Who Destroyed the USSR?

In my latest article for RT (that you can read here), I discuss the issue of who was responsible for the collapse of the USSR. Was it Gorbachev? Was it the hardliners who opposed him and mounted a coup in August 1991? Or was it Yeltsin and his liberal allies?

A bit of all the above, I conclude, before adding that the Soviet Union was in any case founded on a fundamentally flawed social-economic model that was ultimately unsustainable. So, if you’re going to blame anybody, blame the Bolsheviks!

I could have added that you can also blame Stalin for adding the Baltic states and Galicia to the Soviet Union. If they’d not been part of the Union, separatist tendencies would have been substantially less, and it might have been possible for the communist system to collapse and the country not split into 15 different parts at the same time. Maybe. On balance, I’d conclude that the territorial gains of 1945 were a huge mistake.

I am sure that there are other factors as well. As always, your thoughts on the issue are welcome.

18 thoughts on “Who Destroyed the USSR?”

  1. If Deng Xiaoping was in charge of USSR in 80s instead of Gorbachev, USSR would still be around today and could have been the no.1 or no. 2 most powerful state in the world today.


  2. The neoliberal “democracies” have central planning; it is split between Wall Street and the City of London. Nothing happens without their direction or approval.


  3. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on whether China’s post-Soviet success contests your claim that the primary blame lies with the Bolsheviks.


    1. In response to you and Bankotsu above, I think that adoption of the Chinese approach in the Soviet Union was next to impossible for a couple of reasons, one economic, the other political.

      First, China in the 1970s/1980s was still an overwhelmingly agricultural society. Shifting to a capitalist (or partially capitalist) economy was a relatively simple process compared to the Soviet Union which was fully industrialized, and in which market liberalization (competition, price liberalization, etc) would inevitably drive large numbers of enterprises into bankruptcy.

      Second, a shift to capitalism was simply unthinkable in the USSR until about 1990. There was almost nobody, apart from one or two lone voices, supporting such a shift. Even dissidents were 90% supporters of ‘socialism with a human face’ rather than liberal democratic capitalists. State ownership of the means of production, central planning, the welfare state etc were deeply entrenched dogma both within the Party, official economists, and the population at large. The most anybody contemplated was some form of market socialism, and this remained the case until about 1990. Had Gorbachev said that he wanted to move to capitalism, he would have had zero support. The Party would have ditched him, and the public would have backed the Party in doing so. The Chinese approach just wasn’t a viable political option.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to disagree with what you write professor for a number of reasons.

        First the Chinese have never gone for as a big a bang transition as has often been made out and the transition while well done was not a master class either. The fiscal system imploded in transition era China even worse than the fiscal system did under Gorbachev. This in large part is why many aspects of the planned/socialist system did not return until the mid-2000s. It was less from a liberalising zeal and more the fact that the Party could not mobilise the resources it once had. Once the Party was able to rebuild the fiscal system the Chinese economy has in a lot of ways looked more and more like a socialist economy.

        Second is the idea that the Soviet system was somehow always non-viable. That simply is not borne out by the economic evidence. From 1928-1975 the Soviet economy usually grew faster than the US economy. After Stalin died the economy did not produce guns instead of butter it produced better guns and a lot more ‘butter’ more apartments, televisions, central heating, clothing, pots, pans and a lot more actual butter. For example between 1964 – 1973 raw agricultural output grew on average by 3.8% each year. The difficulty the Soviet system had was that whatever its many successes it had fully run its course by 1975 AS IT WAS STRUCTURED.

        But the Soviet system was perfectly capable of reforming into a more market oriented, guided system. Indeed the gist of a lot of Brezhnev’s half hearted reforms, often aborted and never pursued as far as they should have been – were often towards an end like this and there were plenty of scope for reform. For example decision makers from Brezhnev on downwards knew that the pricing system every year was becoming more and more meaningless. For example they knew that a good quality kilo of beef usually sold for the shops for 2 roubles, but it actually cost 3.50 to produce and bring the beef to market – with the difference paid out of the state budget. They knew that bringing prices at least in line with production costs would do much to reduce inefficiencies and address shortages but they were afraid of doing so as they feared riots over price rises and the Soviet Communist Party, after Stalin died, was very reluctant to use ugly repression and so they did not take the plunge that they should have on this – and knew they needed to. But the point is the plunge could have been taken and when the Party did take the plunge on occasion – and explained itself – people by and large were receptive. A good case in point is the much maligned anti-alcohol campaign. Yes there were the jokes, and yes people used moonshine but mostly people responded to the price signals and switched to lower alcohol beverages or just drank less and mortality rates dropped.

        What could have been done? I can give two examples of reforms that would allowed for the beginnings of a successful reform. I would argue that gradual but sharp reforms would have been the way to successfully reform the Soviet economy. More firms should have been ordered to produce for export – and with the attendant quality checks – to drive up productivity and quality control. A comprehensive reform of the pricing system would have realigned opportunity costs and made the costs of doing one action over another a lot more intuitive to both planners and enterprise directors.

        Finally a great mistake is in assuming that a full blown capitalist economy is necessarily superior to a planned and socialist economy. In the case of some parts of the former USSR, including Russia, but especially a country like Ukraine, had economic growth continued at the anemic Soviet rates, their respective GDPs would today be anywhere from 50% higher to more than double their current level. When the Soviet economy was in ‘trouble’ it was growing at about the rate that modern western European or North American economies grow – about 2.0%. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

        In brief, it undoubtable the Soviet economy needed reforms, and quite substantial ones, but it is entirely over-determined and wrong to say the USSR and the Soviet economy were doomed.


      2. Paul, I have close to no knowledge on Russian history of the relevant time, at least not to the extent it feels, I needed to judge, but yes: Maybe beyond sloganeering, if I may call it that–stereotypical American/or British winners vs losers?–there’s a basic human pattern after all?

        From within my own rather limited mind, it always felt, had the Mensheviks at least kept a little input on matters it might have had the necessary butterfly effect …

        Basic Human pattern?:
        But while the hardliners made this possible, Yeltsin and his supporters were only too happy to exploit the opportunity.

        Be well


  4. You would undoubtedly be aware of Cohen’s view that there were essentially three reasons for the collapse so I give his reasons for the non-scholars like myself. Very briefly: “It was a historical happenstance that two extraordinary leaders appeared on the Soviet political scene at exactly the same time — Gorbachev, a man with an extraordinary will to reform; and Yeltsin, a man with an extraordinary will to power.” He is then forced to ask: “Why did the top Soviet state (not party) nomenklatura permit Yeltsin to abolish its own state, which had given it so much power and privilege for so long?” and answers that “those elites, in Russia and in other republics, were already seizing the great wealth of the Soviet state. They were now motivated by a will to property ownership.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Regarding Gorbachev

    “A bad workman always blames his tools”

    When someone says that something they have done did not turn out a particular way – because they did not have the correct things to do it etcetc

    The reality is that they did not have enough skill.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. «Но есть и хорошие новости» (с) Linor Goralik


    Покойник был речист и смел!
    Из тех, что рвут с груди рубаху,
    Ему пророчили расстрел,
    Оковы, казематы, плаху,
    Этапы, ссылки, лагеря –
    Путь стойких, пламенных, немногих…
    А он дал дуба втихаря,
    Весною промочивши ноги.

    Yesterday there arose an occasion to turn a small plot of land into a high concentration of the glass wool, given the cessasition of the biological existence of one Sergey Adamovich “I’m ashamed [of modern Russia]. We all must be ashamed” Kovalyov.

    Sergey Adamovich Kovalyov had been always been regarded among the topmost “aristocrats of the spirit” of the so-called “Russian” so-called “opposition” – and not just because he was ethnically part-Polish.

    For one – he had a number of medals and awards, on par with some active-duty officers, including:

    1992 – Medal of Remembrance of January 13 [1991] (Lithuania)
    1996 – Order “Knight of Honor” (Siy dolu Qonax) of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (delivered to him personally in 1997)
    1999 – Grand Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas
    2005 – Order of the Cross of the Land of Mary, 3rd class (Estonia)
    2006 – Cavalier of the Légion d’honneur (France)
    2009 – Andrei Sakharov’s Prize “For Freedom of Thought”
    2009 – awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit to the Republic of Poland by the decree of the President of Poland Lech Kaczynski “for outstanding achievements in the protection of human rights and the promotion of civil liberties”
    2011 – Freedom Prize (Lithuania)

    One of this awards is from the nonexistent state. Here’s a story, how Sergey Adamovich Kovalyov had earned it.

    In December 1994, when the fighting just began in Grozny, Chechnya, Sergei Adamovich came to the position of the islamist militants and invited them to organize negotiations to end hostilities. The militants agreed, then they gave Kovalev a radio station. And he began to broadcast into it to the besieged Russian soldiers:

    “I am a human rights activist. Guys, I, Sergey Kovalev, take full responsibility upon myself. Come out, surrender, and now you will be taken to your units in cars … ”- these things implored this man.

    And many were bought this lie and surrendered. Needless to say, no one took these surrendered guys anywhere, and they were all taken prisoner or even worse. What the militants did with them further, I will not describe here in details (think – gruesome bodily mutiliation, torture then death). Who is interested – there are memories of the participants of this event on the Internet. E.g, General Gennady Troshev left his memories, as well as deputy battalion commander of the 131st motorized rifle brigade, Alexander Petrenko.

    Kovalyov never expressed any regret over that. Neither do members of the so-called “Russian” so-called “liberal” non-systemic opposition. In fact, in 2006 Kovalyov became “Yabloko” party member, so that nowadays they mourn his passing at the topmost level – see recent posts by Borukh Vishnyevsky.

    He accomplished plenty besides this “feat” – he was co-chairman of the foreign agent NGO “Memorial” since 1990, of the Moscow’s branch of the Amnesty International, supported Gorbachyov’s “glasnost”, was elected People’s Deputy of the RSFSR in 1990-93, etc. In the latter capacity he, btw, voted for granting Boris Yeltsin lead grouping Emergency Powers back in August 1991 (here’s tie-in to the topic of the original blogpost).

    Children of Boris Adamovich Kovalyov are living in the US of A.

    And a lyrical conclusion:

    Here richly, with ridiculous display,
    The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
    While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
    I wept : for I had longed to see him hanged.


    1. Oh! How could I forget about Sergey Adamovich’s valuable input in the development of the modern Russian language and applied philology? Thatnks to him and other people like him (today was a roll-call of them in the RuNet), brand new and hip for Perestroyka era term “правозащитник” acquired the meaning “продажный гандон” which is still in use.


  7. Thank you for your most interesting and provocative analysis in RT. But perhaps you’re being too harsh on Gorbachev regarding reform of the economy (not that he was perfect, as you rightly point out). My understanding is that advisers from the US were flooding into Russia to tell it how to organize their economy. Their advice amounted to rapid and extreme privatization of state assets, as described in The Nation article “The Harvard Boys do Russia.” This ideological claptrap, which has damaged the US itself too, helped create an oligarchy in Russia. The standard of living collapsed during the Yeltsin years at least partly as a result of the rapid change to the top-down market economy that resulted. That said, I do not mean to let Russian/Soviet leaders off the hook.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Professor, I believe that you are completely wrong when you say the system built by Lenin was doomed from the start. That is a unscientific, a-historical, and teleological assertion which cannot even pass the minimalisatic test of historical accuracy! It is an ideological position, which you have, based on your own ideological preferences (=supporting the Tsarist system) which you are wrapping in a supposed historical law.

    I find myself agreeing with most of dewitt’s comment above. There are untold permutations of “what could have been” which might have saved the central planning system; actually it was just an odd, freakish 1 in a thousand accidental occurence which brought low-probability factors and skeezy players together to create such an unfortunate outcome.

    None of this was preordained!


    1. Attributing to one in a thousand occurrence or a bad luck is considered a bad practice by pragmatic thinkers. The signs of dissent and corruption that brought down the “empire” (or “first workers state” for others) can be traced for decades, in all areas, especially now, three decades after the fact. What is certain is it never meant to be an end of an idea of more developed and just society or liberal “end of history” bullshit, we always have an opportunity for fresh start.

      Most importantly, the system wasn’t just build by Lenin, as he only laid a foundation for it in the span of several years he was still alive. Foundation is important, and he earned his place in history, but this is not all there is to it. Everybody else had an immense opportunity to reform it into a shape that is suitable for a new times, and most of them did use that opportunity to better or worse results. Like the situation with Crimea, which is in itself a very much boundary case and not a clear cut as most people suggest.

      Putin’s words about USSR are often taken out of context by right-wing commentators as if he has something against our communist past. In reality, it is most simple to conclude that he regrets that the much needed reform had to be realized through such turbulent and revolutionary measures which caused immense losses and extra steps to return to most of the same issues again. People with no consciousness do not have such worries.


      1. Thanks for comment, Stargazer. I realize it was a very complicated situation, with many variables; and that “bad luck” cannot be a simplistic explanation for such a grotesque catastrophe. At the same time, there is the concept of the “Perfect Storm”, when a lot of bad things come together at just the right moment to create and enhance the calamity.

        In any case, I have no doubt Gorbachov will go down in history as one of the biggest losers of all times; despite his own desperate attempts to justify his always-wrong decisions.


      2. Gorbachev is one of those rare idiots that comes only once in a thousand years. A great global superpower reduced to garbage due to the actions of this one man.

        He didn’t have a clue on what he was doing.

        Chinese have a saying with this type of people:”criminal of history.”

        Gorbachev is a criminal of history.


  9. “…Blame the Bolsheviks”

    Paul, power dropped in their laps, because literally everyone they competed with proved by their management of Russia’s affairs to be more incompetent than they were.

    It fell their lot to fix the deficiencies in Russia’s military-industrial capacities that former Interior Minister Peter Durnovo outlined to Nicky II in February 1914.


    Had they not done so successfully, Adolf might well have won the war of racial extermination he brought to the Slavs, Poles & Ukrainians very much included.

    “ On balance, I’d conclude that the territorial gains of 1945 were a huge mistake.”

    Yes, much better to allow Adolf to cut the Polish Army to shreds in 2 weeks, (which Edmund Ironside, Reginald Drax, Tom Phillips, Henry Pownall, John Slessor, & the German general staff believed to be the most likely outcome), overrun the rest of Poland, occupy the Baltics, and launch Op Barbarossa from the outskirts of Minsk & 60 miles from Leningrad.

    And here is Polish situation by 14 September ‘39:

    Polish Army cut to pieces, most pieces surrounded, surrenders of forces in hopeless positions already begun, 3 days before the Red Army moved an inch.

    Do you actually think for more than a few seconds about the obvious downsides of the alternatives to what you criticize the Soviet gvt for doing?

    Liked by 1 person

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