Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University, has contributed to The Nation, of which he is a contributing editor, a very illuminating and challenging article which also appeared in edited version in The Guardian this week, which asks the reader, knowing what is now known about Russia’s inability to embrace democracy, to consider the breakup of the USSR as “the most consequential event of the twentieth century”.
A large majority of Russians,…, as they have regularly made clear in opinion surveys taken during the past fifteen years, regret the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for “Communism” but because they lost a familiar state and secure way of life. No less important, they do not share the nearly unanimous Western view that the Soviet Union‘s “collapse” was “inevitable” because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good reason, that three “subjective” factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in “privatizing” the state’s enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it.
Most Russians, including even the imprisoned post-Soviet oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a “tragedy,” a perspective expressed in the adage: “Anyone who does not regret the breakup of the Soviet Union has no heart.” (It continues: “And anyone who thinks it can be reconstructed has no head.”)
It’s a persuasive piece that those of who automatically presumed that the Soviet Union was all bad need to think about and, with a bit of luck, learn from.