This week we mark the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the once-mighty “communist empire”, which spanned Central and Northern Asia, Eastern, Southern and Northern Europe; encompassing diverse geographies and ethnic groups. The world’s largest country – its successor state Russia now holds the distinction — held de facto control over several nation-states in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Six years prior to its dissolution, the Soviet Union welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev as its new leader.
The new leader Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, Konstatin Chernenkov, Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev — all of whom represented the non-revisionist faction of the party, was a moderate reformer. While the former two only ruled for roughly 28 months between them — December 1982 to March 1985, Brezhnev ruled for over 18 years, providing stability as well as fostering a culture of nepotism, bureaucratic red-tape, and dogmatic conservativism.
While many Russians still view Brezhnev favourably — a 2013 poll revealed that 56 percent of Russians elicited positive sentiments towards his rule — the era now believed to have ushered in a prolonged period of stagnation in the Soviet economy, one which ultimately hastened its downfall in 1991.
The USSR was a communist one-party system, and like with many dictatorial regimes, accurate information on key socio-economic indicators were hard to procure. Infact, reports in the American media suggest that the CIA itself believed the Soviet Union was an economic powerhouse.
However, independent economists had a different take altogether. Grigorii Khanin, who is now known to have repudiated the official Soviet economic figures, asserted that USSR’s economy grew at a slower pace than what the world believed. Between 1975 and 1980, the Soviet national income grew only by one percent, while in the next five years, by just 0.6 percent.
While military race was a key reason, there were several other factors too. The over-dependence on oil wealth later proved counter-productive. After initially cashing in on the rising oil prices in the aftermath of the 1973 crisis, the drop in prices in the early 1980s, alleged to have been engineered by the West, dried up Soviet Union’s foreign exchange.A large military budget — because of the arms race with the US — signified the dominance of heavy industrial goods, over consumer goods, which were as a result in short supply. A 1981 report by party official Konoplev, states that the military budget utilised about 35 to 37 percent of the total National Material Product (NMP). NMP was the Soviet equivalent of the West’s Gross Domestic Product. Military spending indeed became a headache for Soviet economic planners, after US president Ronald Reagan decided to put a détente on the backburner, and build up United States’ military capabilities with an aim to weaken the USSR. Reagan believed the USSR would try to catch up with the US which will accelerate the collapse of its economy. The war in Afghanistan too aggravated Moscow’s economic woes.
Domestic policies complicated economic woes. Like in several socialist countries, the policy of no job layoffs inadvertently encouraged worker inefficiency. Corruption was institutionalised in the country.
Gorbachev had his task cut out. In the 1986 Party Congress, the General Secretary announced “perestroika”, which means reconstruction in Russian.
Under “perestroika”, corruption within the party was targeted and restructuring of the party was undertaken. Multi-candidate elections to the local party organs were allowed for the first time to strengthen grass root politics.
On the economic front, Gorbachev steered the economy towards becoming more market-driven while loosening central planning. However, it is wrong in retrospect to term it “a move towards capitalism”. For Gorbachev, it was more to do with rejuvenating an aging economy within the limits of socialism. In Gorbachev’s own words, “Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.”
The January 1990 opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Moscow was as a result of “perestroika”. Though insignificant in terms of its impact on the overall economy, the symbolism connected to it was hard to ignore — capitalism had trumped state-ownership.
Another major reform later directly galvanized the people in the constituent republics to secede from Moscow. “Glasnost” — openness in Russian — was meant to usher an era of considerable freedoms to the common man.
One of the biggest changes due to glasnost was the easy availability of previously banned literature. In 1990, glasnost reached its zenith when Gorbachev handed over papers which incriminated Soviet officials for killing Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. Until that time, the massacre had been blamed on the Nazis.
It is common knowledge that the reforms – both economic and political – failed to effect any major positive change. When Mikhail Gorbachev also chose to venture into reforming the social sphere, he became a butt of jokes. Alcoholism was chronic in Soviet Union. In a bid to curb the problem, vodka sales were curtailed, costing the exchequer $7.2 billion in revenue in 1986. When public criticism on his move mounted, he is reported to have asked a crowd, “Can’t you live without vodka?” Gorbachev, however, claimed that the vodka-ban helped reduce work-related injuries and a lower divorce rate. But it was too late as he had to face much bigger challenges in a few years.
Soviet Union was essentially a police state, with severe restrictions on freedom of speech. The “glasnost” helped open up a Pandora’s box for the common man.
The first signs of the dissolution began by 1988. The discontent against the system did not initially begin in Russia, but along the peripheries of the Union — Baltic republics and Armenia. Details of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact — undisclosed to the public till then — played a major role in whipping up nationalist sentiment in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Armenian nationalism rose sharply after Soviet authorities quelled a popular rebellion of Georgian Armenians to merge with Armenian republic.
With the far-flung republics in turmoil, other republics, including the long neglected Central Asian Republics — the “stans”, too joined in the secession battle. While Soviet authorities were unable to control the constituent republics, the situation was not under control in Russia itself.
By 1990, the Communist Party was not the only ruling authority as part of Gorbachev’s political reforms to bring more democracy. Boris Yeltsin was the product of this major reform. In 1990, the Boris Yeltsin-led parliament declared Russia a de-facto sovereign state. Next year, Russia (not Soviet Union) held its first democratic election in which he was elected the president. Dual power centres emerged, with Gorbachev claiming authority over all of USSR, while Yeltsin calling Moscow independent. But that was not to stay for long.
Between 19 and 21 August, 1991, in a last-minute bid to reverse the downfall of the USSR, a group of radical generals and second rung party officials attempted a coup against the Boris Yeltsin-led government. The coup miraculously failed and with it the Communist Party and Gorbachev.
On 12 December 1991, the representatives of the three original constituent republics of the USSR – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – signed the Belavezha Accord. The Accord denounced the 1922 pact to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and dissolved the Union. On Boxing Day 1991, the Union ceased to exist.
Twenty-five years down the line, it would be interesting to analyse whether the rot within Soviet Union traced back to Leonid Brezhnev and the era of stagnation or further back in history.
In the final days of 1922, Vladimir Lenin wrote a testament, in which he called for sacking the then general secretary Joseph Stalin. He had written, “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution”. Lenin might have already foreseen what a monster Stalin would end up later. Lenin is reported to have wanted a separation of power – with one holding the charge of the party and another of the government.
However, soon after Lenin’s death, Stalin consolidated his power; sidelining (read purges) his rivals by 1938. He also became the head of the government in 1941 – disrespecting Lenin’s idea of separation of power. Stalin’s idea of general secretary being the ultimate leader was observed across the Iron Curtain.
While Stalin presided over a period of considerable “development”, the manner in which it took place laid the foundation for the ultimate disintegration of the Union.
China too passed through such a phase between 1949 and 1980 but what sets apart Deng Xiaoping from Mikhail Gorbachev is one point: Deng never did a Chinese version of glasnost. Had Gorbachev never initiated “glasnost”, the economy founded on Stalin’s principles of five-year plans could have survived.
The dissolution of the USSR was a momentous occasion in world history, which made one phrase enter the political lexicon: “The god that failed”.
This was originally published for Firstpost. Read here.