Soviet collapse

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 17 07:16:12 MST 1999

The Nation, January 3, 2000

Was Communism Reformable? (Review of books on the collapse of the Soviet


If revolutions can be explained after the fact, it is much harder to
foresee them, and it is impossible to specify their timetable. Everyone
agrees that the Second Russian Revolution (if it may be called that) was
started by Gorbachev personally. It was thus a true accident of personality
in history, both in his determination to reform the Soviet system and in
his narrow margin of victory in 1985. "To ignore Gorbachev's choice-making
is a fundamental error," Odom writes. The collapse of 1991 was equally
accidental, set up only by the Gorbachev-Yeltsin feud plus the latter's
exploitation of nationality separatism, and made irreversible only by the
conservatives' failed coup, which blew away the whole psychological basis
of authority. Had it not been for these fortuitous events, there is no
reason to dispute the contention of Hough and others that at least for a
time Russia could have pursued the Chinese path of reform under
dictatorship without the societal breakdown that democratization permitted.
"The USSR was politics, not economics," and above all by
"Soviet Academicians concocting fantastic reform plans," observe Michael
Ellman and Vladimir Kontorovich in introducing their collection of essays
by insiders of the Gorbachev era (The Destruction of the Soviet Economic

The Chinese outcome would have satisfied many in Gorbachev's entourage,
including his number-two man of the early years of perestroika, Yegor
Ligachev, his middle-of-the-road prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov (Hough's
hero), and even the putschists of 1991. These scoundrels, Gorbachev
appointees all, were mainly interested in preserving the Union, and never
mentioned Communism or even socialism in their pronunciamento. Their real
creed was the Russian imperialism that was the underlying ideology of the
post-Stalin rulers, as Yitzhak Brudny shows in his Reinventing Russia:
Russian Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953-1991. However, the course of
authoritarian, centralist reform, Chinese-style, had already been ruled out
by the democratic steps Gorbachev had set in motion at least three years
before the coup attempt and by the loosening of restraints over the
property-hungry nomenklatura from that time on.

What if Yeltsin had provided a different kind of rallying point for the
democratic reformers as well as the rebellious officialdom, and had not
been so fixated on personal power and revenge against Gorbachev? Brown
thinks that if Yeltsin and Gorbachev had collaborated, they could have
saved the Union and averted the economic and strategic disruption that its
breakup entailed. Likewise there was no compelling reason, other than
politics, to subject Russia to economic shock therapy in 1992--more shock
than therapy, as even Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott later
acknowledged. Shock therapy was as callous and stupid as Stalin's
collectivization of the peasants, thinks Esther Kingston-Mann of the
University of Massachusetts, Boston (In Search of the True West: Culture,
Economics, and Problems of Russian Development.)

Full review at

Louis Proyect

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