Lenin’s decommissioned huge plaster head in the yard of a former factory in Tbilisi. Absolutely surreal experience. #Tbilisi #Georgia #Caucasus #soviet #sovietunion #lenin #Communism #history #factory #sculpture
Read This, Not That: The Mythical Fall of the Soviet Union
For The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen takes us on a tour of the realities of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Far from the mythology of a citizen-led revolution or the inevitable fall of the enemy of democracy, the Soviet Union was broken up by the actions of a few major players, grabbing at opportunities for power and wealth. Historians, especially in the West, all but ignore the realities of the dissolution and utterly fail to ask what opportunities may have been squandered in the mad dash for a new order in 1991.
Most generally, there were ominous parallels between the Soviet breakup and the collapse of czarism in 1917. In both cases, the end of the old order resulted in a near total destruction of Russian statehood that plunged the country into prolonged chaos, conflict and misery. Russians call what ensued smuta, a term full of dread derived from previous historical experiences and not expressed in the usual translation, “time of troubles.” Indeed, in this respect, the end of the Soviet Union may have had less to do with the specific nature of that system than with recurring breakdowns in Russian history.
The similarities between 1991 and 1917, despite important differences, were significant. Once again, hopes for evolutionary progress toward democracy, prosperity and social justice were crushed; a small group of radicals, this time around Yeltsin, imposed extreme measures on the nation; fierce struggles over property and territory tore apart the foundations of a vast multiethnic state; and the victors destroyed longstanding economic and other essential structures to build entirely anew, “as though we had no past.” Once again, elites acted in the name of a better future but left society bitterly divided over yet another of Russia’s perennial “accursed questions”—why it had happened. And again the people paid the price.
All of those recapitulations unfolded, amid mutual (and lasting) charges of betrayal, during the three months from August to December 1991, when the piecemeal destruction of the Soviet state occurred. The period began and ended with coups (as in 1917)—the first a failed military putsch against Gorbachev organized by his own ministers in the center of Moscow, the second Yeltsin’s liquidation of the state itself in the Belovezh Forest. What followed was a revolution from above against the Soviet system of power and property by its own elites. Looking back, Russians of different views have concluded that during those months political extremism and unfettered greed cost them a chance for democratic and economic progress.