Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for the Revolutionary Collapse of the Soviet Union (Week 12, Day 1)

*Please note: This video came out pretty long. Please feel free to watch it at your own pace!

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 12, Day 1. Our subject today is the revolutionary collapse of the Soviet Union. We have no cat today, because they are both napping.

Last week I met with everyone except Owen to talk through your ideas for your final papers. Owen, if you’re watching this, please check in! I think everybody is doing really well with this assignment so far. I’m looking forward to reading your three-page rough drafts which will be due on Friday, April 24 at 5pm, submitted on Sakai. After you turn those in, I’ll send those back to you with written comments as quickly as possible, so you have the maximum time to work on your final drafts. As you’re writing, I encourage you to review the HIS 315 Writing Handout, which is on the course website. Capstoners, you’re on a different schedule; your next deadline is the full rough draft, which is due on Sunday, April 26. As always, please let me know if you have any questions on this assignment.

Today, we’re looking at a period of revolutionary transition: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of post-Soviet Russia. As you’ve gathered from our sources, this period presented a major upheaval in all three of our thematic areas: politics, society, and culture. Because this is some very complex history, I’m going to highlight major themes for you rather than dig into details. Please keep in mind that there is much more to this story than we can cover in this video!

In our study of Soviet dissidents, we explored the Brezhnev Era (1964-1982). As you may recall, this was a time of growing repression but also growing resistance, at least among intellectuals like Ludmilla Alexeyeva and her friends. It was also a period of stagnation. Economically, Soviet production slowed down due to a failure to modernize. And politically, the bureaucrats got older and more stuck in their ways. Brezhnev, like most of the Central Committee, was a beneficiary of Stalin’s social revolution who had risen through the ranks over decades and now stubbornly held on to power. One of the reasons we haven’t talked directly about Brezhnev in this class is that during his nearly 20 years in power, he didn’t do anything revolutionary. Reacting against the instability Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, he took a conservative approach and kept things steady. His repression of dissidents was part of that approach; after all, they were calling for change, which did not fit into Brezhnev’s ideology.

Most Soviet citizens were not dissidents. But as the excitement of the Thaw died down, they did begin to lose their sense of connection to the Soviet project. In international affairs, they were shocked by Brezhnev’s militarism, which included the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the deeply unpopular Soviet-Afghan War from 1979-1989. And domestically, they gradually came to think of official Soviet rhetoric as formulaic, without much actual meaning. That doesn’t mean they were opposed to Soviet ideals, but it does means they were becoming more distant from them. Alexei Yurchak’s chapter will help us think though that situation.

Brezhnev died in 1982, and in a sign of just how much the senior bureaucracy had aged, the next two Soviet leaders each died after about a year in office. Finally, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary. He was considered a young hotshot because he was “only” 54! But Gorbachev’s real significance is that he envisioned himself as forward thinking radical reformer. He was a child of the Khrushchev Thaw, not Stalinism, and he wanted to create a Khrushchev-like revolution that would get the Soviet Union back on track.

Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since the 1920s, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. Glasnost meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present. Gorbachev himself revealed more of Stalin’s crimes, and investigative journalists were also allowed to dig into previously hushed-up stories.

In many ways, Gorbachev’s tragedy is that he was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas, even necessary ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perestroika failed to jumpstart Soviet industry and enabled to the election of a large number of opposition candidates. For the majority of citizens, glasnost-fueled revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply unsettling and only undermined their faith in the Party further. Gorbachev was trying to fix the Soviet  Union. Instead, he broke it.

By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while the limits he imposed when things didn’t go his way alienated progressives. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev initially considered Yeltsin an ally and appointed him to the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic Republics, declared their independence and the countries of the Eastern Bloc experienced a wave of peaceful revolutions that overthrew their communist governments. To his credit, Gorbachev did not invade, which saved Eastern Europe from potential violence. But Yeltsin, seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, declared the sovereignty of the RSFSR. This was enough to freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.

After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed an agreement forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics joined. That left Gorbachev the leader of a Soviet Union that no longer contained any republics. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned, and the Soviet Union came to a surprisingly peaceful end.

For the moment, Yeltsin was ascendant. But it turned out that he had already peaked. Untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. Though he played the perestroika game better than Gorbachev, it turned out he was not fully committed to democracy and still had some Soviet-style expectations. In 1993, facing political opposition, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the parliament. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced the adoption of a new constitution with stronger executive power.

In addition, the former Soviet republics and autonomous regions battled over borders and assets. The most significant of these struggles was the Chechen Wars. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the autonomous region of Chechnya fought for complete independence. It was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. The war resumed in 1999, and we’ll talk about it more next time, when we discuss the Putin Era.

Most significantly, Russia faced a major economic crisis under Yeltsin. Yeltsin took stabilization loans from the World Bank and IMF, but these organizations required implementation of “shock therapy”: strict austerity measures and privatization of state assets. This basically destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy. A few men with inside connections, soon to be known as “oligarchs,” bought up state assets on the cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. Wealth stratification soared as this rough transition to capitalism threw millions of people into poverty. Russia also experienced a major public health crisis as underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS crisis fueled by drug addiction. Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed. Eleven years after Gorbachev’s hopeful speech about glasnost, Russia looked like a failed state. This is the situation Tatyana Tolstaya writes about in her essay “The Price of Eggs.”

I’m sorry this is not a very uplifting story! I promise you things will get better for Russia next time. But it’s necessary to consider this historical context when analyzing our sources today. Let’s start by going back to Gorbachev.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In the Conclusion to Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, which you read for today, the author tells us that while everyone was surprised and distressed when the Soviet Union collapsed, most people were also surprisingly okay, at least initially. He says that this isn’t ultimately that weird. We only think it’s weird because we’re used to thinking about the Soviet system in terms of binaries. Consider the list of binaries that Yurchak busts at the top of p.283. Can you analyze his claim? What does it mean to upset these binaries? How does his claim help us understand the Soviet Union’s collapse? How does it shape your thinking about the firm lines we’ve drawn this semester around different types of revolutions? How useful are these categories, in the end?

2. One of Yurchak’s major points in this piece is that official Soviet discourse—the standard phrases and slogans every Soviet citizen heard and repeated on a regular basis—had two dimensions, a constative dimension (what the words actually mean) and a performative dimension (the act of repeating the words). He writes, “In the late Soviet context, when authoritative discourse became hypernormalized, its performative dimensions grew in importance and its constative dimensions became unanchored from concrete core meanings and increasingly open to new interpretations.” (Yurchak, 285) Can you unpack his assertion? What does it mean for words to be more important as a thing you always say, rather than as a thing with meaning? Do we have anything like that in contemporary American culture? If so, does that mean our political system is in danger of collapse?

3. In Yurchak’s account, this performative shift in official Soviet discourse was a key feature of the Brezhnev Era. Then Gorbachev came along and messed things up by trying to return emphasis to the constative dimension of official slogans. Make a close reading of pp.291-292. According to Yurchak, why does Gorbachev’s effort destabilize things so profoundly? Why was it impossible to stop this process once it started?

4. Let’s bring these two threads together. How did the performative shift in late-socialist authoritative discourse both set up the collapse under Gorbachev and put citizens in a position to be okay when that collapse happened? In what way was this both exciting and traumatic for people? How would you feel if you found yourself in the midst of these events?

5. Now let’s turn to the speech “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost)”. Can you find examples here of what Yurchak describes: Gorbachev trying to return authoritative Soviet discourse to its constative dimension?

6. This speech has some similarities with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in that Gorbachev has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. In the “Secret Speech,” Khrushchev blamed everything on Stalin, and exonerates the Central Committee. Gorbachev handles this differently. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?

7. Speaking of the “Secret Speech,” once again we find ourselves talking about Lenin. Does Lenin play the same role for Gorbachev as he did for Khrushchev? What are the similarities and differences? Why do we always come back to Lenin? What are the pros and cons of doing so?

8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?

9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?

10. Gorbachev concludes this speech on a hopeful note. Read the last paragraph carefully. How does this shape our understanding of Gorbachev as a political reformer? Do you think it was possible, after 18 years of Brezhnev and stagnation to achieve the goal he sets out here? Do you think Gorbachev believes it, or is he trying to convince himself, too?

11. Finally, let’s explore Tolstaya’s essay “The Price of Eggs.” Here, we get the average person’s perspective on the 1998 financial crash. When she first hears on the news that the market has crashed, what does she think? What does this tell you about average Russians’ relationship to economic changes? What options do people have at this point? What do you think it would feel like to live through something like this? How would it affect your perspective on both the past and the future?

12. Tolstaya finds herself in an angry crowd outside a store that has shut its doors. On pp. 209-210, she quotes people shouting about Clinton, Zionism, and George Soros. What does this reveal about Russians’ concerns about how their country’s place on the world stage has changed? After the break at the bottom of p.210, Tolstaya describes her shock at realizing that Russia still produces relatively little of the goods it consumes. What is the psychological impact of this revelation? What does it tell us about how Russia has developed under Yeltsin and under the guidance of the World Bank and IMF?

13. This is a problem that has come up again for Russians since the US imposed sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Can you analyze the fact that Russia still has this problem of low domestic production nearly 20 years later? What does that tell you about economic development, even though things improved so much in the 2000s? As a Russian, how do you think you would respond to a second Western-related economic crisis so soon after the first one?

14. Tolstaya turns on the TV and sees Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Prime Minister from 1992-1998. Yeltsin fired him a few months before the market crash, then tried to reappoint him after. But Tolstaya doesn’t blame Chernomyrdin so much as she blames the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Make a close reading of the paragraph that begins on the bottom of p.211 and continues onto p.212. What’s her take here on the true workings of post-Soviet politics? Is this democracy as we know it?

15. During the televised call-in show, a woman screams at Chernomyrdin about the price of eggs. How does this woman’s outcry and Chernomyrdin’s response galvanize Tolstaya’s thinking about the whole situation? What conclusions does she draw? How are her worldview and her reactions shaped by the experience of living through the eras of Brezhnev and Gorbachev? Do you think Gorbachev’s effort to return to the constative dimension of authoritative discourse has made it harder or easier for her to live through these events?

9 Replies to “Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for the Revolutionary Collapse of the Soviet Union (Week 12, Day 1)”

  1. To discuss question eleven. When Tolstaya first hears of the crash she imagines produce stands falling and peaches falling to the ground. Which leads me understand that the average Russian is not too connected to the larger economy, they make money and put it in the bank. Because of this it seems that the majority of Russians don’t really respond or know how to respond the economic changes. As her friend just goes with the proverbial flow and buys caviar and tutus to adjust to the new normal. The best option seems to be to hold on to whatever money they had and convert rubles to dollars while they could, and to be creative with purchases- as there became a surplus of non-essential items. Living through something like this I think has some parallels to what is currently going on in the world: everyone is holding their breath waiting for the next “thing” to happen. There is much fear in uncertainty that things will be okay, and therefore it causes people to see others as enemies that will take the remaining resources. Living through something like that, or like this, makes you feel like everyone is on their own. It reminds me of Hobbes when he said the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short”, because when there is a threat to survival people will look out for themselves and neighbors become competitors. I think if I lived during this crash I would blame the past for setting this up, and be quite hopeless about the future.

  2. In response to Question 2:

    In his essay, Yurchak examines the collapse of the Soviet Union, with respect the to the imbalance and change of dimensions in official Soviet discourse. In regards to Brezhnev’s regime, Yurchak writes, “In the late Soviet context, when authoritative discourse became hypernormalized, its performative dimensions grew in importance and its constative dimensions became unanchored from concrete core meanings and increasingly open to new interpretations.” (Yurchak 285). Essentially, what Yurchak is saying is that for Party officials and Soviet citizens, the words and the meaning surrounding the repetition of the words (performative dimension), exceeded the actual meaning and weight of the words themselves (constative dimension). This way, the official Soviet discourse could mold the language in a way that kept the status quo, as opposed to critically examining the actual meanings of Lenin and Marx, for example, and discussing how the current state of affairs is related or not to those founding socialist principles. Yurchak describes this further as more of a ritualized regime, rather than a country who critically views its meaning, “Acts of speaking in authoritative language, practicing ideological rituals, or voting in favor of resolutions at the party meetings in most cases were not about stating one’s opinion about constative meanings of these discursive forms but about successfully carrying out ritualized acts that inaugurated the production and reproduction of the institutions, laws, hierarchies, and subject positions…” (Yurchak 286). As words become more important as a thing that is said rather than a thing with meaning, it creates blind sheep. People follow the status quo of a notion of something that they think they believe in, but is something entirely different. It allows leaders to keep a hold of certain powers and control the changes and responses of a country. This can be in relation to politics, religion, or even everyday life, as people go about their day and perform certain acts that are ritualized, but devoid of meaning.

    I believe that performative dimensions of speech can be found throughout American politics and life. One contemporary example that comes to mind is a phrase I am sure everyone has heard/said or detested/embraced. Ever since 2015, the phrase “Make America Great Again” has become part of the American lexicon. Conservative supporters shout this phrase at rallies, while liberal-minded citizens cringe at its utterance. But the phrase has earned more meaning in the performative dimension than the constative dimension. When President Donald Trump says, or tweets, those four words, its performance is to elicit a strong patriotic response. Whether he just tweeted that stocks are up again under his administration, or that he has responded to the COVID-19 response with great results, “Make America Great Again” will follow. But if we critically look at the phrase for a constative meaning, what does it mean? Is the phrase referring to a Pre-Obama era, which America faced a financial crisis, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still an official policy of the military, etc.? Or is he referring to the economic boom of post-World War II America; during a time that also saw pre-Civil Rights laws and laws that curtailed women’s rights? What great era in American history does the phrase want to repeat? To whom will this benefit? When critically looking at the phrase through a constative lens, it shows the problems of the phrase that are missing in its performative dimension. I believe that we need to look at the words that are said in America in more of a constative way, devoid of its performative meanings. Even though these words might not mean political collapse to our system, it surely divides America politically, culturally, and socially.

  3. The initial paragraph of “The Price of Eggs” is so wonderfully illustrative. Her understanding of the market crashing is an actual market, what we would think of as a farmers’ market, collapsing and “velvety peaches rolling across wet asphalt in consort with escaping potatoes” (206). It portrays the average Russians’ relationship to economic changes as not learned. Considering how in a communist economy, the state owns businesses, there are not shares and stocks that people can buy into, and the market is not really shared (of course, communist ideology touts that everyone owns and is responsible for the economy, but the state, especially an authoritative state, has control of it in actuality). So, the average Russian has no knowledge of how the market works because they never had the opportunity to partake in it. The options are limited because they do not know the options available. When Tolstaya calls Simon to ask what to do, she takes what he told her and tells all her friends and family to do the same. She says, “Simon says!” when her friend questioned his advice, so her total reliance in his advice emphasizes how lost at sea she was in terms of understanding the market (207).
    I think it would feel very scary and very uncertain to live through something like this. It would make me long for the past when things were not as uncertain, and food was not scarce. It would also make me feel very unsure about the future and what is to come because the trajectory of life is completely thrown off and things are not set in stone. Every life choice may feel like a risk. It reminds me of our current situation with the coronavirus because basically the next couple of months are still in the air. Everyone that I have talked to longs for the past couple of months before the coronavirus hit. Different reports of what experts are saying about when things can get back to normal are always coming out, but nothing is at all clear. I know my post-graduation plans were thrown off because I don’t know how safe it is to move as a person at risk for severe illness due to the coronavirus. As history has repeatedly shown us, we have to trust that things will eventually get back to normal.

  4. In response to question 3
    I think it is interesting how page 291 starts off by saying Gorbachev and everyone else did not realize what his intentions were, and that no one saw the future consequence to follow. I personally believed Gorbachev was slick in doing so, and having others believed that it was all unintentional. He did have a point when the text stated “need everyone do develop more individual spontaneity and inventiveness” as a response to his lack and the failed “intensive” changes for the failing system. Due to this, now the public started to question authority again, which was something the Soviet government fought hard to not allow the public think or have a say against the government. Due to the government slow downfall, Gorbachev “unintentionally” inspired people to question socialism, and if the country can keep going under a socialist rule. Another reason people started to question the authoritative rule was also due to the propaganda essentially becoming “invisible” to any pedestrian. It was also not being taken or read seriously, and a factor could be that the citizens were used to seeing propaganda everywhere that it came to the point that they simply chose to ignore it, and the soviet propaganda was not as effective as it first was in 1917. Unless the government could find a way to change their propagandize strategy, and having government officials inspiring challenges/questioning the government authority, the process was inevitable. It was only a matter of time when the Soviet citizens would rise up against the government, something that really has not been seen in the 20th century compared to Russias history.

  5. In Response to Question 3:
    Yurchak makes the argument that Gorbachev through his early speeches fundamentally changes Soviet culture. This is something that I agree with for a couple of reasons. First, in Gorbachev’s early speeches he poses the question of why were the changes and reforms that were made or attempted by earlier officials not successful. This in itself is not particularly harmful however, when coupled with his other statements that these are not questions for Soviet officials and instead for “various specialists” is where the harm to the Soviet leadership comes. Here you have a high ranking Soviet official saying that he did not have the answers to these questions of why reforms were not working. By doing this he was undermining the authority that the Soviet leadership had. He was opening to the public the idea that the leadership was not fit to be their leaders. Upon returning attempting to return to official slogans, it was too late. The seed of dissent so to speak was already in the public mind and they were analyzing any and all “official slogans” and finding unintended meanings in them. Gorbachev through his speeches unintentionally awakened a “sleeping” political public and upon its awakening found that they did not like what they saw in their leadership. Once this was started it was impossible to stop, as the more that the Soviet leadership would try to slow the spread of dissent, the Soviet public would have more reason to be upset with the Soviet leadership. As Kenny mentioned above, Gorbachev unintentionally inspired people to question socialism, and this coming from a socialist leader, added gas to a fire that was already burning out of control.

  6. 11.
    Tolstaya’s initial reaction to the market crash is that a physical market stand had broken and the boards were littered all over. This goes to show us that the average Russian had little to no relationship with the economic changes. Besides people in political position, banks, university or other educated people, it seems as though the average Russian person in 1998 didn’t know much about the economy or the terms that came with it. From Tolstaya’s view, the economic change must have been alien to her.
    Much like the Stock Market Crash of 1929, people ran to the banks to get their money out, just like her English business friend, Simon, strongly suggested to do. Other than that, to do the same as when COVID-19 came to the US and people began to panic buy. But in this case, the Russian people actually need necessities since the price of most of them insanely increased.
    My perspective on the past would have been that I should not have taken anything for granted, especially the food in my life and my country producing some necessities. As for the future, my perspective would be to stock up a little bit on nonperishables.

  7. Yurchak’s discussion of binaries moves beyond the scope of just Soviet and Russian history. From the outside, we in the modern era often view the events of history through this narrow scope. If there is oppression then there must be resistance, if there are lies then there must be a definitive truth somewhere. However, Yurchak correctly asserts that these binaries misrepresent the nature of historical events and their legacies. The binaries oversimplify situations, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union “From the outset I argued that the various binary models of state socialism that remain widespread cannot adequately address these issues. Dichotomies … overlook the complex meanings, values, ideals, and realities that constituted the Soviet system”. The binaries Yurchak lays before us should be used with caution because they can never truly describe the historical situations as a whole. The story is always much more complicated than how we perceive it.

  8. 11. When reading “The Price of Eggs,” I love the illustration that is provided by Tolstaya was very detailed and it showed right away that the Russians had no idea what was going on with the economy. They just flooded the streets panicking because that’s how everyone was reacting especially when the guard chained a door immediately and said “Close up!” (209) When it comes to them knowing what is coming, the Russians are acting like they are terrorist attacks because of what and how the guards are armed. Tolstaya wrote that the men were armed with machine guns.
    When it comes to wanting to know what it would be like living through something like this, I believe we are currently because of the Coronavirus outbreak. Just like in “The Price of Eggs,” when people started to panic buy cigarettes, that is what is happening right now people are panic buying because they believe that the future will not get better anytime soon like how they were living in the past.

  9. Question 12
    In Tolstaya’s story, she writes about the economic collapse of the Russian economy. When she writes about the incident outside the shop with the crowd, she reveals what the Russian people thought about how things were on a global scale. Russia opened up its markets and imported a lot of goods. When the market crashed, all of the imported goods were either too expensive or unsellable. The incident with the man yelling about how it is Clinton’s fault reveals that many people still wanted to believe in Russia’s abilities. I thought this incident was more of the people were blaming capitalism and global leaders for the crisis rather than putting all the blame on their own leaders. Although, many were very upset at Chernomyrdin, as shown later in the story. When Tolstaya realizes that Russia has not made many goods at all during this time, I can tell there is a disappointment. It also shows the failure of the reconstruction period of Gorbachov. This also shows that the relationship between Yeltsin and the world bank only catered to the rich. The introduction of capitalism created a wage gap which caused the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer.

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