The Soviet Union, R.I.P.? | The Nation


The Soviet Union, R.I.P.?

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The most consequential event of the second half of the twentieth century took place surreptitiously fifteen years ago at a secluded hunting lodge in the Belovezh Forest near Minsk. 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 that seventy-four-year-old state.

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Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His ...

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Reactions to the end of the Soviet Union were, and remain, profoundly different. For the overwhelming majority of American commentators, it was an unambiguously positive turning point in Russian and world history. As the Soviet breakup quickly became the defining moment in a new American triumphalist narrative, the US government's hope that Mikhail Gorbachev's pro-Soviet democratic and market reforms of 1985-91 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 reverted, also forgetting what they had only recently written, to pre-Gorbachev 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," if not disloyal, notions. Gorbachev's reforms, despite having so remarkably dismantled the Communist Party dictatorship, 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 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. (Nor have any mainstream commentators asked if its survival would have been better for world affairs.) 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." Such certitudes are now, of course, the only politically correct ones in US policy, media and academic circles.

A large majority of Russians, on the other hand, as they have regularly made clear in opinion surveys taken during the past fifteen years, regret the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for "Communism" but because they lost a familiar state and secure way of life. No less important, they 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 reason, that three "subjective" factors broke it up: the way 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 property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in "privatizing" the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it.

Most Russians, including even the imprisoned post-Soviet oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a "tragedy," a perspective expressed in the adage: "Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the Soviet Union has no heart." (It continues: "And anyone who thinks it can be reconstructed has no head.")

In addition, a growing number of Russian intellectuals have come to believe that something essential was 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, or perestroika, as he named it. 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.

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