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Aussenpolitik - German Foreign Affairs Review: Vol. 47 / No. 1
[The picture - a revolutionary poster - added by the "Kurier Polityczny" Editors.]

Gerhard Simon

The End of the Soviet Union: Causes and Relational Contexts

Contrary to widespread public opinion in the West, the end of the East-West conflict was not followed by the outbreak of peace on a global scale or at least in Europe. The former conflict between the two camps in the form of the Cold War has often been succeeded in the eastern part of the European continent by “hot wars” between national groups and structures which, irrespective of their limited geographical character, appreciably upset the international order. As Gerhard Simon, Director of Studies on the Russian Federation and Other Successor States of the USSR at the Federal Institute for East European and International Studies in Cologne, explains in the following article, this is no coincidence: national forces led to the fall and collapse of the USSR and, concomitantly, to the eradication of the Soviet system and the associated East-West antagonism.

The Historical Context

The Soviet Union was a world power and a multinational empire; in terms of its ideological claims it was a universal empire, since it was hoped that it was the point from which socialism would conquer the world. Is its downfall a misfortune or perhaps merely an accident of history? Or, on the contrary, are the days of empires over, is there no longer a place for old empires in today's world?(1). What is happening could be described as the concurrence of non-concurrent tendencies: whereas extensive economic and, in part, political unions are transcending the former nation-states in Western Europe and North America, large and smaller multinational states in the East of Europe are disintegrating into nation-states (alongside the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia). A great deal suggests that a catching-up process is taking place in Eastern Europe. The nation-state developed first in the West of Europe; national movements then contributed substantially in the 19th and early 20th century to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and of the Danubian monarchy. Now they are also asserting themselves as a principle of political order in the Eastern Europe.

That dissimilar tendencies should have occurred at the same time undoubtedly created a situation in which hardly anyone — either in the country itself or in the West — expected the Soviet Union to collapse. Integration and supranational expansion seemed to be shaping the course of history at the end of the 20th century. Neither Western politics, nor public opinion, nor the mainstream of scientific experts on Eastern Europe contemplated even the possibility of the fall of the Soviet Union before the end of the Eighties. It was as if there existed a self-imposed conceptual ban. The Soviet Union was not perceived in the context of the other empires which had fallen apart in Europe after the First World War and definitely not in the context of the decolonisation after the Second World War, which brought about the end of the British, French, Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese colonial empires. The USSR, on the other hand, ranked in the West as a "normal" state, a world power and guarantor of stability. The Soviet Union, however, was simply not a normal state.

Two major aspects should be emphasised at the outset:

1. The fall of the USSR was not the result of lost wars and in no way the consequence of external influences. The phenomenon, therefore, differs fundamentally from the collapse of a number of former world empires, such as the Roman Empire, which was no match for the Germanic assault, or Byzantium, which was conquered by the Turks. The end of the Danubian monarchy, of the Russian Empire or of the Ottoman Empire, however, cannot be explained without reference to lost wars, in particular to the First World War. The main causes for the end of the Soviet Union, therefore, must be sought in the country's internal development. There was no extensive internal unrest or civil war; indeed, the use of force and bloodshed played a secondary role. This is all the more surprising against the background of Soviet history, which had been determined for longer periods by the internal use of force and mass terror. The causes for the downfall are rooted, on the one hand, in the design errors of the Soviet system and, on the other hand, in the processes of degeneration which had been undermining stability for decades.

2. The end of the Soviet Union was the second dissolution of the Russian Empire. It had already fallen apart in 1917 and during subsequent years in the wake of war and revolution, although the lines of fracture were, in many cases, the same as in 1991, viz. the ethnic-territorial boundaries. In the civil war between 1918 and 1921, and then during the course of the Second World War, the Bolsheviks had by and large reestablished the former boundaries. Both at that time and today, the non-Russian national movements — as throughout Europe — played a major role in the disintegration of the Russian Empire. This claim holds good even though it is true to point out that these national movements were, as a rule, poorly developed at the end of the First World War and also appeared far from powerful and irresistible during the Eighties. It merely underlines how unstable the foundations of the empire were. In both cases, the internal weakness was the result of the political system's unwillingness and inability to reform. Both before 1917 and at the end of the Soviet period, an extremely conservative power order prevented the sufficiently early adjustment of the political order to changed societal conditions. In both cases, the ossifying rulership lost its relationship to, indeed even knowledge of the society it ruled. An inadequate capability to integrate demands from society led to a steadily growing reservoir of problems on a scale which could not be handled in a closed system. The insufficient capacity of the Tsarist and of the Communist regimes to address conflict, therefore, was due to the fact that both not only viewed themselves as the appropriate and proper power for Russia, but also as the only true and legitimate powers appointed by God or by history. One of the main differences between disintegration at the beginning and at the end of the 20th century was that a war and a revolution were now no longer required to bring down the ancien régime.

What held the Soviet Union together?

There is one simple answer to this question: the Bolshevist party. The disintegration of the Russian Empire, which continued at an accelerated pace after the Bolsheviks seized power in October, began at the end of the First World War and under the influence of the February revolution of 1917. In the course of the civil war, however, the Bolsheviks were initially able to stop and then reverse this process.

The Bolshevist party was a thoroughly new instrument of imperial formation and preservation, lacking any model in European history. Lenin's party subjugated the state in all its manifestations, the army, police, economy, administration, science, etc., and placed itself at the head of the community as a kind of superstate and supreme leader. The territories of the Russian Empire which had declared their autonomy or independence were reconquered by the Red Army during the civil war, the national movements were crushed by force, and their remnants were co-opted into party and Soviet organs. Independent national organisations were not allowed anywhere, but the Communist Party did create a kind of substitute through the policy of indigenisation (korenizatsiia) in the Twenties. Members of non-Russian peoples experienced to a certain extent positive discrimination, their language and traditions were fostered, and they were given preferential consideration with respect to incorporation into the new Soviet elites. This took place with the reservation and under the condition of absolute loyalty to the Soviet order.

The Bolsheviks were convinced that nationalism could only develop in bourgeois-capitalist society and that they had found the key to the better and universal world of the future. The "socialist nations" would "develop" and even "merge" in the final Communist society. They would not, however, seek separatism and independent statehood; rather, they would integrate free of conflict into the increasingly homogeneous Soviet society. It remains astonishing that the Communist Party was able to pursue an on the whole successful policy under such false preconditions. One of the reasons why is that the party leadership had no qualms about forcibly helping their ideological presumptions become reality if the latter failed to materialise. This was the dialectics of the revolution.

In the field of state law the Bolsheviks also developed an independent instrument to hold together the multinational state: Soviet federalism. This was a complicated system of graduated administrative-territorial autonomies from the union republics to the Autonomous Republics, Autonomous Regions, etc., right down to the national village soviets, which vested the large and numerous small nations and peoples with symbols of national independence without giving them genuine self-administration and self-determination. In political reality, Soviet federalism was annulled by the rigorous centralism inside the CPSU. A federalisation of the party was out of the question. However, as all major decisions were taken by party organs and merely executed by Soviet organs, Soviet federalism remained an empty shell as long as the party firmly held on to the reins of power. In the party's power crisis since the Seventies it became clear that Soviet federalism had developed in a decade-long process from a mere theoretical construct into reality. It finally became the gravedigger of the Soviet Union. Whereas party rule was initially reality and Soviet federalism only an apparent phenomenon this relationship had been reversed by the end of the Eighties.

When the Bolshevist party reconstituted the empire in the form of the Soviet Union it was not primarily motivated by an imperial patriotism, but by an ideology with much more far-reaching goals. The Russian revolutionaries had set out to build socialism, to assert justice and equality in society, to eliminate exploitation, and to bring history to its fruition. In order to achieve the goals which had been conceptually mapped out by Marx and given a political set of instruments by Lenin no sacrifice was too great, no bloodshed too excessive, and no instrument of power too infamous. Socialism as the greatest good and the substitute for the lost religious world not only fascinated the Russian intelligentsia in the 20th century but also found many supporters in the Western world, who were blind and deaf to the tremendous brutality with which Lenin pushed through the goals of history from the outset.

The ideology provided the legitimation for the most important institutions and structures of the Soviet system, whose creation had been completed by the mid-Thirties and which remained by and large unchanged until its end. The monopoly of power held by the Communist Party was only ideologically justifiable, a democratic legitimation was never sought. Rather, parliamentary democracy and political pluralism ranked as reactionary and as instruments of capitalism designed to exploit the working masses. The Communist Party embodied a progressive, higher form of democracy in the interest of the exploited proletariat and the peasants in the USSR with whom it was allied. The fundamentally absolutist tsarist monarchy was replaced by the absolute power of the Communist Party, exercised by the party leaders. The principle of autocracy was firmly rooted in Russian political culture. This contributed towards the stability of the new order.

The structural principles of the economy and of society were also derived from ideology: the liquidation without compensation of private property in industry and the nationalisation of all means of production. State administration was thus essentially identical with economic administration — in so far as it had no policing tasks. The planned economy was a central instrument of party rule over society. The elimination of the market, of profit and of personal interest in economic activity, of individual and of collective egotism more or less demanded the use of coercion and force to stimulate, reward and punish people. The new rulers created the corresponding conditions, since power and ownership were now in the hands of a single authority. This also corresponded in large measure with Russian tradition, since imperium and dominium had only separated at a late stage and incompletely in Russia. Ownership mentality was only weakly rooted, society tending to expect allocation and justice from above instead(2).

Furthermore, revolutionary socialism included the promise to put an end to Russia's constant backwardness vis-à-vis Europe once and for all and to catapult Russia from the rearguard into the vanguard of history in one fell swoop: a fascinating perspective for all patriots.

The Soviet Union, therefore, was held together up until into the Thirties by a revolutionary dictatorship which justified itself through a totalitarian ideology and which, at the same time, assumed in many respects the traditions the country had handed down. The Bolsheviks were determined to battle their way into the golden age amidst a world of enemies with ruthless force. In fact, enemies became a prerequisite for the functioning of the Soviet system. Stalin justified his "revolution from above" since the end of the Twenties by reference inter alia to capitalist encirclement and to the alleged danger of war. After the enemies on the outside failed to launch their attack new enemies inside the Soviet Union were feverishly invented: kulaks, Trotskyists, nationalists, spies, saboteurs, double-dealers, enemies of the people... — the millions of inhabitants and dead persons of the Gulag.

In the midst of a programme of mass terror Stalin proclaimed in 1936 that the creation of socialism had "in essence" been concluded. The original revolutionary ideology had exhausted itself, now it was time for terror to guarantee the stability of the Soviet Union. Terror and the Gulag not only stabilised the country through fear but also through profiteers. Hundreds of thousands of positions became vacant for social advancement and executive functions. Brezhnev's generation received its training and character formation during the Thirties. For two decades up until Stalin's death (1953) the Communist Party stepped back as the incumbent of power. The executors of dictatorship were primarily the organs of repression and terror.

Unlike any other event, Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union and the victory in the "Great Patriotic War" gave the Soviet Union new legitimation. Although the Stalinist regime was weakened at the end of the Thirties and the peoples of the USSR had to make incredible wartime sacrifices the Soviet power stood both internally and externally unassailable in 1945. It had established a considerable reputation among the Western allies, and even a number of anti-Communist émigrés made their peace with Stalin. The victory over Hitler Germany remained a central identity-creating event up until the end of the Soviet power and beyond this in the post-Communist Russian Federation. The memory of the defeat of the enemy replaced the increasingly pale hope of a Communist golden age in the future.

Victory in the Second World War shifted the balance of power in favour of the USSR and created the preconditions for the status of superpower and the military parity with the USA at the beginning of the Seventies. During the course of the Second World War the Soviet Union not only reestablished the western frontiers of the Russian Empire (without Poland and Finland), but also extended them by annexing Galicia, northern Bukovina, the Carpatho-Ukraine and northern East Prussia. Above all, however, the Red Army established the preconditions for the creation of an external empire extending to the River Elbe, which, following decades of dispute, had also been recognised — definitively, as it appeared at the time— by the West since 1975 as legitimate Soviet possession. Was not the steady expansion of the Soviet power, and since the Sixties, in many regions of the Third World too, proof of the correctness of the socialist path, for the successful leadership of the Communist Party and its general secretary?

The Soviet leaders after Stalin also took resolute measures in two areas in an effort to stabilise the country internally. Mass terror was scaled down, and Khrushchev promised in an encoded form during the 20th Party Congress in 1956 that there would no longer be social catastrophes such as the collectivisation of the agricultural sector. Above all, however, assurances were made for the security of life and limb of the elites, the nomenklatura. As opposed to the Stalin era, purges were no longer a threat to the life of those involved. Since the mid-Sixties, the social status of a member of the nomenklatura was generally retained even if he/she was ousted from office.

In addition, the population's standard of living had been increasing slowly but noticeably since the mid-Fifties, especially in the rapidly expanding cities. The increase in agricultural production, housing construction, and the growing production of goods for everyday needs has decisively contributed towards internal stability during the decades since Stalin's death. Furthermore, there was a substantial extension of the education offered, which not only eliminated illiteracy once and for all. With regard to education and training the Soviet Union overtook some countries in Southern Europe and the southern states of the USA. In certain respects, therefore, a modernisation did take place in the USSR: industrialisation, urbanisation and the education explosion can be confirmed by extensive and impressive figures. The party, however, only wanted a pseudo modernisation: factory without parliament, education with censorship, science without the freedom of information and the opening to the West. In the long term, such a semi-modernisation was not sustainable.

Delegitimation of the Soviet System

Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was an all-embracing and binding view of the world, which claimed to know the objective truth about nature, history, and thus mankind. This ideology was a major foundation of the Soviet system. It not only pervaded and determined science and education, culture and propaganda. It also formed the decisive legitimation for the rule of the CPSU. The unrestricted exercise of power could thus be justified from ideology, since this took place in the name of truth and justice, in other words, on a quasi-religious basis. Although Soviet ideology continued to exist in principle until the end of the USSR its force of persuasion and mobilisation effects had already begun to wane years before.

Since the Sixties, Marxism-Leninism had become to an increasing extent a facade behind which the decline of the system was invisibly in progress. Central statements on the creation of Communism became the object of scorn and derision. A rapidly diminishing number of people believed in what they had to learn at school and at university, what they saw every day on the television, and what they had to reproduce to simulate conformity. In the long term, however, no system can survive if there are not at least core groups which share basic orientations and basic values — out of conviction, not opportunism. There is no Communism without Communists, and just as there is no democracy without democrats.

As the leader among Stalin's successors who was probably more inspired than his predecessor and his successors by the correctness of Marxism-Leninism, Khrushchev tried to reinvigorate ideology with new power of conviction. His de-Stalinisation, a partial criticism of Stalin and his policies, was aimed at purging socialism of the crimes of the past and giving it a new legitimation. This, however, failed. Everyone was dissatisfied with de-Stalinisation: the leadership elites, since they feared that they themselves might be dragged into the whirlpool which could wash away the basis of the entire Soviet system, and the advocates of the "thaw", since they viewed de-Stalinisation as half-hearted and inconsistent.

Nevertheless, Khrushchev's partial condemnation of Stalin did become an accepted practice in an unintended way. All successors have dissociated themselves along similar lines from their respective predecessors, declared them to be unpersons, and thus contributed considerably to the delegitimation of the Soviet system. The Brezhnev leadership put a taboo on Khrushchev: after 1985 his epoch was contemptuously referred to as the "time of stagnation", indeed "totalitarianism". The personality cult for the respective leader was so imperious that it necessitated the removal of all predecessors from the power pedestal. This recurrent, and thus predictable, transformation from a great leader to an unperson inevitably caused cynicism and scorn in society. The Soviet power destroyed its own history. Only Lenin shone in untarnished heroic glory; every new leader since Stalin declared himself to be the "most loyal pupil of Lenin". According to its own self-depiction, the USSR was ruled by incompetent, unworthy or even criminal leaders during most of its seventy-year history.

The central institution of the Soviet system was the CPSU. After initially functioning as the decisive binding force of cohesion the crisis of its rule became the most important cause for the downfall of the state. How does a revolutionary party which fails to carry out a revolution legitimise itself? This is basically what the crisis was all about. The CPSU was an apparatus for the seizure and extension of power. For the administration of the state and of the economy, in other words, for the preservation of the status quo, it was superfluous, especially since parallel state Soviet organs and the economic bureaucracy existed which assumed executive functions.

The juxtaposition of leadership apparatuses, of which one had the task of giving the orders and the other of carrying them out, already constituted a structural dilemma from the start. It had been designed to mobilise the final reserves in times of war and crisis. Under normal conditions at home and in external relations the already cumbersome bureaucracy became even more inefficient and prone to corruption through the party apparatus. Furthermore, the party apparatus was responsible for everything but accountable for nothing, since it entrusted other organs with the execution of its decisions.

A central area of control is personnel policy. Lenin's party had developed a sophisticated set of instruments for this purpose in order to hold all the reins of power. Tens of thousands of posts at the senior administrative-territorial levels and hundreds of thousands of executive functions at lower levels and in the provinces could only be filled in all areas of the state, economy, armed forces, science, etc., on the instruction or with the approval of the relevant party committee. This Soviet elite or nomenklatura possessed de facto the right of disposal over goods, services and power. Since the Sixties and the end of the purges it increasingly became a self-contained and hierarchically structured stratum with a tendency towards self-recruitment. Whereas upward mobility was possible during the Stalin era through terror the nomenklatura under Brezhnev tended, due to increasingly scare resources, to be immobile, safeguard the status quo, and reject all reforms for fear of losing their privileges. The motto at that time was "stability of the cadres". This meant social security for those who had become insiders. Corruption grew during the last decades of the Soviet Union on a previously unknown scale. It extended into the Politburo and the Brezhnev family. The Soviet Union became a self-service operation for the nomenklatura.

As a rule, upward social mobility in all fields, even those far below the nomenklatura, presupposed membership in the CPSU. This had two consequences: people pushed their way into the party who wanted to make a career for themselves; it sufficed to demonstrate political and ideological conformism. "Faithful" Communists were increasingly rare in successive elites. At the same time, over 90 per cent of the population were excluded from social advancement from the start; in 1988, the 19.5 million members of the CPSU accounted for roughly 7 per cent of the total population. No society in the technological age can afford with impunity a recruitment of elites in which opportunism is rewarded whilst abilities and talents are disregarded and excluded on a large scale.

The dissolution phenomena of Marxism-Leninism were compounded by the inefficiency of single-party rule. The party had also failed to redeem its pledges in earlier years, but was always able up until the Sixties to put the blame on external and internal enemies. Khrushchev had promised to "pull level with and overtake" Western industrialised countries by 1980 with respect to the standard of living; the foundations of Communism were to be established in 1980. The price the party was to pay for these grotesquely false forecasts was the loss of legitimacy.

This loss was intensified by the fact that although society had changed considerably during the post-Stalinist decades the basic pattern of the political system had remained the same. Millions of people had been given a high level of school education and professional training and an urban middle class had emerged which had consumer desires and expectations of comfort resembling those in Western societies but which was excluded from political participation.

The phenomena of stagnation had also become apparent since the Seventies with regard to social change. The school and education system was unable to keep pace with growing expectations; the health care system could not extend beyond an elementary basic service. There was a serious housing shortage in urban areas; in the mid-Eighties at least 20 per cent of the urban population were still living in municipal housing, which had to be shared between several non-related tenants. During the Brezhnev era the opportunities for social advancement declined. Whereas roughly 60 per cent of school leavers with a university entrance entitlement actually took up studies at the beginning of the Sixties the corresponding figure had fallen to only 15 per cent in 1977 (excluding in both cases evening-class and correspondence students). At the same time, there was a growing number of overqualified graduates who could not be given appropriate employment. The climate in society deteriorated. The pessimism of the Eighties differed markedly from the hopeful mood of departure after Stalin's death.

The aged party leadership treated a well-educated urban populated like immature children. The people had learned how to read and write, but the party determined what they should read and write, which pictures they should see, and which music they should hear. They were denied those elementary personal and political freedoms which had been accepted in Europe and North America since the 18th century: religious freedom and freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, the right to establish political associations. The ideologically based state was unwilling to abandon its totalitarian claim to power, even though it was increasingly unable to justify it.

Whereas the party leadership desperately held clung to the status quo, forces of societal self-organisation had been stirring since the Sixties. The dissidents, i.e. civil rights groups, were just the tip of the iceberg. Like most other social groups, they did not fundamentally question the Soviet system but urged its representatives to comply with the laws they had issued. The country's constitution included an impressive list of human and civil rights. The insistence on the rule of law and on the serious consideration of legal norms amounted in essence to an unhinging of single-party rule, since the latter was based on the fact that the party leadership was not subjected to any laws and that politics always took precedence over law.

The delegitimation also had a further important aspect: the diminishing efficiency of the centrally planned economy. Up until the mid-Seventies there had been a growth in gross national product; the standard of living improved. Since then, the economy was, according to the non-official calculations of Russian experts, making no headway and even recorded a decline after the mid-Eighties(3). The zero and negative growth of the economy and of the standard of living, which was officially denied up until the end of the Eighties, meant a serious strain for party rule. The demands of the people had increased substantially in comparison with the Stalin era; the gap between expectations and reality grew ever wider.

The economic crisis was all the more serious due to the fact that it was system-induced, i.e. its causes were rooted in the country's economic order. Consequently, as shown by perestroika after 1986, it could not be remedied on the basis of existing structures. The growth recorded during the Fifties and Sixties had been achieved through cheap raw materials and sources of energy as well as through the continuous influx of cheap labour. The old system failed when population growth came to a standstill and a transition from extensive to intensive growth was required. The increasingly expensive extraction of raw materials and energy and the extensive stagnation with regard to labour were not offset by productivity growth and quality improvement. The greater the development of technological progress and social differentiation, the greater the negative impact of the central allocation and planned economy. The growing contextual complexities could no longer be identified and planned through economic index figures. Above all, the motivating effect of the market, competition and profit could not be replaced by any system of allocation and control, regardless of how sophisticated it may have been. Initiative, creativity and the striving for profit maximisation drifted into the shadow economy and corruption after the disciplining and deterrent effect of Stalinist terror had ceased to be effective.

An additional strain was caused by the arms build-up during the Brezhnev era. Notwithstanding the detente in relationships with the West, the military-industrial complex was extended as a prerequisite and guarantor of the Soviet world power status. According to the unofficial calculations of Russian economists, military spending in the Eighties accounted for 20 to 25 per cent of gross national product; this represented four times the corresponding burden in the USA. The arms industry shaped the character of the entire Soviet economy, since all other sectors were given, as it were, the "leftovers" when it came to the allocation of goods, services and labour. There was a negative value added, therefore, in most civilian fields, i.e. more was expended — with world market prices as a referential basis — than generated. The much poorer supply of goods and services to people in the USSR in comparison with the Western industrialised countries was being perceived by a growing share of the Soviet population since the beginning of the Eighties.

This was connected with the gradual penetration of the Iron Curtain since the Fifties. Stalin was quite rightly convinced that the rigorous isolation from the outside world was a fundamental precondition for the stability of the Soviet system. The partial outward opening and the increasingly uncontrollable exchange of information with the West contributed substantially to the delegitimation of the Soviet system. Roughly 2 per cent of Soviet citizens were able to receive foreign radio stations in 1940, 8 per cent in 1950, and about half of the population in the Seventies. Although Western stations were jammed, in some cases heavily, up until the end of the Eighties they did break the information monopoly of the Soviet propaganda and provide a strongly contrasting picture of the Soviet Union and of the West(4).

Through the growing contacts between industry and science and the Western outside world and through Soviet expansion in the Third World tens of thousands of members of Soviet elites were able to travel abroad. The sense of being threatened diminished. Stereotyped enemies, such as NATO and American imperialism, paled, even though they were not entirely discarded at an official level. The sense of living in a fortress declined, and with it the willingness of the elites to invest effort in the defence of an order of whose superiority they were less and less convinced. the costs of world power status were highly unpopular at home and had a delegitimating effect. The reaching out of Soviet politics since the Sixties to Central America, the Near East, Black Africa and Southeast Asia had no support in large sections of the population. This expansion was often viewed as a burden and overengagement. The Soviet society was poor. Why should enormous sums of money be spent on supporting Communists in Cuba and Vietnam or for regimes with a "socialist orientation" in Africa?

In 1979, the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan, one of the main recipients of Soviet aid, to keep a pro-Soviet regime in power. The war in Afghanistan was never popular. For this reason, it was hushed up and denied in the Soviet media. At the same time, Russian-langauge radio stations abroad broadcast detailed reports. Both this and the subsequent glasnost' with respect to the brutality and futility of the war did considerable damage to the authority of the party leadership.

In summary, it is fair to claim that the Soviet system perished because of mutually compounding negative experiences in many areas. The crisis of ideology and of party rule encountered a society with growing demands in terms of participation and prosperity, whereas the economy achieved less and less and exaggerated world power politics cost more and more. The traditional Communist instruments of establishing legitimation malfunctioned to an increasing extent. The regime was not capable of developing new ones. When Gorbachev made the corresponding attempt to do so through perestroika the system fell apart at the seams.

The Nations as a Developmental Alternative

The collapse of a political order does not necessarily lead to the fall of the state and empire. There are two reasons why it did in the case of the Soviet Union. First, the Communist Party had reconstituted the empire and developed the instruments of rule, which meant that, following the party's loss of power, there was no other force to hold the empire together. Second, an alternative power had evolved in the bosom of the old order which then signposted the only way out of the crisis at the end of the Eighties: the nations. An unspent nationalism defeated the spent Communist ideology and its discredited institutions.

The nation formation which had begun in the Russian Empire of the 19th century had also continued after 1917. At the end of the Soviet period the nations were more firmly structured socially and had a more strongly anchored awareness than when it began. This nation formation had special characteristics under Communist rule and was less visible than elsewhere. It shrouded itself in the cloak of Soviet ideology and took place for decades within the frame of the Communist Party. It was not orientated to separatism and independent state formation, but to regional and national participation. As parts of the "Soviet people" the demands were for consideration of cultural and financial interests. The nation formation of the non-Russian peoples in fact partly took place in the medium of the Russian language, since the official socialisation was often connected with the Russification of language, with Russian asserting itself as a "second mother tongue" among Soviet nations. Neither this nor the use of force nor elite cooptation were able in the long term to stop nation formation.

One of the reasons for this was the specific nature of Soviet modernisation. Especially the education explosion contributed towards the emergence of new intelligentsia strata among all peoples in the post-Stalinist era. Contrary to the ideological premise, they did not become an indistinguishable part of one Soviet society, but deliberately identified with their respective peoples. These social forces became the agents of a new nationalism — a process which shows many parallels to both the classic European national movements and to decolonialisation in the Third World. The new national intelligentsia strata had been moving into leading positions in their republics since the Fifties. They competed with Russians for social advancement and popular jobs. Although the leadership of the state as a whole remained by and large in Russian hands an unstoppable indigenisation took place in the individual republics. During the Eighties, therefore, the share of indigenous persons in many institutions and elite groups there was greater than the share of the corresponding ethnic group in the population.

In the Soviet Union numerous processes of nation formation took place without the emergence before the mid-Eighties of powerful national movements comparable to those in Europe in the 19th century or with the anticolonial liberation movements in the Third World. How can this be explained? The Soviet apparatus of repression remained intact to the very end. It was capable of using force on a massive scale. The memory of the extermination of the national intelligentsia in the Thirties and of the subsequent mass deportations from the Baltic region, West Ukraine and Bessarabia made it essential for the new national awareness to demonstrate mimikri, the conformity to Soviet realities. The latter allowed the formation of ethnic "old-boy" networks, the articulation of regional economic interests, and demands for native-language films and books (which had to fit in, of course, with the Communist frame). The formation of national associations or even parties, on the other hand, the call for a national right of self-determination, and the hoisting of national flags remained criminal acts until the end of the Eighties.

The virtual deluge of national movements at the end of the Eighties, therefore, was also the consequence of decades of pent-up energy. What had existed as a potential possibility for many years rapidly took on a concrete shape after the Soviet centralist state could no longer fight these tendencies and after it became clear that the "emperor was naked". Since spring 1988, the CPSU began disintegrating into national components. This tendency became irresistible throughout the land; the nationalisation of the CPSU stood the Soviet order on its head and made it clear to the surprised leadership in Moscow that the national idea was not the cause of just a few extremists and dissidents, as had been officially claimed, but that it had undermined the republics. Without the party apparatus, the latter could only be ruled from Moscow with the support of tanks.

As opposed to the classic European national movements the fall of the Soviet Union was characterised by a merging of cultural and political nationalism. The dissolution of the state was effected through the declarations of sovereignty by the union republics. Estonia was the first to make this move in November 1988. Kirgizstan was the final constituent state of the USSR to follow suit in December 1990(5). The "sovereignisation" continued in the Autonomous Republics and, to a certain extent, at the level of further subordinate organisational units. The two basic elements of almost all declarations of sovereignty were: 1. the claim to sole ownership of land, mineral resources, and all means of production by the respective republic, and 2. the confirmation of the priority of the laws of the republic over the laws of the union or the claim to a right of veto against the normative acts of the union. De facto, the declarations of sovereignty made the Soviet constitution of 1977 worthless.

After spring 1990, a number of republics went a step further and declared their withdrawal from the union (Lithuania, 11 March 1990) or expressly declared full independence as a concrete and short-term policy goal (Estonia, 30 March 1990; Latvia, 4 May 1990; Armenia, 23 August 1990; Georgia, 14 November 1990). Whereas sovereignty was ambiguous in the conceptual definition of Soviet state law and did not rule out incorporation in an overall state, independence meant the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During or shortly after the Moscow putsch in August 1991 all republics with the exception of Russia declared their independent statehood; Kazakhstan was the last on 16 December 1991.

The end of the empire could have been less total or could have been protracted to an even greater degree if the determined will had existed on the Russian side to sustain the USSR. As opposed to 1917, when the great majority of political forces in Russia, from the monarchists to the Bolsheviks, wanted the continued existence of the Russian Empire, there were hardly any defenders of the old centralistic structures during the final phase of the Soviet Union. The newly forming Russian democrats rejected the imperial Communist legacy and were convinced that democracy and the rule of law in their country only stood a chance if the right of self-determination was guaranteed for all peoples. Communists and radical nationalists viewed Russia as the victim of the empire, the paymaster, which, in addition, had been discriminated. For in Russia, as opposed to the other republics, there had been no separate communist party organisations and no separate academy of sciences. In fact, some claimed that even a separate capital was missing. The centralistic Soviet state was generally regarded as a burden and rejected. In Russia, however, again in contrast with many republics, there was no clear notion, let alone consensus, on what should replace the USSR.


  1. G. Fedotov, "Sub'da imperi", in: Novi -urnal, Vol. 16, 1947, p. 163.
  2. G. Simon, "Zukunft aus der Vergangenheit. Elemente der politischen Kultur in Russland", in: Osteuropa, 5/1995, pp. 455-482.
  3. G. and N. Simon, Verfall und Untergang des sowjetischen Imperiums, Munich: DTV 1993, p. 107.
  4. S. White, Gorbachev in Power, Cambridge: University Press 1990, p. 59.
  5. G. Simon, "Probleme der Staatsbildung auf dem Territorium der frueheren Sowjetunion", in: W. Weidenfeld (ed.), Demokratie und Marktwirtschaft in Osteuropa, Guetersloh: Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung 1993, p. 147; G. Brunner, Nationalitaetenprobleme und Minderheitenkonflikte in Osteuropa, Guetersloh: Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung 1993, p. 27.

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