You do good, and no one thanks you.
—Boris Godunov, Alexander Pushkin
On December 23, 1991, two days before he left office as the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had a final meeting with his protégé turned tormentor, Boris Yeltsin. After a few drinks—cognac for Gorbachev, vodka for Yeltsin—the two men got down to business. They discussed the pension the departing Soviet president would receive in retirement (around 4,000 rubles—or $40—a month), the secret files containing evidence of crimes like the Katyn Forest massacre, and the transfer of the nuclear suitcase. The formalities over, victor and vanquished retired to their respective quarters. “It’s over,” gloated the towering Russian president. “That’s the last time I will have to go and see him.” Yeltsin’s aide, Lev Sukhanov, pointed triumphantly to a map of Russia on the wall, straddling 11 time zones. “On this whole territory there is now nobody above you,” he told his boss. Replied Yeltsin, “[F]or this, life has been worth living.”
The mood in the Gorbachev camp was, predictably, very different. Alexander Yakovlev, a former Soviet ambassador to Canada who turned himself into the ideologist of perestroika, found his friend “lying on the sofa with tears in his eyes.” The man celebrated in the West for ending the Cold War and launching the world’s first communist state on the path to democracy could barely bring himself to speak. “You see, Sasha, that’s it,” he murmured. Yakovlev felt a lump in his throat. “I was so sorry for him,” he wrote later. “Here is the person who was yesterday a tsar of cardinal changes in the world and in his own country, the executor of the fate of billions of people in the world, and today he is the lifeless victim of another crisis of history.”
There was a Shakespearean quality to the downfall of Gorbachev. Like all great tragic figures, he was destroyed by the very forces he had set in motion. He gave away his empire to his children and raged at their ingratitude. “Yesterday hardly anyone had heard of them,” he said of the republican leaders who formally declared an end to the Soviet Union along with Yeltsin, “but tomorrow they will be heads of independent states. What did it matter what fate they were preparing for their nations?”
It is tempting to see the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of its last leader as primarily a struggle for power between two powerful, charismatic personalities. This is certainly the approach adopted by the former Irish Times reporter and Moscow correspondent Conor O’Clery in his vividly written new book, Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union. Originally allies, the two leaders became bitter rivals: Gorbachev subjected Yeltsin to a political show trial in November 1987, and later, Yeltsin used his power base as the first popularly elected president of Russia to deprive his one-time patron of his job.
As a member of the small band of foreign correspondents who covered the collapse of communism and the demise of the Soviet Union, I played my part in turning the Gorbachev-Yeltsin saga into a great journalistic potboiler. It was easy for readers to relate to these outsized personalities—the father of perestroika and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize versus the hard-drinking radical determined to destroy the very system that had created him. But the media’s penchant for reducing everything to what Gorbachev called “the human factor” diverted attention from the economic, social, and political forces that were the real engine of the revolutionary changes sweeping Russia.
Another way of looking at the story of communism’s collapse—and the recent street protests in Moscow—is to view the principal characters as actors with pre-assigned roles in a much larger historical drama. Gorbachev, after all, did not spring fully formed out of nowhere. He was the product of his times. He represented a generation of educated Soviets, known as shestidesiatniki (“men of the ’60s”), who had witnessed the dashed reform movement of Nikita Khrushchev and wanted to get the country moving again after the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Yeltsin responded to the frustrations of ordinary Russians at the squandering of Mother Russia’s vast natural resources on useless ideological experiments, both at home and abroad. Vladimir Putin rose to power on a wave of popular concern over the breakdown in law and order, working to restore a strong state authority in reaction to the centrifugal forces set in motion by his immediate predecessors. We are now witnessing the inevitable counter-reaction to Putin, who benefited from a rise in oil prices but failed to resolve any of Russia’s underlying economic and social problems. If the United States is going to develop an effective long-term policy toward Russia, we need to take account of these natural cycles of Russian history, rather than hang our hopes on the “reformist” credentials of this or that Russian leader.
The dust jacket to Moscow, December 25, 1991 provides an excellent summary of the “Great Man” interpretation of the Soviet collapse: “[T]he totalitarian system founded by Lenin and enforced by Stalin…is a story of rivalry, treachery, and betrayals, driven to its conclusion by the bitter relationship between two giant figures of the twentieth century.” It is a statement that could have been penned by the nineteenth-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who believed that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Contrast this with the Tolstoyan view of history in War and Peace, as reflected by the unassuming General Kutuzov who sleeps peacefully in his tent while Napoleon rushes around, issuing frantic instructions to his followers. Napoleon was convinced that he could change history; Kutuzov understood that he was merely the pawn of larger historical forces. We know who won that one.
Proponents of the “Great Man” theory often claim that no one predicted the remarkable events that unfolded at the end of 1991, but this is not the case. Four decades earlier, the American diplomat George Kennan outlined various scenarios for the overthrow or mellowing of Soviet power in a series of dispatches and reports, notably his now-classic, anonymous “X article,” which appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1947. He noted prophetically that Soviet power “bears within it the seeds of its own decay,” and predicted that “the chaos and weakness of Russian society would be revealed in forms beyond description” if disunity ever seized the Communist Party. Then there is this remarkable November 1983 prediction by the veteran American intelligence analyst Herbert Meyer:
The Soviet Union has failed utterly to become a country. After sixty-six years of communist rule, the Soviet Union remains a nineteenth-century-style empire, comprised of more than 100 nationality groups and dominated by the Russians. There is not one major nationality group that is content with the present, Russian-controlled arrangement; not one that does not yearn for its political and economic freedom. It’s hard to imagine how the world’s last empire can survive into the twenty-first century except under highly favorable conditions of economics and demographics—conditions that do not, and will not, exist.
Before my arrival in Moscow in the summer of 1988 as a Washington Post correspondent, I made a point of visiting several Soviet satellite countries to better understand the nature of Moscow’s imperial burden. While I had no idea that the system would fall apart so quickly, the contradictions were clearly visible. In Nicaragua, for example, I ran into a KGB agent masquerading as a Soviet foreign correspondent who made no secret of his disillusionment with the left-wing Sandinista government that was being kept afloat by Soviet economic assistance. It was clear by then, from similar sentiments that were already creeping into the state-run media, that the Soviet elite had finally tired of propping up Marxist regimes in the Third World.
I moved on to Czechoslovakia, where I dropped in on the playwright Vaclav Havel, then a lonely dissident harassed by the secret police. He, too, sensed that the forces of history were on the move. “Something has to change here,” he said. “Nobody knows when and how that change will come, but it will come.” The Polish dissident Adam Michnik was more focused on the lessons of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe when I visited him in Warsaw. “In Poland, in August 1980, it was human beings who went on strike,” he told me. “In the Soviet Union we are witnessing a strike of inanimate objects.”
Of course, none of this was news to Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders, who understood the absurdities of Russia’s economic situation better than outsiders. According to standard Marxist-Leninist theory, a metropolis is meant to exploit its colonies for its own benefit, using them as a source of cheap raw materials and a dumping ground for shoddy industrial goods. In the Soviet case, everything was reversed. Russia exported oil at rock-bottom prices to places like Estonia, Poland, and Nicaragua. Sometimes it received overpriced consumer items in return for this oil; at other times, nothing at all. The rapacious system of central planning exploited everyone, Russians most of all.
With hindsight, the most remarkable aspect of Soviet communism is that it lasted for as long as it did. Had vast amounts of oil not been discovered in western Siberia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seems likely that Soviet leaders would have been compelled to embrace radical market-style reforms long before Gorbachev came to power. In the words of one of Gorbachev’s advisers, the communist theoretician Otto Latsis, “our command-and-administer system had stopped working effectively by the early ’70s, but the failure was masked for an entire decade by huge incomes from oil.” Gorbachev’s election coincided with a collapse in international oil prices and a sharp decline in Soviet oil production that was itself the result of grossly inefficient extraction methods. The fact is that Gorbachev had very little choice when he decided to launch perestroika. If anything, he was acting far too late.
O’Clery is a practitioner of the “what Yeltsin ate for breakfast” style of narrative history. (On the morning of December 25, 1991, it was “thin oatmeal porridge and tea followed by eggs, onions, and tomatoes fried in butter.”) Details are piled upon details to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be present during the death throes of a once-mighty superpower. We sympathize with the Gorbachevs as they are evicted almost overnight from their residence. After discovering that Yeltsin’s security men have turned their belongings upside down, Gorbachev helps his wife and daughter sort through their personal papers. Fearing another coup, Raisa has already destroyed a collection of love letters written by her husband.
O’Clery excels in the art of sketching one- or two-sentence portraits of his various actors and the role they played in the collapse of communism. He describes the KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov as a “short, baby-faced…conspiracy theorist with a taste for Chivas Regal who wore a cardigan under his jacket and looked more like a college professor than a Soviet spymaster.” Another hardliner, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, is depicted as “a rotund economist who liked loud silk ties and giggled a lot…a crew-cut xenophobe, known contemptuously as ‘Porcupig.’ ” The anti-Gorbachev cabal includes Boris Pugo, “a soft-spoken balding Latvian with tufts of hair sticking up on each side in clown-like fashion.”
Where O’Clery is less adept is weaving analysis into his breathless narrative. He tells us how the Soviet Union collapsed, but does not really explain why, other than as the offshoot of a ruthless political struggle. He sums up the Gorbachev era by quoting Soviet journalist Inna Muravyeva, who wrote that the father of glasnost “bequeathed to Russia inflation, beggars in the street, millionaires, and 80 percent of people living on the poverty line, but also Andrei Sakharov and the realization of the value of a person as a proud human being.” But the word “oil” is barely mentioned in the 336-page book, and there is little discussion of the root causes of the country’s economic decline.
Realizing that it is impossible to condense the story of the Soviet collapse into a single day, even though this is the premise of his book, O’Clery is obliged to include frequent flashbacks charting the course of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin psychodrama. The truth is that the real drama took place in the years and months leading up to the end, particularly the failed coup of August 1991, which resulted in the banning of the Communist Party. By the time the country finally disintegrated, many Russians were too exhausted to pay much attention.
My most vivid memory of December 25, 1991, is a sense of stunning anti-climax. We had already written our obituaries of the Soviet Union and knew exactly what was going to happen. I spent the day with my family and a few foreign-correspondent friends in our dacha in the bucolic Moscow countryside, opening presents and enjoying a traditional Christmas lunch. In the evening, we drove to Red Square to see the red flag of communism being hauled down from the Kremlin for the last time. A light snow was falling. Few Russians were on hand to witness one of the most momentous events of the twentieth century. I was reminded of the famous words that led to the dissolution of the Duma during the Bolshevik revolution 74 years before: “The guard is tired.”
The great experiment had come to an end, almost without a fight. There were 15 million members of the Soviet Communist Party when it was finally wound up, but not a single one came to its defense when Yeltsin ordered the closure of party headquarters. When the end came, the Communists were too exhausted and dispirited to fight back; the more enterprising among them discovered that they could profit handsomely from the emerging system of wild capitalism.
There are almost as many theories about the Soviet collapse as there are historians. At a recent conference organized by the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, the only common point of agreement was that internal factors were infinitely more important than external factors (e.g., Ronald Reagan and the United States, or even Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland in 1979). For what it’s worth, I remain convinced (now as in 1991) that communism “was not defeated by any one individual or even a combination of individuals. In the last resort, communism defeated itself.” The Soviet Union passed away from natural exhaustion, which coincidentally set in after a period of “three score years and ten,” the biblical lifespan of the human organism.
To argue that the collapse of communism was inevitable does not mean that individuals like Gorbachev and Yeltsin played no role at all in shaping events. On the contrary, both men made vital contributions to the peaceful dismantling of communism. Communism may have been doomed, but it did not have to collapse when it did, the way it did. Some 16 million ethnic Russians lived outside the boundaries of the Russian republic. Had Communist leaders chosen to play the card of aggrieved Russian nationalism in a bid to remain in power, in the manner of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, the Soviet Union could have turned into what Secretary of State James Baker called “a Yugoslavia with nukes.”
The paradox is that Gorbachev, in particular, achieved something that was almost the complete opposite of his original intention. He wanted to reinvigorate the Soviet system, much as Franklin Roosevelt had rescued American capitalism. To his surprise and dismay, he ended up dismantling the mightiest totalitarian empire ever created. His economic blunders—the budget deficit rose from just over 3 percent of GDP when he came to power to a staggering 20 to 30 percent by the time he stepped down—did more to hasten the end of the “evil empire” than anything Ronald Reagan could possibly have devised. But he remained faithful to one fundamental principle: He would not use violence either to preserve his own power or keep the Soviet empire intact. For that, we should all be incredibly grateful.
Let us imagine for the sake of argument that Gorbachev had never left Stavropol and an ultra-conservative had come to power in 1985. The Soviet Union would have been condemned to a few more years of drift and stagnation, but the underlying problems would have grown even more acute. A crisis would have occurred sooner or later for the reasons identified by George Kennan and Herbert Meyer. Events would have taken a different, possibly more violent course. But my guess is that we would have ended up very close to where we are today, with an authoritarian Putin-like figure struggling to hold on to political power and control of the country’s vast natural resources.
If there is a lesson in all this for how we in the West should deal with Russia today, it is that we should pay less attention to individuals and more to the forces that shape Russian history. In my experience, political leaders are even more seduced by the belief in the value of personal relationships than journalists. Successive U.S. presidents identified first with Gorbachev, then with Yeltsin, and finally with Putin (remember George W. Bush looking into Putin’s eyes and getting “a sense of his soul”). All were dubbed “reformers” worthy of American support at one point or another—but, for different reasons, all proved disappointing in the end. (FDR had similar illusions about Stalin.) We would have done better to engage at all levels with Mother Russia, in all her bewildering contradictions, than look for winners and losers in the murky game of Kremlin politics.
It is striking to note that American prestige has been greatest in Russia when we have interfered the least. During the Cold War, American products and American culture were all the rage in the Soviet Union, precisely because they were forbidden fruit. A humble pair of Levi’s jeans or a bootlegged Bob Dylan cassette went for astronomical prices on the black market, and millions of Russians secretly tuned into the Voice of America. By contrast, few self-respecting Russians today are openly “pro-American.” The lesson for us is the same that Kennan drew decades ago: Rather than lecturing Russians on democracy and free markets, we would be better off perfecting our own society and living up to our own values.
Just because the fall of communism was predictable does not mean history is incapable of surprising twists and turns. It is foolish to predict with any certainty what Russia will look like in 50 years, but if I had to hazard a guess, I imagine that it will be more of the same. The world’s largest country will not revert to the failed experiment in utopian totalitarianism; on the other hand, it will not become a Western-style democracy either. The need to control the vast Eurasian landmass and deal with occasional Chechen-like insurrections will continue to dictate the need for a strong state. Russia’s vast natural resources will remain a curse as much as a blessing, offering the country’s rulers a crutch that enables them to avoid serious economic reform. There will be popular upheavals from time to time, but politics will remain the preserve of a corrupt, detached elite. In short, as a French savant observed after the European revolutions of 1848, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” That is certainly true of Russian history.