The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was arguably one of the most pivotal and surprising events of the twentieth century. What seemed like a sudden end of the Cold War ushered in a new world, along with new challenges and opportunities. Despite a nearly year-and-a-half process that led to the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the end of the mighty Communist superpower still caught many by surprise—in the United States and across Soviet Union itself. To Russian President Vladimir Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was a “major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.”
But was the breakup of the Soviet Union really inevitable? It is common knowledge today that indeed, by the end of 1991, there was no way to preserve USSR as it existed for decades after 1922. According to today’s prevailing attitudes, the political, economic and socio-cultural processes brewing in the country since 1986 eventually tore the nation part, and the relatively quick end of the largest country on the planet was more preferable to any alternatives. However, there were attempts made by the Soviet government to extend the life of their country by changing specific aspects of how it could be governed. The “what if” discussions about the end of the Soviet Union are still reverberating across Russia, as country’s intellectuals, politicians and nationalists try to understand what, if anything, could have done to keep their country together and to what ends. If we were to take a closer look at what actually happened, could USSR have actually survived into the twenty-first century?
The Soviet constitution included Article 72 that allowed the constituent republics to secede. However, let's be honest here, if that would really the case then such process could have taken place well before 1990. The reality was very different. The Soviet Communist government would have never allowed its republics to freely leave the country as independent entities. Such a case would mean the permanent weakening of the Soviet state in the “zero-sum” game of the Cold War.
All fifteen Soviet republics were tied and interconnected together by a complicated economic matrix that placed the Russian Federated Socialist Republic (today’s Russia) at the center of all major industrial, economic and political activity across the country. We can hear the echoes of such an arrangement today in a complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Even in the midst of conflict between the two countries, Russian military is still reliant on Ukrainian military products, and Ukrainian factories and industrial conglomerates still reap dividends by selling their technology to the Russians. In fact, Moscow only recently announced that it is capable of “import substitution” of Ukrainian military wares starting in 2018. The Soviet Union held its vast regions and republics together by a system of subsidies and fixed economic quotas, with many of its less developed regions receiving Soviet tech and consumer products in exchange for raw materials and agricultural goods. In some cases, Moscow supplied both finished and raw materials to make up for lack of industrial base and economic development in certain regions.
As the Soviet economy showed signs of a major slowdown in 1980s, the population and many of the USSR’s policy makers became restless. Recently enacted Soviet policies that encouraged political openness and discussion unleashed forces that were shaking the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party and undermining the very foundations of the state. Fast forward to December 8, 1991. The dissolution of the country was made possible by the so-called Belavezha Accords that took place in Belarus. The heads of three Soviet constituent republics—Russia, Ukraine and Belarus—signed the document that officially dissolved USSR. The signers actually referred to the afore-mentioned Article 72 of the constitution that allowed for “peaceful” secession from the state. To be clear, this was a decision neither made after canvassing the general population nor announced publicly months in advance. As the shock of the Belavezha decision still reverberated across around the world, another summit took place on December 21, this time in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. There, the heads of the eleven of the Soviet republics (minus Baltics and Georgia) finally dissolved what was left of the Soviet Union. No doubt that the second summit was underwritten by the earlier Belavezha Accords, which laid the legal foundation and a final precedent for the eventual and irreversible dissolution of the USSR. On December 25, 1991, in a Christmas gift to the United States and its allies, the Soviet flag was lowered in the Kremlin and replaced with a current Russian tri-color, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new and uncertain world.
What could have been
In hindsight, the bulk of the Soviet population wanted to preserve USSR in some shape or form. But such preservation and eventual survival of the Soviet state required different management, with a more decisive government apparatus ensuring that it was not challenged by alternative political or ethnonational models. Prior to the August 1991 coup that gravely weakened then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and propelled Boris Yeltsin to prominence, the Soviet government debated the merits of a Union of Sovereign States (USS). On March 17, 1991, a popular referendum was held in the nine Soviet republics—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The vast majority of voters supported maintaining the federal system of the Soviet Union. Following the results of the referendum, the Soviet central government signed an agreement with its nine republics on April 23, 1991. Following the full implementation of this treaty, the USSR would have become a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. How that arrangement would have worked in reality is difficult to answer, considering major political and social changes already taking place across the country. By August 1991, nine republics, except Ukraine, approved the draft of the new treaty. Unfortunately for Gorbachev and his last-ditch efforts, the Soviet hardliner August 1991 coup permanently sidelined him from political stage and ended any further efforts to reform the country.
Was it actually possible?
Perhaps USS was an idea whose time has come, but its eventual existence was already undermined by the political forces that were tearing USSR apart. In 1986, Gorbachev unveiled two processes that led to the eventual death of his country. Glasnost is loosely defined as political openness, while perestroika means political and economic restructuring. Meant to slowly liberalize certain aspects of state management and interaction with people, both actually weakened Soviet oversight and control, resulting in economic and political chaos, with rising nationalist and secessionist movements in many republics. Perhaps in light of such events, the signers of the Belavezha Accords thought their actions were inevitable, and therefore felt justified that they were doing the right thing at that time. But what if Gorbachev, in his desire to reform and re-invigorate the country, launched a different set of reforms? What if the Soviet Communist Party were to oversee a set of policies aimed at liberalizing only the economy of the USSR, keeping a firm grip on political ideology?
There was a precedent for such a move. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was enacted in 1921 following the Soviet government’s victory over Tsarist and anti-Bolshevik forces in the 1918–1920 civil war. With the country’s economy in ruins, limited private enterprises was allowed to coexist alongside emerging state industrial sector. Although the results were mixed, the NEP nonetheless resulted in an almost complete recovery of the new nation’s economy to pre-WWI levels, before being abruptly abolished in 1928 by Joseph Stalin. One has to wonder about the fate of the Soviet Union if NEP were allowed to continue. Small and light industries, as well as agriculture, would be in the hands of the private sector. The “commanding heights” of the economy, such as mines and heavy industry, would be under state management. If this sounds a lot like China today, that’s probably the case—the Chinese economic miracle took place under the strict control of the Communist Party that tolerated no political dissent in any form.
For such a scenario to succeed in late 1980s, Gorbachev would need to convince his fellow Communists that his new policies would not erode the party’s standing and reputation. In reality, by the late 1980s, Soviet population’s cynicism and distrust towards party slogans and overall management were at their highest. Loss of confidence in the ability to properly govern and to provide for its citizens propelled alternative political thoughts and movements, ultimately resulting in the Belavezha and Alma-Ata Accords. But what if Gorbachev were able to convince his colleagues that better economic conditions across Soviet Union would result in people’s restored trust in the party and their country? As March 1991 vote showed, plenty across USSR still believed in being part of one united state. A reformed economic plan would have left medium- and large-sized enterprises in the hands of the state, while allowing Soviet people to conduct small-scale economic activity, especially in agriculture. In this scenario, there would be no “glasnost,” no open discussion and critique of the state, no facing up to the dark Soviet past and no rising ethnonationalism in far-flung republics. Soviet government would have to make small-scale commercial loans available for its budding entrepreneurial class, with most successful of such entrepreneurs eventually becoming members of the Party in order for the government to keep tabs on its most active citizens. This strictly economic approach would have redirected the energies of many individuals towards economic gain and profit, and away from antistate activities and protests—as it eventually did in China, although with some notable exceptions. The Soviet society in mid-1980s was ready for such incremental economic changes, and may have embraced greater economic freedoms. This does assume, however, that such economic transformation would have been well managed by the state. It’s tempting to think that even if the Soviet system suffered numerous deficiencies along the way, the absence of strong political competition to Gorbachev could have allowed the slowly reforming Soviet Union to overcome internal problems and to emerge past 1991 in some new and reinvigorated form. Absence of secessionist movements that took place in the Baltics and Caucasus, and absent the August 1991 coup, the plan for the eventual transformation of the Soviet Union into a more economically liberal entity may have had a greater chance to succeed.