The Soviet Union, R.I.P.?
The Soviet Union, R.I.P.?
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
Reactions to the end of the
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
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
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
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
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
Whether or not some version of Gorbachev's perestroika was a missed opportunity for
Most generally, there were ominous parallels between the Soviet breakup and the collapse of Tsarism in 1917. In both cases, the way the old order ended 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
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
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
Certainly, it is hard to imagine a political act more extreme than abolishing what was still, for all its crises and defections, 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, it was 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 democratization achieved during the preceding six years of perestroika.
Yeltsin and his aides promised, for example, that their extreme measures were "extraordinary" ones, but as had happened before in
The economic dimensions of Belovezh were no less portentous. Dissolving the
The economic motivation behind elite support for Yeltsin in 1991 was even more ramifying. As a onetime Yeltsin supporter wrote thirteen years later, "Almost everything that happened in
Soviet elites took much of the state's enormous wealth, which for decades they had defined in law and ideology as the "property of all the people," with no more regard for fair procedures or public opinion. To maintain their dominant position and enrich themselves, they wanted the most valuable state property distributed from above, without the participation of legislatures or any other representatives of society. They achieved that goal first by themselves, through "spontaneous nomenklatura 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 was also 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, 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
Considering all of these ominous circumstances, why did so many American commentators, from politicians and journalists to scholars, hail the breakup of the
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. No popular revolution, national election or referendum having mandated or sanctioned the breakup, there was no empirical evidence for this supposition. Indeed, everything strongly suggested very different interpretations, as most Russians have long since concluded.
As for Yeltsin's role, even the most event-making leaders need supporters in order to carry out historic acts. Yeltsin abolished the
But the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals, who played leading roles in his post-Soviet government, 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
Political and economic alternatives still existed in