Moscow 1991/12/25

On Christmas Day 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev declared the official end of the Soviet Union. The day had no religious significance in Russian Orthodox tradition, nor in the secular system of the Soviet Union, but for American Christians who had seen Soviet communism as the an evil Godless empire, there was probably some significance in the timing.
The causes of the collapse are still debated, and discussion of counter-factual scenarios express the essential questions of the history. Was the collapse inevitable, or could a reformed system have emerged if certain individuals had acted differently?

Outside observers have always tended to believe the most self-reassuring theory about the collapse, that it was the failure of an ideology, but they were lazy about looking into the more obvious reasons: fierce opposition from another ideological system, bad policy decisions, and, the most influential reason, the centrifugal forces that exist within large federations.
If this factor had been better appreciated, perhaps the governments of Europe and North America wouldn’t have been so keen to accelerate their interdependence under free trade agreements, NATO, the European Union and the Euro common currency. Under the ideology of economic neoliberalism, this integration continued after 1991 toward its present crises, under the mistaken belief that the ideology was superior and infallible and not subject to the same centrifugal forces that broke up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mikhail Gorbachev believes that the decisive factor was his betrayal by the unprincipled Boris Yeltsin who played a double game in the last year of the USSR.[1] To Gorbachev’s face he went along with the plan to forge the new federation that had been approved recently by a strong majority in every republic, but behind Gorbachev’s back he schemed with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to end recognition of the Soviet government. Their arrangement had a dubious legal standing which is still debated today, but the withdrawal of support of the three largest members of the union put a de facto end to it. The driving force was pure self-interest. Yeltsin knew that Russia was the member with the most resources, so he believed that if the union held together Russia would always be making more in transfer payments than it got in return. He neglected the strategic advantages that came from having the other nations within Russian orbit.
His hasty plan was done without much forethought for what would happen to assets strategically important to Russia such as Crimea, which was given to Ukraine in the 1950s when the breakup of the Soviet Union was inconceivable. Nor did he give much thought to the danger of ethnic conflicts and further splintering within each republic, the rise of extremism arising out of economic collapse, or the millions of ethnic Russians who would be exiled outside their ancestral country. Appreciation of the scale of this tragedy is essential for understanding why Vladimir Putin has been so determined to defend Russians in Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea.
Yeltsin would say, however, that he was only hastening what had become inevitable. The biggest cause of the collapse was probably the way market reforms were carried out. Once they started, the ruling elite started to see that everything would eventually be privatized. It was a classic case of not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. Everyone knew where things were headed, so no one could risk sticking with Gorbachev and the old system. The government, bureaucratic and military classes saw that in an uncertain future, the wisest course was to get in on the action, and grab a piece of the state assets that were being privatized. There were no price discovery mechanisms for these assets, and no one had the cash to pay for their real value. The term privatization didn’t really fit the situation. The new term “grab-it-ization” was coined to describe the outright theft of state assets. The trend continued throughout the 1990s as Yeltsin traded away more and more to the oligarchs in order to gain their support.
Historian Stephen Cohen described the causes this way:
... three "subjective" factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in "privatizing" the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it. Most Russians, including even the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a "tragedy".[2]
Writing in The Guardian in December 2016, Paul Mason noted that we should be aware that the Euro-American system could collapse just as suddenly and the Soviet system. However, instead of seeing the problem as failures of leadership, policy and capitalism, he writes that the fall could come from “xenophobic populism” and not valuing “globalization and liberal values” dearly enough. He takes a swipe at the way Putin “stole the election in 2011,” but offers no critique of the recent failings of Western democracy. There is no mention of the way the two American political parties, under to the constraints of American institutions, have themselves for a very long time been an undemocratic two-faction ruling party that shuts out all competition just as surely as the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union.
Mason goes on to say:
The dissidents of the late Soviet era fought for democracy and human rights under the general concept of “the west.” For us, if xenophobic populism triumphs, there will be no “west” to aspire to: if liberal, democratic societies begin to go the way of Orbán’s Hungary, there will be no external power to help us.[3]
Although Mason writes of having visited Russia since the collapse, he seems unaware of how millions of people suffered under the “help” that came from the West. Yeltsin’s economic policies were a disaster, and the United States failed to provide aid that could support Russian social needs during the transition period. The American economic advisor Jeffrey Sachs tried to help during this period, but he was unable to persuade the IMF and the American government that much more assistance was necessary.[4] Sachs made severe criticisms of Russian government corruption, the IMF, and both the Bush and Clinton presidencies for failing during the transition period to help Russian people secure a basic level of food, health care and pension benefits. Even former president Richard Nixon wrote an editorial in 1992 advising that much more should be done in order to avoid a catastrophe. Many of the current tensions between Russia and the United States can be traced to this failure, to this time when America seemed to be deliberately following a policy that would keep Russia weak and which would allow American interests to exploit Russian resources.
While writers at The Guardian double down on their anti-Russia propaganda with such commentary warning that there will be no one and nothing to help us if the barbarians of Brexit and Trumpism prevail, they ignore one obvious possibility. It may be time to go back to the old toolkit of socialism to look for antidotes to the present crisis of capitalism.
It would also be helpful to look at 1991 and 2016 not as definitive ruptures but as events in a continuum. As Zhouen Lai said in his unintentionally brilliant appraisal of the consequences of the French Revolution (he thought he was answering a question about the upheaval in Paris in 1968), “it’s too soon to tell.”[5] The Soviet Union collapsed, but the transformation of “the Russian sphere” (or post-Soviet space), with effects on the entire world, is still underway, as is the evolution of global capitalism along a path outlined by Marx.
The passage below is from The Fate of Marxism in Russia by Gorbachev’s advisor Alexander Yaklovev. He wrote in 1993 that there were “millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls” in Soviet society. Now, twenty-five years later, it should be obvious that the West never provided meaningful help or solutions to the crisis. The West loved Russia when it was weak and easy to pilfer, but when Putin started to make Russia stronger and keep the wealth at home, the West had a change of heart. Furthermore, we can no longer delude ourselves that “millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls” don’t exist in other nations and ideological systems. Instead of lamenting that there won’t be anything like “the West” coming to our rescue, we should feel thankful for the absence of such “help,” and hopeful that we can at least recognize the need for better ideas next time.
From Alexander Yaklovev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia:
The time was “merciless,” but also, “tragic and cleansing,” a “great time of a great sobering. It has been a tortuous and contradictory path from the hopes and illusions of the Social Experiment of the Twentieth Century to an understanding of the depths of the abyss of our national fate, most of all for those who sincerely believed, sincerely hoped, sincerely blundered.
Our country is now morally and physically exhausted. Naturally, various people assess the reasons for this exhaustion in various ways and see different paths out of the situation. Right-wingers of all stripes have constantly reiterated that perestroika has brought the country to a state of collapse. If we get rid of perestroika, they say, we will live like human beings again, as we lived in the good old times of stagnation.
But how did we live? Irresponsibility, lack of discipline and elementary order, and unrestrained drunkenness litter the landscape of both our private and our public existence. There are millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls, from the actual tragedy of the nuclear power station, to pollution of the sea, air and land, to the lack of nitroglycerine in our drugstores. Time bombs are constantly going off and will continue to explode until normal economic relations prevail.
For decades, cast iron, coal, steel and petroleum had priority over food, housing, hospitals, schools and services. The claim that “it had to be that way” is fallacious. Because of the economic re-feudalism of management, the price of industrialization has been disastrously high in both human and material terms. Disregard for the individual has known no bounds.
We will not brag about the absence of employment under the old system. There was no unemployment under serfdom, either...
The country, the people, and the young generations are having to pay for the past. That is why there is no turning back, no restoration of the past in new forms is possible—with or without perestroika, with the reforms or in spite of them, with democracy or dictatorship. Those who maintain otherwise either do not understand what is at stake or understand and are deliberately deceiving the people... History may be maimed, mutilated, falsified, concealed, rewritten or treated in any fashion whatsoever, but it cannot be deceived.[6]

[1] Mikhail Gorbachev, The New Russia (Polity, 2016), Chapter 1: After Perestroika.
[2] Stephen Cohen, “The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia's march to democracy,” The Guardian, December 13, 2006.
[4] Jeffrey Sachs, “What I did in Russia,”, March 14, 2012.
[5] Dean Nicholas, “Zhou Enlai's Famous Saying Debunked,” History Today, June 15, 2011.
[6] Alexander Yaklovev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia (Yale University Press, 1993).

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