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

AND, AS well, the end of glasnost. The ideological debate stopped abruptly. When Gorbachev fell, so did glasnost. Its real purpose had always been to advance Gorbachev’s revolution. No one talked about it anymore, not during the subsequent era of disintegration and near partition of Russia under Yeltsin, nor even during the national recovery under Putin. How to draw the balance sheet? The first thing one might say is that glasnost was never a completely disinterested debate, but was the ideological instrument of Gorbachev in his succession struggle with opponents. This was the prompting for the ideology of the Bukharin alternative and its emotional degeneration into repentance.

If glasnost had been permitted to pursue the investigation more honestly, it would probably have concluded that the ideological edifice of Stalinism was also the product of a succession struggle in the twenties, in which a lot of absurd things were said in the heat of the struggle. As Zinoviev explained to Trotsky in 1926, it was all part of the fight for power; “for that purpose ‘Trotskyism’ was invented.” He might have added “Marxism-Leninism as well.” In the end, glasnost might have concluded that there was no one hero (Stalin) surrounded by criminals, but that a lot of wild claims had been made to justify overturning the collective leadership. This collective leadership seems to have been a kind of ideal of the Communist Party—according to the actual practice of Lenin, an ideal to which it can be said to have returned after Stalin, when it refused to allow Khrushchev to rise above collective leadership and removed him by a vote of the central committee in 1964. In a sense, the “hard-liners” died (politically) fighting for this against Gorbachev in 1991.

So the Soviet Union has been plagued —in the rise of Stalin, the rise of Khrushchev and the rise of Gorbachev—by this struggle at the top and the ideas used to wage it. One might well conclude that another chapter of glasnost is now needed, a straightforward historical discussion without any personal stakes, conducted by a regime that does not need to lie and distort, where the results will not figure in any struggle for power.

Russia remains as much an ideocracy as ever, and that means that it has a thirst for history. One side of that thirst is evident in the national revival of the Putin years, alongside a sober recognition of the Russian state tradition and its necessities. Every other great state has state traditions somewhat similar, at least in the sense that extraordinary and unpleasant things have been done in the name of national survival and reasons of state.

Orthodoxy and nationality are now piously recognized as part of Russia’s historical legacy. Can they be the sole guide to Russia’s history? There must be more to it, Russians will think, than the mysticism of a narrow civilizational ideology, as in the nightmarish previsions of Professor Huntington. The intelligentsia cannot be willing to regard the Russian Revolution and the victory in the Second World War as a “white spot,” an inexplicable historical discontinuity that is nevertheless actually celebrated yearly. Were the events of 1917 nothing more than a kind of “color revolution”? Not that Russian history, like that of every great state, does not have its ironies. The biggest perhaps is Stalin the tyrant, and the utility of War Communism in the struggle against Hitler, as everyone who lived through those times knows. Certainly we cannot conceive of the world history of the last two centuries without Russia’s victory at the center, alongside Communism’s unique role in that history. If Communism is now regarded as an aberration, it is still one whose origins and fundamental spirit were in the moderate social democracy common to most European states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, serving as a connection to the European Enlightenment. Victory over Fascism seemed for many years, despite the Cold War, to affirm this larger European continuity of progress. It is not at all odd that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has claimed a certain credit for the impact of the Soviet welfare state on the “unprecedented measures of social protection” put in place in western Europe after the Second World War.


HISTORIANS OF the future may not regard Russia’s Soviet experience as aberrant. They might instead regard the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great power as the greater aberration. They will probably consider it odd that Gorbachev could suppose the liquidation of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would not be taken advantage of by the newly hegemonic United States. U.S. action to avail itself of the spoils of Cold War victory and its reflex to protect its position against emergent competition, when viewed as part of the history of the great states, will also not seem so odd.