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About this book

The fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states in December 1991 was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. In the last years of Soviet rule, images of mass protests on the streets of Moscow, Tbilisi and Vilnius, bloodshed in Baku, striking miners, Mikhail Gorbachev wooing the West, and Boris Yeltsin defiantly mounting a tank in front of the White House building in Moscow, shattered all of the old certainties about the seemingly unbreakable communist system. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the dominant figures in this process, but non-Russian national movements, workers, intellectuals, and international developments all had roles to play.

Jeremy Smith presents the dramatic events of 1985-91 in a clear and succinct form, setting out a variety of interpretations for the demise of communism in the Soviet Union, and suggesting new approaches to answering the unresolved question of why it happened. Smith discusses the long-term and short-term factors behind the extraordinary collapse, assessing the impact of economic crisis, nationalism, personalities and democratization in the process.

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. Introduction

Abstract
On 25 December 1991 Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev resigned as President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Six days later, at midnight, the Soviet Union itself was formally dissolved, and in its place 15 separate, independent states were formed. As late as August 1991, such an outcome had not been widely predicted, and it was certainly far from anybody’s mind seven years previously. The fall of Soviet communism had implications reaching far beyond the fate of the world’s largest country and its inhabitants. It spelt an end to the Cold War, which had dominated international politics for almost half a century, which had been fought out in ‘Hot’ form on the soil of Africa and southern and eastern Asia, and which threatened the world with the possibility of nuclear destruction. It dealt a severe and lasting blow to an ideology which had promised so much to ordinary people, particularly those suffering from poverty and injustice throughout the world, but which had delivered so little. So momentous was the shift that for a while all the talk was about a ‘New World Order’ or ‘The End of History’, until new and less readily identifiable enemies appeared.
Jeremy Smith

Background

Frontmatter

2. The Soviet Political System

Abstract
While it had its roots in the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, the Soviet political system developed into a form which retained some of its essential features until the very end under the leadership of Iosif Stalin in the 1930s. In the early years of the Cold War, historical treatments of the Stalinist system were dominated by the totalitarian model. This model posited a society which was rigidly controlled from the top-down, in which no area of life was autonomous, and in which a single ideology dominated not only politics, but culture, leisure and ideas in general. This model was later challenged by revisionist historians who looked at social forces and competing interests at the higher levels of politics as defining the system, which also provided the potential for radical change. Since the opening of the Soviet archives to scholars in the late 1980s, a wealth of studies which adhered to neither school revealed a degree of complexity and differentiation which even the revisionists had not envisaged [16].
Jeremy Smith

3. The Soviet Economy

Abstract
The economic system which was to fail so drastically in the late 1980s was based on the centrally planned economy, known sometimes as the command economy. All factories and farms belonged to the state, and economic activity was governed from above. A series of planning agencies, the chief of which was the State Planning Commission, gosplan, set production targets for each section of industry or agriculture, while at lower levels individual targets were set for factories and farms. Prices of consumer goods were also set by the planning agencies and the movement of materials and goods between enterprises were all subject to planning rather than buying and selling. Agriculture was organised into collective farms, kolkhozy and state farms, sovkhozy, which operated along much the same lines as industrial enterprises, although kolkhozy were allowed to make some profit from produce which exceeded the set targets and could be sold on the market. Employment and wages were also subjected to state control.
Jeremy Smith

4. The Nationalities Question

Abstract
A major feature of the Soviet Union was its multinational nature and state structure. In 1926, ethnic Russians made up only 47 per cent of the total population of the USSR, rising to 50.8 per cent in 1989. The next largest national group in 1989 was the Ukrainians, at 15.5 per cent. Then came Uzbeks (5.8 per cent), Belorussians (3.5 per cent), Kazakhs (2.8 per cent) and Tatars (2.3 per cent). The other nationals who had their ‘own’ republics in 1991 — Armenians, Tadzhiks, Azeris, Latvians, Georgians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Turkmen, Kyrgyz and Estonians, each constituted less than 2 per cent of the total population. A further 69 nationalities were officially recognised on Soviet territory, meaning that the Soviet Union was a genuinely multinational state consisting of one major group (Russians) and numerous smaller ones.
Jeremy Smith

5. Early Attempts at Reform

Abstract
The problems with the economy which were evident from the first years of the planning system led to a number of attempts to reform it. In the 1930s the Stakhanovite movement, which rewarded individual workers for performing feats of high production, sought to encourage the workforce as a whole to work harder. Other campaigns and disciplinary measures were aimed at the same end of increasing productivity. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev tackled the system itself, trying to devolve a certain amount of decision-making to the local level and reorganising the Party and the central ministries. The backlash against these measures, which led to Khrushchev’s downfall, showed how the vested interests of local officials, enterprise directors and even workers, militated against any thoroughgoing reform. Half-hearted attempts in the early Brezhnev years, aimed at introducing incentives for higher production by allowing enterprises to dispose of their own excess profits, were quickly abandoned in the face of apathy. No further significant attempts at reforming either the political or the economic system were made until the 1980s.
Jeremy Smith

6. Gorbachev and Yeltsin

Abstract
Two figures above all dominate the history of the final years of the Soviet system: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin. Initially, the two were allies: Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow to lead the Construction Department of the CC in April 1985, and rapidly promoted him to the post of Secretary of the CC within three months, to head of the Moscow City Communist Party organisation (Gorkom) in December of the same year, and candidate (non-voting) membership of the Politburo of the CPSU. Although it was the conservative Yegor Ligachev who first pushed Yeltsin’s promotion, impressed by the determination and organisational ability he had displayed as First Secretary of the Sverdlovsk regional party organisation, he soon became identified as the most radical reformer in the top Party leadership and a supporter of the more controversial aspects of Gorbachev’s programme until his dismissal from the Moscow Gorkom in November 1987 and the Politburo in February 1988. After a time in the political wilderness, Yeltsin’s return to a position of prominence as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian republic in May 1990, and his popular election as Russia’s president the following year, meant that the rivalry between the two men became the focus of politics in the final years and months of the Soviet Union.
Jeremy Smith

Reform from Above

Frontmatter

7. Personnel and Policies

Abstract
Mikhail Gorbachev’s first pronouncements as General Secretary of the CPSU gave little indication of the turmoil that was to come. At the meeting of the Politburo which affirmed his appointment on 11 March 1985, shortly after Chernenko’s death he assured his colleagues that there was ‘no need to change our policies’ [44: 3]. In his acceptance speech he praised his predecessors, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, and promised to continue their policies. In private, however, the day before his appointment he had confided to his wife Raisa that ‘life demands action, and has done so for a long time. No, we can’t go on living like this any more’ [13: 445]. At the next meeting of the CPSU CC in April, he argued for a ‘qualitatively new state of society’ which was to be achieved by modernisation and the development of Soviet democracy. Such phrases were commonplace from Party leaders and could usually be safely ignored, but there were indications that Gorbachev really meant to bring about change. At a meeting in Leningrad in May 1985, he announced that ‘obviously, we all of us must undergo reconstruction, all of us … Everyone must adopt new approaches and understand that no other path is available to us’ [11: 441].
Jeremy Smith

8. Economic Reforms

Abstract
The state of the economy dominated Gorbachev’s early reform programme. Before 1985, there appeared to be no threat to the system of one-party rule which had served the leadership well since Lenin’s time, there was no reason to suppose that national relations were anything but harmonious, and the Soviet Union even appeared to be living in a stable international environment in spite of the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the more aggressive attitude of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the USA. But as shown in Chapter 3, the economy was giving increasing cause for concern. It was only after the failure of his early attempts to revive the economy that Gorbachev understood the links between economic performance and deeper social and political factors, leading him to consider more radical changes which, to his dismay, not only upset irretrievably the apparent stability he had inherited, but also precipitated a far more rapid downward spiral in the economy.
Jeremy Smith

9. Structural and Constitutional Reform

Abstract
The preceding two chapters, on personnel changes and the economy, have already made abundantly clear one of the central dilemmas facing Mikhail Gorbachev: once he had decided to embark on a course of reform, he had to rely for its implementation on the institutions which he had inherited and to which he owed his own position — the CPSU and the government, ministries, planning agencies and Soviets of the state. The fact that senior members of both were one and the same people seemed to preclude the possibility of playing off one against the other. While it was possible to take some steps to alter their character through the personnel changes outlined in Chapter 7, the vastness of these organisations and their conservatism made it unlikely that these bodies could ever be won over to give whole-hearted support to the reform programme. Ultimately, as his programme gathered momentum, Gorbachev sought to bypass them by appealing directly to public pressure through the processes of glasnost and demokratizatsiia (openness and democratisation). Before moving onto these themes in the next chapter, it is worth considering steps to reform the existing institutions, and whether Gorbachev had any real alternatives on offer.
Jeremy Smith

10. Glasnost and Democratisation

Abstract
On 26 April 1986, the core of a reactor at a nuclear power station in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl overheated, setting off the worst nuclear accident in history to date. Radioactive fallout spread far enough to be detected in Scandinavia and Poland. As a result, the news that a major nuclear incident had occurred somewhere in the Soviet Union was known to the rest of the world before it reached the Soviet population. When, three days later, the Soviet authorities finally released some information to foreign embassies and news agencies, and eventually to their own people, they suggested that the incident was minor and had been effectively contained [13: 479]. A year later, in May 1987, an eccentric young German, Mathias Rust, flew his light plane across Soviet space, evading the radar and defence systems of one of the world’s two great superpowers, and landed next to the Kremlin in Moscow’s Red Square.
Jeremy Smith

11. Liberals and Conservatives

Abstract
Throughout the preceding chapters, the struggle between conservatives and liberals has been a recurring theme: Gorbachev used his powers of appointment to strengthen support for his reforms, while at the same time he felt forced to placate political opponents; efforts to restructure the economy caused frequent conflicts between the two wings; political reform aimed either at creating a constitutional framework for resolving these conflicts, or at providing Gorbachev with the personal authority to operate independently of them; and glasnost and demokratizatsiia sought to strengthen the hand of the reformers. But until almost the very end, neither side gained a decisive upper hand, and Gorbachev himself, while clearly a reformer, appeared on several occasions to take a conservative stance.
Jeremy Smith

Movements from Below

Frontmatter

12. National Conflicts and Popular Fronts

Abstract
The national unrest in Yakutia and Kazakhstan in 1986 (Chapter 9) turned out to be just a taste of what was to come. In the first years of glasnost, activists in a number of the republics on the borderlands of the Soviet Union started to campaign over local environmental threats such as those posed by nuclear power, construction of a hydroelectric dam and pollution by a phosphate plant in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, erosion of agricultural land in Central Asia, and nuclear waste, pollution from a rubber factory, and the long-term pollution to Lake Sevan in Armenia. The focal points of the environmental movements in the non-Russian republics resulted from a geographical coincidence (although one which was brought about partly by design) which saw many of the most polluting and environmentally damaging industries located on the peripheries of the Soviet Union. But the movements were also reflections of the greater readiness to protest of some non-Russians, who had been less willing to see themselves as a part of the Soviet system or the Communist world. In addition, local leaders were already feeling both the benefits and the threats posed by the loosening of central control, and were unwilling to intervene against such movements. National protest was not altogether confined to the Republics, as from the summer of 1987 Crimean Tatars, who had been deported wholesale from their homeland by Stalin in 1944, and Jews took their protests onto the streets of Moscow.
Jeremy Smith

13. Strikes and Mass Protest

Abstract
The release of Sakharov and other political prisoners at the end of the year 1986 was followed by the creation of small organisations devoted to the release of further prisoners. In addition to the mushrooming of criticism by intellectuals under the impact of glasnost, more informal movements arose among Soviet youth based on alternative lifestyles and focused in particular on sports and various forms of rock music. More open forms of protest began initially around local issues connected to the preservation of old buildings and the environment, and developed into larger scale environmental protests, especially in the republics [65].
Jeremy Smith

14. Repression and Resistance

Abstract
The initial response to glasnost was cautious and controlled. Initially, it was confined to debates over Soviet history and intellectual discourse on a range of themes from immediate economic reform to literature and was conducted in journals and newspapers which were easily subjected to containment through close central control. We have seen in the previous two chapters how, from tentative and nervous beginnings, different groups in society gradually engaged themselves in more and more open protest. But glasnost did not mean that freedom of speech and political activity was installed overnight. Such liberties were, after all, unheard of in over 1000 years of Russian history, with brief exceptions in the revolutionary years of 1905 and 1917. The KGB and MVD kept up their surveillance and harassment of dissidents. The party nomenklatura system ensured, until democracy took over, that political careers could be abruptly halted for anyone who stepped out of line, and Gorbachev in the early years of his rule did not hesitate to use his powers of appointment to stifle political opponents. Even as late as 1988 just attempting to set up a political party was a cause for arrest.
Jeremy Smith

15. The International Impact

Abstract
The most pressing issue facing the Soviet military in 1985 was that of the intervention in Afghanistan, launched in 1979. It soon became clear that the duration and scale of this intervention would be much greater than anticipated. The war in Afghanistan was not only a drain on manpower and finances, it was turning into a national humiliation comparable with the earlier US involvement in Vietnam. Those young soldiers who survived were often returning to the Soviet Union in a state of severe trauma and addicted to the drugs that were readily available in the conflict zones. The deeper glasnost progressed, the harder it was to cover up or ignore the impact of the war. Gorbachev’s initial response was to escalate the military offensive, although this may have been a temporary measure aimed at better positioning of the Soviet Union in any future negotiations over withdrawal [36: 727]. The announcement of Soviet withdrawal in January 1988 was ratified at a summit with the USA in Geneva in April. The removal of at least regular forces was completed in 1989, thus drawing the curtain over one of the more shameful episodes in the history of the Soviet military, but not without leaving a bitter legacy behind.
Jeremy Smith

16. The Return of Yeltsin

Abstract
Yeltsin’s demotion in 1987–88 appeared, to outside observers, to signal the end of his political career. But he used the opportunity of being out of the limelight to carefully nurture relations with liberal critics of Gorbachev and to position himself as their figurehead. Perhaps more importantly, the considerable popularity he had earned when in charge of both Sverdlovsk and Moscow was boosted in many quarters by his apparently principled stand. His fallout with Gorbachev and the Politburo had been conducted under the public gaze and earned him sympathy combined with admiration.
Jeremy Smith

17. The August 1991 Coup

Abstract
Some time on 18 August 1991 a State Emergency Committee was formed in Moscow, including in its numbers Gorbachev’s vice president Gennady Yanaev, KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, defence minister Dmitrii Yazov, interior minister Boris Pugo, and Gorbachev’s trusted chief of staff Valeri Boldin. Among their leading supporters they counted some of the country’s top military officials. On the morning of the 19 August, having taken control of all the national newspapers, radio and television stations, the Committee announced that Gorbachev was sick and Yanaev was assuming his powers. Immediately exposing this claim as a lie, they also announced a six month state of emergency, a ban on strikes, demonstrations, opposition political activities, and the subordination of all levels of government to the Committee. Tanks appeared on the streets of Moscow, and a number of prominent liberals were arrested and warrants ordered for the arrest of many more.
Jeremy Smith

18. The End of Communism

Abstract
The period between the August coup and the end of 1991 has commonly been portrayed as one of administering the final rites to the Soviet Union, but there was still some way to go. Gorbachev returned to Moscow apparently confident that his authority as leader of the Soviet Union would be restored. But he had, by force of circumstance, played no part in resistance to the coup. It was Yeltsin, who had put his life on the line, who could justifiably claim to be the saviour of democracy in the USSR. He brought Gorbachev before the Russian parliament and subjected him to humiliating interrogation, forcing him to name the members of his government who had plotted to remove him. Gorbachev carried on, even defending socialism and the Communist Party, although he was pressured into standing down as General Secretary of the CPSU in August, while retaining his position as President of the USSR. But Yeltsin was now the effective ruler in Moscow, embarking on his own market reform programme and, on 6 November, he decreed the outright banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, of which he had until recently been a member. This move, although it proved legally unenforceable, finally sealed the fate of Soviet communism, if the coup had not already done so.
Jeremy Smith

19. Conclusion

Abstract
This account has emphasised those factors which may have contributed to the fall of Soviet communism in the short term: an economy spiralling out of control from 1989, the inconsistencies and prevarications of Gorbachev’s reform programme, the tactics of nationalist politicians and Boris Yeltsin, the disruption caused by striking workers and mass demonstrations and the fateful actions of the coup organisers. Even chance events like the Chernobyl accident or the Armenian earthquake, both of which might have occurred at any time, and the somewhat deranged behaviour of a young German pilot, all had roles to play in the unfolding of events. These occurrences need to be considered alongside the broader factors such as long-term economic stagnation, social change, loss of ideological legitimacy and national grievances.
Jeremy Smith
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