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The Fall of the Soviet Union Revisited

Top academics are still debating why the USSR collapsed and whether the West could have done more in the early 1990s to secure a well-functioning democracy in Russia.

by Peter Rutland 3 January 2018

One of the great murder mysteries of the late 20th century is who killed the USSR. Was it Ronald Reagan, with his military build-up and macho posturing? Or Mikhail Gorbachev, with his ill-conceived reforms?


Equally puzzling is what happened next – the dismal failure of Russia to turn into a healthy democracy. Who killed democratic Russia? Was it Boris Yeltsin, who put the creation of a new oligarchy ahead of democratic accountability? Or was it Bill Clinton, who failed to provide sufficient economic aid to Russia in its hour of need, and who blithely expanded NATO to Eastern Europe, locking Russia out of the European security architecture for decades to come?


These topics were discussed by a group of distinguished scholars who assembled at the Amherst Center for Russian Culture in Massachusetts last month to honor the life and work of Professor William Taubman, recently retired from Amherst College. Taubman, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Nikita Khrushchev, has just published a new study of Gorbachev.


In his presentation, Harvard University Professor Serhii Plokhy, whose latest book addresses post-Soviet Russian identity, argued that we are still living with the process of Soviet disintegration, exemplified by the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in eastern Ukraine. He saw recent Russian history as a succession of failed leader projects – Gorbachev’s modernization; Yeltsin’s democratization; and then Putin’s modernization, followed by his post-2011 nationalization. Plokhy argued that the pivotal event that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union – the declaration of independence by Ukraine on 24 August 1991, three days after the abortive coup in Moscow – occurred not because Ukraine’s leaders feared Gorbachev, or another Soviet military coup, but because they feared Yeltsin would take over the leadership of the Soviet Union and use that platform to launch radical market reforms. Correspondingly, Plokhy implied that Yeltsin never fully accepted the idea of unconditional independence for the post-Soviet states.


Mary Sarotte, a professor at the University of Southern California and visiting faculty member at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, advanced the argument that Western leaders missed the window of opportunity in 1990 to shape a new world order that would have included Russia. (She has authored a book detailing the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and another on the foreign policy process surrounding German unification.) Sarotte argued that, while there was no formal, written promise prohibiting NATO enlargement, the alliance’s expansion did contradict verbal assurances given to Gorbachev. NATO enlargement was not solely responsible for the subsequent deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations (the lack of a full transition to democracy in Russia was the overriding factor), but it nonetheless helped to erode the spirit of cooperation that had arisen at the end of the Cold War.


The Rand Corporation’s Samuel Charap, co-author of a recent book on the Ukraine crisis, argued that EU and NATO relations with Russia were “unhappy but functional” before 2014, but this was a period of “deceptive calm” papering over fundamental disagreement over “the countries in between” that dated back to “the settlement that wasn’t” in 1991. Charap held out no hope of an imminent end to the Ukrainian conflict: neither side is willing to compromise because both think they can win.


Professor Vladislav Zubok of the London School of Economics, who has published on the history of the Cold War, discussed the stark comparison between Russia and China and asked why “Gorbachev’s reforms tanked and Deng’s reforms soared.” China decentralized without losing central state capacity, unlike Russia; and China’s reforms incentivized profit-seeking by party officials, while Gorbachev’s reforms destabilized the economy without introducing competitive markets. Zubok gave partial support to Sarotte’s thesis, arguing that the United States had treated China as a strategic ally since the 1970s, greatly aiding their economic opening, while “the U.S. could not make up its mind over what the Soviet Union was for the U.S.”: a collapsing empire, a new ally, or a new threat?

Professor Taubman talked about some unusual parallels that he had found in the lives of Reagan and Gorbachev, characteristics that help to explain the remarkable personal chemistry between them. They were both men from small rural towns who rose to great heights. (And both had been high school actors.) In partial support of the Sarotte hypothesis, Taubman detailed certain delays that slowed U.S. ability to react to the fast-changing events. First, after George H.W. Bush became president in January 1989 there was a pause while policy was reassessed: the first summit was not until December 1989. This was partly due to administration hardliners, such as Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, who opposed compromise with Moscow. Then in 1990-91, Washington held back on economic aid because of a fear of a possible crackdown in the Baltics, concern that the funds would be misused, and economic troubles in the United States itself.


University of Virginia Professor Melvyn Leffler’s most recent book examines the arc of U.S. foreign policy over the past century. He gave Reagan credit for being willing to negotiate with Gorbachev, and for being in a position where he was able to persuade Congress to go along with his arms control proposals. Leffler suggested that “Reagan wanted to end the Cold War but Bush wanted to win it.”


The tectonic forces that were unleashed in the 1990s, which brought the Soviet Union crashing down, were clearly beyond the abilities of the various national leaders to steer and control. Individual leaders such as Gorbachev and Reagan, or Yeltsin and Clinton, did have some influence over the course of events. But we can only speculate what would have happened if leaders had tried to switch developments onto a different path.  

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

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