous historical experiences and not expressed in the usual translation, “time of troubles.” Indeed, in this respect, the end of the Soviet Union may have had less to do with the specific nature of that system than with recurring breakdowns in Russian history.

The similarities between 1991 and 1917, despite important differences, were significant. Once again, hopes for evolutionary progress toward democracy, prosperity and social justice were crushed; a small group of radicals, this time around Yeltsin, imposed extreme measures on the nation; fierce struggles over property and territory tore apart the foundations of a vast multiethnic state; and the victors destroyed longstanding economic and other essential structures to build entirely anew, “as though we had no past.” Once again, elites acted in the name of a better future but left society bitterly divided over yet another of Russia’s perennial “accursed questions”—why it had happened. And again the people paid the price.

All of those recapitulations unfolded, amid mutual (and lasting) charges of betrayal, during the three months from August to December 1991, when the piecemeal destruction of the Soviet state occurred. The period began and ended with coups (as in 1917)—the first a failed military putsch against Gorbachev organized by his own ministers in the center of Moscow, the second Yeltsin’s liquidation of the state itself in the Belovezh Forest. What followed was a revolution from above against the Soviet system of power and property by its own elites. Looking back, Russians of different views have concluded that during those months political extremism and unfettered greed cost them a chance for democratic and economic progress.

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