I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.
Zubok dismisses some of the most common explanations off the bat. First off, he does not think that US foreign policy, including Reagan’s attempt to ramp up the arms race, had much effect. As Zubok points out, the military-industrial complex was the only part of the Soviet economy that unequivocally worked — maintaining military parity with the US on a relative shoe-string, with greater cost-effectiveness than the US military. Nor does it appear that the US had much ability to manipulate events, in part because they seldom seemed to have a clear idea what was going on. Reagan and especially Bush occasionally appear on the scene as benign and supportive but largely irrelevant presences. Zubok treats us to multiple meetings of Bush’s advisers where Cheney says something crazy, the other advisors say maybe we should adopt a wait-and-see approach, and Bush decides to go with the latter.
Nor does Zubok grant the common presupposition that the Soviet system was somehow metaphysically doomed to decline. The closest he comes is by pointing out the severe economic problems that arose in the 1980s and the fact that there were not many ready models for how to right the ship. A Chinese-style transition to a market economy could not have gone as slowly or produced as much growth, because for China, the marketization went hand-in-hand with accelerating an industrialization process that was still, despite all the sacrifices of generations of peasants, very much in its early phases. By contrast, the USSR was in many ways absurdly over-industrialized, thanks in large part to the Stalinist fetishization of “heavy industry” that survived Khrushchev’s attempts at reform. Despite deep sectoral imbalances and especially an underperforming agricultural sector, though, Zubok implies that the construction of a pipeline to Europe — blocked by the US, hence perhaps lending more credence to US agency in the outcome, albeit not in a way I’ve ever seen discussed — would have at least allowed the Soviet economy to keep kicking the can down the road.
Overall, I walked away from this book thinking that fixing the Soviet economy would have taken considerably less creative thinking. This brings us to the issue of Gorbachev, who is surely one of the strangest political figures to emerge in the last few centuries. He assumed absolute power in a major superpower, with incredible room to maneuver and essentially no competing power bases, and he consistently worked to put himself out of a job. A rough heuristic for Gorbachev’s political choices is that if there is a move that undercuts his own authority and ability to project power going foward, he’s going to take it. And it’s all the more incomprehensible because that clearly is not what he consciously thought he was doing. Gorbachev pictured himself — until very late in his career — as the second coming of Lenin and constantly looked to the great revolutionary’s writings for inspiration. Yet he seems to have compeletely ignored the Machiavellian side to Lenin (perhaps projecting all those qualities exclusively onto the Stalinist betrayal). In the end, though everyone consistently feared (or hoped?) he would assert himself as a dictator, he rendered himself simply irrelevant. For long passages in the second half of the book, I was reminded of the scene from Office Space pictured above: “Mr. Gorbachev, what is it that you’d say you do here?”
I’ve long thought that it makes a big difference that Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to have been born in the Soviet Union qua Soviet Union. To him, I suspect that the USSR was a self-evident, permanent reality — it probably never entered his mind that he could cause its downfall, even if he wanted to. And he was certainly a true believer in Communist ideology, not as a militant doctrine, but as the hegemonic ideology of his culture. Hence he quite naively thought that he could “reset” the Soviet experiment by going back to its deepest sources and ideals.
Again and again, Gorbachev acted in remarkably cavalier and mercurial ways, initiating multiple contradictory reform initiatives as though throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. I admit that my experience at being a world leader is limited, but I would humbly submit that this approach was not appropriate for someone who presided over a complex and fragile system that, for all its faults, was mostly successful in keeping the peace in a vast multi-ethnic society and meeting everyone’s basic needs. Indeed, Zubok makes it clear that Gorbachev, and most of his advisors and rivals, had no real idea how the system worked in any detail. Hence his reforms kept causing unexpected destructive side-effects — undercutting the very structures that would have been necessary to contain those effects.
Equally puzzling was Gorbachev’s apparent belief that he could simply will a democratic culture into being, or that he could encourage nationalistic sentiment in a way that would somehow strengthen the unity of Soviet society. In both cases, he willingly — and indeed gratuitously — empowered his own grave-diggers, yet even up to the very end, he continued to believe he was in charge and that it would be a relatively simple matter to reaffirm the Union against the forces of nationalism and division. And of course, those very structures only exacerbated the supply-chain problems and inflation that dogged Gorbachev at every step, because they arbitrarily disrupted an economic system that had been designed to be completely unitary along the lines of the largely notional “republics.”
How are we to assess this? If you believe that the break-up of the USSR was inevitable sooner or later, then Gorbachev’s idiosyncratic approach was a remarkable stroke of luck. He created political structures that allowed for a “soft landing” of the Soviet project and avoided any major bloodshed in the near term (though the verdict of history may change depending on the outcome of the current war in Ukraine). And his obvious personal abhorrence of violence and commitment to consensus did, in its own strange way, succeed in creating something like a democratic culture — albeit one that would scapegoat him as a dictator-in-waiting up to the very end, Pizza Hut commercials aside. If you didn’t believe that break-up was inevitable, then his tenure is an amazing self-inflicted tragedy that gratuitously destroyed a major world power and permanently ratcheted down the life chances, and even the life expectancy, of an entire world region — all while empowering a class of chauvanists and criminals who ultimately cut off the promise of democracy and freedom.
The calculation is different in Eastern Europe, of course, and the end of the Cold War and beginning of nuclear disarmament were unambiguously positive and unlikely to be pursued by anyone else. But what’s remarkable in reading Zubok’s account is how little those accomplishments — either the apparent humiliation of losing control of the Eastern bloc or the apparent victory of ending the Cold War — made to the internal political dynamics of the USSR’s dissolution. The Soviet Union remained a very insular society up to the very end, and it was a rude awakening when the various republics and their leaders found themselves in a world that was no longer carefully managed and controlled.