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The End of the Empire

The Awakening of the Soviet Union

by Geoffrey Hosking
Harvard University Press, 246 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The USSR’s Emerging Multiparty System

by Vera Tolz, foreword by S. Frederick Starr
Praeger/Center for Strategic and International Studies, 123 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Glasnost in Jeopardy: Human Rights in the USSR

by Helsinki Watch/Human Rights Watch
Helsinki Watch/Human Rights Watch, 180 pp., $15.00

Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin

by Dusko Doder, by Louise Branson
Viking, 450 pp., $24.95

Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs and His Failure

by Robert G. Kaiser
Simon and Schuster, 476 pp., $24.95

The Second Russian Revolution Channel by Brian Lapping Associates

a documentary series made for BBC Television and the Discovery, produced by Norma Percy

Gorbachev’s Struggle for Economic Reform

by Anders Aslund
Cornell University Press, 262 pp., $14.95 (paper)

What Went Wrong with Perestroika.

by Marshall I. Goldman
Norton, 258 pp., $19.95

Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era

by Stephen Kotkin
University of California Press, 269 pp., $24.95

Comrade Lawyer: Inside Soviet Justice in an Era of Reform

by Robert Rand
Westview Press, 166 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Gorbachev, Glasnost & the Gospel

by Michael Bourdeaux
Hodder and Stoughton, 226 pp., £8.99 (paper)

Inside the KGB: My Life in Soviet Espionage

by Vladimir Kuzichkin, translated by Thomas B. Beattie
Pantheon, 406 pp., $25.00

Gorbachev’s Endgame’

by Jerry F. Hough
World Policy Journal, $6.75


On September 25 of this year the president of the Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, told President Bush that “the United States must accept the independence of republics such as the Ukraine, because central government in the Soviet Union no longer exists.”1 On October 4 he said, “I am against political union.”2 Earlier, the Ukraine’s defense minister had said, “We reject the idea of a unified military command. Our approach will be step-by-step towards an independent Ukrainian army.”3 Earlier still, a division of KGB special troops stationed in the Ukraine’s Kharkov region had, without asking Moscow’s approval, applied to the minister to join his embryonic army.4

In Central Asia, meanwhile, the president of Kyrgyzstan announced his opposition to the latest Moscow plan for an economic union, because it gave too much power to “the center,” i.e., the remaining government of the USSR. Instead, he supported the idea of an “economic community” of sovereign states of Europe and Asia. Kyrgyzstan would not sign an economic treaty that did not give its constituent members full authority in their economic affairs.5

In neighboring Uzbekistan, a journalist reported, “There is no sign of the democratic overthrow of communism.” The republic “remains firmly under the control of a Communist Party that appears intent on abandoning many of its ideological icons, but keeping all of its power.”6 On September 16 the Uzbek president told Western journalists that Uzbekistan would follow the Chinese model of economic reform, because it was not ready for full democracy or a market economy.

These random examples show that the world’s last major empire, which was “on the brink” in January,7 has, in the wake of the comic opera coup of August 19–22, disintegrated into at least fifteen different countries. While the coup was the catalyst, the approaching collapse had been clearly visible for two years or more. What was remarkable was the extreme suddenness of the end. Most empires have shrunk gradually over decades, or even, like that of the Ottomans, over centuries, before major wars finished them off. But in this case three powerful processes began to work together in 1988–1989, interacting with each other so potently that they emasculated the central government well before this year’s “August revolution” finally severed its myriad paralyzed parts. And except for the relatively minor, if psychologically important, and vain struggle against the Afghan mujaheddin, military defeat did not contribute to the disintegration.

The first process was the transformation of the hitherto suppressed nationalism of several republics into revolutionary, anti-imperial struggles for self-determination. Here the Balts took the lead, followed in different ways by, among others, the Georgians, the Moldavians, the Armenians, and the Ukrainians. The dynamic nature of these movements derived, first, from the widespread perception of the legitimacy of nationalism in the twentieth century, and from accumulated resentment of Moscow’s ruthlessness and hypocrisy in suppressing nationalism at home while exploiting it abroad. The dynamism was strengthened when the opportunity arose to turn the hollow institutions of the USSR’s façade of federalism into instruments for national self-assertion. Other factors were Moscow’s acquiescence in Eastern Europe’s self-liberation from communism and Soviet hegemony, and the suddenly available chance to agitate and organize, which Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and democratization had made possible.

These same policies of Gorbachev’s contributed to another broad process that subverted the old order. This was the emergence of various forms of anti-communism. Groups led by such people as Sakharov felt that the Communist party’s bloodstained past and incompetent present gave it no right to a monopoly of power, and most of them saw the anti-imperial forces in the republics as allies. Thus anticommunist democrats and nationalists formed fruitful coalitions, for example in the federal legislature elected in 1989.

The third process, which caused political combustion when it collided with the first two, was the onset in 1988 of economic chaos and decline throughout the Soviet Union. Ill-thought-out reforms such as chaotic changes in the powers of managers threw the economy into an unmapped no man’s land between the traditional command economy and the market, with disastrous political as well as economic results.

In 1989, then, these three processes combined to unleash the anarchy of a “war of laws,” a war which only accelerated each development still further. Republics that were already defying the federal government in the cultural and political spheres now began passing laws unilaterally that asserted their sovereignty over economic resources. This compounded the confusion in the economy. It also helped anticommunists to persuade the voting public that the Communists were no longer capable of governing. This in turn brought to power in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities noncommunists and anti-communists who proceeded to assert their identity and protect their local economies by passing laws which were in open conflict with the statutes of their republics and the union.

In response to this anarchy, Gorbachev and central government officials repeatedly exhorted the lower levels in the bureaucracy to obey the federal government and its laws. But all their huffing and puffing achieved nothing. When they applied small doses of force, they usually hesitated and gave up, thus exposing their impotence all the more clearly. From early 1990 on, Gorbachev issued dozens of presidential decrees, most of which were simply ignored by those who were meant to carry them out. Central government was acting as though it was legitimate, but its real legitimacy had evaporated.

This explains the failure of the inhouse coup this August. Even though the institutions of the center were indeed, by then, deeply threatened by the mounting anti-imperial and anti-communist revolutions, sections of these huge organizations, including some of their leaders, felt the government’s illegitimacy so keenly that they were prepared to disobey the plotters’ call to arms. As for why the coup did not just fail, but failed abjectly, even farcically, the likely explanation is that the plotters calculated that Gorbachev would go along with their plans for a state of emergency. When he unexpectedly refused—in circumstances that are still not clear8—they had already gone too far to turn back.

The coup’s collapse led directly to the breaking of the central government and the empire. It also gave an enormous boost to the anticommunist revolution. But the suddenness of these dramatic events had both helpful and unhelpful consequences. It helped to keep the amount of violence to a very low level. It also enabled Yeltsin and his colleagues to push through a large number of revolutionary changes in institutions.

These changes are worth summarizing. The entire central government was dismissed and replaced—according to the Yeltsinites’ prescriptions—with new structures of minimal dimensions, headed by new leaders. The industrial empires run by central ministries were transferred to the authority of the republics. And the extensive special powers obtained by President Gorbachev in 1990 were taken away from him. The military found itself facing the removal of 80 percent of its high command, sharp reductions in its manpower and budget, and—as the republics began debating how much control they would allow the center over military matters—the almost certain breakup of its chain of command in every field except that of nuclear weapons.

The KGB suffered the arrest and pensioning-off of most of its leaders, the loss of its various armed divisions to other organizations, the abolition of its domestic spying organization, the creation of an independent body to handle foreign intelligence, the removal of the KGB’s many undercover officers from positions in the foreign service, the press, and elsewhere, and the subordination of some of its few remaining functions to the republics’ governments.

As for the unrepresentative legislature of the USSR, Gorbachev and Yeltsin persuaded it in effect to abolish itself, to approve the creation of a new, temporary parliament in a form acceptable to the republics, and to set in motion a process leading to free popular elections for both legislators and a union president (if, that is, any new union is created, which seems increasingly doubtful). Television and radio were freed from the repressive commissar whom Gorbachev had appointed last winter, and the press, radio, and television as a whole became for the first time substantially free.

Most important of all, the Communist party was suspended in most parts of the country, its property was either sealed or confiscated, its bank accounts were frozen, its “cells” in factories, the police, the KGB, and the military were outlawed, and an investigation was launched into its role in the coup.

Finally, the old imperial union was abolished, the three Baltic republics were granted their independence without having to go through the five-year procedure that Gorbachev had long insisted on, and other republics were allowed to choose whether or not to join whatever political and economic unions might be negotiated in the coming months. The republics were promised that they could select from differing levels of commitment to a political union. Since, moreover, republican laws would override union laws, the union would be confederal, not federal in nature.

Notwithstanding all these historic changes, however, other circumstances point to appalling hazards which lie ahead. First and most important, the collapse of empire has been so sudden and uncontrolled that the republics and the drastically weakened Gorbachev are perforce working out new constitutional arrangements after the event, not before it. Up until a mere four months before the collapse, Gorbachev and the central government resolutely opposed the very idea of an end to the empire, favoring only some modifications of it. Indeed, most of the center remained committed to the empire until the failure of the coup settled the argument—for some years at least. On top of all this, Gorbachev’s authority is now so weakened that in early October his ally Aleksandr Yakovlev said frankly about the control of central government, “I am tempted to tell you the truth: no one is in charge.”9

History points to some implications in all this. Among the empires that have ended in recent decades, some like the British and the French have drawn to a close with a considerable amount of planning, dignity, and provision for postimperial cooperation, as well as with much suffering, war, and death. By contrast, alas, the Soviet empire seems to belong with the empires of the Portuguese, who abruptly withdrew from Africa in the mid-1970s, and the tsarist Russians, who did not prepare for the end, but resisted it until it came for both the empire and the tsarist autocracy in 1917 (just as it came simultaneously for the Soviet empire and the Communist autocracy in 1991). In consequence, both Portuguese and tsarist empires left a legacy which led directly to civil wars, chaos, and extreme authoritarianism. The danger is acute that the Soviet empire will leave a similar trail in its wake.

The reasons for this danger are several, and some, as history would suggest, concern the suddenness of the empire’s fall. First, apart from the Baltic presidents and Yeltsin, few of the republican leaders have been tested in a struggle against the central government and Gorbachev, and, partly for this reason, few have a strong popular mandate. Second, some of them have been hard-line Communists until just before or just after the coup, and a few, like President Karimov of Uzbekistan, have given up their formal Communist affiliations only in order to improve their chances of maintaining hard-line Communist rule. In these cases the fact that the anti-imperial revolution won out before the anticommunist revolution reached some parts of the USSR, notably Central Asia, is unfortunate.

  1. 1

    The Washington Post, September 26, 1991, p. A26.

  2. 2

    The Washington Post, October 7, 1991, p. A14.

  3. 3

    The Times, London, September 16, 1991.

  4. 4

    Vesti, Radio Russia, September 10, 1991.

  5. 5

    TASS, September 23, 1991.

  6. 6

    James Rupert, “Uzbek Non-revolution,” The Washington Post, September 16, 1991, p. A18.

  7. 7

    See my article “Empire on the Brink” in The New York Review, January 31, 1991.

  8. 8

    Gorbachev recently appeared worried that at their trials they might portray his role in a compromising light. See his interview in Izvestia, September 20, 1991, p. 3.

  9. 9

    The Washington Post, October 7, 1991, p. A1.

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