The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years, Part VI: Rebuilding Russia

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the fourth and final in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The failure of the coup in August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 are events that few people ever anticipated. In fact, some government leaders in Washington, D.C. were less than enthusiastic about the implosion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics because they now had to deal with fifteen different governments rather than one known enemy.

What became clear in the months following the collapse of the USSR was this simple reality: it is much easier to tear something down than it is to replace it with a viable alternative. President Boris Yeltsin had keen political sensitivities and he knew how to mobilize support to dismantle the Communist regime, but he had little idea how to rebuild Russian society based on the rule of law, political freedom and governmental accountability.

The Firm Rejection of Communist Values

Like the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the implosion of the Communist government took place because it had lost its moral legitimacy and there was no constituency large enough to defend it. During the Gorbachev years and the early years of Yeltsin’s presidency, there appeared to be a strong desire to restore civil society, political pluralism, the rule of law, private property and free enterprise.

Take, for example, the parliamentary elections of December 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no major national party that advocated a return to centralized economic planning. There was no major party in favor of using military force to restore the former Soviet empire. There was no major party claiming to be the sole source of truth and political power, like the Communist Party did for 70 years. All of the parties who gained representation in the parliament because of this election operated on the basis of political pluralism under the rule of law.

For three generations the Communist Party had advocated collectivism under the guise of “socialist internationalism,” but there was not one political group in 1993 that supported this policy. A solid consensus had formed that combined patriotism with a market-oriented economic system.

“The Velvet Revolution” in Russia

Moscow Protests, December 2011

Timothy Garton Ash has helped us understand the unique character of the revolutions that took place in 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe and Russia. The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Mao’s Chinese Revolution, were all violent, utopian, class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. But the revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, by comparison, were nonviolent, anti-utopian, and based on broad social coalitions. They utilized mass social pressure, not terror, to force those in power to negotiate.

Unlike the earlier violent revolutions, changes in the post-Communist world were the result of “negotiated revolutions” and many of the ruling elites were able to hang on to their positions of power, because the protestors lacked experience in governance. Many retained their social positions and wealth and converted their former political power into economic power. They did not wind up hanging from lampposts, as in France in 1789, but became leaders in the new governments.

Vladivostok Protests, December 2011

It is not surprising that over time the Russians who protested and filled the city squares to demonstrate against the Communist regime would become disillusioned with the “new” leaders who talk about democracy and the rule of law, but have no interest in building a new political order with accountability. In fact, the demonstrations all across Russia during the last few weeks shows how angry people are with the corruption and lack of dignity and respect they feel from government leaders. It is very hard to predict how these demonstrations will impact Russia’s future or how the Putin administration will respond, but it appears that the days of political passivity on the part of the middle class are over.

For many Russians, the transition to a market economy, while painful in process, brought a standard-of-living that they have not experienced before. They quickly and gladly became consumers, but are still learning how to become citizens. Learning civic responsibility, after 70 years of living under a Communist regime that discouraged independent grassroots associations, is a slow time-consuming process, but it is happening in Russia.