Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 7: Capitalist restoration was a disaster for the global working class

There can be no more tragic spectacle in the history of humanity than that of a defeated revolution. When the revolt of the slaves in Rome was defeated, thousands were nailed to crosses on the roadside. This should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is… There was also the dreadful slaughter of workers after the defeat of the Paris Commune [in 1871]. This, too, should give us an idea of what a defeated revolution is. History teaches us that a defeated revolution has to pay an extraordinary toll in blood. The victorious ruling class demands payment for the anxiety it experienced, for all the interests that were affected, or that were threatened. But it not only demands payment for present debts; it also seeks to collect, in blood, payment for future debts. It tries to annihilate the revolution down to its very roots. (Fidel Castro1)

A joke circulating in Russia in 1992 went like this. Q: What did capitalism accomplish in one year that communism could not do in seventy years? A: Make communism look good.2

From liberation to liberalisation

With the burden of Gorbachev’s social democratic fantasies lifted from his shoulders, Yeltsin went to work on behalf of his major constituency: the most corrupt and unscrupulous sections of the Russian nouveau riche, along with US finance capital. The goal was to totally wipe out the economic foundations of socialism and create a fully liberalised economy where capital would be free to reproduce without fear of restriction or regulation; an economic environment purpose-built for foreign investors, speculators, bankers and gangsters.

But, as Gregory Isaacs put it, “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell”. The welfare state was all but wiped out. The neoliberal economic advisors hired by Yeltsin – led by Jeffrey Sachs3 – mandated an end to price controls, meaning that the price of even the most essential commodities skyrocketed overnight. Unemployment went from practically nothing to over 12 percent within a few months. Asset-stripping reached dizzy new heights. Privatisation, deregulation and corruption were the order of the day, as production, government spending, earnings and even life expectancy plummeted: Kotz and Weir note that “from 1990 to 1994 male life expectancy in Russia fell from 65.5 years to 57.3 years… Such population decline normally occurs only as a result of major wars, epidemics, or famines.”4

As funding dried up, the healthcare infrastructure collapsed and the peoples of the former Soviet Union were subjected to epidemics of poverty-fuelled diseases not seen for many decades. “Azerbaijan has had a tenfold increase in measles, Uzbekistan suffered an outbreak of polio and typhoid fever has reappeared in Russia. Tuberculosis and syphilis are widespread, and the incidence of such children’s diseases as whooping cough and German measles has increased sharply”.5 Russia witnessed its first cholera epidemic since the 19th century.

In the first few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian GDP and industrial production both contracted by more than 40 percent. “By comparison, in the United States the four-year economic contraction in 1929-33, which brought the American economy to the low point of the Great Depression, entailed a decline in gross national product of 30 per cent”.6 Needless to say, wages followed suit, and the Soviet people started to suffer serious poverty for the first time in many decades. According to a World Bank report on the ‘transition economies’ (all the former socialist countries of Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia), the number of people living on less than 4 dollars per day increased from 14 million in 1989 to 147 million in the mid-1990s. In Russia this corresponded to an increase from 2 percent to 44 percent; in Ukraine from 1 percent to 63 percent; in Central Asia from 6.5 percent to 53 percent.7

It took around 15 years for Russian GDP to recover to 1990 levels – during which period China’s GDP increased by around 300%. Even after GDP had returned to 1990 levels, the obscene levels of inequality meant that millions of Russians still lived with a level of poverty that hadn’t been seen in the Soviet Union since WWII. New problems emerged, most noticeably homelessness (including youth homelessness), drug addiction, social alienation and prostitution, all of which remain endemic in Russia today. A 2012 article notes: “The rate of alcohol and drug abuse among teenagers has increased dramatically, as have delinquency and suicide rates, which are likely related to the growing incidence of  domestic violence. By the mid-2000s, government spending on education per child dropped to half of the rate in 1990. Experts estimate that over 1.5 million children currently do not attend school.”8

Yegor Ligachev – one of the few members of the politburo in the late 1980s to resist the madness of glasnost – lamented:

During the years of Soviet power, a person was judged, not by his bag of loot, but by his labour, and lofty moral principles were reinforced: patriotism, internationalism, collectivism, industry, honour, justice. Now, all that is being stamped out of people’s consciousness and the historical connection is being broken. The current authorities and the mass media are encouraging the cult of gain, grovelling to the rich, contempt for the poor, speculation, hard drinking, prostitution and savage individualism.

Instead of the peace and quiet of the Soviet era, we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in crime and corruption, hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, and millions of refugees. All measures of development have taken a sharp downturn except mortality and crime – which are rising steeply. This is understandable. The property created by and belonging to the workers is being stolen, society is rife with alcoholism, and the number of unemployed and homeless is growing. The authorities cannot fight the very people they depend upon, that is, the speculators and the corrupt apparatus…

In the Soviet era … you could walk through any town at night without concern for your life; now murders and robberies are committed in broad daylight.9

The Soviet collapse also had a disastrous effect on cultural and social life. Michael Parenti points out that “subsidies for the arts and literature have been severely cut. Symphony orchestras have disbanded or taken to playing at block parties and other minor occasions. The communist countries used to produce inexpensive but quality editions of classical and contemporary authors and poets, including ones from Latin America, Asia and Africa. These have been replaced by second-rate, mass-market publications from the West. During the communist era, three of every five books in the world were produced in the Soviet Union. Today, as the cost of books, periodicals, and newspapers has skyrocketed and education has declined, readership has shrunk almost to Third World levels.”10 Racism, domestic abuse and violent crime all reared their ugly heads with the collapse of socialism.

No wonder a majority of Russians regret the collapse.11

Ironically, even elements within the western mainstream press now recognise that socialism offered a far better deal for ordinary people than neoliberal capitalism: “The planned economy of the vast Soviet Union offered financial stability. In the immediate aftermath of its 1991 crash, it quickly became apparent that Russia’s new market economy would offer a rocky ride. Economic reforms quickly had a harsh effect on general living standards. The rouble became almost worthless. Corruption was rampant. A deeply flawed privatisation programme helped put much of the country’s economy in the hands of an entrenched and often shady oligarchy.”12

It is now widely believed that US-led finance capital knowingly directed the post-Soviet Russian economy into disaster so as to: 1) thoroughly wipe out the economic roots of socialism by replacing it with gangster anarcho-capitalism; and 2) to prevent the Russian Federation from becoming a serious competitor to US hegemony in the ‘new world order’.

So much for democracy

Yeltsin in power confirmed what every thinking person suspected: he had not the slightest interest in democracy. The brutal neoliberalism imposed on the Russian people could never have enjoyed popular legitimacy – how to win widespread support for the dismantling of social welfare and the transfer of the state’s assets to a bunch of bureaucrats and crooks? Therefore a corrupt, plutocratic political system was installed that openly favoured the enormously wealthy and that actively excluded the poor.

In stark contrast to their role during Soviet times, trade unions were barred from political activity. Pro-communist and anti-Yeltsin media were routinely banned.13

By autumn 1993, Yeltsin was facing serious opposition even within the Russian parliament, a majority of whose members were appalled by the results of the neoliberal ‘reform’ and Yeltsin’s use of extraordinary executive powers to push his programme though. A constitutional crisis arose when Yeltsin decided to put an end to the pesky parliamentary opposition by dissolving the legislature (unconstitutional dissolution seems by this point to have become something of a habit). The parliament responded by denouncing Yeltsin’s actions, impeaching him and declaring vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy acting president. The crisis was only ‘resolved’ when Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the Supreme Soviet and arrest the parliamentary leaders that opposed him. Quite the democratic transformation.

Stephen Cohen notes that “the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals were neither coincidental fellow travellers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on Russian society by an ‘iron hand’ regime using ‘anti-democratic measures’. Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia’s newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, they said of Yeltsin: ‘Let him be a dictator!’ Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia’s popularly elected parliament in 1993.”14

Three years later, in 1996, the Russian presidential elections were almost certainly fixed so as to maintain Yeltsin in power at the expense of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.15

Yeltsin portrayed himself as the ‘father of Russian democracy’; in reality he was its leading assassin.

Global tragedy

The destruction of socialism in the USSR … inflicted terrible damage on all peoples of the world and created a bad situation for the Third World in particular. (Fidel Castro16)

The importance of the USSR’s role as a counterweight to US/Nato imperialism was made achingly clear by the series of imperialist wars that took place during and after the Soviet demise. Symbolic of this shifting power balance is Saddam Hussein’s misplaced hope in early 1991 that Gorbachev would act to restrain US warmongering against Iraq.17 The Soviet Union was supposed to be a great power, a longstanding ally of Iraq, with its Armenian borders extending to within a couple of hundred kilometres of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Gorbachev’s government did nothing to protect Iraq from invasion by a predatory imperialist power on the other side of the world. It’s rather difficult to imagine Stalin or Brezhnev presiding over such a mockery.

Horrifically destructive US-led wars soon followed in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya and elsewhere. The campaign to destroy Syria’s independence continues to this day.

In the post-Cold War world order, neutrality was no longer tolerable. Many states quickly modified their nationalist orientation and semi-socialist policies to play by the rules of global capitalism, but only complete capitulation was accepted. Any country that contradicted Washington’s plans and erected some barriers to the penetration of imperialist capital could find itself in the crosshairs. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. attacked Iraq, and then, in the Clinton years Somalia, Sudan, Haiti and Yugoslavia… After launching a ‘demonstration’ war against Afghanistan in 2001, Bush declared an ‘axis of evil’ — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — a hit list for further regime change efforts.18

The balance of power in the world changed sharply, with the overwhelming majority of European socialist states being replaced by right-wing governments and incorporated into Nato (despite the promises made by the US and West Germany that there would be no eastward expansion of Nato).19 The economic crisis ‎occasioned by the Soviet collapse also led to the demise of socialism in Mongolia.

With China yet to become the economic powerhouse it now is, underdeveloped countries in need of investment were left with no choice but to look to the US and the Bretton Woods institutions. As a result, ‘structural adjustment’ became the order of the day, and many poorer countries had no choice but to accept privatisation and austerity on a grand scale in exchange for loans that were desperately needed to avert acute crises.

Of the remaining socialist countries, Cuba, Vietnam and DPR Korea suffered particularly badly as a result of the sudden disappearance of the Soviet Union (and its friendly trade terms). It is a testament to the remarkable courage, creativity and vision of the Cuban, Vietnamese and Korean people that those countries have recovered from the shock of the early 1990s and continue building socialism today.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and European socialism could reasonably be described as the worst defeat suffered by the global working class in its history. It gave a lifeline to imperialism and set back the cause of human liberation by several decades.

The next, and final, article in this series attempts to answer the question: Will the People’s Republic of China suffer the same fate as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics? In doing so, it will suggest a few conclusions from the preceding articles and outline some ideas around advancing the struggle for socialism in the coming decades.

  1. May Day rally in Havana, 1961. Cited in The Fidel Castro Reader, Ocean Press, 2003 

  2. Parenti, Michael: Blackshirts and Reds, City Lights Publishers, 2001 

  3. For further information on Sachs’ role, see New York Times: Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Shock Therapist 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir: Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. LA Times: Infectious diseases flourishing in former USSR as living standards fall 

  6. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  7. These figures sourced from Socialist Action: 10 Years After 1989 

  8. Institute of Modern Russia: Russia’s Invisible Children 

  9. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  10. Parenti, op cit 

  11. That most Russians regret the Soviet collapsed is well established by a number of opinion polls. See for example RT: Most Russians regret USSR collapse, dream of its return, poll shows 

  12. Washington Post: Why do so many people miss the Soviet Union? 

  13. See, for example, UPI: Anti-Yeltsin media banned, liberal paper attacked by militants 

  14. The Guardian: The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia’s march to democracy 

  15. This is even admitted by the US media these days. For example Time: Did Boris Yeltsin Steal the 1996 Presidential Election? 

  16. Tomás Borge: El Nuevo Diario Interview with Fidel Castro 

  17. New York Times: Hussein Wanted Soviets to Head Off US in 1991 

  18. Imperialism in the 21st Century: Updating Lenin’s Theory a Century Later, Liberation Media, 2015 

  19. Spiegel Online: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow? 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 6: Things fall apart (1989-91)

Many of us aspire to change the world for the better: you are among the few who have successfully done so. (John Major to Mikhail Gorbachev, December 19911)

The early Gorbachev era was relatively exciting and inspiring; there was a sense that the new General Secretary had the energy, creativity and commitment to lead the USSR out of economic stagnation and political disillusionment. By 1987, this initial excitement had waned, replaced with apprehension and worry. Economic growth, which in 1985 had been relatively slow, was by now anaemic, and the Communist Party was being actively marginalised. Many party members and leaders started to wonder – some openly – if perestroika and glasnost were really such great ideas after all.2

Nonetheless, the years 1987 to 1989 were still pretty much business as usual in the USSR. People went to work, received their salaries, and enjoyed an acceptable standard of living. Economics professor David Kotz notes that “the increasingly radical economic reforms of the late 1980s were disruptive, but economic growth continued at 2.2% per year from 1985-89. The Soviet economy did not have a single year of economic contraction over the whole period from 1950 to 1989”.3 However, from 1989 the winds of change picked up pace and gathered into a hurricane, the destructive power of which caught the masses off-guard and ultimately turned Soviet socialism to rubble.

By 1989, Gorbachev and his allies had completed their quiet coup, consolidating their power, removing enemies and rivals from positions of influence, and creating an open road for their ‘restructuring’. In the Congress of People’s Deputies, they now had a legislative body that was more-or-less free from the reins of socialist sanity that might otherwise be applied by ‘conservatives’ and ‘hardliners’. The media had succeeded in creating a political atmosphere in which any criticism of perestroika was simply ‘Stalinism’ – a word whose usage had come to imply acceptance of the most hyperbolic McCarthyite propaganda.

The leadership used its new-found freedom to start implementing much more radical reforms, closing down the central planning agencies altogether, liberalising prices, establishing market-based trade between the republics, and forcing state enterprises to survive or die in the open market. Many large enterprises were sold off at bargain-basement prices to budding capitalist opportunists. These abrupt, hasty and sweeping reforms were meant to introduce ‘dynamism’ into the economy; to leverage the supposedly dormant creative spirit of the Soviet people; to incentivise innovation and quality. Judged against their purported intent, the reforms were spectacularly unsuccessful, leading to the first recession in Soviet history and to terrible shortages of low-margin and previously subsidised products: “the Soviet economy moved from a condition of severe problems to one of crisis”.4

At the turn of the decade, the economy was in free-fall. With discontent rising and the CPSU in forced retreat, other political forces started to rise. Nationalist separatists in the non-Russian republics were able to prey on rising popular anxiety over the economy. Russian demagogues started denouncing the unequal relationship within the union whereby a wealthier Russia helped to sustain living conditions in central Asia. ‘Radical reformers’ like Boris Yeltsin, strongly backed by western media and money, stirred up mass discontent. Strikes became a feature of everyday life. The threat of counter-revolution, previously unthinkable, became all too real.

Dangerous economic deterioration

Kotz and Weir describe the deteriorating economic and social situation in 1989-90: “The Soviet Union experienced ever-lengthening lines outside stores, the rationing of more and more commodities, and the complete disappearance of many goods from the stores. The growing shortages had a profound impact on the political climate, changing it from one of optimism to one of crisis. This made it much easier for advocates of more radical changes to gain a serious hearing.”5

The following year, per capita GDP fell by around 15 percent; the reformers’ blind faith in the inherent corrective power of the market turned out to be misplaced; investment collapsed. “Net fixed investment declined at the astounding rate of 21 per cent in 1990 and an estimated 25 per cent in 1991.”

Price liberalisation inevitably led to speculation and inflation, which in turn exacerbated the acute shortages of everyday consumer items, in particular food. This had its most visible manifestation in the notorious shopping queues that were much talked about in the west and which were, ironically, used as examples of the failure of socialism. Keeran and Kenny observe: ”Private hoarding by consumers and, more important, public hoarding by republics and cities, spread dramatically, first with respect to food, then other consumer goods. Empty food shelves, the most glaring and most resented shortage, drew sharp public anger and had widespread political, psychological, and economic results”.6

In 1989 and 1990, socialist allies in Europe were transformed overnight into pro-western capitalist regimes, leading to further imbalances in the Soviet economy – the USSR had long enjoyed a symbiotic trade relationship with the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia – as well as to a growing popular perception that the writing was on the wall for European socialism. Much frustrated by the economic crisis, and falling prey to the cynical demagoguery of Yeltsin and his coterie, who blamed all problems on socialist planning and the ‘privileged bureaucracy’, coal miners carried out strikes on an unprecedented scale. This contributed to a crisis of legitimacy. Gorbachev had little choice but to go running to the western banks, with which the Soviet Union quickly worked up a sizeable debt.

Yegor Ligachev, the most prominent ‘hardliner’ (ie socialist) on the scene at the time, describes the dangerously unstable situation of 1990-91: ”The consumer goods shortage hit hard, and people’s dissatisfaction mounted. In the republics of the former Soviet Union, separatist tendencies gained strength. The Soviet Union’s position in the international arena was weakened. There arose in the country political movements that aimed at eliminating the Soviet system and creating a society on the western model. Relying on active support from foreign powers, the shadow economy, the ‘elite’ of the creative intelligentsia, and a portion of the state apparatus, by means of deceit and demagoguery, especially regarding the nonexistent privileges of the nomenklatura [high-level party appointees], these movements were able to enlist the support of a certain segment of society”.7

In spite of everything, most people wanted to stick to socialism

“Our people have never rejected socialism. They were simply deceived by demagoguery and false promises.”8

As bad as things got, the Soviet working class was still not won over en masse to the putative delights of capitalism. Even with the level of ideological deterioration that had taken place; even with the pernicious influence of a hostile, anti-communist media; Soviet workers remained proud of the world-shaking achievements of their forebears and of the USSR’s record of solidarity with the global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle. These were for the most part educated people whose loyalty could not so easily be bought. Many understood that the luxurious and carefree lifestyle portrayed in Hollywood movies had its counterpart in the suffering and exploitation of the western working classes and the oppressed masses of the developing world. Indeed there were many in the grassroots of the CPSU that were highly critical of the retreat from Marxism-Leninism, but these were precisely the elements that were disenfranchised under Gorbachev’s glasnost.

Facing a nationalist-separatist challenge throughout the federation, the Soviet government decided in late 1990 to hold a referendum on the preservation of the USSR – the only referendum in Soviet history. On 17 March 1991, Soviet people across the union went to the polls to give a yes-or-no answer to the question: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, which will fully guarantee the rights and freedoms of all nationalities?”

The vote was boycotted by the governing bodies in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia, but in the rest of the country turnout was 80%, with 147 million total votes cast. The result was an overwhelming majority in favour of maintaining the USSR: 78% voted in favour.

Interestingly, the proportion of ‘yes’ votes was slightly lower in Russia (73%) and Ukraine (71%) but extremely high in the Central Asian republics (over 94% in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and Belarus. This reflects a growing eurocentrism and reactionary nationalism within Russia and Ukraine that resented sharing a state with ‘backward’ and ‘burdensome’ Asians – a prejudice that Yeltsin and others played to. Realising that there was precious little support for dismantling socialism in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, and reasoning that an independent Russia constituted a more promising environment for the type of free-market capitalism he had in mind, Yeltsin led the drive towards greater autonomy for Russia. He is on record as saying, in 1990, “I soon understood that there would be no radical reforms at an all-Union level … and so I thought to myself: If the reforms cannot be carried out at that level, why not try in Russia?”.9

Even the lead capitalist restorationists didn’t feel confident enough to talk about getting rid of socialism altogether, because they knew they would never get a popular mandate for their plans. Yeltsin didn’t talk openly about capitalism, only about accelerating the reforms, removing the privileges of the ‘nomenklatura’ and ending the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Kotz and Weir write: “Yeltsin and his associates understood that a large majority of the Russian public were unfavourable toward the prospect of free-market capitalism. But the majority responded very well to criticism of the Communist Party leadership and to appeals for faster market reform, democratisation, and greater autonomy for the Russian Republic.”10

Soviet workers wanted to maintain and improve socialism and maintain the union; the USSR’s dissolution at the end of 1991 was in that sense profoundly anti-democratic. However, crisis and confusion were so entrenched that, while people might vote for socialism, most weren’t mobilised to fight for it.

The balance of forces favoured the capitalist restorationists

In spite of their catchphrases about ‘democratisation’, the anti-communists had absolutely no interest in the will of the Soviet people. Instead, they were intent on pushing through their programme of capitalist restoration by any means necessary. Thanks largely to perestroika and glasnost, they had both the economic incentive and political leverage to dismantle socialism, break up the USSR and send its people hurtling into an economic and social crisis of untold proportions (about which more in the next article in the series).

The major constituency pushing for capitalism was, to use Kotz and Weir’s terminology, the party-state elite – mid-level officials and enterprise managers who had taken advantage of their extensive connections and new-found economic freedoms to win control of assets and engage in trade and finance. Dissolution of the USSR offered such people (together with the bigger players in the underground economy) the promise of a completely deregulated trade environment in which they’d be able to get unimaginably rich, albeit at the expense of the remaining 99% of the population. Kotz and Weir discuss the mechanics of how these people came into money, and why the destruction of socialism was so close to their hearts:

The decree on foreign trade of 1988 opened an important means to get rich. The Soviet Union’s low controlled prices made many Soviet goods, particularly oil and metals, potentially lucrative export items for anyone who could get hold of them. After this decree opened up foreign trade to private firms, import-export companies were formed, in the legal form of cooperatives, which soon began to conduct a partly legal, partly illegal, and very profitable export trade. Over three thousand such firms were formed… By 1990-91 a new group of private capitalists had developed and was getting rich mainly through connections with the outside world… Any turn away from the emerging pro-capitalist direction of change, toward either a return to the building of a reformed socialism, or an effort to bring back the pre-perestroika system, would threaten the basis of their lucrative economic endeavours. Proceeding to capitalism was essential to the survival of their new businesses.

This pro-capitalist constituency had money. And money, for the first time, had become a significant factor in the Soviet political scene. ‘Free elections’ turned out not to be so free in the case of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where money bought high-profile campaigns and extensive media coverage. This was an unfamiliar environment for the silent majority in the Communist Party that had been brought up to believe that political leadership was a responsibility and honour earned through service to the people, not paid for with ill-gotten gains. This change, together with Gorbachev’s insistence on dropping quotas for working class representation, meant that “a striking change occurred in the percentage of deputies who were workers, collective farmers and office employees: this dropped from 45.9% of the 1984 Supreme Soviet to only 23.1% in 1989”.11 The counterpart to this was the monumental increase in the representation of management and intelligentsia.

With the formation of the overtly anti-communist ‘Democratic Russia’ movement in January 1990, the pro-capitalist elements joined forces and consolidated around a political vehicle that seemed to offer the quickest possible route to their chosen destination. Democratic Russia candidates managed to win a plurality of seats in the Russian parliamentary elections of March 1990, including several key Soviets (Moscow and Leningrad among them).

Democratic Russia also played the major role in electing Boris Yeltsin as Chair of the Russian Parliament in May 1990. By this time, Yeltsin had become recognised as the undisputed leader of the anti-communist opposition. He resigned from the Communist Party in June 1990, realising that his differences with Gorbachev were insurmountable: Gorbachev, for all his ineptitude and liberalism, still hoped to keep the USSR together and maintain some elements of socialism – for example the welfare state.

We are well aware of our weaknesses and unresolved problems, but neither can we forget the fact that socialism has given every one of us the right to work and to an education, free medical service, and accessible housing. These are genuine values in our society which provide social protection for the individual today and for the future.12

Yeltsin and his cohort wanted to press ahead with ‘shock therapy’ neoliberalism and had lost patience with Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s bold statements against the communist ‘conservatives’, his nationalist demagoguery, and his carefully nurtured (and entirely inaccurate) image of incorruptibility won him phenomenally high approval ratings from 1989 onwards. The reactionaries placed their hopes in his shaking hands.

The imperialist countries made it perfectly clear which side they were on, openly stating that any support for the Russian economy via the international banks would be predicated on an economic programme of large-scale privatisation and deregulation. Within this framework, “saving Russia” meant embracing the most brutal neoliberalism.

Counter-revolution in Europe

Reagan’s vocal support to ‘pro-democracy’ movements in Europe, along with Gorbachev’s clear indications that the Soviet Union wouldn’t intervene militarily to protect its allies, gave a tremendous impetus to the project of capitalist restoration across the region. With communists almost entirely sidelined in Moscow, pro-capitalist and pro-perestroika elements in the rest of the Warsaw Treatyf zone were emboldened. Well-funded western-backed organisations were able to use sophisticated marketing and radical posturing in order to leverage popular dissatisfaction into powerful movements for counter-revolutionary change. In the words of Margot Honecker, people came to believe they could “join together the glittering world of commodities under capitalism and the social security of socialism”.13

In August 1989, following extended negotiations between the Polish government and the ‘Solidarity’ union movement (a grateful recipient of bountiful CIA funds and papal support), leading anticommunist Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister and Poland became the first of the European socialist states to fall.

Perhaps the most dramatic and symbolic events in Europe were in the German Democratic Republic, where large demonstrations were held, initially calling for greater democracy and bemoaning a stagnant economy. Anti-communist elements saw their opportunity and started steering the demonstrations towards a demand for German reunification – thereby implying that the GDR authorities were responsible for the ongoing division of the country.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the basic history of German partition and the Berlin Wall continues to be wilfully misrepresented. In the negotiations over the status of postwar Europe at Yalta and Potsdam, the Soviet Union and its allies in the German Communist Party (KPD) had pushed strongly for a unified German state that would have multiparty elections, that would be prevented from rearmament and that would be committed to neutrality. This approach took into account both the wishes of the German people and the Soviet Union’s need to avoid another major war. Anxious to maintain a military foothold in Germany, the US and Britain worked with right-wing forces in the western zone (including many former Nazis) to set up a separate state in western Germany: the Federal German Republic (FRG), established in May 1949. It was only then that the GDR was set up as a separate, socialist state. The border in Berlin then became the nexus for covert actions by western imperialism against the socialist bloc (let nobody forget that, throughout this era, US-led capitalism was waging a horrifically violent global crusade against progressive forces, from Cuba to Korea, from Vietnam to Indonesia, from Guatemala to Congo). The constant threat of war was the sole reason for the construction of the Berlin Wall. Margot Honecker notes: “The Political Advisory Committee, which was the governing body of the Warsaw Treaty states, decided in the summer of 1961 to close the border in Berlin and the western state border after they decided a military confrontation could no longer be ruled out. I do not think that one can call the prevention of a possible third world war a mistake.”14

The counter-revolution in the GDR picked up pace rapidly after the Hungarian state – by now well advanced along the road of its own version of perestroika – tore down its border with Austria. Much encouraged by the western authorities, several hundred East Germans took the opportunity to cross the Austria-Hungary border and make their way to the FRG. This created a panic situation in East Berlin. In November 1989, crowds of Germans on both sides started dismantling the wall. Given the ‘facts on the ground’ created by the Hungarian border opening and the Soviet refusal to intervene, the authorities in the GDR – by now vulnerable and indecisive, with the Erich Honecker leadership sidelined – chose not to prevent the fall of the wall. Within a year, the GDR ceased to exist.

By 1990, communist parties had been removed from power in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Albania would soon follow suit, and Yugoslavia was descending into a series of nationalist secessions and terrible wars. The Warsaw Treaty of collective security was disbanded in February 1991. A few months later the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (popularly known as Comecon) was dissolved.

The collapse of the socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe served to significantly increase the pressure on Soviet socialism. At the most practical level, there had been a tight economic integration between the CMEA countries: a similar economic model meant that economic planning could be internationalised. The sudden disappearance of the USSR’s key trading partners meant a vertiginous decline in imports and exports, leading to sudden shortages of various essential goods.

The rising tide of nationalism in the USSR

National tensions started to escalate in the Gorbachev period, fuelled to a significant degree by Gorbachev’s insensitivity to the national question and his purge against those not toeing the perestroika line. Breaking with the tradition that the politburo and central committee should have representation from all the republics, Gorbachev oversaw a ‘russification’ of the central bodies, feeding into resentment and rising complaints about Russian chauvinism. For example, the highly capable Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev, promoted by Andropov to the position of First Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union, was unceremoniously kicked out of the politburo in 1987.15 Another senior party leader from Azerbaijan, Nikolai Baibakov, was fired in 1985.16 Dinmukhamed Kunayev, longstanding party head in Kazakhstan and a full politburo member for 16 years, was also dismissed as a result of his ambivalence regarding perestroika. His replacement as Kazakh party chairman by Gennady Kolbin – a Russian who had never lived in Kazakhstan – prompted rioting on the streets of the capital, Almaty.17

The sorry state of affairs in the Soviet economy gave a further stimulus to nationalist separatist movements, particularly in the western republics. Between March and May 1990, national separatists dominated the elections to the Supreme Soviet in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; all three republics promptly declared independence. Although Gorbachev opposed the independence of the Baltic states, he ultimately chose to accept it rather than enforce the union and thereby invoke the ire of his new-found friends on the international scene: US president George HW Bush and German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

By late 1990, with the writing on the wall for the union, the remaining republics had declared ‘sovereignty’ (not independence), asserting control over their own territory and the economic resources within it. The first republic to do so was in fact Russia, in June 1990 – an unconstitutional move by Yeltsin motivated primarily by the neoliberal hawks’ desire to go faster and further down the capitalist road than Gorbachev was willing to. The other republics responded to Russia’s declaration in kind. Kotz and Weir write that the passage of the sovereignty law in Russia ”had an immediate and profound effect on the other republics, transforming the nature of the nationalist impulses coursing through the republics. However much ethnic Russians might have dominated the Soviet system, the structure of the Union at least provided some safeguards and powers, as well as significant economic benefits, to the non-Russian republics. For example, Russia’s plentiful raw materials had been provided cheaply throughout the Soviet Union. Now the Russian Republic was asserting its right to control its own natural resources and their disposition. The leaderships of the republics which had previously been relatively quiet now immediately passed sovereignty resolutions. By August 1990 sovereignty resolutions had been passed by Uzbekistan, Moldavia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. By October even loyal Kazakhstan followed suit as well.”

The breakup of the integrated economic system had an acute economic impact. “Since the beginnings of Soviet state socialism, the economy had been built as a highly integrated mechanism. Many products, including critical industrial inputs, were produced by only one or two enterprises for the entire Soviet market. A single factory in Baku was the sole manufacturer of deep-water pumps. One consortium produced all of the Soviet Union’s air conditioners. An estimated 80 percent of the products of the Soviet machinery industry had a single source of supply. Now many of the links in this highly integrated economy began to break down, as traditional supply relations between enterprises located in different republics were disrupted by the autonomy policies pursued by the newly assertive republics… This process was a major contributing factor to the economic contraction of 1990-91”.18

Too little, too late: the events of August 1991

By mid-1991, the confidence of the anti-socialist opposition was growing by the day. On 20 July, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Russian branch of the communist party from operating in government offices and workplaces within the Russian Republic.19 It was perfectly obvious to all concerned that this was a power grab aimed at finishing off the CPSU and establishing Russia as an independent (capitalist) country.

Seeing their country hurtling towards oblivion – and recognising that Gorbachev lacked either the will or the ability to save it – a group of high-level Soviet officials organised themselves to take control of the country and establish a state of emergency, with a view to pausing the reforms and pursuing all measures to prevent the dissolution of the USSR. These officials organised themselves under the name State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCSE). Among them were some of the government’s top leaders, including Gennady Yanayev (Vice President), Valentin Pavlov (Premier), Boris Pugo (Interior Minister) and Dmitry Yazov (Defence Minister). They were joined by army commander-in-chief Valentin Varennikov and KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov.

On 18 August, with Gorbachev on holiday in the Crimea, tanks moved into Moscow and a state of emergency was declared. The SCSE issued its Appeal to the Soviet People on 19 August, noting that “there have emerged extremist forces which have adopted a course toward liquidation of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the state and the seizure of power at any price” and denouncing the economic reforms which had caused “a sharp drop in the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population and the flowering of speculation and the shadow economy”.20 The statement promised to clamp down on the emerging capitalist class and to initiate a country-wide discussion on the future of the federation.

However, the SCSE leadership quickly developed an acute case of cold feet, dropping its plan to storm the Russian parliament and showing no willingness to use force in support of its aims. They didn’t even perform the most basic preparatory task of cutting off Yeltsin’s telephone. Gao Di, chief editor of People’s Daily and high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote at the time that the SCSE “should simply have arrested Yeltsin and Gorbachev before they did anything else, just as we did the Gang of Four… You do not ask a tiger politely for his skin – either you kill him or he will kill you!”.21

On 21 August, Kryuchkov flew to Crimea in an attempt to persuade Gorbachev to give his stamp of approval to the SCSE and to join them in forestalling Yeltsin’s plans. “Gorbachev would not meet them. At 2:30 am on August 22nd Gorbachev returned to Moscow on the presidential plane along with the Russian Republic’s Vice President Rutskoi (Yeltsin’s ally, who had arrived in Foros on another plane), and Kryuchkov. Kryuchkov had agreed to join Gorbachev on the presidential plane, on the basis of a promise he would speak as an equal with Gorbachev. On landing, however, Kryuchkov was arrested by Soviet authorities. Back in Moscow, Gorbachev resumed formal power, though his real power was fast slipping into the hands of Yeltsin. At 9 am on August 22 the Soviet Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw its troops from Moscow, and the bizarre drama came to an end”.22

All in all, it was a thoroughly inept and half-hearted operation. As Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, remarked many years later in a statement on the death of Gennady Yanayev: “If they had acted much more decisively, our unified country would have been preserved”.23 Ligachev similarly remarks: “They courageously attempted to preserve the Soviet Union. If they are to be criticised, it is for their inconsistency and indecision”.24

Yeltsin was quick to exploit the events to further his own position and accelerate the overthrow of socialism. The pro-capitalist leadership within the Russian parliament immediately denounced the coup attempt, and called their supporters to defend Moscow’s White House (the base of the parliament), where the speakers called openly and defiantly for ending socialism without further delay. “This appeared to be the final confrontation over what system would prevail in the country. Russian Republic vice-president Alexandr Rutskoi told the crowd that ‘Either we shall live like the rest of the world, or we shall continue to call ourselves “the socialist choice” and “the Communist prospect”, and live like pigs.’ Former top Gorbachev aide Alexandr Yakovlev and former foreign minister Shevardnadze, who had left Gorbachev’s camp, joined the crowd at the White House.”25

The image of Yeltsin sitting atop a tank outside the Russian Parliament served as powerful fuel for his self-promotion engine, appearing on TV screens and front pages across the country and around the world. In the mainstream narrative, he was a courageous democrat, a hero of all that is good and pure. As Keeran and Kenny put it, the ultimate effect of the August crisis was to “enable Boris Yeltsin to seize full power in Russia, eliminate the moribund CPSU and do away with the USSR. That was the real coup.”26

The inexorable tide of disaster

With the SCSE defeated and imprisoned, events moved at lightning pace. On 23 August, Yeltsin pushed through the suspension of the Russian branch of the Communist Party. On August 24, Gorbachev dissolved the CPSU Central Committee and resigned from his role as General Secretary (maintaining his position as President of the country). A day later, Yeltsin ordered the transfer of the Russian Communist Party’s property to the Russian Parliament. The Soviet flag outside the Kremlin was replaced with the Russian flag. Nothing meaningful remained of the Soviet state.

In early November, Yeltsin issued decree number 169, banning the CPSU altogether. He sought to justify this move on the basis that “it has become evident that as long as the CPSU structures exist, there can be no guarantee against one more putsch or a coup”.27 This was thoroughly disingenuous, given that his executive order restricting the party’s activities in Russia was one of the key factors precipitating the SCSE’s attempt to restore socialist governance. However, there was by now nobody left in the leadership with the courage or strength to sabotage Yeltsin’s bourgeois bulldozer.

Yeltsin ignored the negotiations for a new union agreement and moved purposefully towards declaring Russian independence. On 8 December, he met with the Ukrainian and Belorussian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, ostensibly for informal discussions. At this meeting, the presidents and their advisers drafted a document (known as the Belavezha Accords) announcing – with absolutely no legal authority – the dissolution of the Soviet Union: “The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.”28 Shushkevich’s memory of the discussion gives some idea as to how much attention was paid to the nuances of constitutional law: “Yeltsin said, ‘Would you agree for the Soviet Union to end its existence?’ I said OK and Kravchuk said OK too.”29

Even Gorbachev was shocked at the arbitrary and sudden nature of this declaration. “The fate of the multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics. The question should be decided only by constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of all their citizens… The hastiness with which the document appeared is also of serious concern. It was not discussed by the populations nor by the Supreme Soviets of the republics in whose name it was signed. Even worse, it appeared at the moment when the draft treaty for a Union of Sovereign States, drafted by the USSR State Council, was being discussed by the parliaments of the republics”.30

As discussed above, there was little support for Soviet dissolution in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, but it wasn’t conceivable to carry the Soviet Union on without its most populous and prominent component. The Belavezha Accords were ratified a week later by the leaders of the remaining republics. Gorbachev’s resignation finally came on 25 December 1991. With no legal precedent or constitutional framework, Yeltsin simply transferred the Soviet state bodies and property to Russia, and on 31 December, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. This was the real coup d’etat. A great country was removed from the map, against the wishes of the majority of its people, by opportunist and conniving leaders. It was nothing short of a tragedy.

The next article will discuss the effects of the Soviet collapse, both within the territory of the former USSR and in the wider world.

  1. Financial Times: EBRD drew up debt-for-nuclear swap plan as Soviet Union fell 

  2. See part 5 of this series for an extensive discussion of perestroika and glasnost. 

  3. David Kotz: One Hundred Years after the Russian Revolution: Looking Back and Looking Forward, International Critical Thought, October 2017 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir, Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. ibid 

  6. Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  7. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  8. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  9. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  10. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  11. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, WW Publishers, 1990 (Introduction

  12. Interview in Pravda, 22 June 1987, cited in Marcy, op cit (Chapter 10

  13. Workers World: Interview with Margot Honecker 

  14. ibid 

  15. BBC News: Obituary: Heydar Aliyev 

  16. New York Times: Nikolai K. Baibakov, a Top Soviet Economic Official, Dies at 97 

  17. NB. Almaty was at the time known as Alma-Ata 

  18. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  19. New York Times: Yeltsin Bans Communist Groups in Government 

  20. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  21. Cited in David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  22. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  23. Al Jazeera: Leader of failed Soviet coup dies 

  24. Ligachev, op cit 

  25. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  26. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  27. UPI: Yeltsin bans Communist Party 

  28. New York Times: Texts of Declarations by 3 Republic Leaders 

  29. BBC News: New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup 

  30. Statement made on 9 December 1991, cited in Gorbachev: On My Country and the World, Columbia University Press, 2000