By Timothy Snyder
Thirty years ago today the Soviet Union came to an end. This is not an occasion for triumphalism. It is a warning.
Stagnation, or the absence of a future, was the underlying Soviet problem. Stalinism had created temporary social mobility in the Soviet Union, if at the cost of millions of deaths and the creation of the largest prison system in the world. Leonid Brezhnev, who consolidated power in 1964 and held it until his death in 1982, inherited a mature system. He abandoned the promise that Soviet rule could bring harmony and freedom, and aimed for maintenance and nostalgia. He created a cult of the Second World War, an era of past greatness. Stalinism meant that peasants became workers; now what was on offer to second- or third-generation workers was the memory of Stalinism. Social mobility was difficult. The status quo seemed inevitable and eternal.
Everything was forever until it was no more — as Alexei Yurchak titled his book about the last Soviet generation. Mikhail Gorbachev, the youthful Soviet leader who came to power in 1985, had ideas about revival. He was trying in 1990 and 1991 to breathe life into a federation. His idea was that the Soviet state, established on new federal lines, would be easier to control than a recalcitrant and decadent communist party. He fell from power on the issue of how much power should remain in the center, and how much devolved to the republics. Boris Yeltsin, his rival, was pushing for more authority for the Russian republic. Gorbachev was hoping that his new union treaty would settle the question. The Soviet hardliners who attempted a coup in August 1991 thought Gorbachev had gone too far. Their failed attempt sidelined Gorbachev and opened the field for Yeltsin to pull Russia out of the USSR. On this date in 1991, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, formally dissolved the Soviet Union.
Under Vladimir Putin, today’s official Russian version of these events is that the end of the Soviet Union was a western plot. In fact Western leaders, supporters of Gorbachev, was surprised and dismayed. The West had much to do with collapse of communism in Europe, less through its foreign and military policies, than by its example. Western domestic policies had succeeded in providing many people with a sense of the future. A combination of elections, markets, the welfare state, and unions allowed both the United States and western Europe to provide not just rising standards of living but also a belief that members of coming generations might do something new and interesting. This story is told on the European side in Tony Judt’s outstanding history Postwar. In the United States, this social mobility was known as the “American Dream.”
Categories: American Decline