Readers Write In #178: The Russian Revolution, Chapter 15 – The Conclusion

Posted on May 17, 2020


(by G Waugh)

Introduction, Preface, and Chapter 1 are here.

Chapter 2 is here.

Chapter 3 is here.

Chapter 4 is here.

Chapter 5 is here.

Chapter 6 is here.

Chapter 7 is here.

Chapter 8 is here.

Chapter 9 is here.

Chapter 10 is here.

Chapter 11 is here.

Chapter 12 is here.

Chapter 13 is here.

Chapter 14 is here.

The withering away of the State

The Treaty of 1922 on the Creation of the USSR was concluded by the heads of the Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian and Transcaucasian Republics on 30 December the same year. The republics came together on account of the imperialist dangers posed by Western capitalist powers to destabilize socialism as demonstrated by the preceding four year long Civil War. In 1940, the USSR grew in size to accommodate eleven more republics including those of the Baltic States. All these countries were constitutionally given the right to join and secede from the Union at will.

The 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union recognized the leading role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the administration of the Empire.

The Good Samaritan:

Gorbachev in 1986 openly repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine. This act combined with glasnost and perestroika changed the face of the USSR within months. The reforms were two dimensional- both political and economic. The latter meant increased autonomy for state owned departments which included allowance for mutual interaction between themselves, relaxation of production targets set by Central policymakers, creation of co-operative societies following Tito’s Yugoslavian model, unionization of the workforce to facilitate collective bargaining, incentive based wage system to increase productivity and some more most of which were simply not part of the Soviet system since its inception. These ideas to revive the economy to meet increased demand for consumer goods looked rational but extremely insufficient. It must also be noted that Gorbachev, as he is often perceived to be was not a ‘free marketeer’ but a socialist reformer deeply committed towards bettering the lives of his citizens. The economic reform did grow a lot of detractors internally within the party who were afraid of a departure from the Marxist principles of ‘planned economy’ but soon they were replaced by Gorbachev with those who toed his line obediently.

But the youngest Head of the Soviet State could not be mistaken for his economic reform which was a good step in the right direction even if it had plenty of limitations. It was only his radical effort to politically reform the Union that spelt great trouble for the Revolution and its founding ideas. His political reform called for greater transparency and accountability which were simply anathema to many of the party bosses and bureaucrats. His path-breaking effort to allow criticism inside the Union and to open the ears of the country to outside led to unforeseen consequences. For the first time, independent presses sprang up all over the Union and foreign media were allowed to report to and outside the Union. This move had deeply undermined the state propaganda discourse which had successfully for decades maintained the great illusion that the Union was doing much better than the rest of the world in almost all indices. News channels soon started reporting the scams and shenanigans of the local bureaucrats and allowed critics to use their platforms to voice dissent which included uncovering the grave crimes committed by the Union’s past leaders and the horrible cover-ups that followed. This was undeniably a great shock for the average Russian whose patriotism to his Fatherland was deeply linked to favorable opinions about his iconic leaders. Add to this the culture shock endured by the Russians at the hands of foreign television which narrated stories of Westerners living much more luxurious and freer lives than their own. But that was not the worst of all.

Moscow’s sudden shift towards a liberal attitude confused the party leaders in other parts of the Union. Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan were for all these years been remote controlled by Moscow but the leaderships of these countries found their hands suddenly untangled by Gorbachev’s reform. The long denied freedom of speech and the right to dissent strengthened the nationalist elements in these countries which began to make their bid for power taking on a weak local Communist leadership which had no help from Moscow all of a sudden. Gorbachev was apprised of these unforeseen developments and he strongly refused to make efforts towards curtailing their momentum. The young leader, if anything was simply walking his talk and behaving like a true socialist. The Union’s constitution had recognized the republics’ right to secede from the Union and soon it was left to the leaders of these countries to handle rising nationalist sentiments. Within a year or two, the bigger constituents of the Union were either openly bidding for independence from Moscow or trying to mount spirited resistance against the local anti-reform Communist leadership.

The Union goes to polls:

Gorbachev’s sights on foreign policy were clear and unimpeded by the deeds of his predecessors. The Oil shock experienced by the Union in 1985 had crippled the economy and prompted Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Moscow leader had decided not only to de-escalate tensions with its arch-rival in Washington but also to strike a deal with them irrespective of the cost it entailed. Most of his efforts towards disarmament were unilateral and soon Reagan’s successor George Bush of the US was floored by Gorbachev’s commitment towards peace and friendship. He impressed the West greatly when he let go of East Germany in 1989 allowing the Berlin Wall to fall signaling the end of the fifty year old Cold War with the US. This helped him to demobilize the Red Army considerably and divert the resources earmarked for military expenses towards increasing industrial productivity.

But from the beginning of 1989, Gorbachev slowly began to recognize the consequences that followed his decision to open up the Union. The anti-reform camp inside the CPSU did everything in their power to block him but Gorbachev resisted them with newer ideas. He in 1989 weakened the Politburo by bringing the party to rubber-stamp his proposal for the creation of a new Congress of People’s Deputies. The Congress was supposed to house 2250 deputies elected through direct polls and the Congress in turn was allowed to elect the Supreme Soviet headed by the new President. The Union went to elections in March 1989 and Gorbachev’s camp won a massive victory in spite of people’s declining faith in him making him the first President of the USSR (that included Russia and fourteen other republics).

Even though Gorbachev’s efforts towards democratizing the Union looked laudable, various commentators from across the world were accusing him of entrusting himself with so many powers as the President the USSR thereby undermining the other organs of the party. This accusation looks true in the face of so much evidence where the new President was found either pig-headed or unrepentant over the repercussions of his reform. He failed to take advice from old, yet sensible hardliners who advocated reform in a carefully planned and phased manner. He refused to listen to the anti-reform camp even on legitimate issues such as the deleterious effects his reform had created on the economy. His anti-alcohol drive which resulted in huge revenue losses had damaged the economic health of the Union and created a huge  black market for contraband spirit. The State was not able to support subsidized food products due to declining revenues and hence prices rose which in turn were not accompanied by corresponding rises in wage. Strikes broke across various parts of the Union which were exploited to the hilt by dissenting nationalist elements. Many economists, in retrospect lambast the deficiencies of Gorbachev’s spirited economic agenda for having drifted away from the principles of economic planning without adequately laying the foundations for an alternative market-socialist framework well in advance, something which China did quite effectively. Consequently the economic reform was neither here nor there earning the wrath of both conservative and reformist elements within the party.

In October 1989, the newly created Supreme Soviet voted to remove reserved seats for the CPSU in national and local elections terming the reservations as wholly ‘undemocratic’. It was a historic decision that violated the Soviet Constitution which emphasized the leading role of the Communist Party in the Union’s administration. In December 1989, the Supreme Soviet voted in favor of holding direct presidential elections in each of the fifteen constituent republics much to the alarm of Gorbachev.

The year 1989 was a defining year in Soviet history that saw a surge of nationalist demonstrations and clashes in its various constituent republics. Gorbachev by this time in spite of having won power through popular elections began to show signs of incompetence in managing these struggles. He responded sometimes through military and sometimes through conciliatory means which sucked all public confidence in him. The direct elections held in 1990 across the Union led to the defeat of the CPSU in Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia which immediately chose the path of independence from the Union.

The USSR without Russia:

In 1985, Boris Yeltsin was invited by Gorbachev to take over the party functions in the capital. Yeltsin was selected on the basis of his reformist predilections and was soon inducted into the Politburo for his work. Though often called boorish and garrulous by many of his colleagues, Boris was known for his pulse on the masses. He often overstepped his limits by reaching out to the people on his own and his popularity came in good stead for his quick elevation to the top. It is known reliably that his personal ambitions to power were quickly divined by the top brass and his manipulative behavior came up for criticism quite often. The young Mayor of Moscow soon resigned from his position in the Politburo in 1987 after heavily criticizing Gorbachev directly at a Central Committee meeting.

Soon Yeltsin’s brave speech in the Central Committee chastising Gorbachev was printed and circulated across the country which did a great deal to establish him as a strong anti-establishment figure within the CPSU who had the unusual guts to stand up even to the Head of the State in defense of his citizens’ rights. Boris accused Gorbachev of slower and weak reforms simultaneously castigating his autocratic tendencies. Meanwhile, worker unrest along with severe shortages of food spread all over the Union. Boris capitalized on the anti-establishment wave and contested Russia’s independent elections in 1990 and became the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in May that year.

The President of the USSR, Gorbachev elected through indirect elections, from now on had to take on the directly elected Head of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin- a task which became all the more difficult due to ambiguities with respect to separation of powers between the President of the Union and the Head of the Russian State. To make things worse for Gorbachev, Yeltsin in July 1990 resigned from the CPSU in the party’s 28 th Congress ending communist monopoly in Moscow.

However Gorbachev responded by mooting the idea of holding a referendum all over the remaining Soviet territory over the question of ‘the preservation of the USSR with full freedom and rights to individuals of all ethnicities’. On March 12, 1991 more than 80 percent of the citizens participated in the referendum and close to three-fourths voted for the preservation of the USSR and its socialist form of government. This meant that citizens residing in Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan republics were in favor of staying inside the Union under socialism. But a wily Yeltsin had managed to hold a parallel referendum the same day on whether to create the post of President of Russia who could be directly elected and hence would enjoy privileges and freedom untrammeled by the influences of legislative councils. Russians voted in favor of it and direct elections to the post of President of Russia were held on June 12, 1991.

Gorbachev nominated Nikolai Ryzhov on behalf of the CPSU while Yeltsin contested as an independent. The plummeting popularity of the Union’s President was manifest in the election results with Yeltsin polling 58 percent of the vote beating CPSU’s candidate by over 43 percentage points. However, it is to be noted that Yeltsin’s campaign for the elections was never premised on a ‘free-market’ plank and hence people rallied around him merely because they mistook him for a committed ‘socialist’ reformer.

Yeltsin seized the initiative instantly to oust Gorbachev and the CPSU from Russian soil. Yeltsin’s Russia declared itself independent from the Soviet Union immediately after the results came out.

Goodbye Lenin!

Russia’s exit from the Soviet Union which was imminent right from the first rendered useless the purpose of the Union itself. The other smaller republics had agreed to be part of the Union only with a view to forging a close regional co-operation with a powerful Russia at the centre that could complement each other in times of need. Gorbachev’s mismanagement of the situation in the smaller republics and glaring ineffectiveness of the local Communist leaderships on account of power-mongering and infighting exacerbated situations in the regional capitals and the most important towns of the Union.

A desperate Gorbachev sought to restructure the Union along less centralized lines by introducing a new Treaty to preserve it. However, hardliners within the CPSU proclaimed a state of Emergency in August 1991 and ordered the Red Army to arrest Gorbachev at his dacha to reprimand him for his ‘anti- Soviet activities’. The coup was doubtless organized without prior preparation and vision by the conservative faction of the CPSU and failed to rally public support. Yeltsin made use of the situation to criticize the CPSU and its autocratic ways and exhorted Russians to stand up to it. The coup collapsed in less than three days and Gorbachev was set free immediately. The news of the failed coup spread all over the other republics and brought the prestige of the CPSU to a new low.

On December 1, 1991 following Russia’s lead, the second largest republic of the Union, Ukraine voted in favour of independence joining the long line of seceding republics. Within a week, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia (Belarus) assembled at Minsk and signed the Belovezha Accord to officially confirm the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the age of 69. The leaders of the other republics gathered at Alma-Ata to formally dissolve the Union on December 21, 1991.

On Christmas day the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev in a televised address announced his resignation as President of the USSR from Kremlin. The very same day, Russia adopted a statute to rename itself from ‘Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic’ to ‘Russian Federation’ to assert its divorce from socialism and the Union. After Gorbachev left the Kremlin, the Soviet Flag bearing the famous Hammer and Sickle was lowered and replaced with a tricolor at Moscow.

Post Script – Chicago Calling:

The very next week in 1992, Yeltsin let loose a series of economic reforms upon the unsuspecting Russians called The Shock Therapy handed down by a group of economists flying in from the IMF for Russia.

By 1998, it was estimated that the GDP of Russia had fallen below half of what it had been in the climactic phases of the Soviet collapse.

In 2001, a report by economist Steven Rosefielde estimated that over 3 million Russians died prematurely on account of the indiscriminate opening up of the Russian economy to external forces.