The End of a Socialist Empire by Paul Richards, PhD
Russian Revolution Ends
When I was a student studying and making some history at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, and my father, Harvey Richards (1912-2001), was filming our demonstrations, I asked him why he believed the Soviet Union’s point of view. I can’t remember his exact words, but his answer had to do with his experiences as a teenage merchant marine sailor with an eighth grade education trying to understand what it meant when, in 1930, the captain of the ship was stealing the crew’s food money. It seemed like the authoritarian structure of ships crews became his model for understanding the world around him. Class rule was clear as a bell when one man could get away with taking the crew’s food budget for his own personal benefit. He joined a union, became a union organizer, a shop steward and a loyal member of the Communist Party. He was a fighter. He told me that exploitation defined his world. Class distinctions were crystal clear. So, when pro-Soviet communists provided him with the words and concepts to understand what was happening to him and also a method of resistance and a promise of a future, he accept it. Once accepted, he remained true to it. We are all like that, I think. We develop an operating understanding of the world as young people, and then we stick with it.
After the collapse of the USSR and the end of a socialist empire, my father and I hardly ever talked about the Soviet Union again. His answer to me in the 1960s, and my image of him as a young man, have stayed with me right up to now in my 70s. I still believe, and I am sure he would have agreed with this, that the collapse of the USSR did not change how capitalism worked, how exploitation and class systems got stronger after the USSR collapsed, and how we no longer had a force in the world that could restrain it. I knew that my father’s love of the Soviet revolution had been dealt a devastating blow. He suffered a great loss and I shared his remorse to some degree. But clearly, his sense of loss went far deeper than mine. I knew that something basic in my father’s world had been crushed and that struck me as hard as than anything else.
At the same time, as a child in the 1950s, a red diaper baby, a victim of McCarthyism and a partisan in the endless factionalism within the left of the 1960s, it was a relief to see an end to it. Maybe now, people could think about socialism without being accused of treason.
Being the youngest son and a hopeless optimist, I began to search for the positive meaning of the peaceful collapse of the USSR. It was an astounding event, for me as a student of history and as my father’s son. I knew he did not share my optimism, but then I did not share his crushing despair. It only became clear to me later, years after he was gone, how crushing a blow it was.
No matter what my father thought about it, I had to find out what really happened. I asked myself did the collapse occur peacefully because the USSR was not a capitalist empire? After the USSR was gone, the world around Russia did not remain peaceful, that is for sure. The end of the USSR created a huge power vacuum that set off violent struggles, like in Yugoslavia. Genocidal conflicts arose that involved all the old players and some new ones, all buying arms from the war industries. The violent consequences are still playing out today in the Ukraine and elsewhere.
The collapse itself, however, was not the result of war. No one had invaded, arrested or jailed the president, or occupied the country, or set up a new state. The empire disappeared by decree. Poof, it was gone. Yeltsin grabbed the helm, navigated the stormy waters that finally resulted in the end of Communist Party rule and with it, the end of the USSR. Hardly a shot was fired, except of course the one from the tank into the Duma building in Moscow. As sad as that story is, it did not involve civil war, or foreign invasions, or fascist coups.
Thinking back on the end of other revolutionary experiments, I wondered about the French Commune that sprang up for a year in Paris in the 1870s and then was crushed violently by the invading Prussian military. After it was gone, the Commune became the symbol and embodiment of the ideals of communists and anarchists around the world. Would the legacy of the USSR be like that? The Paris Commune lasted a year where the USSR lasted seven decades. The Commune existed in only one city. The USSR spanned the largest country on earth. The Commune was a flea bite on the capitalist rump. The USSR was a threat to the entire capitalist system, or at least my father thought so. Certainly western capitalist powers thought so too. Consequently, its collapse was an event of a different magnitude than the Paris Commune. For those who supported socialism, like my father, the collapse would always be a crushing defeat. For those who come after, the question is, will the history and experiences of people in the USSR offer future generations real alternatives? Certainly our present system ruled by billionaires needs a few.
A Different Kind of Empire
The end of the USSR brought the Cold War to a close. The Cold War, to my mind, was a capitalist Crusade built on their failure to destroy the socialist movements that seized power in Russia back in the 1920s. The Crusade grew larger after the USSR’s role in the victory against Nazi Germany, which history shows us was funded and supported by significant sections of U.S, British and European big business. But the victorious USSR and the socialist Empire that followed was not like the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or any of those parasitic colonialist beasts that have dominated portions of the earth throughout history. It was different. It did share some characteristics of all Empires, like the use of force to impose its will on its colonies. But it was not your usual imperialist conqueror.
I remember a scene in an East German movie I saw decades ago about the end of WWII. The scene was set in a railroad station surrounded by fields of wheat blowing in the wind. A fat blond German farmer watched a skinny passenger dressed in concentration camp rags get off a train and look around the rural village. “Who are you?” the fat farmer asked him. “Your new mayor,” the passenger answered. Conquerors did not usually arrive dressed in concentration camp rags. But in the Soviet sphere of eastern Europe, they did. As I thought about this scene over the years, I realized that this concentration camp survivor would not have remained skinny for long. His rags would be replaced by suits and ties. But the hostility of the fat German farmer would not go away, ever.
Putting the bottom rail on top, as in the concentration camp mayor, was not the only difference. The Soviet Union ruled its sister socialist republics in a different way. Yes, the Russians who took up life in remote sister republics were oriented towards Russia, worked in industries that were part of the Russia-centric mode of modern empires. They brought their own preferences for culture and economic privilege along with them. But that is not the whole story. In 1961, I visited Uzbekistan briefly as part of my father and step mother’s film making project that produced “A Visit to the Soviet Union: Part 1, Women of Russia” and “Part 2, Far From Moscow.” Alice Richards wanted to document the condition of women and children in the USSR. In Tashkent, we visited schools, universities, child care centers, families, and interviewed Uzbek and Russian women. As a 17 year old, it all seemed ordinary at the time. But now, decades later, it is clear that the Soviet support for advancing the condition of women in a society ruled by men and characterized by women covered in gurkas was truly extraordinary. For a while, Uzbekistan even had a women President. Would that even be possible in a nation ruled by Islam? Hardly. So part of what made the USSR’s empire remarkable was that it supported the advancement of women. This is in complete contrast to every other empire in history, all of which were based on the rule of men, upon patriarchy and private property. The example of educated strong women created during the Soviet period will have repercussions for the future for generations to come. But while patriarchy, like private property, could be suppressed momentarily, it could not be suppressed in the hearts and minds of the people who saw it as the only viable form of existence, especially while the rest of the capitalist world agreed.
I was surprised at the speed with which capitalism replaced the socialist economies and political systems after the collapse of the USSR. Here in the USA, socialists are surrounded by the most unrelenting and thorough going hostility imaginable, a hostility built into our society in the basic training of our armed forces taught to fight and kill communists. It is also reinforced by the mass acceptance of corporate rule and adulation of great wealth, no matter how it was amassed. Similarly, around the world, socialist rule existed along side the hostility of major sections of the populations who were only too happy to take over the reigns of government when the moment arose. Socialism was imposed on populations deeply committed to private property. The USSR existed as an empire because it put clamps on private property and held on as long as it could until continuous, unrelieved pressure in favor of private property forced it to yield. But when it did yield, it ended without a war. The capitalist cork just bobbed to the surface once the weights fell off. In stark contrast, when a capitalist empire replaced another, it was usually the result of bloody wars, wholesale theft and the imposition of a new religion and usually, genocide. The contrast could not be greater.
The peaceful collapse of the USSR should have caused the whole premise of the cold war and nuclear arms race to be laughed off the stage of history. We suffered through a nuclear nightmare and squandered untold tax dollars for an enemy that just quietly dissolved. But like so many events I have witnessed in my life, the world turned a blind eye to it. Without a pause to take a breath, US billionaires just substituted “terrorist” for “communist” and went right ahead on down the same old road to destruction and war, or in their terms, to normal development. Still, I wonder about the peaceful demise of a world empire that possessed nuclear weapons. What does it mean for us and this new world (disorder) we live in? How does all this impact us non billionaires? Us 99 percenters?
Comparing Endings: France and Russia
Was the collapse of the USSR like what happened after the French revolution? That revolution freed the peasantry from age old servitude in the countryside, which I am sure was a great relief to the vast majority. During those revolutionary times, freed serfs and their families suffered displacement from familiar if oppressive rural life, migrating to the cities, looking for work. As time went by, new urban populations were available for the expansion of industrial production which stimulated Europe’s quest for empire and world domination. The French Revolution and Napoleon forcefully completed a process that had ripened over decades and centuries. Counter revolutionary war, led by Great Britain and its allies, finally ended the revolution and Napoleon’s power. But no power on earth could re-enslave the peasants or put the aristocracies back on top. Whatever the outcome of the war, revolution had done its work. Capitalism had clearance for take off. And that is exactly what it did.
Cleared for Take off?
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Russian revolution had cleared socialism for take off? Certainly that is what my father expected, or hoped for at least. When that did not happen, what did? When I look at Russian history from the time of Peter the Great, through Catherine the Great, Stalin, and now Putin, it appears that each of these eras of history were part of the stops and starts in the historic development of capitalism. Certainly, the rapid transformation of Russia from socialist back to capitalist in the 1990s reveals the deep underlying forces at work that socialism never really ended. Whatever progress the USSR made towards socialism, when it collapsed, capitalists arose spontaneously (with western encouragement, of course) from the ranks of the Party, from the working class and from the rural population. No one needed any prompting. It happened in a whirlwind. Within a decade, Russia was saddled with a billionaire oligarchy just like every other country in the world. But not with a new version of the Romanovs and their aristocratic creed. No, it was modern capitalism getting ready to compete with the world using its “free” and educated work force. The end of the Russian Revolution appears to have cleared capitalism for take off once again. Only this time, the socialist experiences of generations over those 70 years may now play a role that is unprecedented in all of human history. What exactly that role will be is not yet clear.
As Russian as Vodka
Peter the Great set up a powerful central government and opened Russia to new secularism coming out of 18th century modernizing Europe. To do this, he had to subdue the Orthodox Church which had helped keep these forces of modern Europe at bay for so many generations. In his rise to power, he killed off rival families among the old aristocracy (especially those allied with the Church) and created new sets of land owners and aristocrats loyal to him. By the end of his reign, he had European advisers, modern ship building industries, a new city called St. Petersburg on the Baltic to go along with the new set of rulers who still had their serfs.
The Bolsheviks consolidation of power had many of the same characteristics as the rise of Peter the Great, only on a grander scale in their liquidation of the Czar, the church, and the entire aristocracy. They expropriated land and wealth throughout the nation, creating a Soviet political structure and strong central government loyal to the Party (and Stalin, of course) and the state. When the dust settled, a new centralized state with vast powers transformed the nation. It was as Russian as vodka.
After 70 years of Soviet rule, Gorbachev initiated a new transformation inside the Soviet state based on expanding democracy and ending the Cold War. In fact, he ended the Cold War practically single handed. He reduced nuclear weapons stockpiles, withdrew Soviet troops from Europe, ended their Afghanistan disaster and tried to reason with Reagan and Bush. (Talk about an optimist!) But he could not control the forces he unleashed. It got away from him, and the USSR collapsed. Gorbachev lived on, however, where the Romanovs didn’t. No one foresaw such a peaceful end.
I don’t want to carry the comparison of Peter the Great and Gorbachev too far, but the parallels are striking. Gorbachev tried to change the top heavy Soviet political structure that kept the world at bay much as, during Peter the Great’s time, the Orthodox Church had done. In response to the hold which the Orthodox Church had on the people and himself personally, Peter the Great isolated and limited its role in the power structure, but kept it alive for the sake of continuity and control. Gorbachev attempted to limit the influence of the Communist Party, opening up the political process to others and giving the people the right to choose their own system and vote for other parties. However, when the Soviet Parliament abolished the exclusive right of the Communist Party to rule the USSR, the Party collapsed. It lives on today but in a much reduced version as the Opposition in Russia, much like the Orthodox Church has in the modern world. The Church and the Communist Party may not have shared many characteristics, but at the end of their reigns, their role in insulating Russia from fast moving historical forces surrounding it were the same. They couldn’t keep up with history. Gorbachev should get high marks as a leader of an empire for his courageous stand for peace, disarmament and the expansion of democracy. It may take some time for history to get over its quick judgment of him as a loser who let an empire collapse. The world now glories in the legacy of Peter the Great with his marble palaces and art collections. Will the world marvel at the modern secular culture that survived the USSR? At the medical and educational facilities it set up? At the space program and sputnik? All done by non billionaires?
When the USSR disappeared, I was left with a strange and eerie feeling. Looking at the collapse of the USSR brought me face to face with the end of my parents’ lives. Not being religious, I knew that this feeling went beyond reason. It was spiritual. (Yes, atheists can have spiritual moments.) Both my parents were atheists. As I have discovered, many atheists are refugees from religious parents. In my mother’s case, I learned that her mother had run a kosher household until her father put his foot down and stopped it. So when my mother, Hodee Waldstein Edwards (1914-2011) fled her parents and the east coast in the late 1930s, married my father, the radical organizer, and moved to the west coast, she left religion and her family behind. I knew she had sisters and a brother who died in the 1950s, and that I had cousins back in Boston. But we never met until I was grown up.
My mother lived longer than my father but descended into dementia during the 1990s and no longer communicated about much of anything before her death in 2011. Decades earlier, in the 1960s as an ex-patriot living with her African American husband, my step father, George Edwards (1908-1993), in Ghana, West Africa, my mother wrote a long book applying Lenin’s formulations on how parasitic imperialism impacted the privileged working classes of the west. This book (never published) and all those thoughts gathered dust on the shelf while she worked the rest of her life away as a clerk for various businesses. When she retired in the 1980s, we never spoke about these ideas. I had read her book, chapter by chapter, as she wrote it back decades ago and found it persuasive. There was no doubt in my mind that her thesis was right, that the transfer of wealth from hinterland colonies had given western workers (the middle class in the USA) a better life and had persuaded the vast majority into supporting a continuation of the imperialist system. Her use of Marxist terminology, however, made the book a fossil before it was finished. Thinking about it now puts her post Communist Party life in perspective. She did not reject Marxism, nor join the parade in the West. I can see that the spiritual divide she crossed when she left her family and joined the radical movement made her vulnerable at the end of her life as the world moved on from the radical experiment that was the USSR. Her dementia may have had medical explanations, but I cannot separate it from these larger world events in which she was submerged and which she cared so deeply about. As Carolyn Myss has said, your biography becomes your biology.
My father was raised by his mother alone after a divorce (her second) and bitter dispute with his father, Harvey Richards, Sr. (My father never used the Jr. designation.) My grandmother, Norma, died in 1951 so I knew almost nothing about her except what I learned from some old scrap books that my cousin on my father’s side, Karen, who was older than me and knew her, had kept after she died. There were clippings and letters in those scrap books telling of my grandmother’s devotion to some swami guy with a head wrap and cult-like followers around him. My father never mentioned this aspect of his mother’s life. Karen knew about it and we talked a bit about it. I can only imagine what it must have meant to Harvey.
My father kept hope alive as long as he could but we never discussed this spiritual side of things. In his post Communist Party years, Harvey continued his radical convictions with his cameras, making films and photographs to give much needed publicity to new generations of radical movements challenging the system he had fought his whole life. His photographer’s eye gave wordless expression to his inner beliefs. My participation in these movements and appearance in his films and images, though occasional and minor, forged a spiritual connection between us that united us until the end.
Revolutionary ideas and hopes formed a safe harbor against the tumult of the worlds he grew up in. And as history unfolded and the socialist foundations of that world collapsed, he remained silent but obviously saddened. I saw it like another step in a journey that started when he left the Communist Party back in the 1950s in response to the chaos of the underground period of the CP during the McCarthy era. (My mother left the Party at that time for different reasons. She would not go along with the underground policies.) Now, decades after leaving the Party, and with it, his social connections to a revolutionary group, the symbol of revolution which had never left his heart, had dissolved.
When I quit the Communist Party in 1968 after a two year stint, while living in Madison, Wisconsin, an old family friend, Bob Starobin, came to my home to congratulate me. He was a red diaper baby like myself and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin where I was in graduate school working as his teaching assistant. He said to me, “Welcome to the human race.” It moved me for some reason I am still not sure about. I have known many ex Catholics and ex Protestants over the years, and so I thought, maybe this welcome to the human race applied to all of us who leave the comfort of ideological or religious groups and find ourselves wandering on the face of the planet as the animals we really are. After we lose the blinders that keep out non conforming information and realities, we have no choice but to look at everything, no matter how unpleasant.
For me, the collapse of the USSR cut the moorings that had tied my life together for over 50 years. The foundation of my parents’ deepest beliefs had been torn away and with it much of the glue that held my ideas together as well. I looked at my family’s isolation from their own past, out here in California where everyone can make up a whole new version of themselves if they want to, and realized that the loss of our communist moorings left us in this same California dreaming mode, more so now than ever. Where most migrants to California might have been dreaming of the gold in them there hills, my family seemed more interested in the freedom to make a revolution. My mother used to joke that you could put the conversations that occurred within communist party meetings in any state or city in the country and it would be the same. In California, we have a license to dream any dream we like. So this new moment in history, without the USSR, was grist for the mill.
I asked myself, was the dream of revolution dependent on the USSR? On the one hand, I cling to the idea of a world without billionaires and without war. On the other, I felt my rebelliousness sinking into the realization that it was a whole new ball game and one weighted in favor of the billionaires. Maybe it was just a case of losing the Cold War context of the struggle. Suddenly, we had to reshape the dialog, uncouple socialism from treasonous accusations expressed by hecklers over the years who shouted “Go back to Russia” at our picket signs. Spiritually, it was cleansing to be cut loose from the Cold War nightmare, because now we could dream of a socialism that was our own. If socialism had meaning outside the USSR, it had to have meaning within each of us who embraced it. The Cold War had isolated us completely, all but silencing leftists of all types within the US. In that silence, the USSR became a subconscious solace for many. With it gone, socialists in the USA became fossils of bygone eras, discredited by the mainstream, consigned to oblivion, mere liberals now with no identity to speak of. Or did we?
As I dug into this history of the USSR’s collapse, my interest in the details became part of my attempt to find new moorings and stop the drifting. I needed to develop a picture of exactly how it had happened and what it left us with. What legacy are we leaving? At this point in time, it is quite mysterious and difficult to understand.
My interests in studying history had always been two fold. On the one hand, I wanted to test my socialist mind set against the best western scholarship had to offer. On the other hand, I wanted to peer below the surface into the guts of reality where I could see the inner workings, learn about the bone structure, the interrelations of everything, the true meaning of the appearances all around me. The collapse of the USSR presented a rare opportunity to see how these inner realities worked and how they impacted what we saw. Remorse and defeat had to be vanquished and left behind.
Russia Becomes Capitalist
The biggest question in my mind about the end of the USSR was what happened to the Soviet industrial machine? Astonishingly, I discovered that the state sold it for pennies on the dollar (or kopeks on the ruble) to the new oligarchs (and their western investors like Soros) who rose up through the confusion. The oligarchs then sold it for scrap and started over. The entire edifice was demolished and shipped to recyclers. It was not an ideological act. It simply was not possible to adapt the Soviet industrial machine to the modern computer based economy that was spreading around the world. It was the same for the rust belt in the Midwestern USA a little earlier in that same period. Not only did our jobs go abroad, but the industrial factories that went idle were useless for the most part. The industrial machine which Soviet centralized planners had created may have defeated Hitler, but it could not stand up to the revolution of productive forces bubbling up inside market economies.
The privatization of Russia’s economy in the 1990s created severe disruptions which sent tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, temporarily idle, out of the cities into the countryside in a desperate search for food. Once the USSR was gone, the Russian state faced a severe cash shortage to support ongoing structural needs that all state’s have, including military, payroll, pensions, etc. The bureaucrats in charge devised ways of acquiring cash through the sale of assets, namely state owned enterprises. The new oligarchy arose from the ranks of those who discovered ways to acquire the cash the state needed. Car manufacturers, for instance, discovered ways to accumulate cash from the sale and allocation of scarce automobiles. The new wealth went into new banks that the official heirarchy was only too happy to approve, since it was the source of their continued functioning. The official state may have been paralyzed in the moment of transition, but the individuals around them were not. When it came time to offer the entire car enterprise for sale to private parties, those with cash bought them. Other parts of the economy went through similar transformations. As private capital took hold, as banks were established, production resumed, jobs were created, and people went back to the cities and back to work. Only this time it was not for Communist Party bosses, but for capitalist bosses, although it may have been the same person who transitioned from party boss to capitalist.
The speed of this transformation was as remarkable as the sudden demise of the USSR itself. It brings to mind having my carpentry tools stolen during the 1980s. It may seem like a silly analogy, but losing my tools was nothing compared to my struggle in the 1970s to become a carpenter, to find customers, to establish a business. When my tools disappeared, it took me three days to replace them and get back to work. Thinking about the Russian Revolution in these terms, the Bolsheviks built out the industrial base and trained the population to handle it. They created a modern economy, urban and industrial. Converting Russia to capitalism did not take long after the old tools disappeared and new ones arrived. The centralized socialist path to building an industrial society ended, but industrial society did not. The collapse of the command economy in a peaceful, if disruptive, transformation is deserving of careful study and maybe even praise. At least they recycled the metal, instead of abandoning it or throwing it in a river.
The Social Cost of the Collapse
The social safety net was one of the greatest accomplishments of the USSR. It was not immune to the collapse. The USSR’s system of free education, free health care, full employment, and state support for retirement was in stark contrast to what had preceded it during Czarist times. When the USSR imploded, the social safety net was severely reduced and became subject to the same crushing budget squeeze that capitalism has created for social safety nets everywhere. Nevertheless, there was no return to Czarism. Revolution had done its work and it could not be undone. Certainly current Russian standards in the post Soviet era owe more to the standards set by the Soviet Union than they do to the Czar.
This rapid social and economic transformation hurt a lot of people. Pensioners were cast into poverty. Drugs and drug lords appeared all over the place. The now famous Russian Mafia ascended into world power circles. Life expectancy dropped precipitously for a brief period. Living standards went down for many.
But compare that to what happened to a defeated Germany after World War I. Super inflation and vast unemployment devastated the country and the west generally. Nazi-ism, the Holocaust, World War II and tens of millions of deaths resulted. When the USSR collapsed, nothing like this happened. The victorious allies of World War I had made mince meat out of Germany after its defeat. They were like vultures feeding on carrion, no pity anywhere. Just ruthless avarice and total disregard of the consequences. When Russia arose from the chaos of the USSR’s collapse, there was nothing resembling what happened to Germany. Of course, Germany is a small country compared to Russia. Germany does not have the oil, nor the nuclear weapons, that Russia has. But we know that having oil is as good an excuse for invasion and war as any that has ever existed. And no one invaded Russia.
Does this mean that our Cold War enemy was less worthy of pillage and plunder than Germany was after World War I? Does it mean that Germany was a threat where Russia was not? The astounding contradictions of this peaceful collapse scream out for some explanation. The Big Lie was really huge.
The collapse of socialism did not leave Russia defeated, in the sense that Germany was. The transitional governments of Yeltsin and Putin kept the world at bay peacefully. I think they owe that to the base laid by Gobachev. I shudder to think what might have happened if a military confrontation had occurred between a weakened Russia and NATO. But that did not happen. Perhaps it was the lessons learned from losing 20 million people in WWII. Perhaps it was a hold over of the old Cold War stand off of nuclear weapons that could have destroyed civilization. Or perhaps it was the legacy of socialism over the previous 70 years. Whatever it was, there was no war.
Why No War?
Somewhere, inside me, and my parents most likely, was the regret that the socialists gave up without a fight. But even when the old guard attempted a coup during the last days of Gorbachev’s rule, it fizzled. They were laughed off the stage. So strange, I had to wonder how this could possibly happen. I wished the peaceful end would have offered some consolation to the old socialist guards, like my parents, but I knew it did not. It did for me, though. It was like a war that nobody showed up for. Good for them. Good for us.
Capitalism Loves War
Both my own studies and the influence of my parent’s views of history had convinced me that the drive to war is built into capitalism. That is what I believe we are seeing today with the continuous wars created by corporations for world resource domination and arms sales. Capitalism just thrives after each new round of war and arms sales. The deaths of millions in Vietnam and Iraq, in Libya and Afghanistan did not dim the capitalist love of war. Peace did not blossom among our democratically elected officials and their military, not to mention their billionaire bosses. Even catastrophic levels of US soldier suicides among our active duty and veteran forces did not move them. The billionaires got richer and the poor got poorer. Great for the system, evidently.
War Hurts Socialist Empire
In contrast, when the USSR played the world domination game, it did not make it stronger. Instead, its Eastern European policies and its war in Afghanistan did the opposite. They served to discredited the Communist Party, especially among the families and friends of soldiers who lost their lives in an incomprehensible wars on the far outskirts of its borders. More than that, these foreign entanglements sucked the economy dry, costing immense sums that were seen by many as a useless waste, unacceptable in the light of the daily reality of Soviet life. Communist ideologues might have believed that a socialist empire fulfilled the Marxian prediction that socialism would replace capitalism. But the people did not buy it. When Gorbachev assumed power, he stopped all of it. That made him popular in Russia initially while it opened the door for the republics to exit. It could not reverse the stagnation that had come to characterize the command economy and the corruption of lofty ideals that were now only an excuse for penny ante privileges of the elite. Instead of strengthening the USSR, perestroika opened the flood gates of change that eventually swept Gorbachev and the socialist empire away.
It was impossible for the Soviet authorities to keep out the world wide web and all the changes that computers were bringing to every aspect of modern life. The Soviet military and space programs could not advance without them. People in those industries knew what the new cyber world was doing to the way the economy worked. But consumer goods production and the rest of the economy lagged. People had adapted to the command economy and found ways to survive. But as western cars and computers (and the relentless western propaganda barrage) filtered into Russia and Eastern Europe from abroad, it became clear that something was wrong. People knew it. It was only a matter of time before the dam broke and the borders opened to the world as it is today.
No One to Fight
The USSR did not marshal the armed forces to keep the socialist empire together. The 1991 “coup” in which the old guard tried to remove Gorbachev fizzled in the face of popular resistance and even ridicule. The old guards were laughed back into their offices or out onto the streets, or more likely to their dachas in the countryside. Too little too late. Did anyone laugh Hitler off the historical stage when the Nazi’s seized power? It is a striking contrast and one that historians, who have their eyes open, will have to come to terms with eventually. For my father, who identified so completely with the old guard, it was a disaster. No matter how one felt about it, I think we were all blinded by the light, so to speak, of events so profound that they exceeded our capacity to understand. Years had to pass before we could see past the deep wounds being inflicted.
How, I asked myself, could the old guard have mobilized in defense of the Soviet Union? Who would the army have fought? Their stagnant system, their isolation and unpopularity inside the USSR would have left a military dictatorship with no better options than the Communist Party already faced. The CP and the military no longer had a loyal cadre throughout the country they could rely on. The coup was an empty gesture that only served to hasten the end. The lack of internal cadre and supporters was a situation built up over decades of top heavy rule by Brezhnev and other post Stalin leaders of the USSR. This situation became evident in the dramatic appearance of armed veterans of the Afghanistan war in Moscow to protect Yeltsin and the parliament, facing down the old guard’s tanks that only managed to get off one shot at the Duma building before they had to quit.
Externally, no one was invading. Nuclear weapons were still poised to go off at the drop of a hat. Even after Gorbachev unilaterally ended the Cold War, withdrew troops from eastern Europe, ended the Afghan war, and cut nuclear arms in half, no invasions happened and none were planned. Books have been written from the newly released papers of Thatcher, Mitterrand, George Bush and other western officials of those times revealing their reluctance to see the nuclear armed Soviet empire collapse. Detent and the nuclear stalemate had done their work. Western intelligence services were all busy trying to slow things down. Western leaders got no advance warnings from the NSA or the CIA, even though the writing was on the wall.
Soviet War Machine
Consider also that the Soviet economy was not dominated by arms manufacturers and war industries, as is the case in the United States today, where it is widely believed that long term economic growth and prosperity depends on war. Dependence on war has been the hallmark of western prosperity since World War II and the end of the great Depression of the 1930s. Cold War or hot war, it made no difference as long as those war industry orders kept coming in. Capitalist war industries and their allied media monopolies continue to stir up new wars, one after another. Today there is no end in sight.
The USSR had its war industries and its armies, but it did not have the drive to war built deeply into capitalism. The Soviets developed the atom bomb defensively after the US developed it and dropped it on Japan, twice. Then, after decades of nuclear stalemate, the era of peaceful coexistence (Detente) was a real expression of the Soviet Union’s commitment to avoid war combined with the west’s realization that nuclear war was not winnable. The bloody legacy of Stalin’s gulags did not translate into an international policy of war, such as Hitler’s had. In the capitalist USA, our legacy of genocide against the indigenous tribes and our ghoulish racist slave system did create a vicious ruling class whose policies have resulted in war after war after war. When the USSR went down without a fight, its capitalist enemies gloated (after the surprise disappeared off their faces) but the people sighed in relief that nuclear war was now a step further away. We are not out of the woods, however, as NATO and US military bases are encircling Russia amid economic manipulations such as the precipitous drop in oil prices we are now witnessing. My point is that the collapse of the USSR itself did not happen due to the miliary might of the so called Free World. (It is amusing to witness the continued use of the term, Free World, by the stogy mainstream media now in a world without communism and with so many dictators among our allies.)
Private Property Rules
Gorbachev and the USSR left the world changed but they did not rid us of the value systems underlying the free enterprise system which continue to plague us. Russian Communism was swept away by the complex of historical forces arising from the fever of human greed sweeping the globe everywhere. The new billionaires who emerged in Russia came right out of the ruling Communist Party and the ranks of ambitious working class rebels who seized the opportunity that perestroika offered them. No one had to teach them how to make capitalism work. It arose fully formed from the people like a genie out of a bottle. It is a bitter realization for those who longed for the “new man” of socialism.
Even though we never discussed it, I have the feeling my father believed western intelligence services caused this change to happen. It was his blind spot, I think. It was a blind spot that was structurally built into his life. He was a radical worker organizer from the 1930s to the 1950s when he married my step mother, Alice Schott Meigs in 1953. Alice was an heir to a mining fortune created by her father, Max Schott in Colorado. This new wealth impacted my father gradually after their marriage. He kept working as a mill wright, installing some of the heavy machinery in the power plant at Moss Landing, near Santa Cruz, California. But after a couple of years, it was clear that his income was no longer needed. That is when he picked up a camera and began documenting the worker’s movements and peace protests going on even in the silent 1950s, offering these movements photos and short films for use as organizing tools in their struggles. He lived with Alice in a wealthy suburb, Atherton, CA, and acquired photography, sound, and editing equipment to carry on his support for the movements that had shaped him as a man.
When I was a child, he used to take my brother and I to Brooks Brothers to buy suits. He said we would have to wear a suit every day when we grew up. I was not impressed. But now, looking back on my snappily dressed father with his radical ideas, I can see where he might have had trouble realizing how the masses of Soviet people could so easily dump socialism. He did not do it, so how could they? It was less of a contradiction for me as I attended the university trying to verify my socialist world view in an elite university in the wealthiest country in the world. But, a generation later, I was wondering the same thing. I had to look real hard to see that it had actually happened.
A New Awareness
At the heart of the collapse of the USSR was a global consciousness, or awareness, among the people of the world that could not be stopped. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany started the ball rolling. It happened with surprising speed. No one, east or west could control it once it began. Then Gorbachev removed Soviet troops from eastern Europe. A breathtaking surprise. The shock waves that these events set off did not stop until the Soviet empire itself dissolved. What was left behind was a world that would never be the same and certainly would never revert back to the what it was when the Romanovs ruled Russia. If the inevitable path from feudalism to capitalism to socialism has been revealed as a dream, it is not for me to say what dream might take its place. But be on the look out, because people are dreaming. And people are moving in new spontaneous ways that manifest themselves in Arab Springs and Occupy Wall Streets and Black Lives Matter events that are global in nature and that set off rumblings which no can control.
The peaceful end of the Soviet empire is something new in the history of empires. A peaceful transition without war in a modern world armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons was not in anyone’s play book. Over the years, I had often wondered how it would end. Would it end with school children under their desks as nuclear explosions went off everywhere? With more cataclysmic wars, invasions, and occupations? That is certainly what I was prepared for as a child in school with all our civil defense drills and neat little signs directing us to the nearest bomb shelters. But it did not end that way.
My Father’s End
The magnitude of what happened, though, was great, in spite of its peacefulness. Certainly it was for my father. He lived until April, 2001. He suffered a stroke in 1992. He recovered somewhat but after nine years in a half paralyzed condition, ended his life with the same gun he had carried as a union organizer in the shipyards of San Francisco in the 1940s. I cannot separate his death from all of these events that had such a great impact on him and me. I wish it had not been so hard on him because I have come to think that there is indeed a silver lining in the cloud. The peaceful ending of the USSR may not have ended war but it does show the possibilities we have in front of us. It is not a simple lesson but it is part of a legacy that is not yet clear to the world but which will be on our minds for the foreseeable future.
A Reading List:
A Spy Among Friends, Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre
Gorbachev’s Gamble: Soviet Foreign Policy & the End of the Cold War, by Andrei Grachev
Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991, A History, by Orlando Figes
Petrostate, Putin, Power and the New Russia, by Marshall I. Goldman
Lost and Found in Russia, Susan Richards
The Oligarchs, Wealth and Power in the New Russia by David E. Hoffman
The Return, Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev by Daniel Treisman
Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring
and the Crossroads of Socialism with Zdenek Mlynar
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie
The Russian Revolution, A Very Short Introduction by S.A. Smith
Molotov’s Magic Lantern, Travels in Russian History by Rachael Polonsky
The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
The Boy from Reactor 4 by Orest Stelmach
The Boy Who Stole from the Dead, Orest Stelmach
Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith
Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith