“Great historical transformations are always bought dearly, often after one has already thought that one got them at a bargain price,” wrote the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt. Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the occasion will surely revive debate about how high the price really was.
Many commentators will say this event and the hardships that followed permanently colored the ordinary Russian’s view of democracy and gave Vladimir Putin his chance to build an authoritarian alternative. A few will even argue that the whole effort was a mistake—that “reform communism” would have been better than the mess we’ve ended up with.
Was Boris Yeltsin the gravedigger of Russian democracy? The indictment against him looks strong. If you give people reason to link democracy with economic privation, political corruption and the trauma of national dismemberment, lots of them will miss the stability of the old order. (Some will miss Joseph Stalin!) And it isn’t much of a response to say that this wasn’t what you intended.
Yet, before we throw Yeltsin to the historical wolves, it’s important to remember that the terrible conditions Russians associate with him were not just the result of his policies but also their cause. The Soviet Union collapsed because ethnic separatism, economic decline and political paralysis were severe problems before Yeltsin came to power. Moderate Communist reformers—even as they eased repression and censorship—couldn’t do a thing about them.
In the summer of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was at the end of his rope trying to manage the Soviet Union’s contentious ethnic politics. To suppress movements seeking independence for the Baltic states, he had ordered tanks into the streets. There had been ethnic pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan, and a lunatic nationalist professor of literature had become president of Georgia. Gorbachev had patched together a new “union treaty” to redistribute power between Moscow and the non-Russian republics, but the most important of them, Ukraine, was having none of it. In December Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union. The Chechen parliament had already done the same thing.
Gorbachev’s efforts at economic reform were also failing. Long before the curtain came down on the Soviet Union, the ruble had begun a steady slide toward worthlessness, selling at several times the official exchange rate on the black market. Food disappeared from the shops and foreign exchange from the treasury. Gorbachev’s own policies tacitly authorized theft of state property; enterprises were told to balance their books even if it meant selling off their assets at a discount. The first “millionaires” appeared at this time: They took advantage of “gradual economic reform” by setting up “exchanges” to trade in stolen goods.
There was no political consensus on how to handle any of this. Some of the Communist old guard still believed in ideas that Yuri Andropov had espoused early in the 1980s as he rose from running the KGB to running the Kremlin. Discipline, he insisted, would solve everything. But in the course of the decade, the elite lost confidence in this answer, and many joined the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators calling for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Gorbachev became an increasingly lonely figure and “reform communism” an irrelevant idea.
At the end of 1991, Yeltsin was the only Soviet politician with a popular mandate to act. He was the democratically elected president of Russia. No one else was in a position to deal with the three crises that had broken his predecessor—ethnic division, economic chaos and a failed political system. But did his response end up weakeningRussia’s democratic prospects?
His first and most dramatic step—agreeing with the president of Ukraine and leaders of other Soviet republics to dissolve the Union—still gives Russians nostalgic pangs. Even so, history’s verdict is likely to be that it was Yeltsin’s most important achievement and a piece of simple good fortune for his country. By disbanding the empire, Russia freed itself from a gigantic burden on its national energies. It shed responsibility for countless problems that it could not possibly have managed well, and it reduced the risk that popular politics would turn into a Milosevic-style dictatorship.
By not trying to prevent Baltic or Ukrainian independence, by not being the arbiter of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, by staying on the sidelines of other conflicts, Yeltsin greatly reduced Russia’s involvement in post-Soviet violence. His success can be measured in part by looking at those cases in which Russia did not fully turn its back on empire. It propped up separatist enclaves inside Georgia and Moldova and sought to crush radical separatism inChechnya. The results were predictable: quasi-criminal satrapies, military brutality, deeper ethnic hostility. Had the Soviet Union been kept intact, we’d have seen this pattern everywhere.
Yeltsin’s second step—the economic program known as “shock therapy”—will be judged less favorably. But the verdict may say little about his own responsibility for the fate of Russian democracy. The elements of Yeltsin’s program that look most unwise today—above all the privatization policies that left a large part of the state’s most valuable industrial assets in the hands of a very small number of owners—were not the main source of popular unhappiness with him or with Russian democracy. What embittered people was the squeeze on their living standards and the acute anxiety created by years of high inflation. Given the situation Yeltsin and his team faced when they took over, there may have been no way to make the transition to a modern economy anything but painful.
History’s harshest judgment about how Yeltsin handled the Soviet collapse may be reserved for the way he dealt with the question of political power. At a moment when he was still the towering figure of Russian politics, he was not bold enough to insist on creating new democratic institutions. He left the Soviet-era constitution in place as well as the Soviet-era parliament, while he handled other problems. The KGB was renamed but barely reformed.
It is hard to overstate the impact of these choices. By 1993 Yeltsin was back to fighting with parliamentary leaders about changing the constitution and holding new elections, not to speak of salvaging something of his economic reforms. He was, ironically, almost completely in the right, but by then his victory had to be purchased by force.
As for the KGB and the other coercive institutions of the Soviet state, reforming them was a project to which Yeltsin never returned. The consequences are with us still.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.