Never in history until the Soviet Union collapsed eight years ago had a great empire gone through such cataclysmic changes and accepted such staggering territorial losses without suffering defeat in a general war. Now the crippled successor state known as the Russian Federation is trying to draw the line to prevent the secession of the small non-Russian minorities who remain under its jurisdiction. But as the former Moscow correspondent of The Times of London, Anatol Lieven, argues in Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, Moscow’s brutal assaults on the Chechens, in 1994-96 and again now, only underscore the weakness of the new Russia. Was this breakdown inevitable, inherent in the defects of the old Communist system, as the conventional wisdom now has it? Was it the only possible outcome if would-be reformers tried to tinker with the old system? Or was it simply the result of errors or betrayal on the part of the country’s latter-day leaders? Could a “third way” have been found between Communism and capitalism? (Lenin, for one, thought not.) Was the subsequent Russian disaster under Boris Yeltsin the fault of the Soviet legacy, or the consequence of new crimes and blunders? Did the events of 1991 amount to a new revolution, intended or not?
Experts have vigorously debated the implications of the Soviet collapse and will long continue to do so. And now the Russian money-laundering scandal and the renewed war in Chechnya have propelled these issues to general awareness at the political level in this country, to the particular discomfiture of Vice President Al Gore, point man for the Clinton Administration in its Russia policy. Naturally, as the Russian question is politicized, it is likely to generate more heat than light. Fortunately, a spate of recent books on the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, including those under review here, brings light to the subject.
The Soviet collapse was actually a succession of distinct crises. First was the collapse of Communist Party rule, starting with Gorbachev’s efforts at democratization in 1988-89 and culminating in the failed coup of the Communist conservatives in August 1991. Second was the breakup of the Soviet Union, or, more accurately, the decolonization of the Russian Empire, consummated by Yeltsin’s abolition of the Union (and with it the job of his rival Gorbachev) in December 1991. Finally, less heralded but even more fundamental in its effects was the dissolution of central authority in nearly every sector of the old system, a process set in motion by Gorbachev’s reforms but fully realized only in the early Yeltsin years.
How and why the Soviet system actually came to grief cannot be explained solely by social forces or the legacy of the Communist past. Leadership politics and the clashing egos of the major players were decisive. Indeed, the history of Russia over the past decade and a half of transition can readily be told in the stories of two personalities, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and the implacable rivalry that arose between them. This fateful conflict, recalling the struggle between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in the twenties, is the stuff of three powerful new books, Archie Brown’s The Gorbachev Factor, Jerry Hough’s Democratization and Revolution in the USSR and Lilia Shevtsova’s Yeltsin’s Russia. Gorbachev has updated his own perspective in On My Country and the World, already familiar as regards the breakup of the Soviet Union and his “new thinking” on international relations, but fresh and candid in its initial section on the pluses and minuses of the Revolution of 1917.
Archie Brown, Oxford don, dean of British Sovietology and adviser to successive governments, has masterfully exploited the memoir literature made possible by Russia’s new freedom to bring his readers inside the inner workings of the Gorbachev regime. The story is a Greek tragedy of rising hopes and cumulative errors, compounded by the mobilization of reform against the reformer that was accomplished by the antihero Yeltsin. Gorbachev, Brown shows, was a complex figure who evolved toward democracy both before and after his by no means foreordained selection as Soviet leader in March 1985. In time, “by embracing ideas that deviated from accepted orthodoxy, Gorbachev altered and undermined that system to an extent far greater than he initially foresaw.” The upshot, according to Brown, was that “from the spring of 1989,” i.e., from the election of the First Congress of People’s Deputies, “the most important defining characteristics of a Communist system, whether structural or ideological, had ceased to apply.” Despite all his errors of political and economic judgment, Brown concludes, “Gorbachev has strong claims to be regarded as one of the greatest reformers in Russian history and as the individual who made the most profound impact on world history in the second half of the twentieth century.”