December 25, 1991. It is not a usual Christmas day. That day would be a Christmas that no history book could forget. There it is, the red flag, waving in the middle of the cold winter over the Russian capital, and suddenly, it has fallen. Along with the red flag has fallen the nation that was able to stop the most fearsome monster that the human race could spawn: Adolf Hitler. Along with the flag of the hammer and sickle has fallen the capital of the most controversial economic system in history: communism. Along with that red flag fell one of the two superpowers of the twentieth century, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).1 Let’s be honest: who would have thought that a nation as powerful as the USSR, which was able to send the first human into outer space, would cease to exist?2 Who would have thought that the country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world would disappear in only 69 years?3
Explaining “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” as Vladimir Putin (current president of the Russian Federation) himself would say, is a task that many academics as well as amateurs have sought to explain.4 What does the general opinion, and fervent capitalists say about this question? Well, they say that it was the failure of socialism.5 If this were completely true, then in the former Soviet countries there would be a total abhorrence towards any vestige of socialism, something that certainly has not happen. On the contrary, about 50 percent of the Russian population consider the dissolution of the USSR to be a bad thing, and that it could have been avoided. Moreover, only 28 percent of the population was in favor of the 180-degree turn towards capitalism that occurred in the largest nation in the world, according to a survey conducted by the Levada Center.6 These figures are worthy of being analyzed, because although Russia has completely opened up to the free market system and capitalist policies, the great majority of its population continues to miss the socialist model.7 On the other side, its dissolution is celebrated as a triumph for almost the entire western world.8
What is happening here? Is it possible that socialism was not the “executioner” of the nation of the hammer and sickle? I argue that socialism was not the reason for the fall of the Soviet Union. In the following article we will analyze the main factors that caused the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If socialism was not the main protagonist of this political tragedy, then what was the true “executioner”? The separatist nationalism within the USSR, as well as the political and economic measures carried out by its last president, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the end of the 80s.
First, it is necessary to talk about the structural contradiction that existed between the different incipient nationalisms and the Soviet socialist model. In order to analyze this point, we must remember that the Soviet socialist model was based on an absolute centralism. What is absolute centralism? In simple words, it is when all the powers of the State are concentrated not only in a single place or political party, but in a single person, who has all the powers to carry out any policy without any opposition.9 However, the application of a centralist government in the USSR was specifically difficult because the Soviet Union was one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Experts concluded that there were between 90 and 100 different nationalities within the territory of the Soviet Union, as well as more than 170 ethnic groups and more than 200 different languages and dialects spoken in this territory.10 Undoubtedly, nationalism was one of the greatest threats to the existence of the Soviet Union. Even Stalin published in 1913 a book entitled “Marxism and the National Question.”11 In order to gain popular support, Lenin promised all nationalities the right to self-determination.12 Although this measure helped him in a good way to have a greater number of supporters, it was also going to destroy his beloved Soviet Union.13
Even though the USSR was a world superpower, it never had a common identity. The only flashes of such occurred at the beginning of its seventy-year existence, in which the identity that united the different nationalities was based on that revolutionary spirit that fought against the bourgeois groups of power. Even though the revolutionary fervor was so big that it was able to create an illusory Soviet identity, over time this pseudo-identity disappeared. “Self-determination” was present in all four Constitutions of the Soviet Union (1918, 1924, 1936, 1977).14 As the famous Russian writer Anton Chekhov would say, “If in the first act of a play there is a gun on the wall, then in the last act it must be shot.”15 Ironically, this was what happened to the USSR: the same constitution gave the different republics the rope to hang themselves. Therefore, any attempt to maintain the USSR was completely illegal and unconstitutional. As if it were a play written by Chekhov, the republics used the weapon that the government had given them: the right to self-determination. The separatist groups of each Federation used Article No. 72 of 1977 Constitution as their main argument to demand independence, an objective that they finally achieved. This article stipulates that “Each Union Republic shall retain freely the right to secede from the USSR.”16
Another element that we cannot ignore is that even the constitution of 1936, drafted by Stalin, also gives the right of self-determination to all the republics, in its article No. 17, which reads as follows: “To every Union Republic is reserved the right freely to secede from the USSR.”17 It is really strange to see this “suicidal” law in the Stalin Constitution, since the Georgian dictator was the most chauvinistic leader in all of Russian history (although he was born in Georgia).18 Stalin was quite guilty for the formation of separatist nationalism, because his methods of cultural homogenization were based on oppression and extermination. By 1946, 54 percent of the Soviet settlers and 68 percent of the members of the Communist Party were Russian.19 This impelled Stalin to take the Russians as a mold to build his long-awaited Soviet identity, which was nothing more than imposing Russian culture on all the other cultures of the USSR. This discrimination caused widespread hatred towards the Russians, and the Stalinist use of violence encouraged the formation of anti-Russian separatist guerrillas.20 The vision of the “Georgian monster” was that the future protagonist of communist society would speak Russian, write in Cyrillic, and have the traditions of Mother Russia.21
The reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible was also extremely racist, because many of the political enemies he had to face came from ethnic minorities, especially the Jews, whom he repudiated totally.22 On the other hand, when the Second World War arrived, Stalin developed a very powerful intimidation towards the ethnic minorities located in the territories that Germany came to occupy. Stalin considered, for example, that the Ukrainians had helped Hitler to advance through their territory. Such was Stalin’s imagination that he thought that the Chechens taught Nazis the easiest way to get to the oil wells through the Russian mountains. After the war, Stalin would deport all the Chechens to Siberia, repopulating their country with Russians and Ukrainians. The Chechens and Ukrainians were perhaps the most affected by Stalin’s madness.23
The cruelty of the dictator caused a resentment of the nationalities towards Russia. Stalin had incarnated the Russian power, and his errors and abuses unfortunately were going to be absorbed by the Russian population. This resentment is still alive today, which is why there have been two Chechen wars in recent years (1994-1996, 1999-2009), conflicts caused by people full of revenge and resentment.24 With the death of Stalin, in 1953, his initial successors sought at all costs to prove that their personality was completely opposed to the Georgian tyrant, especially Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982).25 An example of this is Khrushchev’s gifting of the Crimean Peninsula to the Republic of Ukraine, an act completely contrary to Stalin’s patterns.26 Ironically, the gift that was insignificant for the people of that time has provoked the current tension between the United States and Russia, because of the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, cataloged as “invasion” by the United States.27
Consequently, the political strategy used by Stalin’s successors temporarily stop the attempt of Russian cultural domination. In 1990, a law was enacted that established that 2/3 of a Republic’s population were enough to have the right to separate from the USSR.28 With Chekhov’s gun loaded with bullets, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met on December 8, 1991, to sign the Belavezha Accords, which planned the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.29 Finally, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine would declare their independence on December 21 that same year, in the city of Almaty, in Kazakhstan.30 In conclusion, the Soviet Union was never really Soviet (if we talk about a cultural homogeneity based on the nonexistent Soviet man), much less a Union.
The second culprit of this tragic story was the political crisis that the Soviet Union suffered in its last years, due to the policies called “Perestroika” and “Glasnost,” which not only debilitated it, but completely destroyed it.31 The protagonist of this crisis will be the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Since the 1970s, USSR economic planning, the pillar of the socialist regime, began to show signs of exhaustion.32 The rigid control of the economy by the state bureaucracy generated stagnation instead of growth, because party bureaucrats were only concerned with meeting the goals set by the party. The problem was not the economic model itself, but the mediocrity of the Soviet leaders when setting industrial and productive objectives.33 The lack of vision and ambition caused the Soviet Union to be economically delayed, while the United States was in a full technological revolution.34 The Soviets continued to put “all their cards” in industrial production and raw materials, processes that were reducing their value considerably.35 Perhaps this is one of the most vulnerable points of socialism, that its economic success depended on the decisions of a few. If the power elite is wrong, then they are capable of destroying a superpower like the USSR. On the other hand, if the decisions are correct, the economic increase would be magnificent, like the one experienced by the Soviet Union in its earlier years.36 To make matters worse, the establishment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a system proposed by US President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983, greatly affected the Soviet economy. The SDI aimed to establish systems on earth and in space in order to defend the United States against a nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles.37 US military deployment forced the USSR to designate the vast majority of its funds to counteract the American military strategy. This made it impossible for the Soviet Union to address the social and economic crises of the Soviet population.
In this context, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the presidency of the socialist superpower, in 1985.38 He was a politician who saw the need for reform, to avoid the collapse of his country. Gorbachev tried to promote a restructuration (perestroika in Russian) by capitalizing, demilitarizing, and decentralizing the USSR. He introduced elements of the free market economy in the Soviet Union, opening it to foreign capital, promoting privatizations, and closing deficit companies.39 Gorbachev simultaneously promoted a political opening, which he called glasnost (meaning “opening” or “openness”). This caused the restoration of the multiparty system and the freedom of expression. Likewise, political prisoners were freed, and for the first time the Soviet population had the means to make self-criticism of the government.40 Early on it seemed that Perestroika and Glasnost were going to have excellent consequences for the most extensive nation in the world, right? To the surprise of many, Gorbachev’s measurements were a disaster. The glasnost, the freedom of discussion, allowed the propagation of a clearly counterrevolutionary, anti-socialist, and anti-Soviet propaganda. Almost everything that the Soviet people built through titanic and heroic efforts, was attacked, stained, denied, and denigrated. The Soviet population met overnight with numerous media that criticized and often defamed the Soviet Union. All the scandals of corruption became known, all the atrocities made by Stalin came to the light.41 Worst of all was that glasnost made the Soviet population realized that they were in an economic crisis, which caused panic and anger among the people. The Soviet press ended up being controlled almost completely by the extreme right, thereby completely discrediting the communist party.42 In short, glasnost was carried out at the worst moment. The only thing that was achieved with this measure was to tell the population that they were in trouble, causing a general pessimism in the Soviet Union. Likewise, glasnost gave weapons to the anti-Soviet, anti-Russian, and separatist movements in order to expand their ideas effectively and efficiently, which of course did not suit the survival of the USSR.43
Perestroika was also very prejudicial for the Soviet Union. Capitalism bases its economy production on competition, while socialism bases it on centralized planning.44 The advantage of socialism is that it is not directly affected by its position vis-à-vis other countries. That means that a well-planned socialist state can prosper despite being less rich compared to other countries, or if there is a global economic crisis around it. This characteristic of socialism is what explains the economic growth of the USSR in the 1930s.45 A socialist state is not interconnected with other nations, because it does not present a free market economy. Therefore, it does not depend on the situation of other countries. However, problems arise when capitalism is mixed with socialism, because the situation of other countries begin to affect the economy of the socialist country. In short, the Socialist State begins to compete against other countries, and if it does not have the necessary tools to compete, its end will be bankruptcy. This is what happened with the Soviet Union. The fact that the Soviet Union was backward compared to the United States had not affected them negatively for decades. However, when the injection of capitalism to the Soviet model began, the USSR began to compete with other nations economically. The result was that its economic disadvantage with the United States and the West started affecting them, and in a sudden and immediate manner. In short, Gorbachev applied capitalist measures at the most inopportune moment to do so. The Soviet Union was not prepared to compete with the United States economically. The US excelled them for decades in terms of industrial and technological production.46 To explain it more simply, Gorbachev, the coach of the football team, sent his team to compete on the field, and they lost by far. Coach Gorbachev was the president, the team was the USSR, the playing field was the Free Market, and the loss meant the fall of the most important social, political, and economic experiment in all history.
In conclusion, the Soviet Government was so focused on defeating its American counterpart that it failed to achieve a true Soviet identity. Although there was a fervent affection and patriotism towards the USSR, there was not really a solid cultural content that united the different socialist republics in times of scarcity. Cultural diversity was the element that made the different republics incompatible, because of the bad social management that took place in the Kremlin dome.
What was the solution then? The Soviet Government should have searched for elements that identified the Soviet spirit, and they should have sought to bring that spirit to the farthest and coldest corners of the nation of the hammer and sickle. Likewise, cultural diversity should be seen as an element of national pride and wealth. However, the opposite was done. The main error was the search for Soviet cultural homogeneity using the Russian mold. You cannot expect Kyrgyzstan, for example, to feel identified with Russian culture! That country currently is 80 percent Muslims, and willing to demonstrate its millenarian Muslim legacy, an element completely different from Russian orthodoxy.47 Although the Soviet Union was an atheist state, religious legacies mark completely the cultures of its peoples, something that the communist leaders never realize. Such was the Russian cultural difference with other countries, that in 1983, the leader of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan expressed that about 30 percent of his army could not go to combat because they did not understand the Russian words, a language that was imposed throughout the USSR. Likewise, the tyranny and marginalization of Stalin towards cultures other than the Russian caused a growing repudiation and massive resentment, which increased the separatist feelings between the republics and hatred towards Russia.48 That is why the Chechens have caused so much trouble to the current government of Vladimir Putin, because his resentment is a wound of decades made by Stalin.
On the other hand, the political crisis exacerbated the problems given by Gorbachev’s measures. In the first place, a personal struggle between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the then first president of Russia, would undermine any attempt of recovery. The Belavezha Accords would initiate the spark of separation, promoted by Yeltsin in order to achieve absolute power.49 Then Gorbachev himself would comment that “They’ve started carving this country like a pie,” referring to the agreement mentioned before.50 The Russian separatist moved very well on the politic field of those times; he knew what actions to execute, and finally he achieved his goal: the dissolution of the USSR.
After all, nobody tried to save the USSR. Gorbachev did not try to solve the disasters of his administration. The communist bureaucracy did not try to negotiate with the other republics in order to maintain the dream of Lenin. The Soviet media themselves did not seek to avoid the greatest political disaster of the twentieth century. And worst of all, not even the Soviet people kept faith in their own nation. To be more concise and concrete, the Soviet Union stopped being united when it most needed to be. In short, the USSR was betrayed from all sides, and its main enemy, ironically, was not the anti-communist American superpower, but its own people.