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

ALONGSIDE THE balance of power is a balance of ideas, and even a hegemony of ideas. Britain first rose among the European states as a champion of the Reformation and then as a voice of the Enlightenment. Germany emerged as a candidate for world-power status at the end of the nineteenth century professing a new scientific rationality and an idea of the state as a law unto itself, in the sense of reason of state. German historians of the period rejected the pretensions of British liberalism and individualism as a cover for the British drive for world supremacy. Soviet political power rose in the twentieth century as a presumed vehicle of anti-imperialism and socialism. And in the twenty-first, the United States has risen as the model of liberal democracy.

The historical argument over the merits of competing ideas has usually been decided by war, as the history of the balance of power attests. But the most recent case of a new hegemony, the victory of the United States over the Soviet Union, was a stunning exception to the rule. The greatest geopolitical catastrophe in history, as Vladimir Putin has called it, brought about the most significant shift in great-power relations that was not the product of the use of force. It was instead the result of a Soviet inventory of Communist ideas, under the rubric of glasnost. The Soviet intelligentsia took stock of its ideology and history in war and peace and, after a tortured and complex power struggle and debate, concluded that the whole experience of Communism had been a tragic mistake, “seventy years on a path to nowhere.” Communism was defeated, not so much by reasoned consideration of the case for the free market, as by a sudden and sharp disillusionment with the Soviet past.

The occasion for the inventory was the advent of new leadership in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. So glasnost was intimately connected to the struggle to consolidate the Gorbachev regime. And as well, the process was accompanied by the prevailing sentiment, as expressed by then foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, that Soviet Russia was in need of a period of recueillement. In his student days, Gromyko had written a doctoral thesis on Aleksandr Gorchakov, foreign minister in the government of Czar Alexander II, the “Czar liberator” who freed the serfs in 1861. Recueillement comes from a phase Gorchakov once uttered in answer to a query about his quiet and almost passive foreign policy after defeat in the Crimean War. “la Russie ne boude pas,” he said, “La Russie se recueille” (Russia is not sulking; she is gathering her strength). Gorchakov explained that it would be wise for Russia to remove herself from the list of enemies of the other great powers, to erase the “Russian threat” from the minds of British and French leaders and to allow them to focus instead on their differences with each other. At the end of the Brezhnev years Gromyko, like Gorchakov, thought it was time to tone down Soviet foreign policy, which was then sponsoring revolutionary regimes on three continents, and make another attempt to return to the Nixon-Kissinger détente. In the Gorchakov tradition, which still moves Russian policy today, détente is the beau ideal of realistic relations among the two greatest powers. Bismarck and Salisbury could be imagined to be reaching for it in the 1880s, FDR and Stalin similarly at Tehran and Yalta.

Gorbachev followed Gromyko’s lead in 1985–86 and then tried to supersede him by going even further to remove the Soviet threat by perestroika. It was recueillement, perestroika, glasnost. The unstated premise was that the Soviet threat was related to its totalitarianism. To prove that the Soviets were really changing and not tricking the West, as most of Ronald Reagan’s advisers were claiming, the change must be real.

Today, almost everyone in the West who utters a thought about the fall of Soviet Communism considers that the process of perestroika led more or less ineluctably to the events that ended the regime. This is the font of most woolly suppositions about world politics. The Soviets, it is suggested, simply came to realize that they could not keep up with the West “except as a military superpower” (as if that were a small thing). Or it is also said that the Soviets realized that socialism does not work, or that they came to think it was wicked, or that they concluded it could not survive a dip in oil prices. Osama bin Laden was convinced that he brought the Soviet Union down himself with his insurgency in Afghanistan, and that he could do the same to the United States. An influential body of opinion in the United States currently entertains a prospect that something similar will occur in Xi Jinping’s China and/or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is a tacit assumption in the overselling of a policy of pressure. For their part, the Chinese are said to have devoted serious study to the Gorbachev reforms and the reasons for the fall, as Xi acknowledged recently. To be sure, nearly everything that has been written on it illuminates at least some part of the problem, but no one seems to think that glasnost was an important cause. It is hard to think why this should be that case. The West at least partially recognized that the Soviet Union was an “ideocracy,” a regime crucially dependent on an official ideological consensus. How could it fail to notice the phenomenon of the Soviet attempt to cleanse and reshape Soviet Communism, of ideological degeneration and the role of debate in forming opposition to Gorbachev’s critics and then to Gorbachev himself? If we take glasnost seriously as a factor, we might ask: What are the lessons of this great thought experiment? How and why did the Soviet Union think itself to death?


GORBACHEV CERTAINLY did not come to power with the idea of destroying Soviet Communism. He was not a closet social democrat, nor even a Communist with dissident ideas. Those who elected him were reasonably sure of that. He was eased into the job as general secretary in 1984 by appointment to the post of second secretary in charge of ideology, the post held by Mikhail Suslov since the Khrushchev days, until his death in 1982. Under Suslov the Soviet Union had enjoyed a long period of collective leadership and “stabilization of cadres,” which greatly assured the nomenklatura who remembered the regime of Stalin, or even the mercurial Khrushchev. Making Gorbachev the ideological secretary suggested that he would invest in the continuity of the Suslov system. Gorbachev’s salient act in the job was the rehabilitation of Vyacheslav M. Molotov, Stalin’s closest associate, who had been expelled in 1961 as too critical of Khrushchev and too uncritical of Mao Zedong. One would have thought Gorbachev to be a traditional Stalinist, at least in the same sense as Brezhnev or Suslov. When asked about this in 1986, after being elevated to the top job, he told the French Communist paper L’Humanité that “Stalinism is a concept made up by opponents of Communism and used on a large scale to smear the Soviet Union and socialism as a whole.” Nor was he particularly critical of the Brezhnev leadership. Even so, the Gorbachev broom swept clean. He made personnel changes in every corner of the state and party machinery, indeed often returning for a second pass to replace the replacements. Instead of the Brezhnev “stabilization of cadres,” it was churning of cadres.

But he did not assert that these changes were in the name of anything more than uskoreniye (acceleration), that is, “acceleration of the perfection” of the Brezhnev system. This was the watchword of the first two years of the Gorbachev period. It did not mean any substantial moves in the direction of opening up the Soviet economy. Gorbachev stressed “total independence” from other countries, “especially in the strategic areas.” The Andropov appointees in the Politburo took his measures to be in line with those of Andropov in 1982–83. When Gorbachev spoke of “de-ideologizing foreign policy” they assumed he was trying to use diplomacy in the style of Andropov or Gromyko to dilute the effectiveness of the Reagan Doctrine, which foresaw mobilizing every anti-Communist force in the world. He recognized the impasse of the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan, but gave no hint of accepting failure there. He recognized the challenge of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative for ballistic-missile defense, but insisted that the Soviets were always capable of “asymmetric response,” by which he presumably meant deploying more warheads. Uskoreniye seemed to be producing economic results, especially in the Baltic republics, and Gorbachev’s politburo colleagues had no real reason not to support his far-reaching explorations in what we would today probably call “soft power,” having as their aim a sort of Gromyko-Andropov peace offensive. When they spoke of de-ideologizing foreign policy, they had in mind mainly de-ideologizing U.S. foreign policy. But in the end, they failed to convince others and were able only to convince themselves. It was Soviet policy that was de-ideologized.


THE STRUGGLE against Stalinism only began with the central committee plenum of January 1987, shortly after Gorbachev’s return from his meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik. The two leaders had left their advisers aside and parlayed together with only their translators for three days, tossing about ideas on various ways for them to end their dependence on nuclear weapons—that is, if Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative were not deployed (Gorbachev’s view), or if SDI were more or less excluded from discussion (Reagan’s view). Their advisers were profoundly unnerved by the idea of the two men making this decision on their own.

When Gorbachev returned, he found a solid phalanx of Politiburo opposition; the Andropov appointees, led by Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev, confronted him for the first time. Ligachev was now in the Suslov role of guarantor of the collective leadership against a possible usurpation by the new gensek. The second secretary was not at all against reform and was to protest his support for perestroika during the next two years, as he insisted in his curiously feeble memoir. Still he had to do his job. Gorbachev might have wanted to smooth the whole thing over with reassurances that he knew his limits. But limiting the gensek under the unwritten Suslov rules might be a preliminary to removing him, as Suslov had organized the campaign to remove Khrushchev in 1964.

Gorbachev decided not to bend to criticism, but to double down with what the French call a fuite en avant, an “escape forward.” Instead of defending himself he went on the attack against his critics, accusing them of wanting to do things “in the old way.” He did not say that they were Stalinists at this time, although he would say it many times over the next three years, but he did stop proclaiming the intention to perfect Brezhnevism and started calling it stagnation (zastoy).

It was the glasnost press that first took the matter up and named the names. Moscow News and Ogonyok were the twin flagships of glasnost, while academic journals and other periodicals would also participate. Yuri Afanasyev, newly appointed rector of the Moscow State Institute of Historians and Archivists, railed at the state of affairs in Soviet historical writing, where stagnation had prevailed since the Khrushchev critique of the Stalin era had been hushed up in the sixties. Two periods, he complained, were burdened by “white spots” (beliye pyatna) in the literature, the period of Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin after 1956 and the period of the rise of Stalin in the twenties, “under Lenin and after Lenin.” The glasnost intellectuals quickly sensed that they could lay down the new ideology of the Gorbachev leadership. There emerged in their minds the idea of a new brand of Communism—that of Lenin and not of Stalin—cleansed and reshaped, palatable to Western social democrats and progressive people all over the world.

The challenge of a Leninist case against Stalinism demanded the rehabilitation of Stalin’s political opponents of the twenties, who became his victims in the purges of 1936–39. Leon Trotsky, Grigoriy Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and their cothinkers had been tried and shot as presumed spies (or in Trotsky’s case, assassinated in Mexico) who had plotted the partition of the country with the fascist powers, as wreckers and fiends who had put ground glass in the peasants’ butter, attempted to enhance cattle mortality in western Siberia, tried to assassinate Stalin and other members of the Politburo. Against this, articles in the glasnost press said frankly that all the charges of the purge era had been false.

So Stalin’s opponents were not criminals and did not deserve to be shot. But what of their policies? Did any or all of them represent a realistic alternative to Stalin? Zinoviev and Trotsky had accused Stalin of bungling opportunities to create new Communist states in Europe. Trotsky charged that Stalin had prevented the German Communists from making common cause with German Social Democrats against Hitler and of thus facilitating the rise of German Nazism. He had called the Soviet bureaucracy Thermidorean and degenerate, and urged a “political revolution” to overthrow Stalinism. Bukharin had resisted Stalin’s campaign to collectivize agriculture in 1928. Were any of these views correct as against those of Stalin? Here the hand of the glasnost intellectual trembled.

What or who was the Leninist alternative to Stalin? The only really attractive candidate, it was decided, was Bukharin. He had resisted agricultural collectivization, defending the peasant and the minor concessions to the market that went along with the New Economic Policy (NEP), adopted in 1921. Bukharin was the real Leninist. The fatal turn between Leninism and Stalinism, it was said, was Stalin’s decision of 1928 for collectivization of agriculture and the first Five-Year plan. Departure from the NEP was ultimately a decision to construct the Stalinist police state. Thus glasnost arrived at the “Bukharin alternative.”

Readers accustomed to assuming that everything in the press represented official policy assumed that glasnost ideas were more or less the same as those of Gorbachev. But this assumption was wrong. Gorbachev was trying to use the arguments in the press against his opponents while preserving his own freedom of action. Gorbachev was himself preparing a major speech to be given in October 1987, on the seventieth anniversary of the revolution, in which it was assumed that he would pronounce on the historical questions. He had brought Boris Yeltsin to Moscow in order to carry on the struggle against the “braking mechanism,” the resistance to perestroika, just as Stalin had brought in Khrushchev in 1949 to make Moscow “the bastion of the Central Committee.” Yeltsin was moving administratively against the Politburo and Ligachev, just as they were all trying to decide if the collectivization of agriculture in 1928 had been a good idea. Moscow News would run a critical piece about it and then a Pravda editorial would usually provide the backup. For his views on the Bukharin alternative Gorbachev claimed to have read Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin. When he met Cohen at a reception, he complimented the author effusively.

Yet, in the seventieth-anniversary speech, Gorbachev asserted that Stalin’s policies had been right against all his opponents, although perhaps Stalin had been wrong to shoot them. This was unforgivable. Nevertheless Stalin had “safeguarded Leninism in an ideological struggle.” Western observers were disappointed in the speech. In the end, Gorbachev was not espousing glasnost ideas, but only using them against his opponents. He saw his own role as that of a centrist, balancing between Ligachev and glasnost. Yeltsin understandably felt betrayed and abandoned. Not that he ever gave the slightest indication of grappling with any of the historical and ideological issues, or even having any particular interest in them. But he was carrying on the fight against Ligachev. Gorbachev, on the other hand, was coalescing with Ligachev against Yeltsin’s excess of zeal. Yeltsin was defeated and humiliated, but he was not driven out of Moscow and would soon enjoy the advantage of having the apparatus united against him. Curiously, Gorbachev the centrist would continue to try to use him as a counterweight.


CONFUSION ABOUT the confluence of the historical debate and the Yeltsin affair had a demoralizing effect on those who had hoped for more. A much-discussed film that appeared in 1987, Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, contributed to the demoralization. It offered a depressing narrative of the career of a local party boss in the thirties, with striking scenes of suffering caused by the purges and prison camps. It did not add anything to the ongoing ideological discussion but it did for many sum up the mood of the intelligentsia on contemplation of the regime of Soviet Communism with its Stalinist crimes. One might be moved to think that these crimes were so vast that they could never be properly understood or absorbed emotionally. The only response was repentance. Russia must repent before the civilized countries. This mood drove the eventual choice of the Soviet intelligentsia to turn its fate over to the advice of the more civilized people who had been its enemies up to this point. What had started as an ideological and spiritual revival was on the way to becoming a kind of moral collapse.

Gorbachev did not seem to sense this. He sailed ahead confidently, more and more as a frank and avowed centrist, not siding with glasnost views, but attacking Ligachev and the others who criticized them. The next chapter in the saga would be the defeat and demotion of Ligachev and Gromyko in 1988–89. This came as Gorbachev appeared to win his struggle to end the Cold War. According to his book on the New Thinking, this was to be the payoff for the fundamental transformation of the Soviet Union through perestroika. Ronald Reagan himself was a convert to the New Thinking. The president’s closest advisers were warning that the Gorbachev reforms were, in effect, a vast Soviet deception. Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was turning from Stalinism back to Leninism.

Two other Gorbachev victories during that period nevertheless fatally crippled Soviet Communism. Gorbachev’s economic record was fine in 1988. Uskoreniye had been a relative success. Then, after he began to denounce the Brezhnev-era “stagnation” at the January plenum in 1987, he looked around for more dramatic ways to speed things up. An enterprise law made it possible to form cooperatives and in certain cases to elect managers. The idea of introducing more market elements continued to stir discussion. Andropov had already entertained similar ideas, as it was impossible to ignore the sweeping changes that market reforms were making in China. Every time something new was suggested, however, it had to be justified in socialist verbiage. Ligachev and Gorbachev sang a persistent chorus of “more socialism” even when they were talking about introducing more capitalism. Deng Xiaoping, Andropov, Ligachev and Gorbachev all cited with reverence the precedent of the NEP, a Leninist device of proven worth and an essential feature of the Bukharin alternative being promoted by glasnost. Soviet economists tried to finesse the matter under the gaze of their party associates who instinctively feared what was being contemplated.

At a conference I attended in California at this time, the prominent Soviet economist Nikolai Shmelev presented a nuanced case for the superiority of market conceptions of accounting. Then, later in the day, perhaps after discussion with his aides, he abandoned the previous line and asserted, out of the blue, his everlasting fidelity to socialism. At a different conference, another similarly prominent economist, Abel Aganbegyan, put the matter in a much more lubricated way. Under the “administrative-command system” (the Stalinist command economy), he said, the workers often let things go badly because they did not care enough about their work. The problem was that the workers must be inculcated with the feeling of being owners of socialist enterprise. This had been one aim of the enterprise law. But now the only way forward must lie in reducing command and enhancing self-management in keeping with the idea of democratizing society by liberating the workplace. Anyone familiar with socialist discourse in the West would be familiar with this line of thinking, referencing Yugoslav ideas about management, Cuban slogans about a new socialist man and related conceptions.

Aganbegyan was making the latest and most determined effort to unleash Homo sovieticus as a substitute for the old economic man. As a result of his urging, the Nineteenth Party Conference, in June 1988, decided to take the party out of the management of the economy. This effectively put an end to the “command-administrative system,” that is, to the command economy. But the expected explosion of spontaneity of Soviet man in pursuit of an increase in production produced something unexpected. In the next two years, a regime of local embargoes swept through the economy. The command economy no longer commanded from the center, so each area made a point of trying to get the best price for whatever commodity it produced and yielding the least for anything “imported.” The division of labor collapsed and, with it, exchange in general. It was sometimes said later that the onset of privatization in the post-Soviet 1990s was the cause of the collapse of the economy, with industrial production cut in half. But the decline began under Gorbachev at the Nineteenth Party Conference.


SOMETHING SIMILAR happened in nationality policy. Glasnost looked back to the 1922 controversy between Lenin and Stalin about the nationalities, with Stalin arguing for bringing Ukraine, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia into the Russian federation, while Lenin supported the idea of a Soviet Union with formal equality for all the republics. The historian Albert Nenorokov judged that Lenin’s line had been distorted and the nationalities had been oppressed by the great Russian national chauvinist Stalin. Asserting national interests against the Soviet Union became “Leninist.” Not all the citizens in the constituent republics were alert to the change of line. Demonstrations on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided an occasion for nationalist assertion in the Baltic republics. In 1988 there were only small ones.

These were troubling, but there was no prevision of the minefield that lay ahead. Boris Kurashvili of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of State and Law actively promoted mass organizations of nonparty people in the republics, which were quickly dubbed “National Fronts for Perestroika.” They were intended to be a mighty force to do battle with Gorbachev’s critics. In fact the national fronts helped to raise and solidify movements against the apparatus. There had been only demonstrations by small groups in 1987; by fall 1988, they were in the thousands and, by 1989, the hundreds of thousands. Putin himself has argued that the formal autonomy of the republics, Lenin’s solution of 1922 in favor of a Soviet Union as opposed to Stalin’s proposal for integrating them into the Russian Republic, turned out to be disastrous. Lenin had left future Soviet generations with a “time bomb.”

Ligachev and the other critics of Gorbachev, both those who did not want to change anything and those who just wanted to slow things down a bit, were equally horrified. Their responses were ineffectual and more poorly thought out than the glasnost attacks. Nina Andreyeva’s letter, an anti-glasnost manifesto that was published in June 1988, centered its attack on the glasnost literature’s alleged enthusiasm for Trotsky, of whom it had in fact not said much and only implicitly rehabilitated. Nevertheless, Andreyeva worried about pulling down the heroism of the Stalin period in order to put in its place a new “Jewish internationalism.” This was heading in a bad direction. Worse than that, Gorbachev’s hardline critics increasingly resisted the rise of nationalism in the republics by appealing to the Russian national spirit. This sounded a note that would grow stronger in their camp in the coming years: let the nationalities see how well they can do without us Russians, our oil, and all our other generous assistance! No one seemed to realize that the growth of the Russian national idea was poison to the Soviet idea.

But Gorbachev would not slow down. He rightly perceived that he had to tilt against the enthusiasts of Andreyeva’s letter. To lose ground to them by reigning in glasnost would have made him their hostage. By the fall of 1988, he finally managed to retire Gromyko and remove Ligachev from his post as second secretary. At the same time, his foreign policy bounced from victory to victory. He was on the cover of all the Western magazines. Ronald Reagan, as noted above, professed against his own advisers that Gorbachev was repudiating the Stalinist tradition and going back to Lenin. At a joint summit in May–June 1988, Reagan took back what he had previously said about the Soviet Union’s status as an “evil empire.” He and Gorbachev had the year before agreed to scale down the intermediate nuclear forces in Europe. They had, for the first time, gone beyond arms control to actual disarmament. Gorbachev could now boast that his foreign policy had far eclipsed the modest hopes of Gromyko to restore the Nixon-Kissinger détente and was actually ending the Cold War. This was, he claimed, the result of his democratic revolution in the name of perestroika.

Gorbachev had not completely banished his critics. But they were losing ground rapidly, having lost the advantage of the Suslov system of collective leadership which he was seeking to destroy. In the fall of 1988, when Gorbachev deprived Ligachev of his position, Ligachev’s replacement, Vadim Medvedev, announced that he was merely an adviser on ideology and that there was no longer any such post as the ideological secretary. That ended the pretense of collective leadership.

So Gorbachev was freed of Suslovism. At the same time, however, the fall of Suslov’s system marked the fall of Lenin. Glasnost writers now went the next step and began to attack the founder of Bolshevism. Vasily Selyunin wrote in a long piece in Novy mir that the Bukharin alternative was really an attack on the military solution Stalin imposed when he opened the collectivization of agriculture. Lenin, he said had done something similar in 1918–19 when he initiated compulsory grain requisitions from the peasantry. Trotsky, said Selyunin, was temperamentally attracted to War Communism, that is, to “barracks Communism,” and here Lenin went with Trotsky, in effect repeating the mistake of czarism’s suppression of free markets. It was the first of the glasnost attacks against Lenin and, by implication, against the 1917 revolution.

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.


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.

Yet the historian of the future might well see the present situation of enmity between the two great outliers of Western civilization after the Cold War as a strange interlude. Viewed from the perspective of the last three centuries, Russia and America might be thought to have had a certain geopolitical community of fate, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed. They were on the same page in the American Revolution, in the American Civil War, in World War I and II. Those who brought about the fall of the Soviet Union could not imagine that they were doing anything less than ending the Cold War. Even now, Putin’s Russia reaches out to the world as a conservative stabilizing Metternichean power in the hope that national interests will arrive at a sensible international harmony. One might also think that embracing Realpolitik would call up, not just hostility to Western “hegemonism” but the spirits of prior openings to the West, the Franco-Russian alliance, the Franco-Soviet alliance, Rapallo, the Grand Alliance, and even the time in the sixties when Charles de Gaulle spoke of the Europeanization of the USSR.

Glasnost was moving in the direction of an enlightened intellectual and spiritual consensus around the actual democratic and socially progressive practice of the great powers. In this lens, America and Russia might be seen as evolving in their radically different ways toward a kind of democratic alternance. The United States might one day discover that its ambition to lead the world to freedom is best served, not by extremist economic and political ideology, but by an alternance in its own politics between a nationalist and realist right and a liberal or social-democratic left. Russia might one day discover that an alternance of its own will give it the most influence on the world, one between a strong state tradition and a social-democratic domestic model.

In the age of the Internet, we are experiencing a new age of Enlightenment, in which no state can dictate what the world will think. Great states have their media voice on every great question. Things like advanced technology and central banking, never before widely reported or understood, are openly discussed before a world audience. Every great state intervenes in the ongoing debate. It becomes less easy to dismiss as disinformation (“fake news”) whatever another state reveals or contends. In order to speak effectively to an increasingly sophisticated world, propaganda has to go beyond mere national assertion. As the states give their own views, they also reveal their own values, but what they say about others inevitably causes them also to think about how it applies to them, as those who attempted to de-ideologize international relations found out in the Gorbachev era. Perhaps, as we are all forced to get to know each other better and talk more about each other, we will like each other less. Or, instead, we might evolve some sort of larger, more enlightened twenty-first-century global-intellectual encounter.

Anthony D’Agostino is the author of Soviet Succession Struggles: From Lenin to Gorbachev (Allen and Unwin, 1988), Gorbachev’s Revolution, 1985–1991 (Macmillan, 1998), The Russian Revolution, 1917–1945 (Praeger, 2012), and The Rise of Global Powers: International Politics in the Era of the World Wars (Cambridge, 2012).

Image: 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