The break-up of the Soviet Union was one of the most unusual events in history. Never before had an empire this powerful and vast given up its power and allowed the dissolution of its internal core (the Soviet Union) and its tributary states (Eastern Europe) so quickly and without a fight. The Ottoman empire went into a process of disintegration that lasted several centuries and was punctuated by numerous wars, both with western powers and Russia, and numerous struggles for national independence (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria). The Habsburg empire dissolved after four years of the hitherto largest conflict in history. The same is true of the Russian empire and the Hohenzollerns’. But the Soviet Empire gave way almost entirely peacefully and without a fight. How did that happen?
A slender volume by Wisła Suraska (How the SovietUnion disappeared, Duke University Press, 1998) tries to answer the question. It is important to explain what the book is not. It is not a book about Communism and economics. It does not try to answer (at least, not directly) the question about successes and failures of Communism nor does it deal with economics at all. It is remarkable that the book does not contain a single number. It is a book written by a political scientist and it focuses on internal political determinants of the Soviet collapse.
It is a very well and clearly written volume. The key conclusion of Suraska, enounced in italics in the last chapter, is that the break up is due to “the general failure of communist regimes--their inability to build a modern state” (p. 134). It is “the state weakness, rather than its omnipotence [that] stalled communist project of modernization and, most notably, Gorbachev’s perestroika” (p. 134). Lest somebody believe that Suraska is a partisan of state power, let me explain that what she means is that the arbitrary nature of Communist state, overseen by the Communist party, prevented it from ever developing a responsible and impersonal machinery of Weberian bureaucracy. Such a machinery that follows well-known and rational rules cannot be established if the power is arbitrary. And without such a machinery, the project of modernization is doomed.
But this still does not explain why the country (the USSR) broke up. It broke up, she argues, because of a Brezhnevite equilibrium that—lacking a functioning centrally-controlled state apparatus and forsaking the use of terror—consisted in the creation of territorially-based fiefdoms. The power at the center depended on having peripheral supporters and these peripheral supporters gradually took over most of the local (in the USSR case, republican) functions. They could be dislodged only by the application of mass terror as when, under Stalin, the center actively fought the creation of local centers of power, either by “purging” the leaders or by shifting them constantly between the regions in order to prevent accumulation of power. But Brezhnevite equilibrium consisted precisely in “decentralizing” power to local “barons” who would then support the faction in the center that gave them most power.
When Gorbachev tried to recentralize decision-making in order to promote his reforms, he was obstructed at all levels and eventually figured out that without the republican support he could accomplish nothing. This is why, as Suraska writes, at the last Party congress in 1991, he outbid his competitors (Yegor Ligachev) by formally bringing all regional party bosses into the Politburo and thus effectively confederalizing the Party and the country. But even that proved too little too late as the largest unit, Russia under Yeltsin, became, together with the Baltic republics, the most secessionist.
Suraska rightly adds to this vertical de-concentration of power the ever-present wariness and competition between the Party, the secret services (KGB) and the Army. The triangular relationship where two actors try to weaken and control the third contributed to the collapse. She sees the beginning of the end of the Army’s role in Politburo’s decision, strongly promoted by Andropov (then the head of KGB), not to intervene in Poland in 1980-81. Andropov’s positon (according to the transcripts of the Politburo meetings) that “even if Poland falls under the control of “Solidarity” …[non-intervention] will be” (p. 70) was grounded in the belief that every Soviet foreign intervention (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968) reinforced the power of the Army and thus, if KGB were ever come on top, Army must not be in the driver’s seat.
The ultimate weakness of the Party could be, as Suraska writes, seen in the final denouements in the Soviet Union and Poland: in one case, the top party post went to a head of the secret police, in the other case, to the head of the Army.
In perhaps the most original insight, Suraska deals with the ideology of Gorbachev and the first entirely Soviet-raised and bred generation that came to power in the mid-1980s. They were influenced by post-Marxist thinking where democracy or its absence were simple external (or non-essential) features: democracy was a sham since the “real power” resides elsewhere. “Armed” with this belief and the 1970 ideas of convergence of the two systems plus (in my opinion) millenarian Marxist view that Communism represents the future of mankind, they began to see no significant contradictions between the two systems and trusted that even the introduction of democracy would not affect their positions. Thus, in an ironic twist, Suraska, who is thoroughly critical of both Marxist and post-Marxist theories, credits the latter (p. 147) for bringing to an end the Marxist-based regimes.
In the penultimate chapter Suraska quickly and very critically reviews different theories that purported to explain the Communist state: modernization theory, totalitarianism, bureaucratic theory, are all found wanting. Suraska’s conclusion, stated in the beginning of this text, is then expounded in the last chapter revealingly entitled “Despotism and the modern state”. There, in a final note worth pointing out, Suraska discusses Communist rejection of the state and its rules-bound procedures (which make Communists ideological brethrens of anarchists) and compellingly argues for the complementarity of “council (“soviet”) democracy and central planning. Both eviscerate the state, take over its functions, impose arbitrary decision-making, and do away with the division of powers. Anarchic and despotic features are thus shown to go together, moreover to be in need of each other.
Note. Regrettably, I have to point one, extremely odd mistake in somebody whose knowledge of the Soviet and East European politics is, by all indications, quite remarkable. Suraska puzzlingly writes of Gheorghiu-Dej (also misspelled), the Romanian leader, as Bulgarian (p. 128). I think she had in mind Chervenkov, but made a mistake, not spotted by herself nor the editors.