The Collapse of the USSR

The Soviet collapse seems at first to be very different, since it fell in peacetime. But, again, intensifying geopolitical competition from a powerful nation state, the USA, as leader of a NATO alliance, was crucial, this time in generating a resource overstretch of the USSR that triggered its dissolution.

Although the Romanov Empire had disintegrated in defeat, in the subsequent civil war (1918-21) against the Whites, Lenin overcame nationalist republics in the Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. His techniques were a mixture of military coercion (with largely Russian armies), a class appeal to the peasantry, and elite co-option, when he offered the major nationalities selfdetermination (Smith 1990: 4-5). Aware of the force of nationalism, he decided on a federal constitution based on the principle of nationality, fearing that a centralized Communist state would be captured by the demographically dominant Russians and provoke an anti-Russian nationalism of the minorities. He granted the major non-Russian nationalities their own republics where they would have official recognition of their languages, symbols, and culture, limited economic powers, and a privileged status in local public institutions. In exchange, they would implement the Communist project to create a heavy industry and a proletariat (Kagedan 1990). Alone of the nationalities, the Russians in their republic were denied separate administrative and party institutions: they could express their identity only as members of the union. Martin (2001) has called the USSR in its early years an ‘affirmative action empire’ that sought to transform cultural groups into nationalities and through education to create an indigenous intelligentsia. The Bolsheviks theorized that, through establishing a socialist economy equalizing social conditions, a general proletarian consciousness would occur, resulting in the spontaneous merging of the nationalities into a Soviet people (Connor 1984: Chs. 2, 3).

War and military competition played a vital role in both the constitution and the collapse of a Communist state that from another perspective could be seen as reimposition of empire, as the nationalities were incorporated into a Russified totalitarian state. Although the Bolshevik elite was initially drawn from many nationalities, including Jews, Poles, and Latvians, the central institutions of the USSR were dominated by the Russians. They constituted close to half of the population, and their language and culture formed the lingua franca of the state. Russians tended to occupy key security roles in the national republics, and Russian colonists/migrants, as under the Tsarist regime, were used to develop strategic areas of the empire and keep other nationalities in check. After an early period in the 1920s when the republics sought to bargain for greater autonomies, Stalin, Lenin’s successor, attempted to crush national autonomist tendencies during the 1930s. Affirmative action policies continued in quieter fashion, but from 1934 Stalin increasingly emphasized the civilizing role of Russians as the elder brother of the nationalities (Martin 2001: 81). He purged the old, more cosmopolitan Bolshevik elite and Russified an expanding centre by recruiting heavily from the Russian and Ukrainian peasantry (Shanin 1989: 416-20).

This centralizing ethos was combined with a military imperative to achieve agricultural collectivization and a large-scale promotion of heavy industry, even at the cost of large-scale famines in the Ukraine. Stalin aimed to rapidly develop the Soviet Union, which he saw as at war with the capitalist powers (Zaslavsky 1997: 76-9). The experience of the First World War made the Soviet generals aware of Russia’s backwardness, organizational and technological, and the need to improve the motivation of their soldiers.

The Bolsheviks oscillated between a military model that sought to integrate the hundred or so ethnicities and one that recognized separate ethnic units. In the 1920s many ethnic regiments were formed, but from the mid-1930s the emphasis was on a professionally trained Soviet army that transformed raw peasantries into committed Soviet socialist citizens. By 1938 earlier experiments of national militias had been abandoned in favour of a universal model of military service and an army in which the language of command was Russian. Stalin now invoked the civilizing role of Imperial Russia and the Russians as the elder brother whom the other nationalities must follow (von Hagen 2003: 183-7).

The German invasion in 1941 came close to destroying the USSR, when aggrieved nationalities seized the chance to revolt, forming military units in the recently annexed Baltic republics, the Ukraine, and Turkic areas. Stalin in desperation revived a Russian Orthodox nationalism to rally the Russian masses against the invader, drawing parallels with the ‘Patriotic War’ of 1812 against Napoleon. He combined this with a willingness to form national units and partisan brigades (Enloe 1980: 65-6). Indiscriminate German savagery in the conquered territories may have saved the USSR by limiting anti-Soviet revolts. Indeed, as many as 8 million of the 34 million Soviet army were nonSlavic minority soldiers, with around 45 divisions formed from national minorities serving from 1941 to 1943 (Glantz 2005: 600-2). After the German defeat at Stalingrad reduced the threat to the regime, there was a reversion to old centralized controls.

Victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ strengthened the regime and extended Soviet power into Central Europe, where it exercised control over puppet regimes. Through the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, Stalin had already absorbed the Baltic republics in the USSR. The USSR’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made it a superpower, one engaged after 1945 in a Cold War with the USA and supporting radical regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In this period there was a ruthless suppression in Eastern Europe of popular-national revolts in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1967).

However, as Collins (1986) argued, the subsequent expansion into Central Europe and Asia (with the advance into Manchuria) multiplied the USSR’s enemies (USA, Western Europe, Japan, and China), thereby creating the conditions for geopolitical overstretch. Under Khrushchev there was a limited liberalization and a new emphasis on a peaceful competition between rival economic and social systems. A fourfold increase between 1959 and 1981 in non-Russians obtaining a college or vocational training raised expectations of occupational advancement (Simon 1991: 266). Khrushchev’s failed confrontation in 1962 with the USA over the stationing of nuclear missiles in Cuba led to his overthrow, and Brezhnev and his successors intensified military competition with the USA. There was also a return to repression, mitigated by allowing national republics greater de facto autonomies, which led to endemic ethnic clientelist corruption. However, from the late 1970s the economy stagnated, while military expenditures by the 1980s consumed 25 per cent of GDP and 33 per cent of state expenditures (Westad 2007: 336, 402). The consequence was extreme financial strain from competing pressures—from the armed forces to match the military power of the USA, from industry and agriculture to overcome declining productivity, and from consumers with expectations of higher living standards.

By the 1960s and 1970s there was increased nationalist political agitation by leaders of the richer republics (Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) for greater fiscal autonomy to provide opportunities for their co-nationals (Roeder 1991: 219-24). A sense of crisis gripped the regime, headed by a succession of ailing leaders, faced with growing unrest in Poland and Eastern Europe and the costs of an unpopular war in Afghanistan. This was accompanied by fears of Russian (and Slavic) demographic decline vis-a-vis Central Asian Muslim populations. In the 1980s Reagan’s huge expansion in military expenditures to finance a military revolution in computerized precision weapons, including satellite ‘Star Wars’ technology, put further pressures on an already faltering regime.

A new leader, Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, determined to fundamentally reform the centralized system and wind down the Cold War with the West. Gorbachev hoped to combine a Soviet-level reform at home through policies of perestroika (restructuring from the centre) and glasnost (openness) with a normalization of international relations. He only succeeded in raising the lid on nationalist forces, bringing the system to an end.

A combination of geopolitical factors, the rising strength of institutionalized nationalism in the republics, economic disorder, and splits in the military are salient. Central to Gorbachev’s goals of establishing a prosperous democratic Communism with a human face was the normalization of relations with the West and the scaling down of the arms race. As Beissinger argues (2009), Gorbachev’s opening of the system to criticism and his move to political liberalization had the effect of unleashing waves of mass nationalism, motivated by anti-imperial demands for the recognition of historical injustice, including wartime persecutions, famines, and ecological grievances. Gorbachev was for long oblivious to nationalist threats. Attempts to shift the economy from a command to a more market basis produced only severe disruptions, and the Soviet system was further discredited by revelations of corruption and inefficiencies that accompanied the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and the Armenian earthquake (1988). In driving through multicandidate elections to the national Congress, he broke the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Responses to this varied, but at the level of the republics, party elites, threatened by intervention from the centre and criticized from below as corrupt collaborators, were tempted to ride the tiger of national autonomism with mixed results. The strength of such sentiments was uneven: whereas there were by 1988 mass nationalist popular fronts in the Baltic republics, Armenia, and Georgia, the Ukrainian leadership until its overthrow in 1989 kept a lid on popular nationalism, and in Central Asia Communist elites repressed with ease weak oppositions.

A key factor in the collapse was Gorbachev’s overriding desire to end the Cold War, which made possible a destructive interaction between national opposition movements in the Warsaw Pact countries (notably in Poland) and nationalists in the USSR. The spectacle of liberalization within the USSR encouraged the former to demand freedoms, and Gorbachev’s refusal to militarily intervene led to Eastern Europeans declaring their independence. The overturning in Europe of the post-war settlement, previously unthinkable, produced a chain reaction. Baltic nationalists who viewed their annexation as analogous to that of Eastern Europe began in 1989 to demand not just autonomy but political sovereignty, further emboldening nationalists in the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Multiparty elections in many republics led to the coming to power of nationalist oppositions, so that over much of the Soviet Union there was an increasing struggle for legitimacy between the centre and the national republics.

Meanwhile, a Russian separatism was growing, led by Yeltsin. Attempts by Gorbachev’s Communist opponents to stage a counter-revolution failed when Yeltsin won over the armed forces, leading to the unravelling of the USSR along national lines, led by the dominant Russian republic.

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