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#593877
-A nonmarxist unbiased view:

http://www.msu.edu/~shlapent/sovcollapse.htm

A normal system?
False and true explanations for the collapse of the USSR

Vladimir Shlapentokh

Analysts of twentieth-century Russian history vary wildly in their opinions. Moral assessments, which have polarized all branches of the social sciences, have exercised a heavy influence. The strongly opposed “totalitarian” and “revisionist” schools have both proved quite incapable of capturing the essence of Soviet society, and hence of predicting and interpreting the system’s failure. We need to reject any pre-established criterion for studying Soviet and post-Soviet society, whether it be “true” Marxist socialism or liberal capitalism, or some ideal Russian society based on national traditions. Sovietologists must free themselves from the remnants of cold war ideology and rid themselves of moral prejudice.

Just such a “detached approach” is now becoming common among the historians of the British empire. In his The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Laurence James writes, “I have been as careful as possible to sidestep the quagmire of post imperial guilt, that peculiar angst which has troubled the British and American intelligentsia for the past 30 or so years. Wherever possible, I have avoided battles over the rights and wrongs of empires.” Another British historian of empire, Andrew Porter, contends that the James is less original in his approach than he thought, because this approach “is now widespread in universities where the subject is discussed...neither in simplified terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ nor according to the partisan post imperial presumptions.”

The detached approach may conflict with the relativism of postmodernists, but it finds support from Max Weber, who called upon his colleagues to observe the “imperative requirement of intellectual honesty.” In his On the Methodology of the Social Sciences, Weber insisted that a scholar “make relentlessly clear to his audience, and especially to himself, which of his statements are statements of logically deduced or empirically observed facts, and which are statements of practical evaluation.”

Without minimizing the horrors of the revolutionary period, which lasted until Stalin’s death, the USSR might instead be considered a “normal” system, one which employed the tools of socialist ideology for the purposes of technological and military modernization, to preserve its empire, and to enlarge its geopolitical role in the world. In the course of history, it reproduced itself several times and endured the transition from one leader to the next without bloodshed. With its glorification of the totalitarian state and its nationalist fervor, Lenin’s Marxism functioned as a steadfast ideological justification for the totalitarian state and its imperial goals. The USSR experienced two peaks in its history: in the late 1940s after the glorious victory over Germany when the empire expanded enormously, and in the mid 1970s when it reached military parity with the West.

The concept of the USSR as a “normal totalitarian society” departs from the two major schools of Sovietology in the United States. The idea of the regime’s normality challenges the conservative school headed by Richard Pipes and Martin Malia. In his Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, Richard Pipes asserts that the Soviet Union was a dangerous, criminal society created by a band of power-thirsty adventurists, who were indifferent to ideology. Martin Malia does not agree with Pipes about the role of ideology, but like Pipes he denies the normal character of the society. In The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism Malia sees the USSR as a utopian construction built like a house of cards by dreamers and lunatics. Soviet society was the “grim mistake of Columbus,” “the greatest triumph of ideology over real life,” and he claimed that “the logic of history does not work this way.”

The “revisionist” school, by contrast, perceived the USSR as a system imbued with “political pluralism” and “group conflicts,” and sharply disputed its totalitarian character. Revisionists opposed the idea that a single leader, or a small group of rulers, maintained political and economic supremacy in the USSR until 1989-1990, and denied that the system “relied on mass coercion.” Several revisionists, such as Sheila Fitzpatrick and Jerry Hough, often accepted the official version of the country’s developments after 1917, and downgraded the atrocities of the regime, or attributed them to the masses.

In the early 1960s, however, the idea of the Soviet Union as a “normal totalitarian society” had already emerged among several Russian intellectuals, notably Vasilii Grossman in his Life and Destiny and later Alexander Zinoviev in his Yawning Heights. In the 1970s-1980s, many Russian intellectuals believed in the strength of the Soviet society and its developed structure, while recognizing at the same time its various chronic diseases, particularly its economic problems.

One of the best ways to understand the character of the Soviet system is to consider the possible causes of its death. As Roger Martin du Gard wrote in his Le Famile du Tibault, we can only fully understand a person after his death, when he is “isolated.” “Only then is it possible to look at him from all sides, see his insides and make a general judgement.” The same is true for societies.

As a sort of coroner of the fallen state, I will begin by clarifying the factors which did not cause the death of the Soviet Union in 1991, drawing comparisons between the post-Soviet and Soviet societies, but excluding the period of perestroika. We can not compare, for instance, the post-Soviet economy in 1995 with the Soviet economy in 1990-1991 (though Russian liberals often do). During perestroika, Gorbachev’s reforms had thrown the economy into complete disarray.

To begin with, the system did not collapse, because the government lost control of the country. Having won the civil war in 1920, the Communists used their gigantic apparatus of repression to create order in Russia, and preserved it effectively until 1989-1991. By 1985, the political elite were certainly pursuing their egotistical interests more than in Stalin’s times, but they remained concerned with the well-being of the state, the party, and the nation. Several highly trained and talented managers successfully implemented major national projects during the times of Khrushchev and even Brezhnev. Discipline in the party and state apparatus survived the rise of cynicism and careerism. The army and particularly the KGB were well organized and effective. Soviet foreign intelligence claimed several brilliant achievements in the 1980s, including the recruitment of American CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who became one of the most successful spies in the history of espionage.

Crime and corruption were “normal elements” of Soviet society, particularly in the last two decades of its history. Yet the post-Soviet experience made this society look principled and orderly by comparison. After 1953, the people could look to various institutions for the protection of their interests: the central governmental administration, the Central Committee of the party, the local party, the media, the Soviets, the Komsomol, trade unions, the police, courts, and attorney offices. Certainly Stalin’s terror was horrible, but after 1953 the repressive apparatus halted the persecution of loyal citizens and focused only on active dissidents.

In 1990-1991, the people’s fear of street crimes, scam artists, gang violence, and even murder escalated in Russian cities. At the same time, the people lost all trust in local police forces. Today, Russians are helpless against the arbitrariness and corruption of bureaucrats and omnipresent criminal structures.

Throughout its existence, the Soviet empire was strong, and ethnic relations were quite peaceful. The KGB and the party encouraged the “friendship of people” which accounted for the high number of mixed marriages, even between groups that were historically hostile towards each other, such as Azerbaijanis and Armenians. The nationalist movements in the country were extremely weak, the empire was calm, and there were no traces of any serious threat to the country.

The Soviet economic system could not compete with the Western market economy. In the last decade of the Soviet Union, the rate of economic growth steadily declined, the quality of goods deteriorated, and technological progress slowed. Without question, the economy suffered from serious chronic diseases. However, none of these diseases were lethal and the society could have lived on for many more years than it did.

Despite these economic difficulties, we should not forget that the USSR achieved military parity with the United States in the mid 1970s, and became second only to the U.S. in science. Moreover, the Soviet economy was more productive and technologically oriented than its successor. By comparison with the post-Communist experience, the standard of living in Soviet times was quite high. There were virtually no homeless people and no unemployment. To evict someone from their apartment was almost impossible, whatever the circumstances. Housing conditions improved significantly in the 1960s and 1970s. Almost two thirds of all city dwellers lived in their own private apartment, though this often meant living with parents or grandparents. By the 1980s, housing standards were higher than ever in Russian history.

The Russian people were also well equipped with durable goods. In 1985, almost every family owned a television set (97 percent) and a refrigerator (91 percent), two thirds owned washing machines and sewing machines, and one third owned tape recorders, cameras, vacuum cleaners and other goods.

Never in the past had holidays been so accessible to the masses as in the 1980s. Roughly 50 million people (about one quarter of the adult population) vacationed in various resort institutions in 1985. The majority of children spent their vacations in Pioneer camps.

Before its demise, the empire commanded some of the most distinguished educational institutions in the world. Overall, the level of education in the Soviet Union was almost equal to that of the United States. By the mid 1980s, 89 percent of those with jobs had spent 7 years in school (in the USA the percentage was 93). This was a significant achievement when measured against the educational level in Stalin's times (12 percent).

While most Russians were in fact dissatisfied with several aspects of life (namely, food shortages, long queuing lines and the poor quality of goods), several surveys in the 1970s and 1980s (some of which were conducted by the author himself), showed that most people gave a positive assessment of their material life. The national survey of the Soviet population conducted in 1976 found that on a five-point scale Russians evaluated their life with a grade of 4. They felt certain that American life did not deserve more than a 2 or 3. Life in Czechoslovakia scored the highest with a grade of 5.

In the late 1970s, a study of Soviet and American citizens provided a rather interesting insight into employment satisfaction. According to the study, residents of Jackson (USA) and Pskov (USSR) gave similar responses to questions about their occupations. On a scale of 1 to 5 (a score of 5 represented complete satisfaction, 1 represented complete dissatisfaction), both American and Soviet respondents rated their general job appreciation at 3.9. Forty nine percent of Americans and 44 percent of Russians were satisfied with the amount of free time they were allowed. Fifty seven percent of Americans and 61 percent of Russians enjoyed both their work and free time.

In the 1990s, against expectations, the quality of life in post-Communist society did not rise, but dropped sharply. There are different estimates about the current standard of living in Russia, though none dispute that it is much lower than before 1985. Between 1991 and 1995, real income dropped by 30 to 40 percent, and then declined again after the August financial catastrophe in 1998.

Throughout Soviet history, mass discontent was at times quite serious, but never cataclysmic. Public unrest was not the cause of the Soviet collapse. The “mass discontent” theory for the fall of the Soviet Union is particularly amusing in light of the profound passivity we see in post-Soviet society. Russians remained calm through the economic disaster of 1992, when their savings were eliminated and their standard of living collapsed. They also weathered the financial crisis of August 17, 1998 without any sign of public disturbance. Russians tolerated the nonpayment of their salaries over months and even years. What is more, millions of Russians suffered through the winters of the past few years with poor heating systems and a lack of electricity. It is simply impossible to contend that the people’s discontentment in the 1970s and 1980s could have shattered the totalitarian system and its strong apparatus of repression.

There were no major conflicts between the population and the authorities in both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. The passivity in Soviet times derived not only from the fear of mass repressions, but also from the general acceptance of most official values. All of the data from the 1960s and 1970s showed that, despite their hatred of the local bureaucracy, the majority of the Russians (unlike a small part of the intelligentsia) accepted the political, economic and social order, including such official values as patriotism, collectivism, respect for the army, the Soviet empire, national solidarity, and the Communist party. Russians steadfastly supported Soviet foreign policy including the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and even Afghanistan.

The famous Harvard project of the 1950s showed that even displaced Soviet citizens maintained rather positive feelings toward the regime. One third of the respondents, who supposedly loathed the system, admitted that they “were once in favor of the regime.” A similar study was conducted on Soviet emigres living in America during the early 1980s. While the respondents were clearly eager to please their American patrons with their hatred of the Soviet system, only 14 percent assessed the “life they left behind” as “very dissatisfying”; 25 percent said they were “somewhat dissatisfied.”

Today, post-Communist Russia is also calm. According to a recent survey conducted by the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies (VTSIOM), no more than one fifth of the respondents reported a willingness to participate in protest actions. The people’s reluctance to protest is combined with a rejection of the official ideology of liberal capitalism. The absence of mass disturbances may be attributed to the atomization of society and the dramatic rise of public apathy. The people feel deeply alienated from political power. In a 1998 VTSIOM survey, 36 percent of the Russians considered the Soviet power “close to the people”; only 2 percent said the same thing about the current political power.

In the early 1990s, Egor Gaidar and other liberals asserted the theory that the apparatchicks’ longing for private property caused perestroika and the subsequent collapse. Yet before perestroika, the apparatchiks had shown no sign of holding any such desire. In fact, even during perestroika and up until 1989-1990, there were no Moscow officials who gave any serious thought to privatizing state property. Most party apparatchiks were deeply hostile toward privatization. Gorbachev himself avoided the use of this term until the last year of his rule.

Nor can we identify the dissident movement as the valiant destroyer of the Soviet Union for one, very simple reason: at the time, the dissident movement barely existed. By the early 1980s, Andropov’s KGB had more or less destroyed the movement. Almost all its leading figures resided either in the West, or in prison and exile. Even the samizdat movement was on the verge of collapse. By 1985, the liberal intellectuals were so demoralized that they were in no hurry to support a new, evidently reformist, leader. Gorbachev virtually had to drag them into public activity. It was not until 1987-1988, when the system moved toward self-destruction, that dissidents became serious actors in political life.

Many empires in the past collapsed as the result of military defeats and foreign intervention (in the twentieth-century: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires). In the case of the Soviet empire, however, there was no military threat in the last years of its existence. The troubles of the Soviet army in Afghanistan were no more serious than the American tribulations in Vietnam. It would be ridiculous to compare the retreat from Afghanistan with the defeats of tsarist Russia in the Russian-Japanese war (1904-1905), or World War I (1914-1918) which triggered the revolution.

In 1991, when Russia was at its weakest, the country’s major antagonists (the United States, its Western allies, and China) never planned an attack on the USSR, or plotted to take over its territory. The emergence of nuclear weaponry made it impossible to take advantage of the country’s weaknesses. All potential adversaries of the USSR were concerned only with how to coexist peacefully with the superpower that could easily destroy the entire world.

Perhaps the most ludicrous theories for explaining the country’s collapse were those advanced by the Communists and nationalists in the mid 1990s. For instance, they contended that the fall of the Soviet Union came as a result of an elaborate scheme initiated by the CIA and their agents Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Yakovlev.

So if the Soviet Union did not collapse because of either the lack of order, the faltering economy, the discontent of the masses, ethnic conflicts, conspiracies, or military defeats, what did bring the mighty state to its knees in 1991?

The cause lies in Mikhail Gorbachev’s unfortunate attempts to reform the economy in order to maintain and expand the geopolitical status of the USSR. All of the Soviet leaders—while quite happy with the political system—were dissatisfied with the economy. They understood its numerous flaws and chronic diseases and looked for ways, such as the development of managerial autonomy, to increase economic efficiency in the interests of the country’s military capability. Even Leonid Brezhnev, the symbol of Soviet immobilism, or “stagnation”, played with the idea of decentralizing management in the first years of his tenure. At the same time, the leaders, who were well aware of the importance of the central role allotted to the party and the state, were afraid of the dire consequences of spreading the autonomy of economic actors too far. In essence, to promote economic decentralization was to threaten the dominant role of the party apparatus as the single co-ordinating force, thereby jeopardizing the system as a whole. For this reason, the Soviet economy, with only a few modifications, stayed mostly the same until 1985.

The question remains: If the leadership understood the risks of an economic transformation, why did they go ahead with reforms? The answer is as old as the Soviet Union itself. The Kremlin had always been chiefly concerned with the geopolitical status of the USSR and its miliary might. With the advent of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the Kremlin watched as the military equilibrium seemed to tilt alarmingly in the West’s favor. The Kremlin perceived SDI as a direct threat to the geopolitical status of the USSR.

Military experts in Moscow may have doubted whether it was possible to create a shield impervious to all incoming nuclear missiles, but the Kremlin believed that SDI, regardless of its success or failure, would mobilize and integrate the technological resources of all major Western countries. Yuri Andropov, as the master of the Kremlin in 1982-1983, was the first Soviet leader to identify the SDI and related projects as a direct threat to the USSR’s military parity with the West. In a special declaration, Andropov characterized Reagan’s SDI as a program “aimed at the disarmament of the Soviet Union”; he vowed never to allow the United States to achieve military superiority.

How would the Soviet Union match the great leap forward in Western technology? In Stalin’s day, when the postwar nuclear arms and technology race began, the leadership completely ignored the basic needs of the people and mobilized the country’s material and labor resources in order to stay on pace with the United States. Forty years later, Stalin’s harsh totalitarian regime, which had allowed for the sustained technological race with the West, was gone, and still the Soviet leaders were faced with the same daunting question, only with a much weaker state machine at their disposal.

Thus by the early 1980s, a crucial decision forced itself upon the Soviet leaders: whether they should abandon the USSR’s status as a superpower—one of the greatest achievements in Russian history—or take whatever measures might be necessary to accelerate technological progress and prevent American military superiority. Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen by the party leadership, with the evident support of the KGB and the army, in order to halt Russia’s steady decline in the international arena. Gorbachev accepted this mandate, holding as he did a strong belief in the great potential of modernized socialism.

Later, in 1989-1991 and particularly after the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev and other ideologues of perestroika claimed that they had designed the radical democratic transformation of society before perestroika. They never publicly accepted the SDI as the provocation for reforms. “The first impulse for the reforms,” as Gorbachev stated at a conference that discussed the roots of perestroika in 1990, “was the lack of freedom.” To which Margarete Thatcher plainly responded that “There was one vital factor in the ending of the cold war: Ronald Reagan’s decision to go ahead with the Strategic Defense Initiative.” From the American side, many observers and participants also regarded SDI as the crucial factor, among them Thomas Power, Strobe Talbott, Paul Nitze and Robert Gates.

Indeed, in his first speech as the new leader in 1985, Gorbachev had said: “The achievement of military-strategic parity with the aggressive NATO was a great historical accomplishment of the brotherly socialist countries. It is necessary to maintain this parity by all means because it holds down the aggressive appetites of imperialists.” Technological backwardness and slow economic growth (and not the standard of living, economic reforms, or democratization) were the main topics of Gorbachev’s activities until June 1987. Gorbachev’s first program was suitably called “Acceleration.” In the beginning, he tried to push the economy ahead with neo Stalinist methods. His first economic initiatives---some decentralization of management, attempts at increasing worker discipline and morale, and his war against inefficient bureaucracy---resembled the ideas of Andropov and his aids in the early 1980s. During the 27th Party Congress in 1986, Gorbachev and other leaders continued to praise central planning as “a great triumph and the fundamental advantage of socialism.” Vadim Bakatin, a close aid to Gorbachev, said in 1995, “Perestroika did not set the social, economic, and political goals for the transformation of our society and state...rather, it aimed at cosmetically revamping our socialism.” In the first two years of his tenure, Gorbachev looked in many respects like an “enlightened Stalinist.”

However, the attempts to jumpstart the stagnate Soviet economy and boost technological progress through superficial neo Stalinist means completely failed. In 1987, Gorbachev changed his approach and moved to the radical expansion of economic autonomy. His team issued several decrees which diminished the economic control of the party and state. The decrees included the influential law of cooperatives (March 1988), “the enterprise law” which expanded the autonomy of production units (1987), the leasing of enterprises by their workers, the decree which permitted enterprises to set prices on their products, and the gradual curtailment of the state monopoly on foreign trade (started in 1986).

By 1990-1991, the role of the party and state as the main economic agents had decreased significantly. Yet the state economic machine had not been replaced by corresponding economic mechanisms, such as proper market regulators, real competition and free prices. Instead, the system gave way to economic chaos. The function of money was nearly voided by hyperinflation and the dominance of bartering. Crime and corruption ballooned, destroying the Russian work ethic while exacerbating semi-legal and illegal economic activity. The destructive processes brought on by Gorbachev’s reforms culminated in an unprecedented decline in industrial and agricultural production, accompanied by an acute shortage of consumer goods. Many calamitous features of the Soviet economy in 1990-1991 continued into the post-Communist economy.

In his feverish search for ways to modernize Soviet society and its economy, Gorbachev, as the totalitarian leader until 1989-1990, sacrificed the official ideology, yielding to the pressure of the nationalist movements in all corners of the empire and finally consented in 1990 to the formal demotion of the party. These events made the final collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable. It was now only a matter of months.

However, none of these developments were preordained for the second half of the 1980s. With its nuclear shield, its steadfast social order, and even its floundering economy, the Soviet Union could have continued, and its eventual collapse would have taken a different form, as would Russia’s future course.

With all of its human horrors and economic flaws, the USSR should be considered a normal society, because it functioned and reproduced itself over a long period of time. The same criterion of “normality” should be applied to the post-Soviet society. Yet many Russian and Western experts not only evaluate the society as abnormal, but predict radical changes or even disintegration of the country in the next years. They base these assumptions on facts such as the low productivity of the Russian economy and the severe influx of crime and corruption in all spheres of society. In their opinion, Russia must build a law abiding, liberal capitalist society or perish.

In reality, Russia is not threatened by collapse. After the anti-Communist Revolution in 1991, the country adjusted to the new political and economic conditions. In this period of adaptation, Russia emerged as a heterogeneous society with four major layers: bureaucratic, liberal (that is, free-market and democratic institutions), oligarchic, and criminal. These layers now interact relatively smoothly and function as highly embedded social structures, whatever the consequences for the Russian people and the world. The Russian federation, as it exists today, will continue to function through changes of political leadership and adjustments in the relationship between the center and the periphery.

The interpretation of the USSR as a normal society is not only important for studying post-Communist Russia, but for many other countries as well. This definition is a powerful argument in favor of the civilizational approach in social science, advanced in the twentieth-century by prominent scholars like Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington. The approach refuses to label societies as normal or abnormal, good or bad, moral or immoral, based on religious, cultural, political or economic criteria.

Throughout the past century, this system of moral judgements of society has hovered over the ideological debates. Those who considered liberal capitalism the peak of history have struggled for ideological dominance with those who ascribed this role to socialist society. At the end of the century, the ideologues of liberal capitalism seemingly emerged as victors. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing euphoria in the West strengthened the belief in the hierarchical approach and in the liberal model as the radiant future for all mankind.

Yet, despite all the wishful thinking by Western experts like Francis Fukuyama, only a tiny minority of countries in the world meet the requirements of the liberal model: a competitive market, effective democracy and law and order in society. Countries such as Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan, Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Burma and Nigeria do not pass this test. However, these countries have functioned and reproduced in the past and will continue to do so in the future, using the same political, economic and social structures. In some ways, these countries are just as “normal” as the Soviet society.

In practice, it is extremely difficult for the researcher to follow Weber’s advice and disentangle himself from moral assessments and value judgements. This task becomes increasingly difficult when studying a social system where the people lived in misery, the poets and scholars feared persecution, and crime and corruption flourished. All the more, it is painful to discover that one of these societies functioned by its own logic for decades.

At the same time, a serious scholar should not indulge in grading countries on a moral scale, or take sides as an admirer or hater of a given society. The scholar should take an ethical stance only after he shuts down his computer and leaves his desk. As a man away from his office, this scholar was overjoyed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and remains extremely critical of post-Communist Russia.

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.
By Diplomat
#594438
I would compare the fall of USSR to that of Rome's. More than a millenia has passed, and historians still don't know fully how it fell. An empire as big as Rome, and with all that same stature in history, USSR will never be explained how it fell exactly.

It does seem like Gorbachev's peace initiatives and perestroika were really the start of the actual events that led to the fall. If somebody like Breznev or Andropov were in place of Gorbachev, even though Andropov was said to be a reformer like Gorbachev, it would have been unlikely that a fall of USSR could occur. It was a big mistake for Gorbachev to stand by idly when the Berlin Wall fell. KGB probably wanted to stop it and send troops, but it didn't occur, and I speculate that Gorbachev did not listen to KGB at this time, so perhaps that was what led to the later August Coup instigated by KGB.

I would also argue that when Gorbachev went to London and Washington and had meetings there, he probably asked for some capital help from the West. He said that USSR would want to join G7. But G7 did not invite USSR, it only happened when it actually fell and Putin was in power. That was very contradictory to the West's policy toward China at the time. China, too, began a perestroika-like policy at about the same time, and the US and the West quickly and gladly started to pour capital and technology to China, making it possible to have the "economic miracle." This did not happen in USSR. If the West chose to pour capital into the 1980s USSR, its fall would not have happened.

The West's goal has always been preventing any possibility of Moscow-Beijing alliance. This possible alliance has always been the center of the West's foreign policy goal. That is the greatest fear America and Western Europe. Certain to current policy, Washington always aims to split any possibility of Moscow and Beijing joining together. If that happens, a Moscow-Beijing alliance, that would spell the end of the Western Empire.

And going back to the original point of why Moscow fell, I'd just say that it is not fully possible to take it right to the point, there are so many factors. As of now, the economic theory and the weakness of communism principle are the main causes of it, it seems.
User avatar
By Ombrageux
#594469
I think it fell because Gorbachev did not follow the Brezhnev doctrine. He refused to destroy eastern European reformers and revolutionaries as had been done in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. When it became clear that reforming other communist nations was acceptable, then indeed, why not reform the nations within the Soviet Union's arbitrary borders?

I would not underestimate the importance of personality. If another reactionary communist had come to power, another Brezhnev, there is every reason the Soviet Union could have held. Though it would never have had even the hope of escaping economic stagnation.
By Smilin' Dave
#594835
While I have a few quibles with the article, they don't detract from it in any serious manner, so I won't elaborate. I particularly like the point about the collapse not being a result of popular pressure, after all, where did all that civil society go after the fall?

@Diplomat
I would compare the fall of USSR to that of Rome's. More than a millenia has passed, and historians still don't know fully how it fell. An empire as big as Rome, and with all that same stature in history, USSR will never be explained how it fell exactly.

Rome's fall is harder to explain because it took place over a long period, hence there is no way for one factor to explain everything.

The USSR on the other hand went from not bad to collapse in six years... now that's weird.

It was a big mistake for Gorbachev to stand by idly when the Berlin Wall fell.

Why? Berlin Wall fell after a lot of Eastern Europe already had, it was more of a historical exclamation point than a watershed.

and the US and the West quickly and gladly started to pour capital and technology to China, making it possible to have the "economic miracle." This did not happen in USSR. If the West chose to pour capital into the 1980s USSR, its fall would not have happened.

This is a fair comment, but if we look at Russia today, we find a flaw in that concept. There is a significant amount of money in the hands of some, yet almost none of that money goes into Russia. The most extreme example of this is when Russian oligarchs buy European football teams. In short, there were resources/money to invest in Russia, but for some reason it wasn't/hasn't.

China also benefitted from domestic capital investment, either from the government or from the people themselves (once the initial agricultural phase of reform was complete particularly).

The West's goal has always been preventing any possibility of Moscow-Beijing alliance.

Always? What efforts were made on that front in the 1950s or 60s?

That is the greatest fear America and Western Europe.

In the 1980's and 90's, what would Europe have to fear from China?

Certain to current policy, Washington always aims to split any possibility of Moscow and Beijing joining together.

So what has the US done to prevent joint exercises between the two? Or the Shanghai Security Organisation?

And going back to the original point of why Moscow fell

...Moscow is still there... only the Communist regime fell. I don't know about everyone else, but I happen to think refering to a government simply by its capital's name is simplistic to the point of stupidity.

As of now, the economic theory and the weakness of communism principle are the main causes of it, it seems.

Good to see you have rolled out this stupid arguement here as well Diplomat. If the system was so fundamentally flawed, why didn't it fail earlier? How could it have ever showed success, which it did?

@DumbTeen
I think it fell because Gorbachev did not follow the Brezhnev doctrine. He refused to destroy eastern European reformers and revolutionaries as had been done in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. When it became clear that reforming other communist nations was acceptable, then indeed, why not reform the nations within the Soviet Union's arbitrary borders?

The Soviet Union treaty was being negotiated willingly by all sides up until the last minute (the August Coup). It wasn't till after the Coup attempt that Ukraine, Georgia etc. decided that they really wanted to break away.

This also doesn't explain why the system didn't at least live on in Russia itself.

My own theory on why the Soviet Union collapsed is a combination of bad policy on Gorbachev's part (encouraging national associations only encouraged instability) combined with a volutaray loosening of controls at the centre. Note China managed to pull off it's economic miracle, and one of the biggest differences was the status of the government.
By Russkie
#594845
So you people are arguing that the collapse of the USSR wasn't inevitable?
So it was Gorbi that was the cause of it, not the system.
By Smilin' Dave
#594875
So it was Gorbi that was the cause of it, not the system.

It would be an exaggeration to blame all government policy of Gorbachev... or even blame everything on the government.

So no, not quite.
By Berkut
#595644
Only one reason: Gorbachev.

Few months ago when 20 years anniversary was selebrated in Italy, Gorbachev was invited and he accidently said something he probably didn't intend to say...He said: "...western powers had to change too, but they didn't, we had a deal, but they did not respected it..."
By Diplomat
#595663
I speculate here that the deal was like if Gorbachev let go of the fall of Berlin Wall, the West was going to send capital infusion to Moscow. That is the only viable explanation why Gorbachev didn't do anything of it. KGB people should have known this, and probably they did, but Gorbachev's dealing with KGB wasn't good, so he overrode, and he got conned. Gorbachev should have kept Gromyko, the old commissar.
By Russkie
#595678
It's hard to believe that people like him will fall of this western trick. The western powers are compulsive liers. They do not care about Russia, they send more money every year to China and Japan then to Russia for the entire decade.
By Mac
#599008
Gorbachev instituted his policies sporadically and without any clear organisation. Thus, they returned sproadic results that were not to his expectation. Of course, China's simultaneous economic reform was not accompanied by any political change at all. One you pick at the seams of a dictatorship, repair work becomes very difficult indeed.
By Gothmog
#599087
-I think the USSR was in a serious situation by 1985. Unlike many western sources claim, their economy wasn´t collapsing (and didn´t collapse until Central Planning was dismantled by Gorbatchev, the idiot, in 1989). However, the USSR was in a situation of relative decline (as compared with the west). The implications of the Soviet stagnation were clear. The country couldn´t, AT THE SAME TIME, keep her status as superpower and restore the high economic growth rates from the 60´s and 70´s. In other words, the USSR was dying from imperial overstretch. This is one of the most dangerous situations for a country, as the process of retreating from a position of power is very dangerous and can result in internal and external instability. I think the Soviets went too fast with political reforms, while their priority should be a radical cut in defense budget (even at cost of external vulnerability, it would happen anyway) coupled with economic reform (which would have implied in some concessions to market mechanisms, but less extensive than in China). All of this was further complicated by the fall of oil prices in 1986, thus depriving the USSR from their main source of hard currency. That the Soviet reforms could have worked is illustrated by the example of China which, 20 years after successful reforms, still have only half of the per capita GDP of Russia (whose economy still didn´t recovered to pre 1990 levels). Of course, the role of the local elite in deliberately dismantling the system still must be considered.
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By Ombrageux
#599094
Gorbachev may have actually initiated the system's breakup, but even without him the USSR would have remained economically bankrupt. Without him, the USSR would not get better. It would remain a reactionary and stagnating regime. It would have periodically invaded whichever Eastern European country tried to free themselves from Moscow's grip.

Without Gorbachev, the status quo would have perpetuated itself, ever more reaction and stagnation. There certainly would not have been a move or drift towards "true" communist society.

What I am trying to say is, even though without Gorbachev the status quo would have been maintained, eventually and inevitably a leader like him would come to recognise the economic and moral bankruptcy of the USSR. The Eastern bloc was doomed to breakup eventually.
By Gothmog
#599296
Gorbachev may have actually initiated the system's breakup, but even without him the USSR would have remained economically bankrupt. Without him, the USSR would not get better. It would remain a reactionary and stagnating regime. It would have periodically invaded whichever Eastern European country tried to free themselves from Moscow's grip.


-It wasn´t Gorbachev that decided to start reforms. The Soviet elite reached the conclusion that reforms weere necessary. Withouth any reform, the Soviet regime would behave exactly like you are describing. However, more gradual economic reforms would have probably recovered the economic growth, improved the support for socialism in Eastern Europe and prevent the disintegration of USSR. The big trouble in this equation is how it could have been acomplished withouth sacrificing USSR military power. If the USSR decided to cut its defense spending and retreat from their position as superpower, it could be interpreted in the outside world as an invitation to agression and in Eastern Europe as an invitation to revolt against Soviet rule. The Soviet imperial overstretch was a big factor blocking any attempt to reform the economy and the Soviet leadership foolish enthusiasm for "the market" from 1988 onwards disn´t help too much.....
By Smilin' Dave
#599301
Gorbachev may have actually initiated the system's breakup, but even without him the USSR would have remained economically bankrupt. Without him, the USSR would not get better. It would remain a reactionary and stagnating regime. It would have periodically invaded whichever Eastern European country tried to free themselves from Moscow's grip.

This completely presupposes that the USSR couldn't have found a different kind of reformer in the place of Gorbachev, which isn't really true.

Without Gorbachev, the status quo would have perpetuated itself, ever more reaction and stagnation.

Wasn't a more authoritarian crackdown possible as well? That would have been pretty radical for its time.

eventually and inevitably a leader like him would come to recognise the economic and moral bankruptcy of the USSR.

Economic bankruptcy: You missed Gothmogs posts didn't you? Put simply, Gorbachev's reforms were not handled well, there were numerous other paths for reform, Gorbachev choose the wrong one and did it faster...

Moral bankruptcy? What the hell does that mean? Why is it relevant in a realpolitik sense?

The Eastern bloc was doomed to breakup eventually.

All empires collapse eventually, thats not much of a statement. Here's mine: All Coca-Cola once had bubbles in it.

The question is the time frame, about which you have provided no evidence other than empty retorhic.
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By Ombrageux
#599312
Wasn't a more authoritarian crackdown possible as well? That would have been pretty radical for its time.

Would that have reversed the USSR's fortunes? I don't think so.

Moral bankruptcy? What the hell does that mean? Why is it relevant in a realpolitik sense?

Moral bankruptcy means the soviet elites were going to inevitably search for a reformer to fix their system. The status quo was not maintainable. And if the USSR's head, who may as well Communism's Pope, decides reform is necessary, you can bet every regime living under threat of Soviet military reaction is also going to reform.

So, at the very least, I argue the eastern bloc was not going to last. Each country was going to go its own way once reform began emanating from Moscow. This means the easter bloc was going to crumble, or alternatively their could have been a Soviet reaction and a return to Breznev-style conservatism.

Supposing the Eastern Bloc breaks up, I will concede that developments within the USSR are going to be much more dependent on the personality of the reformer, and that breakup was not inevitable.

The question is the time frame, about which you have provided no evidence other than empty retorhic.

Well, sooner rather than later. It depends on sustainable Brezhnev-era reaction and stagnation was. However, given that the soviet elites recognised the need for reform, it wiould seem the answer would be sooner not later, regardless of who actually led the reforms.
By Smilin' Dave
#599336
Would that have reversed the USSR's fortunes? I don't think so.

Funnily enough there is a serious discussion on why purges actually made the bureaucracy of the USSR work. I can't repeat it all here but you could look around for Ronald Wintrop, Political Economy of Dictatorship, where two chapters are dedicated to the topic.

The status quo was not maintainable.

The whole point of the system being in stagnation (which is what Gorbachev inherited) was that it was neither collapsing or growing. So in theory he could have done nothing and the system would have kept going for a while, so your statement is completely false.

And if the USSR's head, who may as well Communism's Pope

Actually, there were lots of rifts in world communism, like between the Soviet Union and China, or even with Cuba or Vietnam. Not to mention factions within the party (Stalinist-type die-hards like Gromyko for example). So there isn't really a pope.

decides reform is necessary, you can bet every regime living under threat of Soviet military reaction is also going to reform.

Eastern Europe did have its own governments you know... the reason they changed (more specifically, they got kicked out) was because Gorbachev cut off his times with them.

Even if we take your statement at face value, it actually implies the flaw lies in the policy of one individual, not the system itself.

Each country was going to go its own way once reform began emanating from Moscow.

Again, that was more a deliberate result of Gorbie's policy, not some inevitable result of reform.

This means the easter bloc was going to crumble, or alternatively their could have been a Soviet reaction and a return to Breznev-style conservatism.

How about an Andropov?

Supposing the Eastern Bloc breaks up, I will concede that developments within the USSR are going to be much more dependent on the personality of the reformer, and that breakup was not inevitable.

Good point, the collapse of the Eastern bloc doesn't explain in the slightest why communism collapsed in the USSR (or didn't survive in Russia itself).

However, given that the soviet elites recognised the need for reform, it wiould seem the answer would be sooner not later, regardless of who actually led the reforms.

Brezhnev is actually an example of how long a single leader could stay in office in the USSR. A relative spring chicken like Gorbachev (he was about... 50?) could be expected to hang around for a long time and one might assume he would steadily introduce reforms over that extended period, rather than radically change everything in four years.
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By Ombrageux
#599639
The whole point of the system being in stagnation (which is what Gorbachev inherited) was that it was neither collapsing or growing. So in theory he could have done nothing and the system would have kept going for a while, so your statement is completely false.

Stagnation can imply a slow decay and increasing inefficiency and corruption. But, I mostly agree, the Soviet Union could have remained in its decrepit state almost indefinitely if the leadership was reactionary enough.

Although, I don't think any educated elite could avoid turning to a reformer very long given the Soviet Union's state.

Actually, there were lots of rifts in world communism, like between the Soviet Union and China, or even with Cuba or Vietnam. Not to mention factions within the party (Stalinist-type die-hards like Gromyko for example). So there isn't really a pope.

True, there had been many schism within Communism. However, non-Albanian and non-Yugoslavian European Communism was clearly part of Moscow's "church". What I am arguing is that, Soviet influence in Eastern Europe was sure to collapse as soon as a serious reformer makes an appearance. And furthermore, a serious reformer was very likely to appear eventually because the system was failing to escape stagnation.

Eastern Europe did have its own governments you know... the reason they changed (more specifically, they got kicked out) was because Gorbachev cut off his times with them.

Pseudo-self-government. I don't need to remind you of both the successive military interventions of the Soviet Union in countries attempting to take a different line. In many ways, the Eastern Bloc was like a federal state.

Again, that was more a deliberate result of Gorbie's policy, not some inevitable result of reform.

I would argue, any attempts at serious reform would inspire eastern Europe to make copycat attempts at reform. If Moscow were to oppose that copycat reform, it might need to make a violent response, I don't think they would be able to instigate reform at home while being reactionary abroad.

How about an Andropov?

I don't think Andropov was given enough time to become a Conservative. I mean, even an energetic leader like Krushev's attempts at reform failed and died down. I think the reason is that these leaders only tried to tweak the system with general "anti-corruption pro-efficiency" efforts. They don't actually try to tackle the problems of the system itself and once their small attempts at reform die down, they become Conservative.

Good point, the collapse of the Eastern bloc doesn't explain in the slightest why communism collapsed in the USSR (or didn't survive in Russia itself).

For Russia itself, I think the failed coup by hard-liners was very important to the failure of the USSR to hold together. This is another place in which moral bankruptcy has a huge role. If Communism had not been morally bankrupt, the Red Army would not have hesitated in smothering Yeltsin's protests around the White House. With a sense of moral justification, you can lose the loyalty of your army, after that, you're fked.

A relative spring chicken like Gorbachev (he was about... 50?) could be expected to hang around for a long time and one might assume he would steadily introduce reforms over that extended period, rather than radically change everything in four years.

Possibly, perhaps a more socially liberal version of what's happening in China? In that case I will again blame the failed coup which cut short Gorbi's rule and gave power to the new nationalist and liberal elites of the former soviet Republics.
By Smilin' Dave
#599967
But, I mostly agree, the Soviet Union could have remained in its decrepit state almost indefinitely if the leadership was reactionary enough.

Although, I don't think any educated elite could avoid turning to a reformer very long given the Soviet Union's state.

Why would they go for a reformer by default? Can't the leadership of the USSR do what most people do when they have a pretty sweet deal, sit around and do nothing? Especially if you are going to agree that Soviet collapse wasn't immenent in 1985, your default reformer theory doesn't make a lot of sense.

True, there had been many schism within Communism. However, non-Albanian and non-Yugoslavian European Communism was clearly part of Moscow's "church".

That would be like saying Anglicans are part of the Catholic church... can the catholics give them orders? No. Are there doctrinal differences? Yes. Do they dislike each other? A bit. Maybe when you go to church, its filled with people that don't like each other and can't agree on anything while the preacher is ignored by all, my experience is different.

What I am arguing is that, Soviet influence in Eastern Europe was sure to collapse as soon as a serious reformer makes an appearance.

Why? You seem to ignore the possibility of reform on anything other than Gorbachev's line, which is false.

And furthermore, a serious reformer was very likely to appear eventually because the system was failing to escape stagnation.

The system hadn't really escaped stagnation since the 1970's and didn't really try... so why 1985?

Pseudo-self-government. I don't need to remind you of both the successive military interventions of the Soviet Union in countries attempting to take a different line.

The last one of those IIRC was in 1968... hardly sets a precendent. If they were so dependent, why couldn't Gorbachev simply wave his hand and remove the old East German leadership (the guy before Krenz)? I might also remind you that eastern bloc countries often behaved semi-independently on the world stage (some had virtually seperate trade relations, such as Czechoslovakia).

In many ways, the Eastern Bloc was like a federal state.

So why wasn't Perestroika and Glasnost universally adopted by the eastern bloc?

I would argue, any attempts at serious reform would inspire eastern Europe to make copycat attempts at reform. If Moscow were to oppose that copycat reform, it might need to make a violent response,

Not what I said. The events in Eastern Europe were the direct result of Gorbachev's 'Sinatra doctrine', combind with his willingness to nurture nationalist movements.

I don't think they would be able to instigate reform at home while being reactionary abroad.

On the contray, that's exactly what his many of his advisors were telling him to do. It's not like the population could vote him out if he did... well, later on they could.

I don't think Andropov was given enough time to become a Conservative.

Andropov was a stronger leader than the conservatives, Brezhnev and Chernenko. Brezhnev was so shy of anything that would endanger his position he almost didn't back the move to kick out Khruschev, even though virtually everyone was on his side. Chernenko made his career by sucking up to Brezhnev.

Andropov on the other hand, made his name through the KGB... that makes him different to the other two straight off the bat. Not to mention your favourite reformer, Gorbachev, was promoted by Andropov.

mean, even an energetic leader like Krushev's attempts at reform failed and died down.

Khurschev's 'reform' is often erratic, like his Virgin Lands initiative... seriously, what sense did that make? That's why he was kicked out and his reforms stopped.

They don't actually try to tackle the problems of the system itself and once their small attempts at reform die down, they become Conservative.

If there were problems with the system, why did'nt it fail earlier? Dare I make the 'what if' arguement of: what if Andropov had lived and Chernenko not taken power... would the 'stability' policy have continued?

For Russia itself, I think the failed coup by hard-liners was very important to the failure of the USSR to hold together.

Wouldn't the coup imply that not everyone wanted reform, or at least they didn't want the reform Gorbachev was selling? Which ruins your whole concept that Gorbachev-esque reform was inevitable.

If Communism had not been morally bankrupt, the Red Army would not have hesitated in smothering Yeltsin's protests around the White House.

The Red Army wasn't a political creature, hence when the coup started it was torn between its duty and a desire to preserve the status quo. When if became apparent that the coup leadership didn't have a clue what it was doing, they decided to sit it out.

Possibly, perhaps a more socially liberal version of what's happening in China?

I'm going to make the unpleasant approach and state that Gorbachev failed because he was so liberal. When problems emerged in the Chinese reforms (which, like the USSR, was triggered by the threat of stagnation), they had the option of winding back reforms or changing policy. Gorbachev on the other hand kept giving up power, and when chaos ensued (partly as a result of uncertainly towards the party centre) there was nothing he could do, he tried to reform the government and economy at the same time and as a result failed at both.
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By Ombrageux
#600082
Why would they go for a reformer by default? Can't the leadership of the USSR do what most people do when they have a pretty sweet deal, sit around and do nothing? Especially if you are going to agree that Soviet collapse wasn't immenent in 1985, your default reformer theory doesn't make a lot of sense.

Because a large part of the Soviet elite was convinced that the system was failing. There was a pretty constant struggle between reformers and conservatives by this point, who kept compromising by electing terminally ill rulers. Its possible there could have been a purge of the reformers I suppose, though I'm not sure how that would have affected the stability of the USSR exactly, especially as the Army's loyalty was not undivided towards the conservatives.

Assuming there was no purge, the conservatives would eventually die out, if nothing else, and the reformist elite would have attempted reform.


That would be like saying Anglicans are part of the Catholic church... can the catholics give them orders? No. Are there doctrinal differences? Yes. Do they dislike each other? A bit. Maybe when you go to church, its filled with people that don't like each other and can't agree on anything while the preacher is ignored by all, my experience is different.

Anglicans and Catholics are more like Yugoslavs and Soviets thans Eastern Europeans and Soviets. Eastern European (non-Albanian, non-Yugoslav) Communists were all setup by Stalin and were periodically either kept in check by Soviet warnings or by Soviet invasion (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary). There was an unwritten rule that reform in the satellites was unacceptable without Moscow's approval. But if Moscow reforms, then the rule is broken and inevitably each nation will try to put its own spin on reform. Each with more or less nationalist overtones, in real history this spilled into the USSR, though that was not inevitable. What is inevitable is if serious reform sprung from the Soviets, than their satellites would have to go their own way.

Not what I said. The events in Eastern Europe were the direct result of Gorbachev's 'Sinatra doctrine', combind with his willingness to nurture nationalist movements.

Well, how would he stop such reform efforts? Through the Red Army's violent intervention? Had he done that I don't think it would have been politically possible to instigate reform at home and reaction abroad.

Why? Well if he did that would destroy any claims to the "openness" he represented.

If there were problems with the system, why did'nt it fail earlier? Dare I make the 'what if' arguement of: what if Andropov had lived and Chernenko not taken power... would the 'stability' policy have continued?

There is difference between breakup and failure. I would argue the USSR was facing chronic failure. It was by the 70s an environmental disaster, an economic mediocrity and a military anemic. That to me is failure, and much of the Soviet elite recognised this. But failure, does not necessarily mean breakup. A corrupt system can stumble along and maintain itself for long periods, but that is not necessarily a sign of success.

I can't really comment on what would happen had Andropov stayed. Perhaps he would have implemented reform in a better way, or perhaps everything about him is hype and he's just Russia's JFK.

Wouldn't the coup imply that not everyone wanted reform, or at least they didn't want the reform Gorbachev was selling? Which ruins your whole concept that Gorbachev-esque reform was inevitable.

There was a struggle between reformers and conservatives. I think that eventually the conservatives would have given way. No one can really win the fight for the status quo.

he tried to reform the government and economy at the same time and as a result failed at both.

There is much truth to this.
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By Comrade Ogilvy
#600205
Gothmog:

USSRs econonmy was heavily dependent on oil. In the sixties and seventies the oil sales were high so the quality of life was high.

On the articles comments about the quality of education being "almost on par with the US" -- to me that's ridiculous. Actually, maybe it wouldn't be so ridiculous if I understood what the author means by that.

But if this

By the mid 1980s, 89 percent of those with jobs had spent 7 years in school (in the USA the percentage was 93).


is what the author uses as a gauge, then it is ridiculous..

THe Soviet school was a very tough and demanding one. They weed you out. You cannot be an unmotivated moron and make it -- and that's regarding regular schooling. Children absolutely had to make efforts themselves, and work outside of class themselves. There are straigh-A students in the US that almost never do homework.

So the reason that there was a smaller percentage of people with at least seven years of schooling is obvious. They never held your hand in the USSR. They never sat you down and told you Ok Johnny, i mean van'ka, now do you promise to turn in your homework tomorow?

None of that crap. You absolutely had to pass your classes and final exams at the end of every year to move on to the next grade, and if you didn't, the shool officials had absolutely no qualms with holding you back.

Those who failed to move on twice, probably didn't go back to school. Also, you have to remember more remote places, like the Chechen mountains, and the far east siberian regions, where people didn't really go to school.

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