How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

A man from West Berlin uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Glasnost, meant to save the USSR, wound up being its death blow.

May-June 2017

After Selyunin came the historian Mikhail Gefter, who went a step further to suggest that War Communism was the original sin of Bolshevism. He was referring to the emergency measures taken to defend the regime’s existence against the Whites and the Allied intervention during the Russian Civil War. War Communism could also describe the policy of collectivizing agriculture and initiating the five-year plans, or even, for that matter, the Great Patriotic War against Fascism. In this reading, War Communism condemned the Soviet regime to a kind of Prussianism and the loss of the chance for a multiform (mnogoukladnoy) society such as was striven for by NEP. The Bukharin alternative, in the hands of imaginative glasnost ideologists, could be turned against the entire Russian revolution.

A consultant to the new ideology department of the central committee, Aleksandr Tsipko, made a passionate case for closing down the whole Soviet experiment. He elaborated, at length, over lunch with Alexander Dallin, me and a few others. The collectivization of agriculture, the compulsory grain requisitions of 1918, the recurrence of the motif of War Communism alongside the more wholesome NEP, all reflected for Tsipko a hubristic effort to suppress markets. The roots of Stalinism rested in the radical antimarket prejudices of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. Stalin was no deviation, but the fellow spirit of the demon Trotsky, who hated anything that allowed the workers to live better and who was only happy when people were hungry.

As Gorbachev drove on in pursuit of his scattered and frightened opponents, glasnost churned out more and more transformative ideas—revolutionary ideas if you thought them to be routing what you might have thought was essentially an ancien régime of Communism, hideously deformed ravings if you were a poor “conservative” who thought in terms of preserving the power of your own state. By 1989, the great year of reckoning in eastern Europe, Gorbachev was being openly urged to use his centrist position between glasnost and his critics to build up his own personal power.

Gorbachev defeated his Soviet bloc critics in 1989. Erich Honecker, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Miloš Jakeš and Károly Grósz had all resisted perestroika when he toured their countries in 1987. They had seen early that perestroika would be the end of them and tried to make common cause with Ligachev to try to slow things down. Gorbachev took the Soviet troops out of the bloc and left them to their devices. Some other leaders who thought they could support the popular Gorbachev and be rewarded by their voters in free elections—Hans Modrow in East Germany, Imre Pozsgay in Hungary—were swept aside in the spring of 1990 as summarily as their apparat predecessors. The lesson seemed to be that when you have been in a jail and you have been liberated by your jailers, you can’t feel really liberated until you have got rid of the jailers/liberators as well.

And that lesson also applied to Gorbachev the liberator. No electorate liberated by him was going to be satisfied until it had gotten rid of him. He could not fulfill his ambition of being a democratically elected president and the general secretary of the Communist Party. The revolutions of 1989 caused him to tack to the right and defend a consolidation of his reforms that might create a barrier between the loss of the bloc and the partition of the Soviet Union. He united his supporters with those he had been fighting since 1987. But the latter could not trust the captain to navigate stormy seas. They made a last stand against him at the April party plenum in 1991. The issue was the renegotiation of the union itself, the “Novo-Ogarevo process.” Gorbachev was armed with a referendum of March, which showed a majority of voters for preserving the Soviet Union rather than arranging its demise. It was Yeltsin for the dissolution of the USSR, and Gorbachev and the rest of the leadership for its salvation. Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s fearful former opponents, sensing that they would never survive with him at the helm, tried to remove him.

Whereupon the artful centrist Gorbachev switched sides and went over to form a bloc with Yeltsin and those ready to divide the country. He tried to save himself by jettisoning the Soviet Union. Apparently there was no binding issue of principle for him and no limits to his possible acts.

So, after the Gorbachev victory at the April plenum, it was Gorbachev and Yeltsin together on the path of the Novo-Ogarevo process to dissolve the Soviet Union. His bedraggled opponents, at their wits’ end, tried to stage a coup against him in August 1991, to do what they had failed to do in April. But even the coup makers were, in their own way, men of perestroika. They wanted to make a legal coup and continue on the path of a moderated reform and socialist legality. The whole project collapsed when they were suddenly confronted with the necessity of arresting Yeltsin. They relented and decided instead to restore Gorbachev. This despite the fact that Yeltsin’s countercoup had already won the day. Bringing Gorbachev back meant turning him over to Yeltsin. That was his end politically—the end of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.