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.
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.”
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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.”