30 years since the end of the USSR – lessons for the workers’ movement

The last President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, with President Putin (Photo: Creative Commons)

The USSR was officially dissolved thirty years ago in 1991. Clare Doyle, who was working in Russia at the time on behalf of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), looks back at a historic moment.

On 25 December 1991, a sombre Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on television screens across eleven time zones announcing that the vast federation known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved. Long before this date, it had been unravelling and the fate of Gorbachev, its president and the secretary of the ruling ‘Communist’ Party, had been sealed.

This Christmas speech marked the end of the ‘Soviet Union’; it was by no means ‘the end of history’, as one infamous political scientist – Francis Fukuyama – argued, maintaining there was now no alternative to capitalism. In fact today, the idea of socialism is becoming more and more popular amongst young people and ever more urgent to achieve in the fight against the destruction of the world’s people and resources.

Marxists must explain what socialism is and what it is not. The USSR is still today a point of reference whose establishment, development and demise require a clear understanding. The Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia in October 1917 was the greatest event in history – a workers’ revolution that overthrew capitalism. It was the beginning of the transition to a genuinely democratic socialist society, which can only ever be completed on a world scale.

The establishment of the USSR itself in 1922 was a testament to the inspiration that the leaders of the revolution – Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky – gave to the toilers of all nations. In spite of heroic workers’ struggles in a number of countries, it was the failure of revolutions elsewhere to succeed that hampered the development of a socialist society in the USSR.

Socialism means the elimination of all forms of exploitation in society. It means that there is no longer private ownership of the major economic sectors, industry, finance and land, and planning and management under the democratic control and management of elected and recallable workers’ representatives at every level.

What existed in the ‘Soviet Union’ for decades was neither capitalist or socialist. After the death of Lenin in January 1924, with Russia only starting to recover from the effects of years of war, Joseph Stalin and his privileged ruling clique had carried through a political counter-revolution, maintaining the state-owned planned economy but ruling through a one-party dictatorship with brutal repression of any attempts to maintain workers’ democracy.

But state ownership and planning, in spite of mismanagement by the bureaucracy, led to tremendous advances in science, production and technique in the inter-war and post-war periods. In 1961, under Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR sent the first person into space, beating its ‘Cold War’ rival, the USA under JF Kennedy. Only gradually did the pace of growth slow down, as the sclerosis of bureaucratic control set in.

It is vital for socialists to understand and explain what happened in the so-called Union of Soviet Socialist Republics both before and after the Christmas announcement of 1991.

 The fall of Gorbachev

In August 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘rescued’ from a brief coup attempt against him. The Communist Party he headed had been suspended and the federation of states he presided over – the USSR – was disintegrating.

The transition from a bureaucratically run, state-owned economy to a wild and ruthless form of private capitalism was gathering pace. Boris Yeltsin represented the openly pro-capitalist wing of the bureaucracy.

Well before those dramatic events of August 19-21, unrest had grown across the USSR and troops had been used to put down serious clashes, sometimes armed revolt, including in the Baltic States. There were deadly clashes on the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania, in early 1991 when troops were sent by Gorbachev to hold the situation.

Among the soldiers used in these conflicts were veterans of the ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan of the 1980s, not keen to be fighting civilians nearer to home. They were among the soldiers on the tanks in August 1991 outside Moscow’s White House – the headquarters of the already virtually independent Russian government.

It was Boris Yeltsin, elected president of the Russian Federation in June 1991, who had organised the ‘rescue’ of the USSR’s president, Gorbachev, from his Crimean holiday home at the time of the short-lived coup against him. It was Yeltsin who had then ordained the disbanding of the ruling ‘Communist’ Party of the Soviet Union.

Within days of those dramatic events, other republics of the USSR began to peel away. Ukraine was the first, Kazakhstan, the last, and a total of 15 newly independent states were established by local leaders. Gorbachev called a conference to try and scramble together a new kind of loose confederation, but it was too late.

The USSR’s president was not even invited to the crucial summit meeting near Minsk in early December with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The resulting Belavezha Accords, signed on December 8, virtually dissolved the Soviet Union. A Commonwealth of Independent States was to take its place. The Alma-Ata Protocol, signed by eleven state leaders in Kazakhstan on 21 December, confirmed these accords.

The Russian Federation was deemed the de facto successor to the USSR. Its leader held the nuclear button and Russia on its own was still the second-largest economy in the world, before the rise of the Chinese behemoth.

Gorbachev himself, as head of the massive 20-million strong Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had always maintained the aim of achieving ‘socialism’. His ‘Glasnost’ (opening up) and ‘Perestroika’ (restructuring) had failed, over a period of six years, to breathe new life into the sclerotic body of the bureaucratically run state-owned planned economy. 

Peter Taaffe explained in the pages of Socialism Today (No.216, March 2018), reviewing a biography of Gorbachev, that this last president of the USSR regarded himself as a genuine communist and a supporter of Lenin. Nevertheless, he was, in effect, “the gateman for the capitalist counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union”. The economic catastrophe that followed this and the collapse of the deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe was, as Peter points out, “greater than the capitalist crash and depression of the 1930s”. 

Foundations of USSR 

The leaders of the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 set out to develop the vast area of the former Romanov empire on the basis of state-ownership of industry and land and of democratic workers’ control and management.

There had ensued a ferocious civil war against counter-revolutionary ‘whites’, backed up by imperialist intervention. Yet one of the first announcements of the new government had been that it would guarantee “the right of all the nations of Russia to self-determination”.

From the Baltic Sea to the Pacific, the Tsars had maintained a ‘prison house of nations’, as Lenin put it, through the brutal suppression of nations and nationalities conquered over the centuries with between them well over a hundred different languages. The Bolsheviks, who became the ruling Communist Party, adhered to the principle of the right of nations to self-determination and separation if they so wished, and the rights of all nationalities to be fully respected. But they encouraged a belief in the advantages of staying together.

Finland was the only component of the Russian Empire to take the opportunity of becoming independent. It was because of the principled approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks on this question that, after the setting up of the USSR on 30 December 1922, so many nations previously oppressed under the Tsars came together within it. The new body would initially unite together the Russian Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics with the Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian SFSRs. Divisions and subdivisions followed. 

Initially, in both Georgia and Ukraine, there was resistance to participation in the USSR as fully constituted Soviet Republics. As Niall Mulholland explains in the chapter on the national question in the recent CWI book on Trotsky’s ideas: “In both countries, the Mensheviks had a base of support and hypocritically called for ‘self-determination’ as a way to derail the revolution and to oppose the call for complete ‘sovietisation’ coming from the workers and peasants. Sections of the workers called for the Red Army to intervene” (page 60). Eventually, both Ukraine and Georgia joined the rest of the newly liberated nations in the building of a unified Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Developing a socialist planned economy in a vast area like that of the USSR was severely hampered by the failure of revolutions in more industrialised capitalist countries which would have aided the development of the economy on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management. With Lenin’s death, Stalin’s advocacy of proceeding to build ‘socialism in one country’ laid the basis for political counter-revolution, the usurpation of control by a privileged party bureaucracy and ruthless persecution of all opposition. 

The isolation of the revolution was keenly felt as disasters struck, like the famine of 1921-22 in which no less than five million perished. This lay behind what was acknowledged by Lenin and Trotsky as temporary compromises, including the New Economic Policy with elements of private ‘enterprise’, particularly in agriculture.

In 1928, in the first five-year plan, Stalin adopted an industrialisation programme that was accompanied by the horrific policy of forced collectivisation, leading to literally millions more deaths in the countryside. Throughout a prolonged reign of terror in the 1930s, millions more perished in Stalin’s prison camps or execution chambers. Mass arrests reached way beyond Trotsky, the Left Opposition and other oppositionists. Between 1937 and 1938, no less than one and a half million were arrested with up to a thousand executions carried out per day.

Stalin’s mortal fear of opposition and of any democratic control verged on paranoia; his clique’s ruthlessness knew no bounds. In spite of his Georgian origins, he conducted horrific persecution of non-Russians, including Georgians, within the USSR. This reached a ghastly climax with the mass deportation of minorities such as the Crimean Tatars, the Ingush and Chechens. Millions of men, women and children died, either en route to or inside the ghastly concentration camps of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. 

Although established as a totally voluntary federation, the whole USSR under Stalin became a new ‘prison house of nations’.

 World war & cold war

The elimination of private ownership and profit and the establishment of state planning – however bureaucratic and incompetent – had seen the ‘Soviet’ economy grow much faster than any in the capitalist West. The USSR was immune from the huge setbacks of the ‘Great’ capitalist depression in the 1930s. Between 1929 and 1935, its industrial production grew 250% – three times faster than in any capitalist country.

However, the isolation and degeneration of the revolution, under Stalin’s dictatorship, had led not only to the ousting of workers from decision-making in the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ but saw gross mismanagement by the huge parasitic incubus. It was growing fat on the back of the vast degenerated workers’ state. Sclerosis had begun to set in.

The massive and costly war effort under Stalin had been hampered by his widespread pre-war purge of the top echelons of his own military machine, themselves accused of crimes against the state. During the war, the Soviet Union lost around 27 million people – nearly nine million in the military and up to nineteen million civilians. A quarter of the whole population of the Soviet Union was either killed or wounded.

Stalin’s prestige was, however, enhanced by eventual victory in the war and the economy in the USSR began to recover. But the lack of the oxygen of workers’ democracy, as Trotsky described it, was now slowing it down considerably.

By 1947, the concept of a ‘Cold War’ had developed – one between different social systems – capitalist and non-capitalist. Within two years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) of ‘Western’ powers was set up, but a kind of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between NATO and the USSR existed.

Chinese revolution

The year 1949 saw in the huge country of China what Marxists see as the second greatest event in history. The revolution, led by Mao Tse Tung at the head of a predominantly peasant army, eliminated landlordism and capitalism and established another vast workers’ state.

Huge strides forward were made through state ownership and planning. But, unlike the USSR, it was ‘deformed’ from the beginning rather than ‘degenerating’ from a healthy workers’ state. The leadership under Mao Tse Tung made sure there was no power in the hands of workers’ representatives.

This also meant no immediate threat to Stalin and his clique but nor was there any plan for a confederation of the USSR and China. The Chinese bureaucracy continued to pursue its own national interests.

After Stalin

Joseph Stalin died in 1953 and in 1956 came the revelations made by USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev about some of the dictator’s worst crimes. Almost immediately revolts broke out across Eastern Europe, where governments in thrall to Stalin had moved into the post-war vacuum.

The nearest to a genuine political revolution was the heroic 1956 workers’ uprising in Hungary, drowned in blood by ‘Soviet’ tanks. Movements in Germany and Poland were also viciously suppressed and, in 1968, ‘Soviet’ tanks were on the streets of another European capital – Prague to put down a democratic revolt.

After Stalin’s death, the Sino-Soviet conflict also developed. Mao Tse Tung began to denounce the USSR’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” with world capitalism, attempting to win support from the ranks of communist parties internationally. He also described its control over Eastern Europe as a form of “social imperialism” – “socialist in words and imperialist in deeds” (not dissimilar to Xi Jinping’s policies today!). In 1969 there was actually a seven-month Sino-Soviet border war.

The USSR after Stalin

Within the vast borders of the USSR, the steady deterioration of growth rates was leading to discontent and fissiparous pressures. Component parts of the USSR began to seek ways of gaining national independence from Moscow rule. They felt it would give them a better deal. 

Throughout the period of Stalin’s rule, and under various party leaders who followed him, there had been few uprisings against the centre, either from national or ethnic minorities or the vast layers of exploited workers. Heavy state forces were anyway used to brutally suppress revolt as when there was an ‘uprising’ of political prisoners in Kengir, Kazakhstan in 1954 when hundreds were killed. There was also the heroic workers’ revolt in Novocherkassk in 1962 where ‘Soviet’ tanks mowed down unarmed strikers in the name of the working class!

But, by the late 1980s, as the economy of the ‘Soviet Union’ slowed to a crawl, huge discontent had accumulated. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev became secretary of the ruling Communist Party in 1985, and then president of the Soviet Union in 1988, the massive state-owned economy was beginning to stagnate.

Reforms

All kinds of measures were adopted to keep the economy moving and eliminate the chronic shortages of basic necessities that had set in. Gorbachev’s reforms were initiated with the aim of preventing revolution from below. But he had succeeded only in irritating workers with his characteristic indecisiveness – lifting the lid and closing it again.

It was also clear that Gorbachev did not want to do away with the supremacy of the ruling Communist Party. Yeltsin had successfully pushed for article 16 of the constitution to be adopted, allowing for parties other than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to stand candidates in elections. The sluice gates leading to a different society were being opened.

For workers facing dire shortages of even the basics of life, standing in line with coupons for bread, sausage and eggs, the promise of living standards like those in Western Europe and the US, held out by the proponents of the transition to capitalism, was attractive. 

Transition to the market

There had been no voice raised for a different way of running the planned economy with workers’ democracy. It was a disappointment, but not a big surprise, to those in the Committee for a Workers’ International who visited the countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR at the end of the 1980s, that things had gone too far.

The allure of market relations was too great. The idea of selling the products of their labour on the world market, and reaping the benefits directly, had beguiled even striking miners and engineers. They supported the pro-marketeers around Yavlinksy, Yegor Gaidar and other apostles of Milton Friedman and ‘shock therapy’ – the quickest possible ‘transition to the market’. 

Workers instinctively took strike action in August of 1991, when the green shoots of democracy were under attack by the August coup-makers. But they were not looking to re-establish the long lost democratic workers’ control and management of the early days of the USSR. They were against turning the clock back in any respect. They were lending support to Yeltsin and his colleagues and they were clearly in favour of mass privatisation. They were supporting him against the old guard and all they seemed to represent.

Workers were not familiar with the idea that they themselves could take control and exercise management through democratically elected representatives. Oxygen could have been pumped back into the planned economy in this way. But this would have meant conducting a political revolution against the massive, bloated and armed bureaucratic caste that dominated the state-owned economy. 

Workers were tired of Gorbachev’s dithering. They saw Yeltsin as a representative of a new society in which workers themselves could reap the benefits of their labour and not the pampered bureaucrats at the national and local levels.

The forces advocating genuine workers’ democracy rather than capitalism at that time were tiny. We were a mere handful of people on the barricades in Moscow and Leningrad during the attempted coup of August 1991. We had no paper and ink with which to produce leaflets, let alone print a newspaper warning against a social counter-revolution and what capitalism would bring, and arguing the case for workers’ democracy. The ‘Soviet Union’ to which the CWI members had gone began to crumble before their eyes. 

Economic catastrophe

Illusions have rapidly shattered that privatisation, and the accompanying distribution of shares to all workers would transform the situation of queues and shortages. Over the next three years alone, the GDP of Russia fell by nearly 50%. Inflation reached over 2,000% in 1992.

As ‘Britannica.com’ puts it, “to many Russians, it seemed that bandit capitalism had emerged. The majority of the population had seen their living standards drop, their social services collapse, and a great rise in crime and corruption. As a result, Yeltsin’s popularity began to plummet.

In some former Soviet states embroiled in military conflicts, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Tajikistan, GDP in 2000 was 30-50% of pre-transition levels. Even without military conflict, Ukraine’s GDP fell by nearly two thirds.”

Two authors – JK Sundaram and V Popov – quoted in Interpress Service (IPS) news, June 2017, say: “The huge collapses in output, living standards and life expectancy in the former Soviet Union during the 1990s without war, epidemic or natural disaster, was unprecedented. During the Great Depression, GDP in Western countries fell by some 30% on average in 1929-1933 but then recovered to pre-recession levels by the end of the 1930s”.

Even the more prosperous Baltic States at first saw catastrophic economic declines. “All three managed to limit their inflation to about 1,000 per cent in 1992, but their output was in freefall… The Baltic countries did not return to economic growth until 1995”, wrote Anders Aslund, author of ‘Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy’.

The planned economy broke up and capitalism was reintroduced – “raw in tooth and nail” – bringing with it deadly individual and national rivalry. Centrifugal rather than unifying forces predominated.

The end

A book published in 2014 by a US-based Ukrainian academic, Serhii Plokhy, gives a graphic, detailed account of the drama that unfolded in the months leading up to Gorbachev’s speech on 25 December 1991. But his book is entitled ‘The Last Empire’. As a Ukrainian himself, Plokhy naturally bemoans the loss (later) of spectacularly beautiful Crimea to the Russian Federation. But, as a pro-capitalist academic, what is his solution to the competing demands of different nations and the rights of national minorities?

The USSR itself was no ‘empire’. Relations between the centre and the component republics became exploitative, but not for private companies or individuals. What replaced the USSR was supposed to be a ‘Commonwealth’ of states but it was an enterprise doomed to failure on the basis of private and public competition for wealth and power. 

Today’s Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is a direct descendent of the fallen idol, Boris Yeltsin, who moved tanks and soldiers against his own parliament in October 1993. Yeltsin’s brutal military campaigns against Chechnya left a legacy of discontent and a constant threat to the unity of the Russian Federation as a whole. 

No stability

Not one of the former republics of the USSR was able to establish stable, capitalist democracies. Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan maintains to this day the same kind of dictatorship as he did within the USSR. Victor Lukashenko became president of independent Belarus in 1994, maintaining strong links with the repressive regimes of Russia. Since being clearly defeated in the presidential election of 2020, Lukashenko has brutally suppressed all opposition on the streets and in the factories.

He constantly looks for support from Moscow, even as he drives hapless refugees into Poland. Russia’s own dictator, Vladimir Putin, is not averse to lending support to an assortment of oppressive governments that make up Russia’s ‘near abroad’.

In Ukraine, an undeclared and unfinished war drags on. Putin has more than once this year threatened military action supposedly to defend ethnic Russians against the forces of the Ukrainian state. In Kiev, former comedian, Volodomyr Zelensky, rules clearly on behalf of the country’s oligarchs, looking for open support from the EU and NATO,

Armenia and Azerbaijan both achieved independence through the Belaveschskaya Accords, but the bloody dispute over Nagorno Karabakh remained unresolved. Armed conflict broke out in 1994 and again in 2020 with thousands killed and uprooted. A Russian peacekeeping force is in place.

Prospects

Russia today is still geographically the largest country in the world, stretching from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. It has three-quarters of the old USSR’s territory and a population of around 150 million. Russia has inherited a huge legacy of scientific and industrial achievements from the era of state ownership and planning in the USSR. These assets became the milch-cow of oligarchs with their palaces on the Black Sea and luxury residences in London and other European playgrounds of the rich.

Understanding the processes that took place in the USSR – its birth, life and death – is a vital preparation of new generations for future mass struggles that will inevitably explode in the coming period.

Capitalism is a rotten system and cannot prevent the catastrophe of global warming from developing. You cannot have capitalism without severe limitations on planning to save the planet. You cannot have capitalism, either, without competition between nations for raw materials and markets. Ending it and replacing it with socialism is as vital today as it has ever been.

Victory for a workers’ struggle for socialism in any one country today would find it so much easier to spread the struggle internationally and prevent the grotesque distortion of socialist ideas that were represented by Stalinism. In the past thirty years since the collapse of the USSR, none of the major problems that arise from capitalism – exploitation, war, famine, dictatorship, and disease – has been overcome.

Within the next thirty years, momentous class struggles and revolutions will engulf whole nations. In the entirely changed conditions of more than a century since the Russian revolution, the establishment of a truly democratic workers’ government in any one country will indeed spread like wildfire across the globe.

It will become entirely feasible within that time to be building a world confederation of socialist states, based on democratically controlled, planned economies. War, want, exploitation and dictatorship will, at last, be consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

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