4: The Political Development of the Russian State
- Page ID
The Origins of the Modern Russian State
While the modern nation of Germany did not emerge as a unified territorial state until 1870, a territory comparable to modern Russia existed by the middle of the 17th century. It was under the rule of Ivan III (The Great) and Ivan IV (The Terrible) that Russia expanded to include parts of modern Poland and Ukraine, as well as much of its post-Soviet territory. Ivan IV declared himself Tsar in 1547 and consolidated control over Russia’s feudal noble class with brutal repression. Peter the Great ruled from 1689-1725; he modernized the state and military and Russia became a powerful nation within the emerging system of states in Europe.
During these periods of consolidation and wider territorial control, Russia developed several characteristics as a great power that had important consequences for the development of its state over the next several centuries and into the 21st century as well. While Peter the Great modernized the state through the establishment of a stronger bureaucracy, the civil service positions were concentrated in the nation’s small noble elite. Unlike in Britain and Germany, Russia’s landed elites were not wealthy. Individual holdings tended to be small and remained under conditions of feudalism until the emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861. Peter and subsequent Tsars sought to keep the nobles dependent on the modest wages of their civil service positions. Whereas landed elites in Germany and Britain became important sources of wealth and investment capital that fueled industrialization, Tsarist rule constrained similar development. Thus, the commercial powers and forces that were transforming Western and Central Europe were largely absent in Russia. Among the great powers of Europe in the 18th and 19th century, Russia was militarily powerful, because of its size and population, but economically weak; it has remained so in many ways up to the present. While Europe was urbanizing, Russia remained an overwhelmingly feudal society. Small elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg interacted with the networks and processes of the larger European culture, but the vast majority of the population were illiterate peasants locked into serfdom. While it retained its great power status, it fell further behind the rest of Europe over time.
Another significant source of cultural and state unity was the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia believed that it was the ‘third Rome,’ or the true center of Christianity after the fall of Rome, and the Byzantine Empire. Orthodox Christian doctrine was the official religion of the Russian state and a central way in which Tsars legitimized their power. It became the central unifying force by which some Russians leaders and intellectuals drew a strong distinction between “western” civilization, and a unique and separate Russian identity. A Westernized urban elite pushed back against these conservation forces, generating tensions between “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles. ” Most movements for reform, including the Decembrists of the 1830s, and more radical socialist and communist movements later in the 19th century, came from the small urban population. The tsar had his own secret police force to root out these liberal and radical reform movements. The vast cultural divide between these elites and the mass of illiterate serfs made building support among the masses for such movements very difficult. Even after Tsar Alexander (1855-1881) emancipated the serfs in 1861, peasants were tied to the land. Despite legal freedom from their landlords, the serfs were legally required to pay a land tax to the lords’ overtime that would eventually lead to land ownership. However, the serfs made little money and still had to work the land to survive. These so-called redemption payments were not abolished until 1907. Peasants continued to live in small village level cooperatives providing little basis for the expansion of production and commerce in agriculture .
Playing Catch up: Modernization/Industrialization
Prior to the middle of the 19th century, most modernization efforts undertaken by Tsars focused on military and administrative reforms but left Russia's feudal socio-economic structure firmly in place among the country’s vast rural population. A major catalyst for Russian industrialization and economic development was the loss of the Crimean War to the British in 1854-1856. The war clearly underlined serious economic weakness in the Russian state which undermined its military preparedness. As it had in the Opium Wars against China, the British displayed a technological superiority that reflected the impact of industrialization.
In response, Tsar Alexander Ii sought a path of rapid industrialization. He began by the emancipation of serfs on privately held lands in 1861 and state held lands in 1866, in hopes of freeing them for commercial agriculture or industrial employment. As with Germany, the country was trying to play “catch-up” with Britain. Unlike Germany, however, Russia did not have an equivalent of the Junkers, the Prussian landed elite whose wealth helped fuel Germany’s rapid and successful industrialization. Tsars had kept their own landed elite dependent on state employment in the bureaucracy. Russia was thus required, as were many other nations who sought to industrialize in the 20th century, to seek foreign investment, which came largely from Britain and France. Russia was also hampered by its class structure; it had a very small middle class and conditions in the countryside still tied many peasants to their villages. Where rapid development of commercial agriculture in Britain and Germany had forced peasants into cities and factory work, Russia’s feudal structures continued to constrain the process. The communal land holding institution known as the mir remained a large part of the societal make-up of Russia and deeply ingrained in their daily life even after the formal end of feudalism.
Industrialization policies focused on large scale production of items such as coal, textiles, oil, and iron. The construction of the Trans-Siberian railway opened up the possibilities of internal trade. While these policies generated significant economic growth, Russia's internal social and political weaknesses limited their impact. The cultural and economic divide between the urban and rural areas widened. Many peasants were unwilling or unable to leave for opportunities in the cities. An industrial working class did develop but the workers quickly became discontented with oppressive working conditions and limited rights, resulting in frequent strikes. The Tsars forces severely repressed these efforts, imprisoning or exiling the leaders, some of whom would later lead the Russian Revolution. The limits of these efforts, and the distance Russia still had to travel to catch up with its competition became clear in humiliating fashion in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war. The East Asian nation, pursuing policies modeled on Britain and Germany, also carried a process of rapid economic modernization after 1868. The war displayed the fruit of that process when Russia had to surrender and accept expanded Japanese influence in Northeast Asia.
In response to this shocking military defeat, disgruntled workers and military personnel, spurred on by radical movements, led a failed revolution in 1905. Wide spread strikes during this time slowed industrialization even more. In response to this, the Tsar Nicholas II created a constitutional monarchy and, almost 700 years after the Magna Carta led to the creation of the English Parliament, established the Duma as a parliamentary body. Election rules gave the vote to all men over 25 and a wide range of political parties emerged, though most of the more radical parties including the Communist Bolsheviks boycotted the elections. However, Nicholas II and his Prime Minister dissolved the Duma after 73 days. The tsar permitted elections to a second Duma in 1907 and the radical party participated this time and won seats; it managed to last 103 days until the Tsar ran out of patience with the efforts of legislators to wrest real power from the Russian monarch. This cycle of election followed by dissolution of the Duma occurred twice more before the onset of World War I in 1914.
If war had not come, it is possible that Nicholas II would have gradually developed more tolerance for parliamentary power. It is important to note that the Duma was established in an age when universal mass suffrage was the expectation. While participation of the full peasantry remained limited, elections to the Duma were generally comparable in their level of participation to those elsewhere in Europe including Britain. (That was not the case in 1215 in England). Prime Minister Peter Stolypin did carry out reforms that freed serfs from some of the remaining vestiges of feudalism. He hoped thereby to stimulate the development of a class of small farmers and stronger commercial agricultural markets. Russia might have remained a weaker but growing economy, illiterate peasants might eventually have started to make some real progress, and a more liberal political system might have slowly taken hold. It is also possible another revolutionary movement would have emerged like in 1905, but until this point repressing radicalism had been the one thing Tsarist regimes had been consistently good at. Radicals might have chosen to try to get a foothold in the political system through increased participation in the Duma. Revolutions always seem inevitable in retrospect and the victors shape the narrative to strengthen that. However, revolutions are complex processes that no movement ever fully controls, which is why they are relatively rare.
However, war did come, and with it the destruction of the Russian monarchy and the political and economic order it had created. The challenge of trying to fight the technologically and militarily far superior German army simply proved too great. By the beginning of 1917, the Tsarist state collapsed. Soldiers without food or ammunition deserted en masse. After refusing to recognize the reality and negotiate a ceasefire with the Kaiser’s forces, Nicholas II abdicated his throne in February 1917. A “Provisional Government” made up of moderate parties and monarchists tried to hold the country together while continuing to fight the war against Germany. Had the leaders of that government sought peace and focused on stabilizing the country, it is quite possible the Russian Revolution would never have occurred. The forces that the revolution brought to power were initially weak and had a limited political base. But that slowly changed as the collapse of the state continued and a political vacuum emerged. That vacuum made the revolution possible.
Revolution in Russia
Revolutionary movements had been part of Russian society for most of the 19th century. The first revolutionary movements began developing as young elites were becoming more and more educated. These individuals generally went outside of Russia to receive their educations and returned with a broader perspective on the need for political and economic reform. These elites became the basis of a small intelligentsia fully aware of the political ideologies emerging in the rest of Europe. The first call for revolution came from the Decembrists in 1825 when they unsuccessfully demanded a constitutional monarchy.
Later revolutionaries drew on the ideas of a broad array of socialist and anarchist thinkers in Europe, including Karl Marx and Frederic Engels. Marx and Engels advocated for collective ownership of the means of production via socialist and communist revolutions. They theorized that a capitalist economy would be overthrown by a socialist revolution and then communism would emerge from the socialist society. The first Marxist group formed in 1883 and called themselves the Emancipation Labor Group. They believed that the western styles of industrialization produced disillusionment within working classes, and that the western factories were inherently unjust. In 1903, the Russian Social democratic Labor Party, or the RSDLP splintered into two factions. These two factions were the Bolsheviks, or the majority; and the Mensheviks, or the minority. Vladimir Illich Lenin emerged as the leader of the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks, and particularly Lenin sought to adapt Marx’s ideas, developed with reference to events in Britain and Germany, to the far less economically developed context of Russia.
This goal presented some immediate theoretical and practical challenges. Marx viewed capitalism as historically necessary. First, the establishment of capitalism would generate unparalleled production capacity and wealth. It would do so by concentration of ownership and intense exploitation of the industrial working class, or proletariat. Concentrated in huge industrial centers these workers would realize they were the real producers of this wealth. As a result, they would overthrow their masters through a revolution that established communism. This did not happen in 19th century Britain or Germany, but Lenin saw another possibility: because foreign imperialists dominated Russia’s capitalism sector, it was especially repressive and not subject to some of the welfare state style reforms carried out in Britain and Germany. This made Russia vulnerable to overthrow. Once a revolution occurred in Russia, Lenin argued, it would spur a revolutionary wave that would sweep across Europe and liberate the working classes. The weakest link in the chain would begin the process of breaking it.
However, the Russian secret police were effective at keeping these groups under control and exiled Lenin to Siberia from 1895-1897. He lived in Europe prior to the uprising of 1905, and was forced into exile again in 1907. After the Tsar abdicated and the Provisional Government formed, Germany sought to force Russia out of the war by helping Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders return in 1917. In an atmosphere of growing chaos, worker councils, or Soviets, began taking control of industrial enterprises. Peasants began to seize estates. A master political organizer, Lenin seized on two slogans: “All power to the Soviets” and "Land, Peace, Bread.” To a war weary population, these slogans resonated powerfully and the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917. Almost immediately, the Bolsheviks negotiated the Brest-Litovsk peace accord with Germany, ending Russia’s participation in World War II. A civil war ensued between the Red Army of the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary forces, and the White Army of the Provisional Government authorities and reformers and monarchists. The White Army forces received support from outside powers but the Bolsheviks still prevailed by 1921 and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established on December 28, 1922.
What is to be done? Rebuilding the State
Having vanquished its foreign and internal enemies, the new government now had the challenge of establishing a communist state in a war ravaged, semi feudal country. The challenge is stated well in the title of Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet: What is to be Done? In it, Lenin explained his view of the role of the Communist Party as a vanguard party. Lenin rejected liberal democracy as a form of government and representation because capitalist-oriented parties would inevitably use cooptation and control to maintain their power. The working class needed representation that could discern what was best for them, and act as a protector. Lenin called his solution "democratic centralism" and asserted that it represented the true interests of the masses. This is the essence of what is known as Marxism-Leninism: the marriage of Marx’s vision of a classless society free of private property and Lenin’s vision of the one-party state necessary to realize that vision. Other communist revolutions, in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere would build on Lenin’s approach. Indeed, in many ways Lenin has had a far greater influence on the practices of Communist leaders than Marx.
Once in power, however, the Bolsheviks faced an array of problems. The Communists were not well established among the population at the time of the civil war and struggled to maintain power. Many of their most loyal worker cadres perished during the civil war and the leaders of the Soviet Union faced the challenge of consolidating political control and fostering industrialization among a population that knew little about them. The Party leaders confronted these challenges by institutionalizing Lenin’s conception of democratic centralism with the Communist Party in the role of vanguard. The structures of the Communist party and the state merged in increasingly tight ways. The party dissolved the constituent assembly and banned political parties in an attempt to centralize power. They restricted the role of trade unions to educate about the role of the party and passed rules that prevented party members from meeting in groups ahead of meetings. Gradually but firmly, the Party eliminated spaces for dissent and the growth of opposition with the party. In 1919, the Party Central Committee established the Secretariat and the Politburo as the dominant decision making bodies. When Lenin died in 1924, these processes deepened under the leadership of Josef Stalin; by 1929, voices of dissent or opposition to Stalin had been virtually eliminated. The secret police force, the GPU, played an increased role in monitoring and punishing any opposition.
What is to be done? Industrialization and the peasantry
The new government also faced immense economic challenges. As was previously indicated, the writings of Marx were not especially helpful. He had envisioned communism occurring after capitalism. Communist revolutions, according to Marx, started with capitalism in an urban society, not a rural one like Russia. Capitalism would produce wealth and communism would see that everyone benefited from it equally and without exploitation. So, how do revolutionaries establish communism in a society that had not really experienced capitalism in a sustained way? The many volumes of Marx’a writing contain no theory about how industrialization would occur under a communist political system. Capitalism, Marx assumed, had already done that. Lenin had hoped that a revolution in Russia would spark other socialist revolutions across Europe, but a worker uprising in Germany failed in 1918 and went no further. Crackdowns on leftist parties convinced Lenin that the Soviet Union was on its own. During the war, a very strict program of “war communism,” under the leadership of Leon Trotsky, gave the party complete control over the productive forces. The state forcibly requisitioned grain and other agricultural commodities. This served the purposes of war but left resentments in the countryside.
In an effort to address that problem, the Party opted for a moderation of communist economic structures in 1921. The New Economic Policy (NEP) required peasants to meet a production quota that went to the state; they could then do what they wished with the surplus. While this seemed to compromise communist principles by permitting a free market in agriculture and the accumulation of small levels of private wealth, party leaders viewed it as a way to build trust among the peasants in the party and its goals. The NEP did limit the ability of the state to use agriculture as a source of capital for industrialization. Critics of the policy, most notably Leon Trotsky, argued that the state should procure more of the production and sell it in international markets to finance industrialization. Peasants should be encouraged to join cooperatives and moved more quickly towards a fully communist economy. Prosperous producers should be taxed more heavily.
Throughout these debates, Stalin supported the NEP and criticized those who challenged it. He focused his efforts on consolidating personal control of the party, and thus the state itself, and used the opposition of Trotsky, his most significant political rival, and other party members, to the NEP as evidence of their disloyalty to the party. The party expelled Trotsky in 1927 and forced him into exile in 1928. Soviet agents murdered Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Once Stalin had eliminated Trotsky and consolidated his complete control over the party and the Soviet state, he reversed his position and abruptly ended the NEP in 1929.
Collectivization and Terror
With the end of the NEP in 1929, economic pragmatism gave way to the pursuit of complete control of the economy through a process of collectivization. The economic structures that emerged after 1929 were to remain in place until the late 1980s .These policies created a command economy in which the state makes all decisions about what will be produced, in what quantities, and at what price. Private property and free markets are not present. One of the official justifications for collectivization was to eliminate rural inequality and free the peasantry from the exploitation of better off peasants known as Kulaks. However, these policies confronted significant resistance from the peasants they were supposed to benefit. Fields and livestock were burned and slaughtered rather than be handed over to the state. Some regions of the Soviet Union experienced famine on a massive scale: between 3-4 million perished in Ukraine alone. Some scholars have estimated the overall deaths to exceed 10 million. Overall production levels declined, but what mattered to Stalin was that the state controlled virtually all of it. The country’s productive resources and its citizens were now under the complete control of the Soviet state and could be used to feed workers in the cities or purchase the components of industrialization through trade.
Stalin’s system is perhaps the most thorough example of a totalitarian regime. Every aspect of social, economic and political life was completely controlled. The state eliminated any space for independent thought or organization. Political participation was only possible through state and party established organizations. Failure to participate in at least some of these organizations became evidence of disloyalty. Secret police monitored every organization, work place, and family, even children were encouraged to report “anti-Soviet” or “anti-social” (it was the same thing) or behavior. Once Stalin had established control over the economy, he set out to eliminate any remaining vestiges of opposition or even the mildest questioning of orthodoxy. A series of “show trials” between 1936 and 1938 forced party members, including some of the original Bolsheviks, to confess to political sins they did not commit before they were executed. Leading central committee members and military officers that Stalin suspected of the slightest bit of disloyalty were detained, accused, and killed; tens of thousands of party members perished in these purges.
The Great Patriotic War
As the rise of the Third Reich created tensions throughout Europe, Stalin hoped to keep the USSR out of a European war. He signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty effectively carved up Poland into zones of German and Soviet control. Whether the old joke that “the only person Stalin ever trusted was Hitler” is true or not, this agreement did not work as Stalin hoped; Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Their initial blitzkrieg brought German forces close to victory in Moscow but then bogged down into long and bloody sieges that eventually brought retreat and defeat. However, even though Stalin’s Five Year Plans were wasteful and inefficient, industrialization had enabled the country to hold back the Nazis, though at a staggering human cost. While his purges were damaging to the quality of his officer corps, his call to the people to defend the homeland helped spur what Russians still call the Great Patriotic War. The entry of the United States into the war and the D-Day invasion at Normandy in June 1944 helped conclude this terrible war, the war on the Eastern Front was the most decisive turning point. German casualties exceeded 4 million; nearly 4 times the total on the Western front. The German army killed nearly 7 million Soviets while more than a million more died as prisoners of war. 3-4 million Soviet citizens died of starvation and other war related causes.
The memory of the war and the immense loss and suffering it caused has remained an indelible part of the political culture of the Soviet Union and Russia after 1991. It provided a stronger basis for the legitimacy of the Soviet state than any other accomplishment during its 70 years or existence. The ideology of Marxism and the Soviet versions of it that emerged under the leadership of the USSR presented communism as a force that transcended nationalism and other more limited forms of community. The nationalism of World War I was demounced as an ideological smoke screen, like religion in earlier ages, to prevent workers from realizing their true brotherhood. Yet, against the genocidal nationalism of the Nazis, it was the will to defend “Mother Russia” that provided the fundamental motivation that led to victory. The Soviet state found many ways to remind people of that over the next several decades.
The Cold War
As devastating as the war was for the Soviet Union, the country emerged from the war far more powerful globally. Europe was in ruin and the Soviet army occupied the eastern portion of Germany. It quickly became apparent that the wartime alliance had been a marriage of convenience as the two emergent superpowers disagreed on a wide range of issues from Central Europe to the Korean peninsula. Stalin quickly moved to challenge independent non-communist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of Eastern Europe. A bipolar world order emerged in which two ideologically opposed foes fought for dominance. They avoided direct war, but battled each other on a variety of fronts and levels: the pursuit of nuclear weapons, espionage, and proxy wars from Vietnam to El Salvador.
In the years immediately after World War II, the Soviet state remained dominated by Stalin. His death in 1953 led to a leadership battle from which Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the most powerful. Khrushchev and other party leaders began a process of de-Stalinization. In a speech to the Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev criticized the “cult of personality” around Stalin and sought to reestablish control by the Communist Party by moving to revive The Central Committee and Politburo as decision-making bodies. The system did not become more democratic in terms of citizen participation but it became more stable and predictable. Collective decision making by the party leadership, rather than the whims of one individual, became the principal force shaping policy. This focus on organization, process, stability, and predictability characterized policy making in the Soviet Union until the 1980s. In doing so, the party reaffirmed the Leninist idea of the vanguard party. The secret police were brought back under state control as well and the use of wide spread terror and murder of dissidents ended. For a time in the late 1950s, Khrushchev permitted a bit wider range of cultural freedom.
The economic structures put in place by Stalin in the 1930s remain entrenched but Khrushchev put more emphasis on improving agricultural productivity. The production of consumer items also improved. By the early 1960s, Soviet life settled into a kind of new normal in which a gradually improving standard of living coexisted with strict controls on political activity as well as information. For many Soviet citizens, life was far easier than any other period in the 20th century. The basics—food, healthcare, education, housing—were available to most. The position of worker in this “workers' state” remained tightly under the control of the party. Absenteeism, drunkenness, pilferage, and black markets for valued products were rampant. A famous joke went, “you pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”
In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Central Committee removed Khrushchev from his position in 1964. This ended most of the small political and cultural openings of the past decade. Under the leadership of Leonid Breshnev, the party leadership focused further stability. Modest efforts to improve productivity never got far as the economic structures and remained under the control of a bureaucracy of party officials who used their positions to maintain their power. Political dissidents were no longer summarily executed, but placed under house arrest, subject to psychiatric detention, or incarcerated in a labor camp.
Throughout these years, the Soviet formula for legitimating its authority remained consistent. The defeat of Nazism in the Great Patriotic War remained a central theme and improved access to education and consumer goods and limited access to information about the outside world led many to see their conditions as an improvement. The Cold War ticked down a notch in the early 1970s as Soviet leaders negotiated arms control agreements with U.S president Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. By the end of the 1970s, these thaws in the Cold War gave way to new conflicts. Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua overthrew US-backed leaders and led to charges that President Carter had “lost” the two countries to Soviet influence which helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. An uprising against a Soviet ally in Afghanistan in turn led to Soviet military intervention in December 1979. In Poland, workers organized an independent trade union, called Solidarity, which challenged the Soviet-backed leadership of the country, which was a member of the Warsaw Pact. The country’s aging leadership struggled to deal with these issues and the stress they put on the country’s struggling economy. Then, Soviet leader Brezhnev died in November 1982. His successor, Yuri Andropov re-introduced modest programs to increase worker productivity but he died after a year in office. His successor died after less than a year in office. In the leadership struggle that ensued, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the new leader of the country.
Glasnost, Perestroika and the End of the Soviet Union
Gorbachev represented a new generation of party leaders in the USSR. He was born in 1931, and joined the party in 1952. His predecessors had been survivors of the Stalin era and, like most of that generation, were conservative and risk-aversive. Gorbachev had a better education and had the opportunity to travel outside the country. While official state television told its citizens they lived better than West Germans, Gorbachev knew that was not true. He also realized that the US had indeed succeeded in turning the war in Afghanistan into the Soviet’s “Vietnam,” a bloody quagmire that was draining resources and losing support at home. He believed that improving the economy would require deeper levels of reform and would only be possible by relieving the pressures of the Cold War in ways that would enable him to cut back on military spending.
He introduced two policy initiatives toward these ends. Perestroika aimed to structure the economy in more productive directions while glasnost sought to open up the political system to critique and reform. While the economic reforms were not successful, the political reforms transformed the Soviet Union, providing an unprecedented level of freedom of speech. Gorbachev hoped this would generate constructive political movements that would strengthen the legitimacy of the system. Glasnost unleashed a torrent of public debate and in 1989, elections were held for the governors of the Soviet republics. Legislation introduced by Gorbachev ended the Party’s monopoly on political power, which had been a fundamental tenet of Leninism. These reforms made Gorbachev enormously popular in Europe and the United States as he negotiated arms control agreements with President Reagan and permitted non-communist governments to come to power in Poland and other Eastern European countries that had been Soviet allies. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and in 1991, East and West Germany reunited. Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize and became one of the most admired men in the United States and Europe.
In his home country, however, Gorbachev faced growing problems. Economic reforms mainly provided opportunities for party elites to take control of state companies that were privatized and deepened the control of black market mafias. The Soviet leader found himself between a rock and hard place. On one side, nationalist forces in the republics sought greater autonomy. In the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, annexed by Stalin during World War II, protest movements demanded independence. At the same time, party officials, long wary of his reform, concluded the process has gotten out of hand. On August 16, 1991, they placed Gorbachev under house arrest. Over the next four days, their efforts to regain control and end reform faced popular opposition and key members of the military were unwilling to use repression. The leaders were arrested and Gorbachev came back to Moscow on August 19.
Gorbachev’s position had been critically weakened, however. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, directly elected in 1990, met with the leader of the other republics. Over the next months, they negotiated a peaceful break-up of the USSR and on December 26, 1991 the Soviet Union ended after 70 years in existence. The Russian Republic emerged as one of 16 newly independent nations-states with Yeltsin as the President. Gorbachev was now president of a country that no longer existed. His policies transformed international relations but at home he was deeply unpopular and his political career was over.
How to explain the remarkable turn of events? Historians will debate this question for a long time, but we can start by remembering how the USSR came to be. A state in collapse after two and a half years fighting a far superior foe left an institutional and political vacuum. A party with limited popular base but clear ideas about what it wanted to do with political power took control. It imposed its power in very brutal fashion on a wary population. Other revolutions—in China, Iran, and Cuba, for example—came to power in part as mass movements. This provided leaders in those countries with a valuable reservoir of legitimacy. Machiavelli famously noted that a leader needed to be feared but it was also good to be loved. The leaders of the Soviet Union always had to rely far more on fear. When Gorbachev asked his fellow citizens to work with him to make the country better, the limited reservoir of legitimacy became visible. Many of his fellow citizens did not want to make communism better; they wanted something different.
Moreover, Gorbachev’s economic reforms did more harm than good for many Russians. Some commentators have criticized Gorbachev for trying to carry out economic and political reform at the same time. It would have been better, they argue, to do what Chinese Communist reformers did: focus on economic reform first. Yet, Chinese leaders were not facing the hostility of the United States as an impetus to maintain high levels of military spending. In order to pursue economic reform, Gorbachev needed to improve relations with the west and its human rights record became an important test of his sincerity. Chinese leaders faced no such pressure. Gorbachev also faced a much more massive challenge on the economic front. China’s command economy system was far less developed than in the USSR. Reforms in agriculture and state-owned enterprises could be carried out relatively easily and produced positive results quickly. In the Soviet Union, a deeply entrenched economic bureaucracy either sabotaged or coopted perestroika. This is another point at which the lack of underlying political legitimacy of the party undermined reform efforts.
The Russia Republic: Failed Democratization and Return to Authoritarian Rule
In the 1990s, a new Russian constitution created the elements of a democratic political system and competitive elections in 1996 led to the reelection of Boris Yeltsin. Almost immediately after the end of the USSR, Yeltsin’s economic advisors convinced him to carry out a rapid transition from a command to a market economy through a process that came to be called “shock therapy.” State policies privatized state-run businesses, devalued the Russian currency, and ended subsidies of many food staples and public services. Many workers were laid off. The standard of living for many declined and inequality grew between the winners and losers in this new market economy. A new class of economic “oligarchs” emerged and the capacity of the state declined, especially in areas such as public health, security, and fiscal administration. By the end of the decade, the Russian government underwent the humiliation of asking the IMF for assistance in dealing with its debt crisis. One of the two great superpowers of the Cold War era found itself seemingly reduced to the status of a “Third World” country.
President Yeltsin resigned in 1999 and appointed a little known former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, as his successor. Putin set out to reassert the power of the central government over regional authorities and the oligarchs. Putin believed that Russia’s democratization process in the 1990s weakened the state and sought to re-centralize power. Putin has reestablished the dominance of the central government in Moscow through constitutional changes that strengthen executive authority and limited the space for political opposition. Putin has repackaged an old formula: a unique Russian identity framed in opposition to the west and the liberal ideologies it represents, with nationalism replacing monarchy or communism. His foreign policy--including annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine, intervention in the civil war in Syria, and interference in foreign elections--have restored some of Russia’s global prominence. Nonetheless, its stature remains, as it was under the Tsars and the Communist party, rooted in military power that covers economic weakness.
Authors: Marc Belanger and Mary Coleman