A normal system?
False and true explanations for the collapse of the USSR
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 systems 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 Stalins 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, Lenins 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 regimes 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 countrys 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, Gorbachevs 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 Stalins 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 Stalins 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 peoples 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 peoples 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 peoples 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, Andropovs 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 countrys 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 countrys 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 countrys 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 Gorbachevs unfortunate attempts to reform the economy in order to maintain and expand the geopolitical status of the USSR. All of the Soviet leaderswhile quite happy with the political systemwere 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 countrys 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 Reagans Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the Kremlin watched as the military equilibrium seemed to tilt alarmingly in the Wests 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 USSRs military parity with the West. In a special declaration, Andropov characterized Reagans 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 Stalins day, when the postwar nuclear arms and technology race began, the leadership completely ignored the basic needs of the people and mobilized the countrys material and labor resources in order to stay on pace with the United States. Forty years later, Stalins 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 USSRs status as a superpowerone of the greatest achievements in Russian historyor 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 Russias 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 Reagans 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 Gorbachevs activities until June 1987. Gorbachevs 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 Gorbachevs 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 Russias 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 Webers 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.