Empire on the Brink

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

In my last commentary in these pages, in August 1989,1 I suggested that “while Gorbachev is probably safe for the time being, perestroika is in deep trouble.” Moreover, because Gorbachev would “not be able to go on knocking the conservatives off balance forever,” there was a growing danger that “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism” might soon threaten to take power. Unfortunately these fears are now becoming confirmed by events.

The world’s last major empire is no longer just fraying at the edges. Its very heart is starting to convulse in what looks like the early stages of a prolonged and probably far from peaceful death. The main reason for this is that since 1988 the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics have, in their different ways, won steadily more freedom from the control of the central government. But now the conservative forces of the center, including the military-industrial complex, the Party apparatus, and the KGB, have seen the danger that this freedom poses to themselves, and are urgently rallying to attack it. Gorbachev meanwhile, clinging to power, has allied himself with these forces in the apparent belief that he can control them and, when the crisis has passed, distance himself from them again. Whether or not he can achieve this improbable-seeming feat, the wider question is how much the center’s new authoritarianism will derail the republics’ drive for genuine sovereignty.

Two factors complicate the imperial decline of the USSR, distinguishing it from that of, say, the British or the French empire. First, the Soviet imperial “metropolis” is not, as in Britain or France, a country, but is simply the institutions of the USSR’s federal government. By contrast, Russia is one of the republics trying to establish its own sovereignty by, among other things, transforming this government into the weak center of a loose confederation. Thus the several million people who currently work for the federal government—for example, serving in the military or the KGB—are understandably anxious about their futures. Should they fight to preserve the status quo? Or should they work for the breakup of the federal institutions and the transfer of most of them to the republics—a process certain to involve the loss of many jobs?

Second, the double collapse of empire—in Eastern Europe and now “at home”—has been coinciding with a related but different process, the onset of political revolution. Already several republics and a number of cities have elected noncommunist or anticommunist governments. These governments have removed busts of Lenin from view, restored pre-communist names to streets and squares, and introduced other revolutionary changes. At the same time, the public approval rating of the Communist party has sunk into single figures.

How then has the man who holds most of the center’s power in his hands, President Gorbachev, a Communist, reacted to the simultaneous erosion of both Communist rule and the Soviet empire—an erosion for which, incidentally, the…

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