Originally published June-July 1991
by Stephen Schwartz
Arguments and Facts International [Moscow-London]
January 7, 2018
At the beginning of the process of reform in the Soviet Union, late in 1987, former U.S. defence secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote, “Tensions within the Soviet system make it appear that some kind of reversion to a more normal civic existence… could conceivably take place. And something like that is what Gorbachev seems to have promised the world.”
However, Rumsfeld at that time also issued a warning against excessive optimism. He noted, “We hail Gorbachev while forgetting the lessons of Lenin and Khrushchev, Stalin and Brezhnev. Vladimir Voinovich, in analysing glasnost (Gorbachev’s policy of “candour” in public affairs – author’s note), has cited an appropriate precedent even further back, warning of the parallel between Gorbachev and tsar Aleksandr II, who ruled in the middle of the 19th century. ‘Only when it became clear that certain basic reforms… could no longer be avoided, were these reforms decreed.’ Rumsfeld, still citing Voinovich, then pointed out that the liberalization of Aleksandr II gave way to terror, a rightist reaction, and eventually, the disaster of 1917.
Thus, Gorbachev is not the first Russian or Soviet leader to preach reform once it has become unavoidable. His most famous predecessor on this road might be Lenin himself, founder of the Soviet state, who adopted the New Economic Policy or N.E.P., including restoration of private enterprise, in order to prolong the overall rule of the Communist Party.
Indeed, Stalin, to prevent a complete collapse of his regime during the Second World War, was compelled to re-establish religious worship in the Soviet Union, and dropped typical Communist propaganda slogans, ordering a return to Russian nationalism.
In both cases, what appeared to be healthy trends, acclaimed by sympathizers and even some opponents of Communism, were paired with equally negative actions or reversed once the immediate crisis was past. By 1930, private and foreign capital were once again repressed in Russia. Within a year of war’s end in 1945, writers and others who had rallied to defend Russian culture from Nazi aggression were subjected to incredible abuse, and a new wave of Stalinist purges began.
Sadly, Rumsfeld’s warning must now be seen as a timely one. Certainly, whether his prediction turns out to be correct in the long run, the majority of American policy and business leaders no longer profess the enthusiastic hopes and plans about Soviet-Western cooperation and the transformation of the Soviet system that were in vogue even a year ago.
For most informed Americans, the probable outcome for Russia appears bleaker than ever. In the place of an inefficient socialism that encouraged scarcity, there has appeared a wholesale poverty… The past threat of Soviet revolutionary expansionism has been replaced by the spectre of wholesale ethnic warfare. With the fall of the party bureaucracy has come the emergence of a powerful Soviet mafia.
The picture of Russia’s future held by American leaders increasingly resembles an “India of the North:” a country that may achieve a partial or superficial democratisation, but which is simply too handicapped by cultural factors to attain the stability and prosperity for which it hopes. With the political caste system and hypertrophied state structure remaining in place, such a power, like India, might find its role in the world greatly diminished.
These perceptions have contributed to and been reinforced by disappointments in the economic area. Many joint ventures have been discussed, but few have weathered the process of development such that real returns may be reported, to say nothing of profitable results.
From the beginning, the presumption has been that there was enough “social energy” in the rank and file of Russian society to impel the transformation forward, and that it only needed tapping. Along with the early period of euphoria about potential Soviet-Western economic growth came a rush of Western “think tanks” and other agglomerations of experts, offering advice on the rapid transformation of the Russian internal market. Yet none of the proposals tendered to Soviet leadership has proven workable, and not one of the basic problems of the system has been resolved.
Privatisation of state owned enterprises is still a dream. The central issue of land tenure has not been addressed.
In his 1987 text, Rumsfeld emphasized, “we would be mistaken to perceive change in the Soviet Union as a process resembling change in the U.S.” This seems to be the key to the matter; change is more or less continuous in the West, but in the East change has been slow and spasmodic. With the rise of Communist ideology, and its rejection of conscience and morality in favour of absolute obedience to the elite, a tendency to change direction in a whimsical or panicky fashion became more pronounced.
In addition to wild swings in policy, Soviet rule has been characterized by contradictions that cannot but appear to be products, if not of deliberate deceit, then of a remarkable failure to understand the meaning and consequences of one’s actions.
With the leadership seemingly incapable of developing responsible policies that would lead to the exercise of meaningful direction, nothing in the post-Soviet conundrum is more troubling to Americans than the threat of a colossal break-up on ethnic lines, with the emergence of new warring states and armies.