Could The Soviet Union Be Saved?

the fall of the soviet union

Coinciding with the fall of the Soviet Union came a rapid growth in various, often polar, viewpoints on the nature of the collapse. Some follow a totalitarian model, believing that once the state ceased to practice coercion, it was bound to collapse, making its entire model inimical to reforms. On the other end were those who believed that if sweeping reforms were undertaken, the USSR could have been saved. Of the two clashing views, it seems more likely that the Soviet Union could have indeed survived if heavy reforms had been undertaken throughout the latter half of the 20th century, without the half-heartedness, narrow mindedness and often recklessness that characterized those that did take place.

Upon Khrushchev’s ascension to power, he quickly began a wide array of reforms. While they had potential, and were oftentimes successful to a degree, these reforms usually fell into one of three categories: those that were too indecisive to be truly effective, those that were not comprehensive enough to set the USSR on the right path, and those that never went through due to political opposition. One of Khrushchev’s greatest legacies was the thaw. In a move that would one day be mimicked by Gorbachev, for a short period, Khrushchev began to ease the state’s control over the press and the everyday lives of the population. During his two thaws, works such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, which was critical of the Gulags, were published, and many were given more significant free reign in expressing discontent. Even punishment was less harsh, as the death penalty was used far less frequently.

While all seems well in print, the thaw did not end government control of many aspects of people’s life. Though public expression became more possible, on the other hand, strict controls on public dissent were enforced. Repeat offenders were still sent to labor camps and even subjected to torture. In contrast to the few “deviant” works published were thousands of works that were rejected, and their authors hounded when they were published in the West. Khrushchev was definitely not afraid to quash dissent despite the contradictory tenants of the thaw. For example, in 1962, a strike was brutally crushed in Novocherkassk, ending in the death of numerous individuals who partook. It is clear that, despite his more liberal tendencies, the USSR was still a long ways away from any form of legal, political participation.

Alongside the thaw came a period of de-Stalinization, pitting Khrushchev against the cult of personality that had dominated the life and politics of the USSR for decades. This attack on Stalin’s legacy came to the foreground in 1956 with Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ at the 20th Party Congress, which was a half-hearted critique of Stalin. Also presented was a commissioned report on Stalin’s role in the terror. In the aftermath came a variety of changes throughout the USSR in relation to Stalin. Universities and schools began to adjust their curriculums to shift the focus away from the cult of personality. Still, de-Stalinization was curbed shortly after it started out of fear of dissent and the possible channeling of criticism from Stalin to the regime as a whole. Monuments to Stalin remained where they stood, though they became less apparent over the years, and educational reforms began to bog down. A confusing bureaucracy and citizenry were left in the wake, which after years of close persecution for deviation from the official party discourse, did not know where Stalin stood within the USSR. For five years, this contradictory process held out, until a less hard-line view of Stalin was finally decided upon at the 22nd party congress in 1961. Both the thaw and de-Stalinization illustrate the inconsistency of Khrushchev’s reforms during the 1950s and early 1960s. This inconsistency only served to discredit the government and Khrushchev himself.

Where Khrushchev displayed far more consistency was in the realm of agricultural reform. The Virgin Lands program, which began in 1953, saw a seventy-four percent overall increase in agricultural output for the Soviet Union by 1954. Even more encouraging was a decrease in the total number of farmers in the Soviet Union, and drastic improvements in the lives of those collective farmers that remained. While being successful in improving the USSR’s stagnant agricultural sector, the Virgin Lands program failed to address many severe flaws in Soviet agriculture. Collective farms as a whole were extremely unproductive and resulted in a large amount of waste.

Furthermore, not enough new money was invested in storage and infrastructure to move the surplus. Beyond failing to implement reforms that would benefit other aspects of agriculture in the USSR, the Virgin Lands exacerbated existing problems oftentimes by over-exploiting the land, resulting in eroded soil and an enormous financial burden on the state. Unlike the thaw and de-Stalinization, the Virgin Lands problem was in no way a half-hearted attempt. Instead, it suffered from the narrow scope it attempted to cover. By 1963 an enormous crop failure occurred, ending the success of the Virgin Lands program. Agriculture in the USSR could never hope to emerge from destitution without comprehensive reform, which Khrushchev could not do.

Khrushchev’s reforms were not all destined for failure. During his short reign, the USSR saw a modest increase in the standard of living for industrial workers as well. Wages increased by nearly fifty percent by 1964, and many of the harsh labor laws practiced under Stalin were abolished. In addition, the workweek was reduced to forty-one hours in 1960. Beyond simple living conditions, the USSR as a whole saw an enormous increase of GNP during the 1950s. This growth was quick to slow, going from a 7.1 percent annual increase to 5.3 percent by 1958.

Furthermore, this shift marked a decline in the productivity of capital and labor, which would plague the USSR until its collapse. Realizing this, Khrushchev attempted to implement some reforms in this area. Eves Liberian came up with a plan that called for the decentralization of the economy, making profit the new indicator for an industry’s success, and letting markets set their own prices. In the end, this reform was blocked by conservatives within Khrushchev’s government, preventing him from making any headway in transforming the economy before he was ousted in 1964.

Khrushchev’s policies may have been flawed, but the fact is that he at least attempted to bring about some level of reform within the USSR. On the other hand, his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, quickly reverted to a conservative stance on most issues. During the beginning of his reign, Brezhnev’s Prime Minister, Kosygin, strived to implement sweeping economic reforms. Attempts were made to shift the budget away from defense spending toward consumer goods. Furthermore, it was decided that an enterprises’ worth would not be evaluated on output but on profit, much like the plan that Liberman proposed. Managers benefited these reforms as they were allowed more say in hiring employees. While these minor reforms were a step towards decentralizing the extremely centralized Soviet economic apparatus, it did not go far enough. Factories still continued to emphasize quantity over quality, which in turn resulted in an enormous waste in unusable goods. No other attempt was made beyond this to overhaul Russian industry, and in fact a reversal was seen in some of these policies as the defense budget quickly pushed aside the increase in increased budget for consumer goods.

One reform that did occur throughout Brezhnev’s conservative reign that would resonate within Soviet material, political and cultural life was what has been considered the “little deal.” While consumerism got pushed to the background by defense spending, the “little deal” weakened government control over private enterprises. This deal was an implied deal, as directly announcing the deregulation of petty market interactions would be contrary to the USSR’s socialist ideas, though it managed to become an essential facet of Soviet Life during Brezhnev’s reign. The purpose of this was to facilitate the distribution of goods and the reallocation of money within the Soviet economy as a whole, and in turn was relatively successful. Essentially, the government simply turned its eyes the other way and allowed petty enterprise and reciprocity agreements to take place. The “little deal” inadvertently generated an enormous amount of corruption, and encouraged cronyism and nepotism within the Soviet Government. Politically, it destroyed social mobility within the Communist Party, as it became more critical whom one knew rather than their personal qualifications. Resulting from this was the entrenchment of the conservatives that dominated the Communist Party during this period. Beyond this, corruption was virtually sanctioned among these officials, as they could make profits through the exploitation of state resources, without facing repercussions. However, though this is obviously a negative effect, the material lives of consumers did in fact increase during this period. Goods and services became more readily available, as this comprehensive network of underground trade was far more successful at distributing products then the government was. As a whole, the “little deal” was a temporary solution to a rampant problem within the Soviet Union. It was the halfway point between deregulation of the market and socialist values, and in the end, produced far too many adverse side effects to be beneficial. Much like Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands program, it was a solution that simply failed to take into account the whole picture.

Political control continued to be stringent under Brezhnev. One of the most famous examples came in 1965, when Siniavskii and Daniel were both arrested for publishing works critiquing the Soviet Union in the West. Despite occurrences such as a famous trial, the Brezhnev era was marked by a distinctive change in tactics, preferring to attack dissenters through less violent means and surprising compromises. For example, on the fifty-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, there was a protest within Soviet Armenia. Rather than brutally quashing it, these demonstrations were sanctioned in the following anniversaries. However, this is was not the case with all public demonstrations, as the USSR under Brezhnev was not afraid to break up demonstrations by force, such as what happened to protests during the Prague Spring. Still, Brezhnev’s reign was marked by a change in tactics used for political control, which is due primarily to Yuri Andropov, who was the head of the KGB after 1967. In regard to dissidents, he reformed the KGB’s policy, oftentimes choosing to send the worst offenders into mental hospitals, and simply exiling others. While critical in the fact that it loosened political control, it was more of a policy shift than a reform. Dissidents were still often times exiled or put in labor camps, and the USSR was remained strict on any critique of the government.

Despite the stagnating economic performance that began with Khrushchev and continued until the USSR collapsed, throughout Khrushchev’s and the early part of Brezhnev’ reign an enormous amount of optimism permeated the middle class. With the cessation of terror, the Soviet Space program, and gradual material improvements, many became optimistic for the future. What dissatisfaction existed was primarily directed at the leadership of the USSR, rather than the system itself. Promises were made and believed by citizens that in the near future the Soviet Union would surpass the rest of Western Europe in average standard of living by the end of the 1960’s. Even when it was apparent that these promises were broken during the 1960’s, this optimism still prevailed until the 1970’s, when it took a sudden turn towards pessimism. The Soviet middle class began to believe that there had been no notable gains in material conditions over the last couple of years, and even the nominal economic growth of the period was not benefiting them in any tangible way. Even optimism for future improvements in material conditions began to decline, as it became more common for the middle class to doubt that the Soviet Union would ever close on the gap between them and the West in standards of living. This shift towards pessimism was a direct result of public opinion catching up with the economic stagnation that began under Khrushchev. Discontent became even worse with Brezhnev’s failure to address it in a sweeping fashion.

Another factor contributing to the pessimism was the growing importance of materialism within Soviet culture. When compared to the generation before them, the population of the USSR as a whole was better off financially, and had more extensive access to everyday consumer goods through both a growing economy and Brezhnev’s “little deal.” This marked a decline in “ideological fervor and an ever-more-resolute determination to lead at least a moderately comfortable life.” The emphasis on sacrifice and toil ingrained in the generation before was no longer apparent. As new generations saw moderate increases in their livelihood, they demanded the full fruits that socialism promised. This situation was of course not a hopeless one, for the Soviet population still did not fault the system as a whole, and underlying the pessimistic current was the optimistic viewpoint that a superior socialist system would prevail over the West. It was Brezhnev’s failing and not the system thus that helped drive the USSR to collapse decades later. If he had tapped into the public support on reforms rather than making empty promises and entrenching himself and his conservative supporters, this shift towards pessimism and economic stagnation could have been contained.

Gorbachev, on the other hand, did not fail in sustaining the USSR during his short rule due to a lack of reforms. By this time, the stagnation of Brezhnev had resulted in a crumbling economy, coupled with an ever-declining level of support for the state. One of his most crucial reforms was that of glasnost, which removed the stringent political control the government had held over the press and citizen’s everyday lives. Alongside this, he also released thousands of dissidents from exile and prison camps. It was Gorbachev’s intention to use a newly freed press to attack the conservative opposition that had been entrenched since Brezhnev’s reign. What he failed to realize was that they would quickly turn against the government as a whole, and as a result, a flood of repressed dissent promptly spread throughout the USSR. It became apparent that the goodwill that people held towards Socialism and the government as a whole had reached its end. De-Stalinization became complete, as the press refuted his reign and even began to question Marxist and Leninist doctrine itself. Soviet culture’s strong ideological foundations had finally withered away, leaving many former communists disillusioned towards the future.

Alongside glasnost came perestroika, which entailed the liberalization of the Soviet economy along free market lines and the restructuring of the USSR’s political machine. Party committees’ powers were curtailed, and no longer held as much control over other organizations. The process of appointment from above was also abolished, in favor of democratization. In the end, this backfired as the elections were called for in hopes of generating more support within the party, but failed to do so. Instead, mostly conservatives were elected to the government. An even more significant move towards democratization began in 1988, when Gorbachev called for the election of a Congress of People’s Deputies. General elections started shortly after, and the first congress convened in 1989.

Gorbachev’s policies as a whole were doomed to fail from the onset. Much like Khrushchev, Gorbachev was indecisive, and the entire process of reform was flawed. Contradictory policies of decentralization and change from above could not effectively transform the USSR. Coinciding with this was an increase in expectations from the population in general after the reforms, which Gorbachev could not have possibly met. As a leader, Gorbachev could not seem to make up his mind and began to sway between both the conservatives and reformers within his government. Gorbachev’s mistake was that he took the reforms too far, too quickly, hoping to gain control of the party. What he didn’t take into account was the disillusionment with the Soviet system would bring the whole process crashing down around him. Economic growth was far outpaced by the liberalization of the system, and as citizens still saw their material lives not improving, they sunk deeper into their pessimism.

As this illustrates, the Soviet state was not set in stone and could awaken from its lethargy and attempt to meet the needs of its population. The problem was not its inability to reform itself, for as I have demonstrated the USSR did not merely roll over and die. It was its failure to successfully undertake comprehensive reforms, without any definite plans for the future. In this sense, the fall of the USSR falls more solidly on its leadership. Khrushchev was not enough of a visionary to radically change the system, and was plagued by an enormous opposition. Brezhnev hardly even made an attempt, as the few reforms he did make were essentially meaningless. Gorbachev’s sweeping reforms were undertaken at a suicidal pace, unintentionally causing the fall of the Communist Party and the collapse of the USSR in general.  

David Rowley, “Interpretations of the End of the Soviet Union: Three Paradigms,” Kvitka: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 2, no. 2 (2001)

Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Sucessor States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Polly Jones, From Stalinism to Post-Stalinism: De-Mythologising Stalin, 1953-1956, in Redefining Stalinism, ed. Harold Shukman (London: Taylor and Francis, 2007)

James R. Miller, The Soviet Economic Experiment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)

John Bushnell, The “New Soviet Man” Turns Pessimist, in The Soviet Union Since Stalin, ed. Stephen Cohen, Alexander Rabinowitch, and Robert Sharlet (Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1980)

Donna Bahry, “Society Transformed? Rethinking the Social Roots of Perestroika,” Slavic Review 52, no. 3 (1993)

Travis King
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