How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

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

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.