Saturday, December 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Will Russia Follow the USSR into the Dustbin of History -- and for the Same Reasons?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 13 – Four Russian analysts suggest that the six causes they identify as being behind the collapse of the USSR are again to varying degrees present in Russia today, but what is perhaps more interesting than the causes they do identify is the one that they don’t: the ways in which the six they do helped power a seventh: nationalism Russian and non-Russian.


            In a 4400-word article in “Russky Reporter” this week, Vladimir Bazhanov, Andrey Veselov, Dmitry Karpets and Aleksandr Pototsky consider to what extent the six causes they say led to the demise of the USSR are capable of playing a similar role in the case of the Russian Federation now or in the near future (


            They do not draw a conclusion, but the causes that they do enumerate and discuss -- declines in the price of oil, the degeneration of the ruling elite, economic stagnation, shortages of consumer goods, a prolonged foreign war, and a collapse in public support for the state ideology – are intriguing both for what they point to and what they do not.


            In each case, they discuss what they call the objective and subjective impact of these on the Soviet Union and then consider the extent to which these same factors are at work today, explicitly stating that Russia’s situation is different, in some ways better but in others even worse than 30 years ago.


            Russia’s primary advantage, they suggest, is that today Moscow has the time to consider what happened a generation ago and draw conclusions. What remains an open question, the four argue, is whether the leadership will have the courage to draw on the lessons than those earlier events provide or will allow Russia to fall into the same trap?


            First, both at the end of Soviet times and now, Moscow is dependent on the export of oil to maintain itself, but the big difference, one that matters profoundly, the four say, is that the causes of the decline in oil prices now are very different than they were in the 1980s and may prove both more severe and less so.


            More severe, they suggest, in that the causes are less the result of specific policies that might be reversed, and less so because the West has an interest in ensuring that prices do not fall too low lest the fracking revolution become unprofitable.


            Second, the degeneration of the party-state nomenklatura and the rise what Milovan Djilas called the new class played a key role in the demise of the USSR: party leaders wanted to own what they merely controlled, the four say. The Putin elite is different and again that has pluses and minuses for Russia’s future.


            On the one hand, the core Putin elite “was formed out of a network of personal trust,” but on the other, the problem of rotating cadres in the regions has not been solved. Instead, what has happened is that some of the older leaders have survived while others have been replaced by faceless and uncharismatic placeholders.


            Third, as in the 1980s, Russia faces economic stagnation, but then it had less to do with actual decline than with falling ever further behind the West. Now, it is declining as well. Moreover, the four say, Russia has suffered “years of de-industrialization” and will need “’a great leap forward’” to avoid falling into a similar trap.


            Fourth, the Soviet system because of central planning constantly suffered from consumer goods shortages. Now, they are not so severe, although sanctions and counter-sanctions may exacerbate a situation in which Russians, including Russian leaders, have become accustomed to relatively easy access to western goods.


            Fifth, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was very different than Russian involvement in Ukraine, but “the interference of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict in the south-east of the country and the military-political operation in Crimea” is viewed by the  Western media and Russian society as yet another case in which Moscow is “the aggressor.”


            And sixth, faith in the Soviet ideology died having gone through all the phases of “any religion.” Russia today faces a situation which is “both better and worse: its ideology cannot collapse because it doesn’t exist.” 


            The situation in Brezhnev’s time was somewhat similar in that with the decline in faith in communism, there was ideological confusion. But today, the situation is much more serious, the four argue.  Moscow has not been able to “overcome a defensive paradigm” as far as public belief is concerned.


            “We have recovered the Crimean advance post, something extremely important in the national mental geography but in fact, we as before do not know what besides language, a common history and ‘polite people’ tie us together,” the four analysts say.


            What the Kremlin has offered, a patriotism based on a conservative projection of what exists combined with a certain religiosity, is hardly enough, and there is little reason to think that “the apostles of the new Russian conservative, who were yesterday’s Komsomol and Party members who passed through the business of the 1990s,” won’t move to something else “on the first available occasion.”


            The four do not suggest what that might be, but the history of the end of the USSR does: when faith in a super-national project dies, ever more people turn to national or sub-national ones.  That shift killed the Soviet Union. It could, despite this cause not being in the list of the four, kill the Russian Federation as well.


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