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The Wheel of Empires

When Soviet communism fell, liberal capitalism stood ready to replace it. What happens if that falls too?

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, by Vladislav Zubok (Yale University Press, 2021), 560 pages.

The fall of the Soviet Union happened while Vladislav Zubok’s back was turned. He was in the United States at the time, working as a researcher for Strobe Talbott and Michael Beschloss. He learned about Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster from the New York Times. As the terminal drama of 1991 unfolded, Zubok wondered from his perch in Northampton, Massachusetts, what kind of country he and his family would be returning to. By the time they flew back home to Moscow, the country they left had ceased to exist entirely.

The collapse of the USSR looked very different depending on whether one was looking from the inside or the outside. Outsiders tended to see a morality play of liberals versus reactionaries, or the grand tide of history sweeping away tyranny in favor of human rights. Zubok’s book is an attempt to reground history in the facts as they appeared to the story’s protagonists, the personal as much as the principled, happenstance as much as historical destiny.

For example, one memorable moment in Collapse is from the last day of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989. Andrei Sakharov, the great dissident, was reading aloud from a written manifesto of the liberals’ demands for 20 minutes when Mikhail Gorbachev cut off his microphone. Television cameras showed the old man, who would be dead by the end of the year, moving his lips soundlessly while the crowd booed him.

To Americans watching on TV, this looked like a portent of oppression. In fact, Zubok says, Gorbachev was “reacting to the growing irritation of the majority in the hall,” who had heard all this from Sakharov before and did not want to hear his hectoring again. The body had already voted to end debate for the day when Gorbachev requested special permission for Sakharov to speak for five minutes. The premier had tried gently easing Sakharov from the stage when his remarks ran long, urging him to “respect the congress.” “I respect humanity,” Sakharov replied. “I have a mandate that goes beyond the limits of this congress.”

Liberals do not come off well in this book. Most of them were, like Sakharov, ineffectual. Zubok cites a memo Condoleezza Rice wrote in 1990 comparing the liberals to Kerensky’s Provisional Government of 1917, “a scattered crowd unable to seize or hold onto power.” The bigger problem was that they were abusive and insulting toward anyone who did not agree with them, which included the vast majority of Soviet citizens.

The Congress of People’s Deputies was so quick to boo Sakharov because he had earlier accused the Soviet military of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, with the result that, as Zubok says, “almost 2,000 people were suddenly united by a feeling of hatred towards this dissident who was questioning their Soviet patriotism.” One deputy who had lost his legs in the war gave a stinging rebuttal. When the liberal Moscow deputies lost a crucial vote to the provincial deputies who outnumbered them, their response was to denounce the “aggressive-obedient majority” for betraying “the people,” whom the liberals claimed to represent.

The mystery is how these people won—or how they convinced the world they did. Because, of course, today the fall of Soviet Union is seen as above all else a vindication of liberalism. Was it?

Liberalizing reforms in many ways hastened the Soviet Union’s fall. The political side of this dynamic is well known: When dissent was finally allowed, discontent grew until it took on a momentum of its own. Zubok’s book skillfully explains how economic liberalization was often just as destabilizing.

Gorbachev knew that the Soviet economy was unsustainable. Market incentives would have to be incorporated. In 1987, he introduced “the three S’s”—self-accounting, self-financing, and self-governance—which involved letting a factory’s workers and management make decisions about operations and then keep the profits from any production beyond the state quota. The result: “In those segments of the Soviet economy where self-financing and self-governance had been experimentally tried, production declined rather than increased.” The same thing happened in agriculture, where peasants were invited to chase profits but chose to reduce production instead. “Gorbachev was genuinely puzzled as to why peasants were not eager to embrace his ‘emancipation,’” Zubov writes.

One problem was that there were not many consumer goods to buy, diminishing the incentive to earn extra income. Another was that private enrichment was more easily accomplished through corruption than honest capitalist exertion. Semi-privatization, like its sequel in the 1990s, yielded a class of oligarchs, not entrepreneurs. The bottom line was that simply applying the neutral rules of the free market was not enough without the underlying culture to make capitalism work.

It is impossible to read a book about a decaying empire whose fall no one predicted until it happened without thinking about our own country. We are ruled by a gerontocracy (Biden was older when he was inaugurated than Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko were when they died), our media is shamelessly propagandistic, store shelves are intermittently empty, and there are show trials on TV.

One unexpected point of resemblance is the rebelliousness of a resentful majority. The USSR was ethnically diverse, with Russians the predominant nationality. However, the Gorbachev years saw them suffer a demographic decline. Russian nationalists began to demand “what the other ‘nationalities’ of the USSR had: a Russian branch of the Party, a Russian Academy of Sciences, a Russian writers’ union, a preferential quota for Russians at the universities.” They asked why the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs enjoyed a higher standard of living than the Russians whose empire they belonged to. When the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were finally published in his home country, it was his unabashed Russian nationalism that readers responded to most.

America’s majority is not in a position to secede the way Yeltsin was able to bring Russia out of the USSR and thus bring down the empire. That is one difference. A more significant one is called to mind by something Boris Yeltsin said during his famous trip to the United States in the fall of 1989, when he was dazzled by the abundance of our supermarkets. “Throughout our lives, they told us fairy tales, tried to invent the wheel. The wheel already exists,” he said to his aides. The capitalist wheel did exist. The post-liberal wheel does not.



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