Who Saw the Collapse of the USSR Coming?
Who Saw the Collapse of the USSR Coming?
On Dec. 25, 1991, unable to overcome the blow dealt by a hardline coup months earlier and by independence movements in Soviet republics, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. The last Soviet leader wanted to reform communism, not replace it, but he was unable to contain the centrifugal forces his reforms had unleashed. The USSR, ailing and dismembered, came to an end.
“The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working,” he said in his final address, calling on Russia to preserve its hard-earned democratic freedoms. At Russia’s helm, Boris Yeltsin instead revived a system of personal power that has endured.
We asked some of the foremost economists, historians and observers of Russia and the Soviet Union why this collapse surprised so many, and what lessons today’s occupants of the Kremlin — and students of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia — should take from it.
Sergey Radchenko is a historian of the Cold War and Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The reason that few predicted Soviet collapse was that the Soviet Union outwardly appeared to be a mighty military power with an extensive security apparatus. Few observers understood just how little legitimacy the system possessed; that it was eaten away on the inside by the rot of corruption, by the loss of faith in ideology, by the dismal standards of living, and, lastly, by elite in-fighting. It was ultimately elite defection that brought it down — that, and its lack of overall legitimacy. What purpose did the Soviet Union serve, seeing that the building of communism was no longer in the cards?
Putin has tapped into Russian nationalism — a much more potent force for national unity than the Soviets could ever have boasted. As a nation-state, therefore, Putin’s Russia is inherently more stable. Yet it is also plagued by some of the same problems the USSR had, including a deficit of legitimacy (in the absence of free and fair elections), corruption on a scale unseen in the USSR, stagnating standards of living and, as Putin ages, by elite in-fighting. So while Putin’s Russia is highly unlikely to fragment into quasi-independent principalities any time soon, the country has already entered a protracted crisis. The only question is what awaits at the other end, and how violent the transition period will be.
Sergei Guriev is professor of economics at Sciences Po Paris. He was rector of the New Economic School in Moscow until 2013.
It’s normal that most people could not predict that the Soviet Union, one of the two global superpowers, would fall apart. Such events are very rare in history. However, there were signs. If something cannot go on forever, it will stop — that’s [American economist] Herbert Stein’s law, formulated in 1986, and not about the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy could not generate productivity growth. Gorbachev had to borrow to provide stable living standards. The Soviet Union could not reform as the system was rigid. Eventually, the markets saw that the Soviet Union could not service its debt.
In more recent times, you can refer to the subprime mortgage crisis (although some people and some academic economists did predict it) and Greek crisis (there it turned out that a substantial part of Greek debt was hidden). Nobody expected a default within the euro zone.
Putin has learned a lot of lessons. First and foremost, Russia’s macroeconomic policy is much more conservative, inflation is under control, there are large reserves, a balanced budget and no external debt. Second, with all the domination of the state and ad hoc price regulations, Russia is still a market economy and is much more efficient and resilient than the Soviet one.
The world, however, should remember that as the Soviet regime collapsed, the Russian one can as well. The Soviet regime was ideological and collegial, Putin’s is personalistic. As Duma speaker [Vyacheslav] Volodin once said “No Putin — no Russia.” In this sense, this regime cannot last forever. Post-Putin Russia may be better or worse, but it will certainly be different.
Yevgenia Albats is an investigative journalist and editor of The New Times. She is also non-resident senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
It is rather remarkable that the Red Sunset was not projected by the army of Sovietologists, intelligence specialists and political scientists.
From my humble perspective, there are three primary reasons for such a failure. The first is understandable — it is a lack of factual life information gathered on the ground, as opposed to watching changes among the top Communist Party faces on the podium of Lenin’s mausoleum during military parades.
The second reason has to do with the over-politicization of academic analysis. For instance, Ronald Reagan’s famous “evil empire,” as he labeled the USSR (dissidents inside the USSR much appreciated it), which led to the so-called space wars — the escalation of the arms race — was considered hawkish by many in academic circles, as I found out when I came to Harvard for Ph.D. study. Yet, that hawkish policy put a rather important nail in the coffin of the Soviet overmilitarized economy and contributed to the regime’s collapse.
Finally, the third and the most damning reason, because of its long-lasting effect, was the practice of an over-personalization of politics at the expense of institutions. It was true concerning Gorbachev and the institutions of the USSR. In the same fashion, it is valid with the current Russian leader-turned dictator of the last 20-plus years, Vladimir Putin, who was seen by many specialists in the field as a pragmatist and acknowledged much more favorably than his old and often drunk predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. As a result, almost no one [20 years ago] foresaw danger in the fact that Putin was a representative of the most repressive and potent Soviet institution, the KGB. If one brought up the concern, saying that an institution based on brutal force rather than the rule of law took over Russia, the usual response (till the wake-up call in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea) was: George H.W. Bush was the head of the CIA.
The KGB’s triumphant comeback from oblivion was much overlooked and underestimated in the analysis of Russian development. The consequences are right there right now at the Ukrainian border, with 100,000-plus Russian troops about to invade a neighboring country.
Serhii Plokhy is professor of history at Harvard University and the director of the university’s Ukrainian Research Institute. He is the author of “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.”
The Soviet Union was known to policymakers in Washington and European capitals, journalists, and the public at large first and foremost as Russia — if not a European-style nation-state, then a sort of United States with republics instead of American states. During the Cold War, the two superpowers shared an animosity toward old-fashioned empires like that of Britain and wooed former imperial colonies that became independent nations between the 1950s and 1970s. But the Soviet Union, or “Russia,” was not considered an empire [at home] because its rulers claimed to have resolved the nationalities question of the pre-1917 Russian Empire by creating a unitary “Soviet people” on the basis of Marxist internationalism.
Thus it came as a major shock to the West that in 1991 the Soviet Union died the death of an empire, disintegrating along the ethnic boundaries of its 15 republics. Other aspiring nations within the Soviet Union, such as Chechnya, also struggled unsuccessfully to make their way out of the imperial womb. Western Sovietology might have been expected to predict such an outcome, but it paid almost no attention to the multiethnic composition of the Soviet Union, focusing instead on Kremlin politics, Russia, communist ideology and the military capabilities of the USSR. Few pundits, to say nothing of the Western public at large, realized that Russians constituted only slightly more than half — 50.8%, to be precise — of what Kremlin propagandists called the “Soviet people.”
According to the last census, Russians make up approximately 81% of the population of the post-Soviet Russian Federation. How many politicians and diplomats take this into account today, and how much of the general public knows that almost a fifth of today’s “Russians” are not ethnic Russians at all? Few at best. In many cases, the non-Russians live on ancestral territories that were annexed by St. Petersburg or Moscow in tsarist times, when it was the multiethnic Russian Empire. Given this Western blind spot with regard to non-Russians, many of whom do not consider themselves equals in the “Russian Federation,” we are in for more shocking political developments in the future.