A quarter-century ago the Soviet Union disappeared. Valery Fedorov, director general of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), talked to the Istorick magazine [“Historian”] about the reasons for country’s disintegration, the role of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and about what the nostalgia for the USSR is like in modern Russia.
The death agony of the global superpower began after the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt. Day by day the Union’s center had been losing its coercive powers. December 8 the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich – gathered at the state dacha “Viskuli” in Belovezhskaya Pushcha and signed the agreement that declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. Shortly after this, the president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev had to resign. The USSR broke into 15 independent states. On the night of December 25th to 26th the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced by Russian tricolor. Why did one of the two superpowers of the 20th century collapse and who is to blame? Even now, 25 years later, these questions are still relevant.
The dissolution if the USSR happened like an ordinary thing, like nobody attached significance to what had happened. And only later many realized that the era had ended. There were no mass protests, public declarations and emotional outbursts at that moment. In the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR even “Communists of Russia” voted for the ratification of the Belavezha Accords. As for Belarus, only one person, not so known at that time, Alexander Lukashenko, opposed the Accords. That day the situation in the country was so desperate and the authority of the Union’s power bodies, and first of all of Mikhail Gorbachev, was so weak that a little push could have been enough to crash everything. That is why, the decision made by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was received not as a plot against the state, but, first and foremost, as one more attempt to get out of the terrible crisis. All the more so as a new interstate community – CIS – was declared to appear instead of the USSR. Of course it was impossible to realize the severity of the consequences of this decision at that moment. Only when the inertia of the disintegration gathered momentum, when the rubble zone began to break up, when there appeared difficulties with the movement of goods and people across the borders, when the economic ties weakened – we understood that we had done something wrong. So, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union the crisis was not over, it just worsened. Life did not become a bed of flowers. Instead, new independent states compared poorly to the Soviet Union. Many post-Soviet states could be called “failed states”. But even the states that did not fail faced a sharp drop in the living standards, depopulation, deindustrialization, brain drain and the outflow of capital.
The more time passed since the dissolution, the more drawbacks of the USSR people forgot, but they remembered everything good. This natural and multiply defined in imaginative and scientific literature effect of human memory in our case was galvanized by the fact that the state building process in the post-Soviet space was very painful and traumatic. Against this background people began to perceive the Belavezha Accords in a completely different way in comparison to the day when they were signed. They were now perceived as a fatal event, malicious step that radically changed all our life for the worse.
I think that one of the key causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union had to do with scientific and technical lag and general fall in the level of Soviet economy innovativeness. In 1970s and 1980s it was possible to take at least some measures, for instance, to eliminate price distortions or to launch small privatization transferring into private hands barbershops, cafeterias etc., like it was done in Poland and Yugoslavia. We could also normalize relations with China like the United States did in 1972 or promote détente, alleviating economy’s intolerable burden of military costs. In my opinion, in 1970 a reform in the mold of Yugoslavia, Poland or Hungary could provide the Soviet regime with the time for more serious, deep, but not destructive perestroika. That kind of perestroika could rest on the authority and strength of the state but not on centrifugal forces as it happened under Gorbachev. No doubt, in this case it would have been necessary to modify ideology and political system. We may see how China has done this, preserving one-party system, revised communist ideology and market economy at the same time. So, from my point of view, the USSR had a chance to get off, but to do this it had to turn to the reforms much earlier than in 1985.
Nowadays, there are several types of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The first one is nostalgia for the power’s splendor, for the USSR as a superpower which determined all global processes. By the way, this is typical not only for Russia. This kind of nostalgia is also typical for Chechnya, Ukraine and Transcaucasia – for all post-Soviet territories. The second type is nostalgia for the Soviet Union as ideocracy, for the state conducting a mission of world-wide historic importance. The USSR was a country of the future, it spoke for tomorrow and even the day after tomorrow, suggested a global agenda. This kind of nostalgia is also typical for post-Soviet territories, it is global: people in any country long for shattered dreams. The third type is nostalgia for the way of life that is now becoming a thing of the past or somewhere has already been buried in memories. There are three elements. The first element is order that implies orderliness of life, its inertance, opportunity to plan, predict, to follow a clear route map, rather than personal security. The second element is social justice that of course everyone in the USSR lacked, but taking into account the scale of breach of justice that people witnessed after the collapse of the Soviet Union the reason for nostalgia is obvious. So, this is nostalgia for a more homogeneous society where social benefits were distributed in a fairer and equal way.
The third element is interethnic relations. Let us remember that the USSR, on the one hand, cultivated multiethnicity, when each culture could develop, and, on the other hand, proclaimed and monitored the equality of nations (any manifestation of ethnocratism was registered and punished). The closer the collapse was, the more difficult this procedure became, since the power structure was decrepitating and weakening.
Today the “revival of the USSR” is likely to be a stamp used by our western partners to bring discredit on the policy of Vladimir Putin and others carrying out independent foreign policy together with him. They want to label Putin a dictator who dreams of rebuilding the Soviet Union, dividing the planet by an “iron curtain” and launching nuclear missiles. But this is lie and propaganda for internal use, nothing more.