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Predicting and Managing Liberal Revolutions: Two Articles from Foreign Policy Offer Guidance

Posted by K.E. White on June 27, 2011

Foreign Policy is running an excellent series that re-examines the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s lingering effects in its July/August Issue.

There are two pieces that make a particularly interesting joint-read:  Leon Aron’s ‘Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union is Wrong’ and Gennady Burbulis’ ‘Meltdown’.  The first knocks down structuralist explanations of the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, instead stressing the vexing variable of legitimacy (good luck making policy out of that!).  And Burbulis sounds a good old-fashioned path-dependency theme:  arguing that Russia’s path to revolution promised Putin’s half-baked liberal order.

Aron makes the argument that external pressures and internal economic woes were not the cause of the Soviet’s Union collapse.  Instead, it was elite-driven, “hesitant” liberalization that emptied the U.S.S.R.’s legitimacy.

The implications of this arguments, to me, seem clear:  (1) revolutions are difficult to predict, especially know since we’d substitute newspaper clippings with twitter-volume; (2) while may be supported external policies of other nations, can only be triggered by internally.

This, in other words, was a Soviet Union at the height of its global power and influence, both in its own view and in the view of the rest of the world. “We tend to forget,” historian Adam Ulam would note later, “that in 1985, no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR.”

Certainly, there were plenty of structural reasons — economic, political, social — why the Soviet Union should have collapsed as it did, yet they fail to explain fully how it happened when it happened. How, that is, between 1985 and 1989, in the absence of sharply worsening economic, political, demographic, and other structural conditions, did the state and its economic system suddenly begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women to become doomed?

LIKE VIRTUALLY ALL modern revolutions, the latest Russian one was started by a hesitant liberalization “from above” — and its rationale extended well beyond the necessity to correct the economy or make the international environment more benign. The core of Gorbachev’s enterprise was undeniably idealistic: He wanted to build a more moral Soviet Union.

For though economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be?

Now juxtapose Aron with Burbulis’ (Michele A. Berdy trans.) article chronicling the failed coup attempt that resulted in the Soviet Union’s sudden liberal, and bumpy liberal consolidation:

A gradual transformation of the Soviet Union would have been manageable; the instant collapse caused by the coup was disastrous. The coup was the political Chernobyl of the Soviet totalitarian empire. Like the meltdown of a faulty nuclear reactor, the failed putsch blew the country apart, scattering the radioactive remnants of the Soviet system throughout the country. Within a month, the communist elites at every level had new jobs in state administrations and legislatures. They filled the ministries and threw themselves into business. The very people who had fought against the sweeping political and economic reforms we desperately needed were now running the organizations, businesses, and branches of government that were supposed to carry them out.

But it wasn’t just people who were scattered by the explosion. The body of an empire may collapse and the soul of its ideology may be cast aside, but its spirit lives on. In today’s Russia it persists in the revival of the belief in Stalin as a great leader, in the manipulated nostalgia for the false stability and power of the Soviet period, in xenophobia and intolerance, in the lack of respect for civil and human rights, in rampant corruption, in the imperial manner and mindset of some of our leaders and many of our citizens.

This is the poisonous legacy of those three days in August 20 years ago. It is worth revisiting the story now, not least because the putsch’s radioactive fallout has colored Russia’s memory of the putsch itself. The coup attempt deprived us of the opportunity to evolve gradually, to gain practical experience, to root out the vestiges of imperial thinking and behavior. It spoiled the promise of a democratic Russia before it had even begun.

From two very different perspectives (academic vs. eye-witness),  Aron & Burbulis make some memorable points.  First, while advanced democracies are being hit by the debt wave (and their debt politics appear drowning in immaturity), Aron points out that structural financial issues are only one slice of the geo-political order.  China is accruing its own liberal debt, and debt it will have to pay—one way or the other, and that will have a financial impact far greater than the U.S. debt ceiling.  But Burbulis makes clear that one comes after a liberal revolution is (1) impossible to control from the outside, (2) unpredictable and subject to fast-changing currents, and (3) may fall far short of  the hopes of its supporters.

But there’s one indisputable conclusion implicit in both these articles.  Those tasked with reading the tea-leaves of the international system have one hell of job.  How do we look ahead even 2 years when we’re still arguing about the U.S.S.R.’s collapse 20 years ago.

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