*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?