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.

In any event, for a variety of reasons most of the republican leaders have a relatively weak hold on power, and face almost irresistible temptations to appeal to the popular passion most easily aroused today, namely a nationalism opposed to central government power. The presidents of the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, to whom I earlier referred, are only two of many available examples.

The problem here, of course, is that working out constructive, mutually beneficial political and economic arrangements for the postimperial period will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Proposals for a rational coordination of the economy from the center stand little chance against the centrifugal forces of nationalism. In such a climate no equivalent of the British Commonwealth or the French community can be built. Whatever associations may be created, they will inevitably be fragile and unstable in the extreme. Already the main component in any future structure, the huge Russian republic, is itself showing instability. Although President Yeltsin has a strong, if not huge, popular mandate, his government is racked with dissension over how to divide up power with the confederal center and the other republics, as well as over other towering, seemingly insoluble problems.

These other problems are not directly linked to the abruptness of the end of empire. But unfortunately they add considerably to the already long odds against most of the new states being able to make a smooth transition to multiparty democracy and a free market over the next few years. The first of these problems is the fact that the decline of the economy has turned into a truly disastrous free fall. The second is that despite some hopeful developments among intellectuals and the younger generation, the dominant political culture is still strongly antipathetic to the inevitably painful consequences, including high unemployment, of radical economic reform—if not necessarily, as yet, to the abstract idea of such reform. And the third is that conflicts among ethnic groups are numerous and multiplying, and, in present political conditions, very hard to contain.

All the factors I have mentioned, when taken together, make me hesitant in characterizing the revolution of August 1991. Does Martin Malia go too far, in his perceptive recent essay in these pages,10 when he says that this revolution has “dissipated the ambiguities hovering over Russia since 1989” and “won out over the heritage of the first Russian Revolution of October 1917”? Does not much of this heritage live on in a political culture which is hostile to the dismantling of the “nanny state,” to the private sale of land, to wide discrepancies in income, and so on? Does not much of it live on in the inability or reluctance of officials to establish a rule of law, in the still widespread popular suspicion that democracy will never work in Russia? May it not be an exaggeration to call the opposition to the coup a “popular explosion,” when only Moscow, Leningrad, and the Baltic states produced strong resistance to it, and when Yeltsin’s supporters were disappointed at the passivity of most of Moscow’s working class? Do not further ambiguities remain in the fact that many key politicians were until recently Communist apparatchiks, and that in some matters they show little true commitment to democracy or market reforms?

In other words, the bravery of Yeltsin and members of the democratic opposition in defeating the coup, their resolution and skill in making decisive revolutionary changes in institutional structures, their admirable understanding that Russia can be free only if it promotes genuine freedom for its neighbors, the liberation of most of the population from fear, as well as many other dramatic advances, should not blind us to the tenacious bequests of communism or to the deep divisions of opinion in popular feeling about political and economic values. The current political order is highly confused: it is not yet pregnant with a new order. Perhaps the August revolution is a halfway house comparable to Russia’s “February revolution” of 1917, when the monarchy and the empire collapsed, and power “lay in the streets” for eight months, before the Bolsheviks picked it up. Here we should heed the current warnings of Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, Yakovlev, and other leading politicians. Although the August coup failed, they caution, the hard liners will probably strike again before long, and perhaps, if the economy goes on deteriorating this winter, with greater success.

No doubt many articles and books will soon be written to assess the record of Sovietologists in charting the decline of Soviet communism. Inevitably, books published during the last year or two such as those discussed here will be closely scanned to see whether they point to, or at least allow for, the collapse that came about this year.


Geoffrey Hosking is a historian of Russia who, in The Awakening of the Soviet Union, explores with a fresh eye the origins and evolution of the new groups and ideas that have emerged over the last thirty years. He asks how “a kind of political emancipation” was possible within “a totalitarian society.” He starts his exploration of this question in the tsarist past. He shows how the Russian people have long survived a severe climate, foreign invasions, and an oppressive system by, among other things, demonstrating an “extraordinary capacity to improvise humane and functioning grassroots institutions in extremely adverse circumstances.” He singles out first the traditional peasant community, or mir, and the cooperatives, or arteli, which were formed by peasants who moved to the cities and became workers or artisans. The primitive solidarity developed in these institutions resurfaced, Hosking suggests, in the strike committees formed by Russian and Ukrainian miners in 1989. He describes the achievements of these committees and analogous groups in other industries, and concludes:

The labour movement, then, displays the traditional strengths and weaknesses of popular movements in Russia. It has shown a remarkable capacity for improvisation and local self-organisation…while finding it much harder to create structures above the regional level and to make the crucial linkage with political movements active in central politics.

As for the intellectuals, Hosking suggests a close link between the private circles of the “superfluous people” in the nineteenth century and the tight-knit groups of dissidents who first emerged in the 1960s. Twenty years later the ideas of more sophisticated dissidents such as Sakharov were fed through intermediaries like the sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya into the reformist wing of the Communist party, while the dissidents themselves took up a variety of positions in the political groups that emerged in 1989 and 1990. Hosking makes a good case for the view that “the traditions of the peasantry and the intelligentsia…underlie such habits of community as have survived at all into the modern Soviet Union.”

Hosking’s discussion of how suppressed history was restored to people’s consciousness is also highly original. He credits particularly Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago for exposing the empire of slave camps, and the “village writers” of the 1970s, such as Vasily Belov and Sergei Zalygin, for their resurrection of humane and religious values—hitherto dismissed or maligned—of the Russian countryside, a countryside from which most Russians are only a generation or two removed. Freud’s insight that suppressed memories come back with enormous emotional force, he argues, is applicable to Soviet experience. In these ways

a society which had been atomised and traumatised under Stalin was slowly and painfully reconstituting its memory and reknitting the fabric of social solidarity…. A certain basis did exist for the revival of autonomous social institutions and eventually of genuine politics.

Hosking chronicles the variety of independent groups concerned with historical truth, environmental protection, social issues, and politics which emerged in the late Eighties—all making up a “civil society in embryo”—and he traces the process of legalization of religion and the churches, and the growth of nationalist movements in the republics. While skillfully describing these movements, he has little to say about their roots in the years between 1960 and 1985. He quotes an important appeal in January 1989 by a committee of Baltic, Armenian, and other nationalists to the Russian intelligentsia, warning:

Many of the activists of the Russian democratic opposition have not yet grasped the primary axiom of democracy: nations cannot be free if they oppress others, or if they serve as instruments of such oppression.

In the first edition of his book, completed in October 1989, Hosking regards this reproach as justified. In the second edition, completed in January 1991, he changes his comment to make it apply only to the time when the appeal was written. Soon afterward most Russian democrats, helped also by the clear vision on this issue of Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Afanasiev, accepted this “axiom” and made it a central part of their thinking.

Among Hosking’s many virtues are his command of the Russian language and Russian literature, his extensive firsthand knowledge of Soviet society, his attention to the entire political spectrum, not just the part of it most acceptable to us in the West, and his constant sensitivity to the imperial history and nature of the USSR, a sensitivity that made it possible for him firmly to label the final chapter of the second edition “Towards the Dissolution of the Soviet Union.” He concluded the new edition by raising the big question whether that dissolution would take place in a violent or a peaceful manner. Describing Gorbachev’s embrace of the hard liners last winter, he inclined to pessimism. He saw in the future either still more anarchy, or an authoritarian coup that “would probably fail and lead directly to civil war.” Thus he predicted the August coup, but because he underestimated the extent to which the state’s instruments of coercion had already lost their unity and legitimacy, he was wrong about the coup leading straight to civil war.

Vera Tolz’s The USSR’s Emerging Multiparty System is a valuable companion to Hosking’s ambitious book. She carefully documents the appearance and development of unofficial groups from the mid-1980s through the spring of 1990. She also analyzes the subtle interplay of the spontaneous processes coming up “from below” in the form of support for such movements as the Memorial group of Sakharov and others, and the constant attempts of the authorities to control and direct them “from above.” Not that the authorities were united in their increasingly frustrated efforts to maintain control. Tolz dissects the often uncoordinated process of policy making, which involved constant conflict between various political leaders, research institutions, and legislators, for example over the permissiveness of the new law regulating independent associations. In doing this she demonstrates her own experienced judgment and also draws on the work of sophisticated Russian analysts like Igor Klyamkin and Liliya Shevtsova, whose writings have become steadily freer and more penetrating over the years.

A second complement to Hosking’s book is the admirable Helsinki Watch report Glasnost in Jeopardy, which systematically reviews the developments that took place through March 1991 in every aspect of law and official policy affecting human rights. The extensive detail and documentation do not prevent the authors from arriving at clear and finely balanced conclusions. Writing just after Hosking completed his book, they see the broad picture much as he does. On the one hand “a series of new liberal laws has been passed, protecting the rights to freedom of the press, conscience and association.” But on the other, “the central government has become so weak that its ability either to regulate or to protect these newly enshrined rights is questionable.” After Gorbachev turned toward the hard liners in the autumn of 1990 they noted an “increased militarization of Soviet society,” while “a dozen areas of the country are now under states of emergency,” and the police minister “acknowledged the deaths of 1,000 people in communal violence.” Yet “the renewed repression has been incomplete and to a great extent ineffective…. The progressive media and public continue to criticize Gorbachev openly.”

Not surprisingly, the enigmatic Gorbachev continues to be the subject of many new books. Usually produced in haste, they include several that are competent and useful, but as one might expect, they provide few of the deeper insights that only solid research and reflection can yield.11 Dusko Doder and Louise Branson’s Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin is perceptive in its understanding of the Soviet leader’s complex personality, and it has useful insights into his Kremlin maneuverings and the finely calculated interplay of his domestic and foreign policies, and into the conservatism of Russian popular culture. But it lacks extensive documentation, and has little to say about economic issues and the relations between the republics and the center.12 Nonetheless some of the authors’ observations are thoughtful and suggestive:

Gorbachev was offering his people a set of laws, accounting procedures, and efficiency standards and urging them to demolish the “Administrative System” without giving them a clear sense of what would replace it. Glasnost and perestroika were, for many Russians, reflections of anarchy and of the uncertainties of the market that dominate the modern age—the very forces that were alien in a country where it has been inconceivable that any action should be taken without a theoretical foundation and a hierarchical system of authority.

When Gorbachev’s program did not take off, he apparently came to the conclusion in 1989 “that the only way to succeed would be to revert to the classical ‘revolution-from-above’ tactics.” However,

more and more he was not leading; rather, he was engaged in tranquilizing a multitude of situations threatening perestroika. Of course he was cutting moral corners; he had to resort to an unusual degree of cunning. He used many of the techniques he deplored in his political opponents…. His candor, skeptics said, was an act of political expediency; his outward calm a matter of cosmetics.

Robert Kaiser’s Why Gorbachev Happened has most of the same strengths and weaknesses as the book by Doder and Branson. It is a fluent, readable account by a journalist with a sense of history who knows Russia well but has not been based in Moscow since the early 1970s. It relies mainly on easily available sources. Like Doder and Branson, the author has not explored the center-right and hard-line Soviet press—particularly such publications as the newspapers Soviet Russia and Literary Russia—for the fresh insights that they would surely have yielded. In particular, he would have been able to show how over two years the hard liners openly developed their attacks on Gorbachev’s failure to crack down on anticommunism and nationalist separatism.

Kaiser has, though, studied Gorbachev’s personality, and along with the charm, the persuasiveness, and the unusual, widely noted blend of flexibility and rigidity, he sees the narcissism, the penchant for luxury, and the “love of power for its own sake” that many observers have missed. I would question only Kaiser’s description of Gorbachev as “utterly self-confident.” Doder and Branson point convincingly to times when Gorbachev has panicked; and they stress his skill as an actor to explain how he conceals this tendency from the world. I might add that if he is indeed not as self-confident as Kaiser and others believe, this makes him more courageous than he would otherwise seem.

Although Kaiser pays little attention to economic matters, he refers more forthrightly than most writers to Gorbachev’s “incompetence as an economist.” He notes correctly that “from his first months in office Gorbachev convinced the economists who advised him that he had no grasp of their subject, and no confident sense of where to take the country.” Nonetheless, Kaiser concludes that even though Gorbachev has been overtaken by events, his leadership has been “a heroic achievement, because Machiavelli was right: nothing is more difficult than taking the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

The most original new research on the Kremlin politics of the last few years has in fact appeared not in print, but on film. In the six-part BBC series The Second Russian Revolution broadcast recently on various American channels, Norma Percy and her colleagues present unique material that no Sovietologist will be able to ignore. They are able to examine closely some of the most important decisions made under Gorbachev through lengthy interviews with a score of key leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, Yegor Ligachev, Geydar Aliev, and Aleksandr Yakovlev. Some of these politicians had never before given an interview to Western television, and with the possible exception of Yeltsin none of them had previously been so frank about the intrigues and maneuvers of Politburo politics.

Thanks to skillful editing and crosscutting, viewers can compare the differing versions of participants in, say, the epic struggles between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the elaborate, but bungled coverup of the Chernobyl disaster, or the tense infighting that followed the publication in 1988 of a neo-Stalinist article that had Ligachev’s support. The skill of the interviewers in first persuading traditionally closemouthed politicians to speak out on hitherto largely forbidden topics, and in putting well-chosen questions to them, deserves very high praise. For any student of politics, not just Sovietologists, these excellent television programs should be a prime resource. Students of the Kremlin have the extra satisfaction of hearing the players confirm, at last, much of the carefully concealed intrigue that ceaseless scanning of Pravda had suggested to us over the years.

The Soviet economy has perhaps been not quite as impenetrable as Soviet politics, but even so, Western scholars have often been less than perceptive in their analysis of it. They have tended, in my view, to put too much trust in official Soviet statistics; and the coziness within the economic profession has at times resulted in ostracism of the few mavericks who have challenged the often—as it turns out—erroneous consensus of the establishment. One of the mavericks is Igor Birman, whom Izvestia recently introduced to its readers by saying,

Ten years ago doubt was cast on his works by many traditional authorities. The passage of time has confirmed the penetrating quality of Mr. Birman’s analysis, as even his influential opponents from the research units of the CIA have been compelled to admit.13

A more recent maverick is the Swedish political economist, Anders Aslund, who largely agrees with Birman. Aslund has now produced, in a greatly expanded new edition of his Gorbachev’s Struggle for Economic Reform (first published in 1989), a brilliant and provocative book which should cause a stir among economists, and also, one may hope, much debate. It is one of those rare books into which a vast amount of detailed data and hard thought has been packed, but which yet remain fully intelligible. Its sharp-edged judgments, some technical, some broad, are almost always backed up by statistics and convincing references to sources. Aslund lived in the Soviet Union for three years, read deeply, traveled extensively, got to know scores of economists, managers, and engineers personally, and he has made good use of his experience. In one chapter, for example, he presents his analysis of the economic views of sixteen leading politicians, taking each one in turn. One might think that such an approach would be repetitive or redundant, but in fact it is absorbing. His accounts of the views of the arch-conservative Yegor Ligachev and the moderate conservative Nikolai Ryzhkov, the former prime minister, for example, show how great the rewards of informed and incisive textual analysis can be.

Here I will cite only a few of Aslund’s conclusions and take issue with him on one speculative but important matter. “Looking back at Soviet economic policy during the second half of the 1980s,” he writes,

it is difficult to avoid the impression that virtually every possible mistake has been made. Perestroika has proved to be an utter economic failure. The most appropriate analogy appears to be Poland in the late 1970s under the rule of Edward Gierek…. The Soviet leaders…repeated all Gierek’s mistakes, although they had much more leeway to begin with than Gierek ever had.

The first serious mistake, Aslund argues, was to introduce “extraordinary laxity” into fiscal policy in 1985, a mistake later acknowledged as such by Gorbachev. Far too much investment went into construction and purchasing new machines. As a result of this and of the enterprise management reform of 1987, which had such baleful effects as encouraging excessive wage hikes without allowing corresponding price increases, the budget deficit soared in 1988 to about 10 percent of GNP. For two full years, however, until September 1989, Gorbachev paid little serious attention to issues of economic reform, and not much was done.

At that point Gorbachev started commissioning a bewildering succession of reform plans from a frequently changing cast of economic advisers. At last he seemed willing to approve the so-called Shatalin plan, which prescribed, in Aslund’s words, “a rapid stabilisation and a fast transition to a market economy coupled with large-scale privatisations and a general delegation of powers to the union republics.” By embracing this plan along with its faults—notably its refusal (dictated by Gorbachev and Yeltsin) to admit that living standards would have to decline temporarily—Gorbachev could have combined an improvement in center-republic relations with “an initial cure of the economic crisis.” Instead, however, he suddenly backed away from the plan, because, Aslund maintains, “he was not prepared to accept a diminution in his own power, a far-reaching weakening of the union, and large-scale privatisation.” It is only fair to add here that strong political pressure on him from the hard-line factions was clearly an additional factor in his thinking.

In any case, the economic decline accelerated as a result, and hyperinflation became a likely prospect. Writing in January 1991, Aslund therefore predicted that “the current Soviet crisis is likely to bring an end to the system created by Lenin and Stalin.”

Aslund’s own reform program for the USSR is essentially the “shock therapy” currently being applied in Poland with much international aid. It requires in particular the elimination of the authority of the Party and of Marxism-Leninism as a government ideology and the liberation of the republics (all essentially achieved since August), the adoption by a strong leadership of a plan proclaiming the transition to capitalism, the removal of most of the state bureaucracy, and extensive privatizing of the economy.

The question I would raise about this prescription is not whether it is desirable but whether it is feasible for the foreseeable future in the real world. Poland is small, ethnically homogeneous, and nationally cohesive. It has some traditions of respect for legality, and its private agriculture and small-scale entrepreneurs were far from destroyed by forty years of communism. It has considerable support from rich foreign countries, and has learned from its history of foreign domination that it cannot afford to be too proud about accepting conditions imposed on it from outside. And yet, despite all these favorable factors, the Poles are enduring much hardship as the second year of shock therapy nears its end. Nor is the outcome certain.

By contrast, Russia enjoys none of the favorable circumstances I have mentioned. To compensate for the lack of them it must depend on vast natural resources and greater research capacities, but these will probably not be sufficient. In particular, as the Russian economist Leonid Abalkin—a patriotic liberal who has become less radical in his economic views during the last two years—said soon after the coup, in an effort to dampen excessive euphoria: “This country hasn’t changed. The people remain the same as they were a month ago, with the same culture and the same psychology. You can’t change in the course of a month. It will take decades, or at least a generation.”14

Aslund believes that with strong political leadership capable of instilling hope in the Russian people, this sort of resistance can soon be worn down. If this were to prove true it would be something of a miracle, and doubters like myself would be glad to beg forgiveness for our excessive pessimism. But on top of everything else, the Russians will first have to overcome their new skepticism about central government as such, a skepticism which has been provoked by the unnerving performance of the Gorbachev regime during the last two years, and which stacks the deck still more against Yeltsin and his administration.

In What Went Wrong with Perestroika Marshall Goldman makes many of the same points as Aslund, but he is more sensitive to the deeper problems of political culture and psychology that are raised by economists such as Abalkin. His book is more readable and less tightly argued than Aslund’s, and it is full of telling anecdotes. Goldman shows how, during the last few years, economic reformers have already felt vulnerable to charges that they are selling the country out at too cheap a price to foreigners. And he emphasizes a point made in several of the books under review, namely that Soviet workers “met almost all of Gorbachev’s initiatives with resistance and cynicism.”

Another writer who pays close attention to popular political culture is the young historian Stephen Kotkin, who in 1987 and 1989 spent nearly a year living in the typically Stalin-era city of Magnitogorsk in the Urals. In Steeltown, USSR: Soviet Society in the Gorbachev Era he reports with controlled passion and vividness the social and economic tribulations of a proletarian population. Writing in the summer of last year about the society he observed, he concludes:

Disillusionment continues to deepen as the bulk of the populace, encouraged to believe that a “regime” change would at long last solve the country’s problems, watches in disgust as politician after politician speaks, one bolder than the next, but nothing positive seems to result. Instead, the torrent of speeches and legislative acts has been accompanied by a swelling refugee population, near hyperinflation, the disappearance of even those goods regulated by rationing, and a variety of “bandit” capitalism and profiteering…that has made the already worrisome notion of a market economy that much less reassuring…. An angry and uncertain public mood and a dangerous level of social tension have persisted for years, with little relief in sight.

Robert Rand, a Russian-speaking legal scholar, spent seven months observing Moscow defense attorneys at work. In Comrade Lawyer he gives an exceptionally clear and fluent account of the Soviet legal system at work. He met honest lawyers, and sometimes, as in a long and dramatic case of a worker wrongly charged with murder, which he describes in detail, he saw justice triumph. But the lawyers were always fighting against deep popular distrust: “Most people…knew that advocates could do no good. They were useless, unimportant players in stage-managed performances called criminal trials.” As for judicial impartiality, a Soviet colleague told him that this would require nothing less than a revolution, “a revolution that would remove all members of the judiciary whose judicial psychologies were rooted in the pre-Gorbachev ‘era of stagnation.’ ”

Such opinions are not unusual, either in legal circles or elsewhere. For example, an American journalist recently interviewed a Moscow lawyer on an exchange visit in New York and reported: “This naturally ebullient man of 29 is almost grim when he describes the staggering obstacles to legal reform in his country. A generation or more may have to pass before people regard judges and lawyers as anything but lackeys for the state, as the expeditors and legitimizers of tyranny.”15

By contrast, one of the most successful reforms of the Gorbachev years, and an integral part of the achievement of extensive freedom of expression, has been the removal of almost all the state’s restrictions on religion and the churches. This liberation is graphically and authoritatively documented by Michael Bourdeaux, in Gorbachev, Glasnost & the Gospel.16 The end to state controls has, as he shows, not only relieved the social tensions caused by discrimination and persecution, but also released into society a powerful and urgently needed source of charity and social altruism. Mental hospitals are now beginning to have volunteer Christian orderlies who care for patients instead of beating them, and churches are building old people’s homes to replace the hell-holes run by the state. Evangelical movements of many kinds are growing fast, often with help from government bodies. True, in the Ukraine liberalization has raised tensions, as the hitherto outlawed Uniate Catholic church reemerges from the underground to claim back the churches that Stalin and the Orthodox church took from it in 1945 and 1946. And tensions have also risen within some church hierarchies, as complaisant bishops and ministers who reported dutifully to the KGB for decades find themselves under pressure to retire to monasteries.

Finally, as the KGB is being dismembered and even threatened with extinction, it is pleasant to report the appearance of a memoir of unusual quality by a former officer in that organization. Vladimir Kuzichkin, the author of Inside the KGB, worked in Iran between 1977 and 1982, and his factual, detailed account of Soviet intelligence activities there will be an important source for scholars on Iran as well as the USSR. He also describes the tight control of the KGB by the Communist party, which was designed to make it an obedient instrument of the Party, without any political autonomy. In his epilogue Kuzichkin reveals himself to be a shrewd political analyst. Writing about the Gorbachev years during the spring of 1990, he concludes by asking: “Does the KGB have a future?” His answer: “It is doubtful, because in order to survive, the current regime is having to make more and more concessions to opposition elements. One of these concessions will surely be the disbanding of the KGB.” A year and a half later, that point has almost been reached—another solid gain amid so many mounting problems.


The dominant approach in Western Sovietology, especially during the last five years, tended to assume that the Soviet system was moving toward a humane form of socialism which would involve a market for socialist enterprise. Until very recently, many Western Sovietologists did not even contemplate the possibility that the Communist party might be so unpopular that its rule would soon be threatened, or that ethnic nationalism might become a potent, let alone an uncontainable force. They often held that an implicit “social contract” had evolved between the Party and a partner called “the Soviet people,” a contract that provided a firm basis for evolution toward a better socialist future. When Gorbachev appeared with an explicit program of this sort, such Sovietologists made clear their belief that the West must support him in every possible way. The writings in which they did so did not usually help to prepare us for the upheavals of the last year.

A prolific and influential, if idiosyncratic scholar of this school, Jerry Hough, published a long article—“Gorbachev’s Endgame”—in the Fall 1990 issue of World Policy Journal, at about the same time that the books under review were being completed. Since Hough has, through radio and television and in press articles, become perhaps the best-known Sovietologist in the US, it may be instructive to quote from his article some of the main points about the present and future, in order to show how far he diverges from the writers I have been discussing.

In his heavily documented essay Hough criticizes scholars such as Martin Malia and Seweryn Bialer who have been critical of Gorbachev and have predicted the failure of his regime. “In fact,” he writes, “things have been flowing quite smoothly” for Gorbachev—“to some extent, one could even say, according to plan.”

Gorbachev’s plan, Hough believed, was to accumulate enough “dictatorial power” so that he could reverse his democratization and introduce economic reform from above. In building this power, his first calculation was that what “the new generations of educated Russians…were not ready for…was the breakup of their country.” His “basic decision,” therefore, “was to let unrest in the republics—especially the smaller ones—go to an extreme.” This would “end any illusions among the Russians about the contentment of the non-Russians” and “make them understand the threat to the integrity of the country.”

Meanwhile, Hough maintained, American analysts “failed to see” that unrest among the non-Russians “would not pose a real threat to Gorbachev’s position, since Russian soldiers would presumably obey orders to fire on them.” (Gorbachev is thus portrayed by Hough as provoking non-Russians to extremes in order to shoot them down, and thus reassure the Russians that he could be trusted with dictatorial powers.) Later Hough appears to cast doubt on this strategy by saying that “there is no evidence that the republics are in a position to demand more than limited sovereignty, especially now that the Baltic revolt seems to be petering out.” In any case, “it is quite wrong to think the Soviet Union is moving toward something as loosely structured as the Articles of Confederation envisioned…at least not over the next ten to twenty years.”

As for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, “Gorbachev has been in firm control of the reform process” and, assuming he stays healthy, he “is almost certain to remain in power at least until the 1995 presidential election.” By contrast, Hough holds, “we must be especially careful not to exaggerate Yeltsin’s power”; “Yeltsin and the radicals would have the support of only one-third of the legislators in a showdown”; “indeed, Yeltsin’s political position is inherently weak…. The Russian republic offers a very weak power base.”

These views need no commentary. But they help to emphasize the merits of the books discussed in this article. Their authors have been more successful than Professor Hough in analyzing the fundamental features of the Soviet system and in discerning the direction in which it has been changing. In 1974 I tried myself, in these pages, to suggest the direction of future change. Reviewing some books by and about Soviet dissidents, I suggested that studying dissent was helpful in this regard. The dissident groups were producing

gradually mounting pressures for a more plural society, for some genuine politics,…and for the legitimation of minority nationalism. On the other hand we see a regime increasingly on the defensive, physically powerful but…morally weak.

“We would be foolish to underestimate the likely pace of change,” I wrote. Yet “it is still hard to have great optimism about the future evolution of a country in which tendencies toward pluralism and compromise have been so persecuted since 1917 and are only now reviving.”17

Seventeen years later, the revival has made spectacular progress, but, alas, great optimism still seems hard to justify.

This Issue

November 7, 1991