Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Soviet Implosion

Do we know why the Soviet Union collapsed? We have more causes than we can process, don’t we? How important was the resurgence of nationalism or religion, especially Muslim fundamentalism? How important was the arms race with the United States and NATO? Did the bad decision to invade Afghanistan play an important part? Was the Soviet state stained by some original sin, and if so, was that sin geographical over extension or moral turpitude?


Did a drop in oil prices undermine Soviet stability or an over dependence on oil in the first place? Did the fatally flawed socialist economic system finally give out? How important were historical actors such as Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev? Did events in Eastern Europe, including Polish labor unrest, cause the collapse? Did the infiltration of Western popular culture matter a great deal? Did decrepit Soviet leadership in the 1970s weaken the Soviet state? How important was the Soviet dissident movement or Soviet underground literature?

Did Chernobyl put the final seal on Soviet power by revealing its incompetence or criminality? Did the Soviet elite lose the will to power or did ordinary Soviets bring down the state? How important was agricultural failure? Could the Soviets have lasted longer if they had produced more consumer goods in order to satisfy domestic demands? Was the Soviet collapse precipitated by the failure to use violent means to coerce opposition?

Could the Soviet experience have been prolonged by more flexibility about Marx’s message, or more faithfulness to it? Did Stalin’s legacy consolidate or undermine Soviet strength over the years? Would people have suffered more or less from a prolonged process of disintegration as opposed to the relatively rapid pace of events surrounding the collapse?

What’s interesting about revolutions—and probably we can count the collapse of the Soviet Union as a quasi-revolution—is that they are not easily explained. If they had been predicted, elites would no doubt have taken dramatic actions to appease revolutionary pressures or quash them with force. In retrospect, every event preceding the great explosion of popular feeling seems to have a portent of the end. Another obstacle to historical understanding is the fact that so many disparate forces are at work.

It’s difficult to dissever the many strands of influence at work. Is it enough to identify a few primary causes? Can we accept all of them? The best single explanation for Soviet collapse is probably nationalism. We know that nationalism never really disappeared in the Soviet Union; we know that nationalism has brought down a number of other empires, including the British, French, Austrian, and Ottoman; we know that every single major state within the Soviet Union opted to secede from the U.S.S.R. when given the option.

Ironically, Stephen Kotkin's Armageddon Averted argues against this widely accepted thesis about Soviet decay. According to the book, the Soviet state had successfully resisted nationalist ideologies for seven decades and did not need to submit to them now. It had military might, nuclear weapons, economic leverage, a centralized economy, and large ethnic Russian colonies in many of these potentially rebellions border states.

In fact, by releasing client states from control in Eastern Europe, the Russian center was better positioned than ever to retain control over its periphery. Moreover, the client states did not become bastions of popular democracy: self-serving bureaucrats ruled these states before and after political rupture with the Russian heartland. The people, as such, were not the decision-makers, except perhaps in the Baltic republics or the Ukraine, which had close linguistic and cultural ties to Russia proper. These successor state bureaucrats chose to leave Soviet Russia only after they determined that they could retain their status more effectively through rupture than unity.

And this, of course, leads us back into an examination of the myriad other forces at work in the decimation of Soviet power.

No comments:

Post a Comment