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Destination in Doubt: Russia since 1989
By Stephen Lovell
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2006 Stephen Lovell
All rights reserved.
What was Soviet socialism?
Let's start with a rarely asked but vital question: What were the values that came closest to holding together the citizens of the Soviet Union on the eve of that state's collapse? After all, a state does not remain in existence for seventy years and become a superpower without creating some sense of commonality toward which members of society can gravitate.
If we are looking for sources of unity in the late Soviet period, however, we should not expect to find anything so narrowly ideological as Marxism-Leninism. To be sure, every Soviet schoolchild was forced to learn the most celebrated dicta of the communist founding fathers. Leninist slogans were invoked everywhere in public life. Even quite independent-minded authors of works on recondite subjects such as medieval history or Renaissance sculpture would find themselves throwing in a couple of quotations from Lenin's Collected Works as a sop to the censors or their editorial committee. But I never met anyone in Soviet Russia who had any real interest in Marxism, and I met plenty who despised it. As everyone knows from their own brushes with boredom, the human brain develops defense mechanisms against the invasive repetition of dogma. "Ordinary" people tend just to switch off, while intellectuals react more feistily. Anti-Marxism is the closest thing to an orthodoxy that I have found in the academic circles of Moscow and St. Petersburg. As one Russian colleague asked me a few years ago, "Why are you all [i.e. Western Slavists] such lefties?" Post-communist Eastern Europeans, in my experience, are hugely suspicious of anything that smacks of state interventionism: they view political correctness with disbelief and have difficulty comprehending the soft totalitarianism of the audit culture.
What, then, are we left with? Were there any commonly held values that emerged from the Soviet experience? I think there were, and I would group them in three main categories. First came a cluster of beliefs that were broadly socialist: an expectation of a strong redistributive state and some notion of social justice. Of course, opinion varied – from one era to another, and from one individual to another – about who exactly should be the beneficiaries of the state's redistributive largess. In the postwar decades the categories of beneficiary became more numerous and more elaborate, as more and more groups of Soviet citizens gained a sense of entitlement to housing, vacations, pensions, and so on. Some Sovietologists went so far as to speak of the "social contract" of the Brezhnev era. In general, however, there remained some clear differences between Soviet and Western social democratic notions of entitlement: for the Soviets, usefulness to the state tended to trump human or natural rights as a criterion for social provision.
The second value that underpinned Soviet socialism as an active worldview was patriotism: the sense that the USSR was a great world power, that it had achieved great things (whatever crimes its leaders had perpetrated in the process), that it had saved Europe from the catastrophe of Nazism. World War II, for all the colossal collective trauma that it brought, may well have kept Soviet socialism in business as a belief system for longer than it would otherwise have warranted.
The third key value was a commitment to the various forms of social and economic progress that can be termed modernization: mass education (especially tertiary), urban development, science and technology, large-scale industrialization, the increased production of goods other than the basic necessities.
However, for all that we can identify elements of a positive belief system, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the best way to characterize the official face of Soviet socialism is in terms of what it claimed not to be. It was hostile to market activity and its associated phenomena: large inequalities of wealth, great accumulation of property in private hands, unearned income, profiteering, exploitation of one person by another. It also rejected what it presented as meretricious Western mass culture. As far as Soviet public discourse was concerned, culture was a sacred and elevated sphere of human activity that should not be contaminated by the profit motive. A further enduring pet hate of Soviet socialism was democracy in the Western liberal understanding of that term. Elections, or so said Soviet received wisdom, could not be free if they were ruled by the checkbook and if voters were duped by cigar-puffing media tycoons. Liberal democracy was bad because it was ruled by capital and did not produce rational government.
The Soviet Union, then, was on a mission to show the viability, and superiority, of an alternative route through modernity. It was to match and surpass the West in terms of measurable progress – industrial output, numbers in higher education, standard of living – but it was also to avoid the pathologies of advanced capitalism.
By the end of the 1970s these claims were ringing very hollow indeed. The Soviet Union was clearly not becoming prosperous. Soviet patriotism was no longer as robust as it once had been. The war generation was growing old and dying, and national groups that had fewer reasons to look back fondly at the victory of 1945 (Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Chechens, Ukrainians) were becoming more politically assertive. Soviet socialism, if observed at close quarters rather than in an ideological haze, contained many gray areas. Unlimited private property was bad, but some degree of individual property was legitimate. Constructive criticism of the system and its failings was healthy, but it was not to shade into dissent. The West was the benchmark in many economic and technological matters, but how to accept this while continuing to uphold the distinctiveness and superiority of the Soviet way of life?
By the middle of the Brezhnev era, it appears, many people were overstepping the line between critical reflection and disloyalty. A small minority did so by consciously rejecting the principles and practices on which the Soviet system was based. These dissenters – the kind of people who might have read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Solzhenitsyn's First Circle ten or fifteen years before these works were finally published in the USSR – knew all too well that Soviet socialism was a profoundly flawed and morally compromised system of social and political organization. Such people, who mostly did not carry their opposition into the realm of public action, may well have numbered a couple of million in the late Soviet period.
Millions more, however, showed their independence from the tenets of Soviet power in more mundane ways. Perhaps they told jokes about their increasingly senescent leaders. Perhaps they were privately skeptical of the foreign news coverage they saw on their televisions or read in their newspapers. Perhaps they coveted a Western tape recorder or leather jacket, or yearned to take a holiday in France. Such people also belied the rhetoric of socialism in more tangible ways. They regularly redirected state property toward the second economy, they stole time from the state by taking three-hour lunch breaks and moonlighting, and they used personal contacts to improve their access to collective goods such as education and healthcare.
Examples like this suggest that it is not adequate to speak of Soviet socialism merely as a belief system (even if we accept that the beliefs were not strictly Marxist-Leninist). Socialism was also a civilization or, more simply, a way of life. One of the basic facts underlying this way of life was the absence of political pluralism. Although the coercive powers of the state were used less drastically in the post-Stalin era, they were still considerable. Under these circumstances, to express radical disagreement with state policy was an act of heroism, not a viable option for the vast majority of the population. This did not mean, however, that people were all, or even mostly, "true believers." They might well engage in the notorious Soviet activity of "doublethink": saying one thing in public and quite another in private, but without perceiving this as inconsistency or hypocrisy.
Another basic fact about Soviet socialism was that money was not as significant as in Western liberal democracies. Inequalities of earnings were much lower, and most people could not hope to amass large sums in their bank accounts. Even if they did, money on its own could not buy many of the things that people most wanted: a flat in Moscow, a car, a foreign trip. Soviet society was not radically egalitarian: it was structured by inflexible hierarchies of status. But such hierarchies were not expressed in the same way as in the USA or even France or Germany. They were not reflected in conspicuous consumption but rather in regular privileged access to goods that were supposed to be collectively owned.
There were two main ways of ensuring such access, and they were complementary. One was to work for an organization that was in a strong position to lobby for a greater than average portion of collective resources. The other was to know the right people – or, at least, to make the best of those people one did know.
Money was relatively unimportant not just in people's everyday lives but also at the higher levels of economic management. As the Hungarian economist János Kornai has notably argued, Soviet enterprises enjoyed "soft budget constraints." That is, they knew that in most cases the state would bail them out if they failed to balance their books. They also had strong incentives to maximize their own access to scarce resources (such as raw materials) instead of converting those resources into goods for resale. For these reasons, hoarding and ad hoc bargaining were endemic in the Soviet "planned" economy.
The opacity of economic relationships may be taken as symptomatic of a closed society where nothing of fundamental importance was ever exposed to free public scrutiny. Soviet society had its "winners" and "losers" – its privileged elite and its permanently poor – but such disparities could never be publicly discussed, though they were common knowledge among the population. Governance in the Soviet Union depended on a mighty apparatus of rule that formed a rigid pyramid from Moscow down to the village soviet. Yet the practical operations of this system were more fluid and personalistic than its bureaucratic forms might suggest. At every level of authority, office-holders were accountable not to the population at large but to their immediate superiors in the hierarchy of the party-state; their power depended partly on those superiors, but also on the network of informal relationships they were able to strike up with people of approximately equal status in their own locality: directors of collective farms, newspaper editors, industrial managers. This was not a system that could be eliminated, or even fundamentally transformed, merely by abolishing the Communist Party.
All in all, the diagnosis for the USSR circa 1989 cannot be considered a favorable one. In Ken Jowitt's trenchant words, its undesirable characteristics included:
a "ghetto" political culture that views the governmental and political realm suspiciously, as a source of trouble, even of danger; a distrustful society habituated to hoarding information, goods, and goodwill, which shares them only with intimates and is filled with Hobbesian competition; rumor as a mode of discourse that works against sober public discussion of issues; a segmentary, not complementary, socio-economic division of labor in which the semi-autakic workplace favors social insulation; a political leadership whose charismatic-storming approach to problems did very little culturally or psychologically to familiarize these societies with "methodically rational" action; and Soviet-enforced isolation between the nations of Eastern Europe, something that reinforced and added to their mutual ignorance, distrust, and disdain.
To this imposing list of attributes I would add a basic social and political conservatism. Soviet citizens valued stability and order in a way that perhaps cannot be fully comprehended by members of prosperous societies that have never (or not recently) experienced revolution, world war or state-sponsored terror on their own territory. But this does not affect Jowitt's conclusion that very little in 1989 seemed to predispose Russia to liberal capitalist democracy.
The rest of this book will explore how Russia moved on from this highly unpromising situation. I do not think I am spilling too many beans if I say that the story will not always be a pretty one. But it is also important not to be cynical or fatalistic. The tendency in most historical writing is to argue that the Soviet system, with all its stresses and internal contradictions, was created in the 1930s, and then to wait for the clock to tick down on it. In this reading of Russian history people are denied much in the way of choice and agency. In 1991 they were plunged into a state of near-anarchy where only the luckiest and the most unscrupulous could prosper. The fact is, however, that systems decline not only because it is their internal logic to do so but also because particular people at particular times take particular decisions. The Soviet political system would not have collapsed if Gorbachev had not exposed the party-state to contested elections. And, once it had collapsed, the possible outcomes seemed extraordinarily, and worryingly, indeterminate and open to contestation. With the aim of recapturing at least some of this sense of uncertainty, the chapters to come will run the clock forward from 1989.CHAPTER 2
The state: death and rebirth?
All history is comparative history. Whether we admit it or not, when we write an account of a particular country or individual we have other such accounts in mind. At the very least, this other material suggests to us what matters are worthy of discussion: how much time, for example, a biographer should spend on the subject's school days or marriage or published writings. Often, however, the insights we draw from comparison are more fundamental. We measure the person or political culture we are investigating by the standards set by other people or cultures.
For the last three hundred years or so, Russia has persistently, even obsessively, measured itself by reference to a part of the world called "the West" or "Europe." Partly, no doubt, this preoccupation has been a matter of geopolitical necessity: Russia's rulers had to take care that other great powers did not take liberties. But "the West" was an object of fascination mostly for the lessons it could give, or the warnings it could serve, to intellectuals and policymakers concerned with Russia's internal development. Russia was lagging behind in cultural, economic, social, and political terms. The crucial question was what exactly it could learn from those parts of the world that were ahead of it. How should it incorporate its tens of millions of enserfed peasants into a dynamic modern economy? How should it run its schools and universities? How fast should it industrialize? How radically should it look to change its political institutions?
Western Russia-watchers may have differed from Russian observers in the answers they provided to these questions, but their frame of reference was similar. Russia was backward in all kinds of ways, and an assessment of its future depended on its prospects of overcoming this predicament. The intensity with which Russia and the West were compared only increased in the second half of the twentieth century. In the Cold War, the Soviets and the Americans sized each other up in all kinds of ways: they compared military arsenals, political systems, economic performance, standard of living, city planning, sports teams, musicians, and so on. No area of human existence was so mundane that it could not engage the competitive instincts of the superpowers. In 1959, Nixon and Khrushchev faced off over a kitchen sink at the American exhibit in Moscow as they argued over the relative merits of domestic interiors in their respective countries.
The USSR came off significantly worse from this proclivity to compare. To say this is not simply to benefit from hindsight. When Khrushchev declared that the Soviet Union would catch up and overtake the West within a matter of years, he did not hear the Americans make a reciprocal boast. Even as brash a Soviet patriot as Khrushchev took it as axiomatic that Russia still had some catching up to do.
Russian history looks rather different, however, if you put it in a truly global context. The image of "the West" held by generations of Russian intellectuals from the early nineteenth century onward overlapped with empirical reality in very few parts of Europe: Britain, in some ways France, in other ways Germany. It did not bear much resemblance to Spain or Italy or Austria. Russia's tendency to measure itself by this gold standard of progress and civilization reflected ideals more than achievable aspirations. Perhaps a more valid and meaningful point of reference would be Turkey: another precarious empire, reactionary polity, and backward economy that was not able to enter the twentieth century with much confidence.
Excerpted from Destination in Doubt: Russia since 1989 by Stephen Lovell. Copyright © 2006 Stephen Lovell. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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