It is a truism that the origins of the Second World War are to be found in the way the First World War ended. The same is true for the Second Cold War whose beginnings we are witnessing these days. The way the First Cold War ended was sufficiently ambiguous that it gave rise to two narratives which are incompatible and have led to the current impasse. That they would eventually do so was, I think, clear to many people for years although some (like myself) thought that it was bound to happen later, with a post-Putin rise of Russian nationalism.
What are the two narratives? The first one is shared by many people in the former Soviet Union, socialists in the West and seemingly paradoxically by the hard-core Reaganites. According to this view, the end of Communism, and then incidentally the break-up of the Soviet Union, was due to the recognition by the Soviet elite of both political and economic advantages of liberal capitalism. The Soviet economic growth has been on the declining trend since the mid-1960s, technological progress was slow or nil, the stifling hand of the government was everywhere. People yearned for more political freedom and also for more consumer goods: better shoes, jeans, vacations in the West. To Reagan himself, as Jack Matlock’s memoirs (“Reagan and Gorbachev”) make abundantly clear, this was self-evident: every sane person faced with the evidence of Soviet and American progress would choose the latter. He thus regarded Gorbachev’s vacillating recognition that the Soviet Union needs to modernize itself both politically (glasnost) and economically (perestroika) as “natural”, a thing that everybody with impartial interest of his people at heart would choose. For Reagan, the end of the Cold War was thus not a victory of the United States over the Soviet Union. It was a joint victory of common sense over an “evil empire”. In other words, it was a “joint victory”, a victory wrought by him and Gorbachev, by the US and the USSR, and all the people in both countries.
The left-wing people and socialists depart from Reagan in only one, important, respect. For them a peaceful transformation of socialism into democracy was possible because socialism, unlike fascism, had its ideological roots in the ideas of Enlightenment. Thus socialism was always internationalist, pro-equality and pro-democracy. Faced with the evidence that its own “people’s democracies” led in effect to a dictatorship of a narrow bureaucratic elite (Milovan Djilas’s “new class”), socialists simply opted for a pluralistic democracy. There was nothing inherent in Communist ideology that was against democracy. On the contrary, they found “bourgeois” democracy less democratic than an ideal Communist democracy because the former discriminated people according to income. But if in practice multi-party system did a better job in protecting human rights, why not adopt it?
To be sure, Communists and socialists did not “buy” the second part of the equation, privatization, but at the time of the end of the Cold War this was a subsidiary question. Socialists in Eastern Europe, and some in the West, thus believed that the end of the Cold War would usher in a pluralistic democracy with a significant role of the state, similar to that in West Germany at the time. This was not a position limited to Gorbachev and his supporters. It was, for example, shared by the first and last democratically elected East German government and by communist parties (which later became socialist parties) all over Eastern Europe: in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria. It found its early expression in the two books published in the 1970s, by a Czechoslovak and an East German, both reluctant dissidents: Ota Šik (“The third way”) and Rudolf Bahro (“The alternative”). It was to be democracy with socialist colors.
How does the second narrative differ from both Reagan’s and socialist narrative of “joint victory”? In that second narrative, shared by most of the US political class and the “commentariat”, the end of the Cold War came through relentless long-term political and military pressure applied by the United States on the Soviet Union. It was simply a conflict between two superpowers: a stronger one won, the other lost. The ideological element is of course present in the narrative, but rather as an embellishment to provide an ideological justification for a worldwide crusade to combat Communism (an equally worldwide movement) and to enable the winner to claim the mantle of mankind rather than just of the United States. In that “realist” or “US victory” narrative, the Cold War was indeed the war of two countries, like most wars in history. The ideological element is no more present than in the 5th BC century war between Greeks and Persians. These two also held conflicting theories of the state but no one would deny that the war won by one group (“race”, as it used to be called) rather than by the other.
Now, whether you believe one or the other narrative, has sharply different implications on how you see later developments. If you think that the US won the war, you expect the USSR, and Russia as the principal successor of the USSR, to fully acknowledge that fact and to basically behave like a defeated power, transferring most of the responsibility for its defense and foreign policy to the winner. Russia, in that view, should not be only an ally, but rather a soft protectorate, like Italy. Italy now (although not during the Cold War) can do more or less as it pleases in domestic policy, but when told that the US needs its soldiers, “rendition” services or bases it does not demur nor asks too many questions. The expansion of NATO is thus not to be regarded with surprise or alarm either. If Russia, as it reasonably should, accepts that it has been defeated, it does not need to worry about NATO but to join it, and play in it a subaltern role, providing people and territory as needed.
If you believe the first narrative, however, things look very different. USSR, and Russia, are not defeated powers. They have just rejoined the bloc of “free nations” where Russia should play a role commensurate with its size and importance. If, for example, England and France were allowed to retain a measure of influence over their former colonies, codified in the two alliances (Commonwealth and Communauté Franco-africaine), so should Russia retain it over the countries with which it shares language, culture and history, within the Commonwealth of Independent States, an organization expressly created to soften the break-up of the Soviet Union. But this expectation will seem to somebody who believes in the “US victory” narrative, preposterous, ill concealing an attempt to reestablish Russian dominion over what came to be known as the “near abroad.” And who knows, perhaps to create a new dominion further afield at some later date.
The attitude towards NATO expansion is similarly different. If NATO was created to defend capitalism and democracy against state ownership and dictatorship, what is its function after the end of the Cold War, “joint victory” proponents ask? Who is supposed to be its target if Communism is dead? The believers in joint victory will totally fail to comprehend the reasons behind NATO expansion, and will naturally and gradually come to the conclusion that the real new target is Russia. In other words, they will, as economics tells us people do, go through a process of adaptive expectations and gradually charge their understanding of the terms under which the Cold War ended: from believing in joint victory they would come to agree that it was really a defeat of Russia.
But if you hold this view in Russia, the implications are pretty clear. The first one is revanchism. In the same way that the French army after the defeat by Prussia in 1870, was called “l’armée de la revanche”, the new Russian army will become “l’armée de la revanche”. In the same way that Germany was shocked to have learned when it went to Paris in 1919, that it was there not to sign an armistice but a capitulation on very costly terms, thus the Russia under Putin began to reassess how the Cold War really ended. It is this reassessment, with its logical implication, combined, as was the case in the Weimar Germany, with the feeling of humiliation and of social disaster of the 1990s, which is driving today’s Russian resentment and resurgent nationalism.
There are two further points worth mentioning where the two narratives clash: the Yeltsin years and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. To many in the West, who were happy to see a powerful foe like the USSR change its ways, Russia's 1990s looked chaotic but basically benign and good. If pain there was it was, in the view of those who were not paying the costs, necessary. Even the term “transitional recession” was invented in economics to cover something that came to be thought as inevitable. (Never mind that no economist ever predicted that the end of central planning would lead to a deep economic depression; everybody expected the very opposite. Milton Friedman, to his credit, was honest to acknowledge it.)
But to the people who lived in Russia at the time, the Yeltsin years were the nightmare years when not only oligarchs battled with own private armies in the streets, but when people’s incomes were halved, savings evaporated, jobs disappeared, public assets were pillaged, and many were forced into literally selling family silver, or prostitution and crime. The Russian depression 1990-96 was far deeper than the US Great Depression and three times as deep as the current Greek GDP decline. Life expectancy went down dramatically (the largest peacetime decline, ever), alcoholism and murder rates sky-rocketed, divorces increased, population growth became negative. For those who went through all of this, to claim that the Yeltsin years were the golden years of democracy and that their economic leaders at the time were “the Dream Team” as Vice-President Gore famously called it, sounds like a cruel irony.
But this is still not sufficiently appreciated. Only recently, I read proofs of a book by one of top world economists. He dealt, among other health catastrophes, with the Soviet/Russian one too. But it seemed to me that he was discounting its magnitude and horror precisely because he somehow thought it pre-ordained: reasonable people should have understood, it was implied, that transition meant they would lose their jobs, have real wages cut in half, and die 5 years earlier. For many, transition to capitalism indeed translated into sheer hopelessness, alcoholism, and eventual early death either from untreated diseases or suicides. Transition in Russia was a catastrophe in some ways worse than war because there was no shared objective among people, no solidarity, and, unlike the glimmer of hope in victory that never dies in wars, there was only despondency.
The second point on which the two narratives differ is the break-up of the USSR. To the people who hold the joint victory view, the break up was not necessary. Once the USSR became a democratic state, there was no reason to break the county. Logically, the two are totally different processes: a person can indeed be for democracy and federalism. Change of the political system does not imply change in the borders of the country: if the two were correlated, new countries would spring up and die yearly. Being in favor of democracy, autonomy and federalism (all three!) is in effect a position held by majorities in today’s Spain, Canada and the UK. It was not different in the USSR. The break-up was all the more painful as many, particularly those of mixed ethnic parentage, considered themselves Soviet rather than Russian, Ukrainian or Georgian. The break-up of the country left them without a homeland. It is in that context that Putin’s statement about the break-up of the USSR representing one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century makes sense.
But to those who think that the break-up was a necessary complement of democratization, Putin’s statement will sound like a not so veiled attempt to reestablish Russian hegemony. I have to include a personal observation here, gleaned from a conversation with a high US official, very knowledgeable of Russia, to show how the two things (political system and the existence of a country) were in the eyes of many Western observers undistinguishable. I made, to me (coming from the former Yugoslavia), rather obvious point that many people in the USSR were both federalist and democrats. He looked at first surprised, and then candidly acknowledged:” Yes, you are right; we never thought of that. We saw the two as mutually exclusive.”
[Even today, as for example in a recent, and otherwise excellently documented, paper by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek Hassan and James Robinson (“Social structure and development: a legacy of the Holocaust in Russia”), the authors treat a positive answer to the question posed in the 1991 Gorbachev referendum “are your in favor of maintaining USSR as a federation of equal democratic republics” as a proxy for being…a Stalinist. It seems the authors never thought through the elementary politics.]
When differences in how people regard and understand the same events are so sharp, and touch so many things from their daily experience, it is not surprising that they will interpret today’s moves by the other side differently, and rather menacingly. It is hard to see how, under such circumstances, war can be avoided. So far the title of this essay has “Second Cold War” in it. Let us hope there will be no need to change it.