The Death of the Soviet Union and Russia Today: Russian and Ukrainian History – Part V
“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,"
With the final accession of Nikita Khrushchev, the worse aspects of Stalin were moderated. But it is not as if this ushered in an era of freedom. Soviet forces crushed revolts in Hungary in 1956 and again in the Czech Republic in 1968. And World War III nearly began off the coast of Cuba in 1962 when Khrushchev attempted to place nuclear missiles in his satellite state of communist and brutal dictator Fidel Castro.
One of the more famous Khrushchev lines was, “I can prophesy that your grandchildren in America will live under Socialism -- Our firm conviction is that capitalism will give way to Socialism sooner or later. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”
This is the moderate voice of the Soviet Union.
The same Cuban Missile crisis weakened Khrushchev and led to a new Soviet leader. Leonid Brezhnev ruled from 1964 to 1982, and it was his hubris of this man that led to the Soviets invading Afghanistan. They learned what the Persians and British had learned, which was not a good idea. As with Russia itself, only the Mongols, or the Macedonians, could conquer this land. The Russian impasse in Afghanistan severely weakened the Red Army.
When Brezhnev died in 1982, most elite groups understood that the Soviet economy was in trouble. Due to senility, Brezhnev had not been ineffective in controlling the Country during his last few years. Older men dominated the Politburo, and the government had declined over time. Yury V. Andropov and then Konstantin Chernenko led the Country from 1982 until 1985, but their administrations failed to address critical problems. Andropov believed that the economic stagnation could be remedied by greater worker discipline and cracking down on corruption. He did not regard the structure of the Soviet financial system itself to cause the Country’s growing economic problems.
The eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. He was also the Country’s head of state from 1988 until 1991, serving as the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, and president of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991. Ideologically, Gorbachev initially adhered to Marxism–Leninism, although they had moved towards social democracy by the early 1990s.
When Gorbachev became head of the Communist Party in 1985, he launched perestroika (“restructuring”). It seems that initially, even Gorbachev believed that the fundamental economic structure of the USSR was sound and, therefore, only minor reforms were needed. He thus pursued a monetary policy that aimed to increase economic growth while increasing capital investment. Capital investment was to improve the technological basis of the Soviet economy and promote specific structural economic changes. His goal was quite plain: to bring the Soviet Union up to par economically with the West. And part of Gorbachev’s sense of urgency was spurred by an incident that occurred early in his term; The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986, at the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in cost and casualties
This had been a goal of Russian leaders since Peter the Great unleashed the first great wave of modernization and Westernization. After two years, however, Gorbachev concluded that more profound structural changes were necessary. In 1987–88 he pushed through reforms that went less than halfway to creating a semi-free market system. The consequences of this form of a semi-mixed economy with the contradictions of the reforms themselves brought economic chaos to the Country and great unpopularity to Gorbachev.
Gorbachev rejected the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” the idea that the Soviet Union had the right to intervene militarily in other Marxist–Leninist countries if their governments were threatened.
Gorbachev launched glasnost (“openness”) as the second vital plank of his reform efforts. He believed that the opening up of the political system—essentially, democratizing it—was the only way to overcome inertia in the political and bureaucratic apparatus, which had a significant interest in maintaining the status quo. In addition, he believed that the path to economic and social recovery required the inclusion of people in the political process. Glasnost also allowed the media more freedom of expression, and editorials complaining of depressed conditions and the government’s inability to correct them began to appear.
In March 1991, when Gorbachev launched an all-union referendum about the future Soviet federation, Russia and several other republics added some supplementary questions. One of the Russian questions was whether the voters favored a directly elected president. They were, and they chose Yeltsin. He used his newfound legitimacy to promote Russian sovereignty, advocate and adopt radical economic reform, demand Gorbachev’s resignation, and negotiate treaties with the Baltic republics, in which he acknowledged their right to independence. Soviet attempts to discourage Baltic autonomy led to a bloody confrontation in Vilnius in January 1991, after which Yeltsin called upon Russian troops to disobey orders that would have them shoot unarmed civilians.
By the end of 1992, one-third of enterprises in the services and trade fields had been privatized. Though the average Russian was not seeing the benefits of this move toward a more open system, Russia was minting Billionaires by the score. Though the businesses were no longer part of the state, single companies dominated specific industries, and the oligarchs were born.
During Yeltsin’s presidential terms, the weakened Russian state failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities. The legal system, suffering from a lack of resources and trained personnel and a legal code geared to the new market economy, collapsed. Low salaries drain experienced jurists into the private sector; there was also widespread corruption within law enforcement and the legal system, as judges and police officials resorted to taking bribes to supplement their meager incomes. The Country’s health, education, and social services were also under incredible strain. Due to a lack of resources, law-enforcement agencies proved unable to combat the rising crime. The collapse of medical services also led to a decline in life expectancy and concerns over the negative population growth rate; doctors and nurses were underpaid, and many hospitals did not have enough resources to provide even primary care. All of this made some Russians nostalgic for the past, and along came a man who seemed to be a fusion of the new Russia with its old strengths.
Vladimir Putin began playing a more critical role toward the end of Yeltsin’s tenure as president. During the Soviet period, he joined the KGB and worked in East Germany for many years. Fluent in German and proficient in English, Putin worked for the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, in the initial post-Soviet period and ended up in Moscow when Sobchak failed to be reelected mayor in 1996. In July 1998, Putin became director of the Federal Security Service, one of the successor organizations of the KGB, and in August 1999, Yeltsin plucked Putin out of relative obscurity for the post of prime minister.
As prime minister, Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombing several apartment buildings that killed scores of Russian civilians, prompting the Moscow government to send Russian forces into the republic once again. (Evidence never proved Chechen involvement in these bombings, leading some to believe that the Russian intelligence services played a role in them.) The campaign enjoyed some initial success, with Grozny falling quickly to the Russians. Putin’s popularity soared, and Yeltsin, having chosen Putin as his successor, resigned on December 31, 1999. Putin became acting president, and his first official act as president was to grant Yeltsin a pardon for any illegal activities he might have committed during his administration.
In the presidential election held in March 2000, Putin easily defeated Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in the first round of balloting, winning 52.9 percent of the vote to secure a full term as president. And we have had Putin, increasingly more authoritarian, ever since.
This was arguably the last time that Russia conducted a fair election, but Putin, the ex-KGB operative, represented something the Russians sought, power back in the hands of a single person.
Three factors of governance. The first is a personal desire for independence in thought and body, so where is the line between the individual and the societal needs. Every person, Russian, Chinese, or American, desires some independence of action. The second is a need or desire to live among humans in society – no man is an island. And the third is a desire to have someone else help with the cares of life. It is this instinct that is taken advantage of by people like Putin. At some juncture, a man like Putin will project strength, real or imagined, and it is at that point, a person or persons must cede their independence for the perceived betterment, real or imagined. If citizens did not look to their government for daily governance, it would be harder for other citizens to take advantage. But when maximum ambition is married to that of state power, you get a Kim, a Saddam, a Xi, and a Putin.
A feckless and perhaps drunken Yeltsin, trying to fill the gaps left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union and incapable of helping Russia navigate through those tumultuous years post 1991 when the Soviet Union fell, uncertainty and anxiety took its place. Then along comes the 40 something Mayor of St. Petersburg, projecting the certainty and allaying the fear with an image of strength and purpose.
The United States often succumbs to this in placing trust in figures such as Barack Obama or Donald Trump. , But unlike Russia, we have a 230-year history of setting guardrails and institutions around our presidents. I am always fascinated how the party in power almost always loses congressional seats in the midterms regardless of performance. It is a way for the American people to place checks on the ambitions of our politicians. But his limiting desire is hardwired into our culture. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Russia. Of these four podcasts, the most significant thread is that of Authoritarianism. From the Dukes in the Kyivan Rus to Ivan the Terrible to Peter and Catherine the Great and through the Bolsheviks, Russia reverts to strong man rule.
Here is an example that I shared before. An American university president was in a city near Moscow in the mid-1990s. Some of the dignitaries were complaining about the high prices of the meat in the local butcher shop, there was just the one store, which was once the dispensary of meat for the Soviet Union. The university president suggested that they encourage another Russian to open another butcher shop and charge lower prices for the beef. The Russians exclaimed that the butcher shop was the shop, they could not grasp the concept of real competition.
Can this be fixed? Japan, South Korea, and Poland are more recent examples of where democracy can flourish. And even as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, France has turned to totalitarianism only to find its way back. But it should be noted that there needs to be a confluence of circumstances. In one of my podcasts called four revolutions, I laid out the differences between the French, Chinese, Russian and American Revolutions. Not only did the American one have a basis on English Common law and was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu, but it also featured George Washington as the central, indispensable figure. Washington’s judgment, including stepping down from power three years before his death, created a template upon which the Constitution was built, diffusion of power.
Not in Russia; even when they attempt to move away, they encounter issues and spring right back. Is there something in the Russian character? No, but there is in Russian history.
To understand Putin is not necessarily to understand Lenin or Stalin, but it helps. Instead, it is better to understand Ivan, Peter, Catherine, and Nicholas. The Tsars tell the tale of Putin, but though Ivan ruled a large realm, it was not the largest on Earth, and though Catherine commanded vast armies, she did not possess nuclear weapons. History tells us why we have Putin and why Putin is Russian, but it tells us little about what to do when Ivan the Terrible had nuclear weapons. One of the largest stockpiles on Earth. This fusion of Authoritarianism, size, and nuclear capability makes Putin stand out.
What will happen to him? I have oft-cited the concept of holding the wolf by the ears citing the Roman Emperor Tiberius. If the wolf slips your grip, you are dead. With the invasion of Ukraine and unified response, three things are happening. First, the failure of a quick victory ruins Putin’s veneer of competence. The economic free fall of the economy takes away the image of strength. Third, the movement away from Russian oil eliminates his best chance at reclaiming the other two. Putin is in severe trouble.
Peter III, Paul I, Alexander II, and Nicholas II were all murdered. Can Putin avoid such a fate? But, again, none of these figures had nukes.