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State Legitimacy in the Soviet Union: 1989- 1991

Info: 7871 words (31 pages) Dissertation
Published: 13th Dec 2019

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State Legitimacy in the Soviet Union: 1989- 1991

The revolutions of 1989 were a paradigm shift in world politics. It affected nations in a way not seen since the end of the Second World War. Looking at the effect of the events of the end of the 80’s in relation to the Soviet Union, this chapter will examine what impact the events of 1989 had on the eventual collapse of the USSR. Approaching the issue from a domestic standpoint, the effects on the institutional morale of the KGB and other soviet bodies will be discussed in depth. Archie Brown’s interpretation on the Gorbachev approach will be analysed, with both critical and supportive aspects of his argument. The chapter will also argue that 1989 and its revolutions had quantifiable and serious adverse effects on the survival of the Soviet Union, which of course collapsed in only three short years subsequently.

The Soviet Union had been involved with Eastern Europe since the end of the Second World War, after it had defeated Nazi Germany and established itself as the true power in the region. After invading Eastern Europe, the Soviets set up satellite states loyal to the Communist ideology. In terms of the cold war, these states including East Germany were vital to countering American and thus capitalist influence around the world. The eastern bloc provided weapons and training to revolutionary movements around the world, propping up Communist causes in nations as far reaching as Angola and Guatemala. Without the Eastern Bloc, Soviet power projection would become much more difficult, even impossible especially when competing with the United States and its allies. While important from a foreign policy standpoint, it may then seem odd to consider the ramifications of the revolutions of 1989 in a domestic Soviet sense. The underlying question here however is one of legitimacy. The Soviet state, and perhaps any state, can only survive when the issue of legitimacy is clear and pronounced.

The collapse of the USSR was not a knee jerk event, but rather one that came about as a result of a continuing deterioration of the situation for a number of years. To put a specific date on the start of this deterioration is difficult, but one that is often quoted by scholars is that of 1989, due to the revolutions of that year. To conservative Soviet politicians and bureaucrats, the loss of Eastern Europe was catastrophic. It represented a huge blow the Soviet Union as a world superpower, and an even greater blow to the world ideology of Communism. In the years long disconnect between Gorbachev and the conservative sectors of the Communist Hierarchy, the revolutions of 1989 added significantly to the distrust that was felt against him. The fact that these regimes in Eastern Europe had not followed the liberalizing path of Gorbachev, and had retained their hardliner position weighed further on conservative and KGB opposition in Moscow. The Conservatives gripe was one that was connected to the average citizen too. The loss of Eastern Europe deprived the Soviet Union of one of the fundamentals of its existence, the exportation of its ideology. This loss further weakened the legitimacy of the state to many sectors of the Soviet nation, including the general populace.

The thinking of Gorbachev in pursuing a policy towards Eastern Europe was like no other Communist premier before him. The unofficial “Brehznev Doctrine” had dominated Soviet policy towards Eastern Europe for many years. The USSR would thus under the policy intervene in any communist nation that it felt that socialism was being challenged in. Not only did Gorbachev throw out this doctrine, he made it clear that the Eastern Bloc could not expect Soviet military backing in the future[1]. The reasoning for this is explained by historian Archie Brown, who links in domestic reforms to foreign policy, one unable to exist without the other[2]. Gorbachev using foreign policy to increase his chances of domestic success, thus improving western relations to aid home economic growth. This cannot be underestimated in the wider importance of both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the wider Cold War. Gorbachev’s unwillingness to support the regimes of the east doomed them to their destruction, wiping out not just his version of humane Communism but also indeed any pretence of communism at all in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union as the base and founder of Communism to many lost legitimacy when its Communist creations of the Eastern bloc fell to capitalism.

It is often easy to see the 1989 revolutions as an inevitable event that had simply arrived at its time in history to occur. However, much of the inspiration for the revolutions came not from the west as many soviet citizens would expect pre 1985, but from their own leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev himself criticized the Eastern Bloc’s leaders as having a taste for “unlimited rule”[3] and rejected their authoritarian obstructionism. The constant talk by Gorbachev of perestroika and glasnost heavily impacted the Eastern bloc’s citizens. They could see that reform was happening in the Soviet Union, and questioned why it was then not happening in their own nations. This further led to the USSR both abroad and at home losing faith in the legitimacy of their state and ideology. The USSR since the inception of the Warsaw pact had provided the ideological inspiration for the eastern nations. Now in some of the eastern bloc, the 1987 plenum of the CPSU discussing democratization was even banned and made its way onto the black market. This was an incredible state of affairs, and the oddity of a Moscow based committee report being available on the black market was not lost on Gorbachev, who sardonically mused that it gained “fantastic prices”[4] as dissident literature.

Due to Gorbachev’s almost personal involvement in the revolutions of 1989, the loss felt by the KGB and conservative elements of society was attributed to him. Despite this great insult to said sections of society however, there was no immediate revolt, coup or large-scale dissent evident in the closing months of 1989. The reason for this was twofold. Gorbachev was adept at attempting to neutralise hard-line opposition through stealth[5], placating conservatives with promises and assurances, but never really following through.

In addition, however, it must then be raised the question of what the Eastern bloc was to the chances of Soviet Survival in to the 1990’s. Certainly, to the KGB and other conservative institutions it damaged their loyalty to Gorbachev the man, but not the Soviet Union as an entity. However, amongst the general populace there as stated were no large-scale expressions of dissent. On the contrary, many saw the Eastern bloc as an unnecessary drain on the finances of the country. In the question of legitimacy then many would surely say the revolutions of 1989 could not have had that much of a large impact on the Soviet Union’s existence. However, the question is not one of immediate reaction to the events of 1989 by the Soviet populace, but a wider trend. The legitimacy of a state very rarely erodes over such a short period in the eyes of its citizens. While the fall of the Eastern bloc may not have been immediately unpopular with the citizenry of the Soviet Union, the impact on the wider perception of the loss of legitimacy is evident when taking into context the two-year period between 1989 and 1991. The impact on the nationalities question also raises the concept of damaged legitimacy due to the revolutions.

Archie Brown supports the idea of Gorbachev’s actions being directly responsible for the “timing”[6] of the revolutions in 1989. However, he sees this an impressive feat by the Soviet Premier as the transition was a relatively peaceful one, Romania excluding. Brown asks the question of who actually “lost” from the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. He points out that these “losers” would comprise the hard-line conservative elements of the Soviet State, and that it was “remarkable” for Gorbachev to have retained power through the events of 1989. This reveals an interesting point however, in that the implication is that previous Soviet leaders would have been toppled for much lesser reasons than the entire soviet bloc ceasing to exist. The fact that Gorbachev survived relatively unscathed ensured that the legitimacy of Communism and thus the Soviet Union suffered yet another downgrade. If the Conservatives and other pro Soviet Bloc elements of society did not act to remove Gorbachev, their influence was diminished and the populace of the nation’s link with the state lessened further.

Of course, the “New Thinking” in foreign policy under Gorbachev began as early as before he was general secretary, as he travelled to meet Mrs. Thatcher in 1984. The final result of this new thinking was in 1989, which encompasses the entire period of his early and mid-rule of the Soviet Union. The new foreign policy was but one aspect of Gorbachev’s far greater liberalising plans, and went much further than anyone in the Soviet elite had initially considered possible[7]. This “shock and awe” form of foreign policy change startled the Soviet establishment and indeed many elements of society. The perception of radical change jarred against a Soviet Union that for many years previously had been conservative and used to little if no substantial change. The Soviets were used to dealing with nations in one of three ways. As socialist allies, nations to be won over, or capitalist enemies. Such was the nature of Communism, especially as set out by Lenin and Trotsky. Gorbachev’s abandonment of this creed to supposedly “neutral” nations of Eastern Europe in effect meant that he ceded them to the west, despite weak verbal assurances to the contrary. This action weakened the Soviet Union on the international stage and therefore encouraged the breakup of the nation. Without being a leading world player with allied Communist states, the legitimacy of the country in the eyes of its citizens fell even further.

Brown does recognize that there was of course opposition to Gorbachev however from “nationalists and communist hard-liners”[8] around the time of the events in Eastern Europe in 1989. This almost dismissive comment alludes to Brown’s firm belief in the talents and ideas of Gorbachev as a well-intentioned reformer. There is of course much merit to this argument, and Gorbachev in his own memoirs speaks about much the same in justifying the loss of Soviet Allies to revolution[9]. Whereas from a moral perspective, and even from the stated aims of Gorbachev himself, his actions were correct, from a state legitimacy perspective it would be harder to argue that was so. As an individual Gorbachev’s moral compass ensured that an intervention militarily as previous Soviet leaders had performed, was certainly off the table. What Brown, and even of course to a greater extent Gorbachev, failed to realise was that being morally correct on the Eastern Bloc issue gained no political capital inside of the USSR, regardless of the prestige internationally it produced. Much to the contrary, political forces were unleashed that were an existential threat to the survival of the union.

When it comes the question of state legitimacy however, there are alternative theories than one of complete negativity in relation the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Gorbachev argues in his memoirs that as part of the “New Thinking”, a different Soviet Union was being built and of course, this required different relations with its neighbours. Brown supports Gorbachev in this and that the eastern bloc was no “loss”, an argument in direct opposition to the “realpolitik” of previous Soviet leaders. In attempting to build legitimacy for the new Soviet modern state, elements of the previous one simply had to be removed. This argument formed the basis of many of Gorbachev’s reforms, and was one that was supported internationally if not domestically in the USSR.

In creating this new incarnation of the Soviet Union, it was thus implausible to have several Eastern European nations whom all had firm authoritarian unreformed regimes allied to Moscow. Along with this fact, the desires of the populations of those countries formed the basis for Gorbachev’s justification for the end of Eastern European Communism. In this attempt to build the foundations for a new and improved Soviet Union and its relationship with Eastern Europe, it was morally if not politically successful. The newly independent nations free of Soviet domination did indeed become democratic but were firmly out of the Soviet sphere. In his attempt to create legitimacy for the modern Soviet state, a great deal of the stability and legitimacy of the previous one was taken away. The change was certainly radical and this was not lost on anyone in the Soviet elite, from erstwhile allies of Gorbachev such as Ligachev to opponents in the political dark.

When fast-forwarding chronologically to the August coup of 1991, the events of 1989 may seem far off and disparate. The prime motivators for the move however were clear in 1989 if not as developed and as much of a risk to Gorbachev as they were two years later. Gorbachev himself in his memoirs states he attempted to stave off the forces of reaction by “phasing out the old system and strengthening the new values in people’s minds[10]”. This can be interpreted in little other way than as a clear statement of intent in terms of building legitimacy for a new state. In any case though, the coup was a reaction by the elements of Soviet society that had grown increasingly bitter with Gorbachev from the late 1980’s onward. Archie Brown alludes to the growing resentment the traditional Soviet establishment had towards Gorbachev, but again his focus tends to be on a disgruntled elite stuck in the past[11].

The increasing disillusionment of the “Old Soviets”, that is the KGB, political elite and other institutions opposed to liberalisation of the Union, meant that a coup or attempt at one was essentially inevitable at some point. The question is however, if the loss of Eastern Europe was so great a hit to the prestige of said institutions, why an attempt at overthrow did not come sooner. This can be explained by the simple fact that there was not an anti-Gorbachev conspiracy festering from his very ascension to power. Even die-hard Stalinists within the politburo recognized the need for a re-vitalization of the Soviet Union. Many were willing to give Gorbachev a chance in his reforms, foreign policy included up until 1989. The revolutions of that year significantly changed the atmosphere in which the premier acted however, and caused a huge break in the loyalty and leeway hardliners were willing to accord the General Secretary. The loss of legitimacy affected not simply the public’s perception of the country but perhaps more importantly Soviet power structures, which had real influence despite reform.

It was those power structures of course, that had previously supported and encouraged Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe before. Immediately prior to the 1968 Czechoslovakia invasion premier Brezhnev, who was a supporter of collective leadership, sounded out the opinions of the establishment. In that case the invasion was heartily supported and the power centres of the Soviet Union all understood the importance of ensuring Communist orthodoxy was maintained. In 1989, those same Soviet centres of power had not been reformed or their composure radically changed. The Communist party and thus at this time the state with the exception of the general secretary were firmly opposed to the policy carried out in relation to the Eastern Bloc. Gorbachev’s meek response of protest to the West German leader Helmut Kohl epitomised the difference between him and previous Soviet premiers[12].

When assessing the importance of 1989 on the chances of survival of the union, one must be careful not to build up a narrative of inevitability of collapse purely based on those events in Eastern Europe. That would of course detract from the other vital issues that threatened the Soviet State’s legitimacy in the preceding and following years, issues which will be further discussed in this very piece. However, in the course of the final years of Soviet history, 1989 was a watershed moment for both Gorbachev’s reforms and the establishment opposed to said reforms. While opinion within the Communist party had been shifting for some time prior, 1989 provided a clean break and change of atmosphere for many who cared deeply about the changing state of the USSR. When it comes to the 1991 coup, it would be difficult to see such an event come to pass without the fall of Communism in the East. It would be a peculiar spectacle to see a Soviet Union as an essentially democratic country, allied to Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Thus, when it comes to the issue of legitimacy, the 1989 revolutions were not a death knell to perception of the Soviet State by any one sector of society or indeed the elite. What they did do however was mark a significant change of atmosphere, and one that was virulently damaging to Gorbachev. Certainly, to the eyes of hard-liners and indeed much of the bureaucracy, the trust they had in the general secretary was broken. As providing a link to the 1991 coup, the revolutions were key in the downward spiral of prestige Gorbachev enjoyed from the Soviet establishment that had of course, overthrown many previous premiers.

Foreign Relations and their bearing on Domestic Economics

The discussion of the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be approached without considering the international dimension. As the world’s second superpower, the affairs of the country affected the wider world in a very serious and real way. The changing relations the country enjoyed with the west, primarily the United States, were an incredible turnaround from previous aggressive postures on both sides. The re-unification of Germany, Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and of course the previously mentioned end of the Eastern bloc were radical geo-political changes, unthinkable but a few years earlier. The deteriorating state of the Soviet economy could be seen as either a symptom or a cause of the nation’s overall decline, but also was deeply intertwined with the foreign relations of the Soviet State. This chapter will delve into what effect foreign relations had on the legitimacy of both the “old” Soviet state and the new reformed Soviet Union. The economy of course plays a huge role in both versions of state legitimacy and will also be assessed.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan and the subsequent withdrawal in 1989 has the unique position of being vital both in the economic calculations of the USSR and indeed its foreign policy. The war cost an estimated 1.3 Billion pounds in today’s currency by Soviet estimations, with US and Japanese estimates two or even three times that amount[13]. This placed an obviously huge strain on a Soviet budget that already faced severe issues in vast swathes of the economy, not to mention food supplies and consumer goods shortages. Aside from the numbers front however, a far larger impact of the war was on the public morale of the average Soviet citizen. Nothing unified the populace more in the 1980’s than popular opposition to the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam”. This undoubtedly sapped legitimacy from the government, which due to Gorbachev’s domestic reforms was open to attack in certain elements of the media.

Gorbachev himself had been opposed to the war in Afghanistan from his ascension to office in 1985, and had refused escalation and promoted withdrawal since at least that point[14]. However, in terms of foreign relations, the US had maintained the traditional tone of hostility and support for the mujahedeen since the invasion in 1979. This routine clash of superpowers was suitable in an ideological sense for the Communist mantra, and indeed propaganda, of a world struggle against capitalism. In the pre-Gorbachev era, the conflict while never popular could be maintained due to rigid control of media and an emphasis on ideological purity. The loosening of said control, and the negotiations with President Bush over Afghanistan were truly radical new policies for the Soviet Union.

On the question of legitimacy, and the contract, which the Soviet State had with its citizens, the change in foreign relations were of huge importance. Gorbachev’s earlier removal in 1987 of several key military men; ostensibly for the penetration of Soviet air defences by a civilian aircraft, paved the way for a radical re-assessment of state global foreign policy[15]. What Gorbachev saw as a move to a more democratic and citizen focused way of dealing with the wider world, amounted essentially to a repudiation of Communist expansionism. The final withdrawal of Soviet troops in February of 1989 marked the end of a decade long conflict, but also much more than that in the international sphere. Gorbachev’s promise to the west to withdraw and then the actions he took to back his statements up, no doubt improved relations with the US[16]. Archie Brown in his usual deference to Premier Gorbachev, hails the event as conducive to the “New Thinking” foreign policy that was espoused by the Soviet leader at the time. Certainly, in terms of building legitimacy for a new state and moving away from the previous, Gorbachev’s motivations were clear.

The shift in relations Gorbachev brought about were mirrored in the US by the increasing friendliness of the administration of George H.W. Bush. The US president was by 1990 completely signed up to the idea of Gorbachev as a reforming zealot pushing against the “reactionary forces” within the USSR. However, those “reactionary” forces would not classify themselves as such evidently. Conservative members of the politburo would in fact point to the normalising relations with the US and a sign of radical, even anti Soviet, policies of Gorbachev. One such dissenting voice to Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” was Yegor Ligachev, who came out publicly against the policy. Ligachev spoke of the denigration of foreign policy, which for decades had been about class struggle against capitalism, and warned that the change only “confuses the minds of the Soviet people and our friends abroad”[17].

While Ligachev may have been one of the first to air dissent to the foreign policy of Gorbachev, many more than simply him were opposed to the “New Thinking” doctrine. The USSR’s existence, and thus legitimacy, relied upon being the ideological home of Communism, as mentioned in the previous chapter. The abandonment of the international class struggle was seen by many in the elite, and many of the more politically concerned general population, as acquiescence to the ideals of the west. Gorbachev clearly did not agree with this perception of the Soviet Union, or at least saw at as the vestige of a former state. From the moral perspective of historians like Archie Brown, there is no criticism to be made on Gorbachev abandoning the “Imperialism” of the former Soviet State. Brown in fact equates the change of foreign policy as vital Gorbachev’s domestic reforms, creating the atmosphere to push against Conservative institutions[18].

The reforms to Soviet foreign policy were greeted of course much differently in the west than they were domestically. Gorbachev’s discussion on the 8th of November 1990 with James Baker, the US secretary of state shows how far the now President of the Soviet Union was willing to go to please the United States. In the conversation, Gorbachev speaks of wanting to “act and agree to such a way to be together with you, side by side with you”[19]. This tone of this communication would be unusual for a neutral nation, much less the supposed two world superpowers, who for decades have battled each other for ideological supremacy. Gorbachev in the same conversation alludes to some within his nation that would take issue with co-operation with the United States. Gorbachev’s opinion lines up well with Archie Brown’s, who would agree that, the President’s aims and reforms were hampered by an angry minority of Soviet hardliners.

However, the “minority” of people opposed to Gorbachev and his economic and foreign policy in the last three years of the Union are often assigned too little importance historically. Most of the Communist party was opposed to the changes to foreign policy, perhaps an even larger percentage were also opposed to economic reform. The dissatisfaction with the reforms were not even purely on a total ideological sense. Ligachev, previously Gorbachev’s protégé and ally, spoke of the “chaos” and disintegration of a previously solid political and economic system[20]. This sentiment was shared by many lower down the political ladder than Ligachev, with a general mood of despair in the party evident by the 1990’s. Valery Boldin Gorbachev’s chief of staff also was aware of a constant “psychological attack”[21] by Gorbachev on the various institutions that sustained the Soviet State, namely the KGB, military and Communist party itself.

In Gorbachev’s view, and indeed by any pro Gorbachev historian, the opposition mentioned were simply the vestiges of a bygone era of Soviet absolutism. Gorbachev criticised these members of the “orthodox conservative” wing of the Communist party at its 28th conference in July of 1990[22]. The reasoning behind this clash however comes back to the fact that the reforms Gorbachev made to the Soviet Union were about an entirely new direction for the country. In essence, the USSR’s foreign relations revealed the contradiction to many of the very existence of the old order. The Communist party and elite were aghast at the changing face of their nation and its eternal enemy the United States. The abandonment by Gorbachev of the age-old Soviet traditional hostility to the west signified a huge attempted leap at a new legitimacy for a new form of USSR. Those left behind were bitter and angry at this, and while still in authoritative positions men such as Ligachev and Boldin were free to air the ill-will against this new “ideal” Soviet State.

In building legitimacy for the new Soviet State, Gorbachev had as he mentions in his memoirs, tied together the concepts of foreign and economic reform. One created the climate for the other, and the Premier used this to accelerate the pace of change in the nation. The pace of change was of course incredibly fast, and the perestroika element of reform was especially radical. The Soviet Union’s economic system had operated with little change in the same way since Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s. All economic enterprise was controlled by the State, and for the state. The perestroika reforms by 1991 had resulted in a GDP growth of negative 8%[23]. This dire economic situation removed much of the support Gorbachev had and thus emboldened the hardliners. Soviet internal opposition to Gorbachev may not have been as pronounced if the economic situation had improved, or even remained stable. However the collapsing economy added to the growing feeling of “chaos” outlined by Ligachev and sapped legitimacy from Gorbachev and his administration.

Failure on the domestic economic side for Gorbachev’s legitimacy was not the case internationally however. 1991 was the apex of the Soviet Union’s “New Thinking” and on July 31st the START I arms reduction treaty was signed. Gorbachev was successful in turning around international public opinion to the USSR after decades of at best ambivalence in foreign capitals around the world. In this, the Soviet Union’s state legitimacy was successfully established in contrast to the old entity. Archie Brown would support the idea of a successful ground breaking foreign policy, but without economic security, domestically the barometer falls somewhat short politically.

The pace of economic reform is oft quoted as one of the main reasons for the lack of success in the field under the Gorbachev reforms. Brown himself supports Gorbachev in his realization that towards the late 1980’s, reform to the Soviet Union “was not enough” and the entire nation had to be radically re-organised[24]. This line of thought was the dominant one amongst the Gorbachev faction at the top of Soviet politics in the period 89 to 91. These reforms however were open to criticism from both radicals and conservatives alike. The Conservatives within the politburo and state apparatus were disdainful of how one of the pillars of the Communist state was dismantled, the Command economy. In addition, however, the radicals centred on Yeltsin were frustrated at the slow pace of reform, demanding ever-increasing rates of privatisation and liberalisation. Yeltsin himself openly questioned whether Ligachev, an extremely high-ranking conservative communist, was slowing the pace of reforms in 1989 economically[25].

It would be difficult to understate how unique in Soviet history open disagreement at the highest level was, and the fact that this was tolerated by 1989 showed the incredible changes Gorbachev had performed. However, while many pro Gorbachev historians would point to this as a success, for the viability of the Soviet Union it was incredibly damaging. Rigid control of public discourse and information, particularly economic information, was what kept the USSR a stable nation for its 70-year history. The forces unleashed by Gorbachev were incredibly dangerous both to the state as a whole and individual institutions within the state. Economic growth within the Soviet Union was a delicate matter, and official statistics had always been inflated, edited or even completely fabricated in the case of the 1930s. The change from a Communist command economy to a market based speculative market was an incredible pill to take for ordinary soviet people as well as the leadership. Free enterprise had been a crime for a great many decades, and capitalism to many ordinary soviet citizens was seen as immoral and dangerous, a fact not lost upon Gorbachev in 1991[26].

This change was of course part of a wider atmosphere of radical reform of a by 1990-1 old and creaking Soviet system. There was not a large percentage of the population of age enough to remember the pre-Communist days, and thus these changes to the system for most people, especially the older generation, were unsettling to say the least. The state had been legitimate to many people due to the contract with it that they understood; economic certainty and slow but sure improvements in welfare as the years progressed. While the perestroika reforms of Gorbachev were not supposed to hamper that contract as such, they of course did due to the deteriorating economic situation. It is difficult to speculate what economic position the USSR would be in by 1991 without reform, but that does not change the fact that the food shortages and rising prices were associated with Gorbachev rightly or wrongly by that year.

Of course, internationally economic reform was greeted with positive signs of support and fanfare in the capitals of the west. The liberalisation of trade was a key foreign policy objective of Gorbachev’s by 1991 and this was epitomised by his attempts to engage with what is today known as the G7. In this even however, domestic political manoeuvring to placate the “old communists” affected international relationships. Secretary of State James Baker complained to Gorbachev in March of 1991 about the seeming “turn to right” which would in his view complicate trade talks[27]. To assess the importance of this setback for Gorbachev’s “New State” legitimacy, domestic US politics has a role to play. President Bush was under pressure from stern anti-communists and had an election the following year to be concerned about, thus a tougher line was taken towards trade talks than perhaps would have been in a more stable political year. This of course was not a catastrophic defeat for the aims of Gorbachev. However, it did show how delicate even his one notable success was in terms of legitimacy for a reformed and new Soviet Union.

The aims of Gorbachev in his “New Thinking” in foreign policy and his economic reform in perestroika were inextricably linked. The Soviet premier himself saw the improvement of foreign relations as key to building an atmosphere at home to aid a general sense of reform. It is not doubt true as Archie Brown would support that Gorbachev’s greatest success came in the sphere of Soviet foreign relations[28]. However, even in this Gorbachev’s success was not universal, and taken aside from economic reform, on its own does not provide a positive legacy for the “New Thinking”. Of course the Soviet Union in the west was seen in a more positive light in 1991 than it was in 1985, however of what use that is individually is certainly a concern. Combined with a positive domestic economic situation, this new foreign policy may have formed part of an overall resurgence of a new state legitimacy that worked for the citizens of the Soviet Union. However, this did not come to pass and in its place was an increasingly haphazard economy, which neither satisfied hard-line conservatives, radicals or even the general populaces basic demand for ample supplies of necessities[29].

In knocking the blocks away from underneath the traditional Soviet Communist state, important pillars of society were removed without ready replacements on economic footing. Economic trouble combined with the excesses of perestroika dismayed important Soviet elites such as Ligachev as well as ordinary citizens who faced increasingly difficult living situations. To the ordinary factory worker the economic equation was simple, pre perestroika the economic situation was stable, and post perestroika it was not. While of course the state of the Soviet Union’s economy was more complex than that, the end result was that increasingly vast swathes of the citizenry lost all faith in Gorbachev and thus the legitimacy of the new state he was attempting to build. Archie Brown mainly argues that events outpaced Gorbachev’s reforms by 1991, and that the political ambitions of Yeltsin quashed any hope of a legitimate new Soviet State. In this however, Brown looks at the Soviet Union through a particularly western lens. Reducing the opinion of reform to a purely moral and “democratic” sense ignores the serious concerns that many ex Soviet citizens had about the last Soviet President Gorbachev. What Brown and indeed Gorbachev dismissed as the forces of “reaction”, in later years became standard public opinion against the economic reforms of the late 1980’s.


Nationalities Question

The nationalities question is perhaps the most often repeated issue when assessing the collapse of the USSR. The various movements within the Soviet Union, from the Ukrainian Nationalists under Leonid Kravchuk, to the very core of the nation, Boris Yeltsin and the Russian states quest for independence, are vital in understanding the final years of the world’s first Communist state. Of course, the effect of the nationalist movements across the union heavily sapped the political legitimacy of the Soviet State, and it would be foolish to state they had little impact on the end of the country in 1991. This chapter will argue that the continuing existence of nationalist movements seriously hampered chances of a successful re-organisation of the USSR. Looking specifically at the Ukraine and Russian republics, a conclusion will be drawn on whether or not nationalism was the main factor or not in the dissolution of the union. Differing strands of academic thought will be studied, with Sergei Plokhy, Archie Brown and a selection of other scholar’s take on the nationalist question critically assessed.

Gorbachev’s stated aims of revitalising the Soviet Union through reform must of at some point came into contact with the “nationality question”. Glasnost had opened society up to free expression and debate, and this meant that minorities within the Soviet Union that had been supressed suddenly were allowed to air their grievances[30]. The USSR or the Russian Empire before it had militarily consumed many of these nations, leaving simmering resentment to fester for decades if not centuries. The relaxation or liberalization of public discourse meant that of course nationalist agitators began to spring up in the newspapers and capital cities of the different republics. Previous Soviet leaders understood that the USSR as an entity needed to be maintained if not by force, by the implied threat of force[31]. Archie Brown’s argument is not that the Soviet Union did not need force to maintain it, much the contrary. However, Brown argues that it was “morally right”[32] that such force was not used, and that if it were to have used then the union Gorbachev wanted to create would not have existed.

Brown’s argument however rests on the assumption that had it not been for Boris Yeltsin, who in his eyes used Russian nationalism for his own personal political gain, the USSR may indeed have survived. This is an argument that Gorbachev himself agrees with, and in his memoirs he consistently blames Yeltsin for “holding something back” when discussing negotiations for a new Union treaty[33]. However, this could be said to overlook the idea of the Soviet Union’s very existence as jarring with the theory of democracy, an argument supported by Sergei Plokhy who maintains “electoral democracy was incompatible with the Soviet Union[34]”. The political reforms introduce by Gorbachev were not of course intended to cause the dissolution of the USSR. However, as President Gorbachev underestimated the forces that were unleashed by democratizing a unitary state that in its entire history had not had elections.

Gorbachev’s task to renew the Soviet elite also was struck toward the end of Soviet history by unintended consequences. Several of Gorbachev’s appointments in the end damaged the legitimacy of the Soviet State, and aided nationalism within the union[35]. The party organizations of central Asia, the Baltic republics and perhaps most importantly Russia, were re-organized and given new leadership.  Boris Yeltsin was brought in to head the Moscow party, a move that severely damaged Gorbachev personally, as Yeltsin grew increasingly nationalistic as time went on.

All of the reforms however were not the root cause of the rise of nationalism in the Soviet Union. In Tsarist pre-revolutionary times nationality within the Russian Empire was ruthlessly supressed. It was the USSR in the 1920’s that under Lenin encouraged individual nationalities to express themselves, in exchange for support during the civil war. This emerging national consciousness was of course swiftly crushed by Stalin and later Soviet leaders, but a footprint for later expression had been born. Perhaps the most damaging nationalism to the integrity of the Soviet Union outside of Russia, Ukraine became a large thorn in Gorbachev’s side as the early 1990’s drew on.

Ukrainian nationalism, unlike perhaps the Baltic states form of nationalism, was a mortal threat to the existence of the USSR. Ukraine contained an extremely large amount of Russians within its national borders, and provided an estimated 35 to 40 percent of Soviet grain supply for use in food production[36]. When the negotiations for a new union treaty were underway, special exemptions were made by Gorbachev to entice the Ukrainian’s to sign. They were given an extra period in the so called “9 + 1” talks in order for them to agree to the treaty. This deference shown by Gorbachev to Kravchuk and the Ukrainian republic shows how much of the Soviet Union’s legitimacy was tied up in ensuring Ukraine was on board.

In March on 1991 however, the Ukraine had voted by a percentage of 81% to remain with a reformed Soviet Union. The change in result from March to December was dramatic, with even 55% of ethnic Russians within Ukraine voting for independence by the end of 1991. The coup of course is the elephant in the room when discussing the groundswell of public support for independence in Ukraine. At the height of the coup, Valentin Varennikov was sent by the plotters to secure Ukraine and ensure Kravchuk’s acquiescence[37].






























[1] Why did the Soviet Union Collapse, Robert Strayer. Page 124.

[2] The Gorbachev Factor, Archie Brown. Page 226 1996

[3] Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs, Mikhail Gorbachev Page 624.

[4] Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs, Mikhail Gorbachev. Page 625

[5] Down with Big Brother, Michael Dobbs. Page 189

[6] The Gorbachev Factor, Archie Brown. Page 247

[7] Why did the Soviet Union Collapse? Robert Strayer. Page 86

[8] Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition. Archie Brown.Page 21.

[9] Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs, Mikhail Gorbachev Page 628

[10] Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs. Mikhail Gorbachev. Page 813

[11] The Gorbachev Factor, Archie Brown. Page 294

[13] Robert Service, The end of the cold war 1985-1991. Page 332

[14] Mikhail Gorbachev Memoirs, Page 698

[15] Gorbachev and his Revolution, Mark Galeotti. Page 77

[16] The Gorbachev Factor, Archie Brown. Page 235

[17] Ligachev’s biography – Find reference

[18] The Gorbachev Factor, Archie Brown. Page 212

[20] Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin, Yegor Ligachev. Page 137

[21] Ten Years That Shook the World, Valery Boldin. Page 294

[22] Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs. Page 468

[23] Andrei Shlieffer and Robert W. Vishny, Reversing the Soviet Economic Collapse. Page 341

[24] Archie Brown and Lilia Shevtsova, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin: Political leadership in Russia’s Transition. Page 12

[25] Boris Yeltsin, Against the Grain. Page 226

[26] Mikhail Gorbachev, Mikhail Gorbachev Memoirs. Page 787

[27] Mikhail Gorbachev, Mikhail Gorbachev Memoirs. Page 786

[28] Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor. Page 224

[29] Valery Boldin, Ten Years that Shook the World

[30] Sergei Plokhy, The Last Empire. Page 33

[31] Archie Brown, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition. Page 23

[32] Archie Brown, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia’s Transition. Page 23

[33] Mikhail Gorbachev, Mikhail Gorbachev – Memoirs. Page 813

[34] Sergei Plokhy, The Last Empire. Page 394

[35] Ronald Grigor, Nationalism and Nation States: Gorbachev’s Dilemma. Page 128.

[36] Peter J. Potichyni, Ukraine and Russia in their historical encounter. Page 306

[37] Sergei Plokhy, The Last Empire. Page 156

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