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“The Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviets got jealous of what Western people had,” a smug capitalist might say. Is this true; did Soviets revolt in pursuit of consumerism? Stephen Kotkin argues that this may not be the crucial element of what brought down the USSR.
In Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted, Mikhail Gorbachev takes center stage as the man who indirectly (and perhaps directly) brought down the Soviet Union. From the undermining of the Communist party’s authority by placing ‘malleable’ figures in key government positions, to democratizing leadership positions, to reaching deals with the West to reduce nuclear arsenals, to choosing ‘humane socialism’ over violent and militaristic control, Gorbachev was the soft soil beneath the burdening weight of the Union that ultimately resulted in the sinkhole of socialism.
Of most consequence was Gorbachev’s policy of inaction, particularly by withdrawing from Afghanistan and satellite states in order to reduce confrontation with the US. He repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1989 and when states the likes of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia moved toward independence, Gorbachev zigzagged while trying to hold the Union together. And even as he tried to encourage them to stay up until April 1991, he was reluctant to use the Union’s military weaponry to bring about the destruction that would have kept them all in order.
However, it is no secret that Gorbachev was dedicated to the betterment of the economic system over which he ruled. This was proven in his willingness “to sacrifice centralized power in the name of democracy,” even though he was “hesitant for ideological reasons to support full-bore capitalism” (178). Perestroika itself, Kotkin notes, “was not simply about global rivalry, but also about reclaiming the ideals of the October revolution” (172)—of “a world of abundance, social justice, and people’s power” (176). There “was not just the superpower competition but a deeply felt urge to make socialism live up to its promises” (29). Yet, it was “perestroika [that], unintentionally, destroyed the planned economy [and] the allegiance to Soviet socialism” (3).
The main question is, then, why the immense ruling elite simply handed over the power that they held during the Soviet era and accepted the transition. Why did they fail to defend socialism and the Union? As is in capitalism, they were dogged by self-interests. Once you see what the rest of the world has, and you see the failure of the government, you then want what others have, and you take from the government. And if anything is to blame for breaking the October Revolution ethic and the tolerance of suffering for the greater good, it was glasnost.
Information is what changes the world, and glasnost was information. It removed the ability to be ignorant; revealed terrible revelations; removed people’s fears and “neutralized [the KGB’s] capacity to intimidate” (83). With the spread of education, radios and TVs, and of vision and audio of the world outside the USSR, glasnost is singlehandedly indicative of “the suicidal dynamic of openness for the system” (70). With years of misinformation coming to light, there was a skirmish for personal gain as the system transitioned—a race to steal, and the leadership could not stop it. In fact, the leadership participated. Plunder was the main source of failure. In a society where people had to consume goods through their TV screens, this was the opportunity to become the elite. There was no real concern for the Soviet Union model, but for the gains up for grabs for the fastest on the draw. With “shock therapy” and extremely poor legislation over privatizations and price controls, people could basically create firms to cheat other firms. They used them to take whatever they wanted, as well as to intimidate, exploit and extort others. There was even intentional bankruptcy of firms to do “hostile takeovers of profitable assets” (137).
Much was due to Yeltsin’s eagerness for Russia, but not even the Americans knew what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union collapsed itself in a Hunger Games of profit. And Kotkin notes that “perestroika should be judged a stunning success” (181) because there wasn’t a mass military movement to maintain the Union—the Union did not want to be maintained. Effectively, Kotkin helps us see that, in an ironic twist, it was Soviet greed that saved the world from Armageddon.