Who Lost Russia?

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


The collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991 offered a historic opportunity to transform that part of the world into open societies; but the Western democracies failed to rise to the occasion and the entire world has to suffer the consequences. The Soviet Union and later Russia needed outside help because an open society is a more sophisticated form of social organization than a closed society. In a closed society there is only one concept of how society should be organized, the authorized version, which is imposed by force. In an open society citizens are not only allowed but required to think for themselves, and there are institutional arrangements that allow people with different interests, different backgrounds, and different opinions to live together in peace.

The Soviet system was probably the most comprehensive form of closed society ever invented by man. It penetrated into practically all aspects of existence: not only the political and military but also the economic and the intellectual. At its most aggressive, it even tried to invade natural science—as the case of Lysenko showed. To make the transition to an open society required a revolutionary change in regime which could not be accomplished without outside help. It was this insight that prompted me to rush in and establish open society foundations in one country after another in the former Soviet empire.

But the open societies of the West lacked this insight. After the end of the Second World War, the United States launched the Marshall Plan; after the collapse of the Soviet system the idea of a similar initiative was unthinkable. I proposed something like it at a conference in the spring of 1989 in Potsdam, which was then still in East Germany, and I was literally laughed at. The laughter was led by William Waldegrave, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s foreign office. Margaret Thatcher was a staunch defender of freedom—when she visited Communist countries she insisted on meeting with dissidents—but the idea that an open society needs to be constructed and that the construction may require—and deserve—outside help was apparently beyond her understanding. As a market fundamentalist, she did not believe in government intervention. In fact, the formerly Communist countries were left largely to fend for themselves. Some made the grade; others did not.

There is much soul-searching and finger-pointing going on with regard to Russia. Articles are being written asking, Who lost Russia? I am convinced that we, the Western democracies, are largely responsible, and that the sins of omission were committed by the Bush and Thatcher administrations. The record of Chancellor Kohl’s Germany is more mixed. Both in extending credits and in making grants, Germany was the largest financial contributor to the Soviet Union and later to Russia, but Kohl was motivated more by the desire to buy Russian acquiescence in German reunification than to help transform Russia.

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