What If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed…

At its upcoming annual meeting, scheduled for late October, the Valdai International Discussion Club plans to hold a special session entitled If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed. On the one hand, this theme represents a novel approach for a club specializing in analyses of current and prospective global political and economic trends. For obvious reasons, we did not focus on historical retrospectives, let alone historical reconstructions.

On the other hand, the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution is approaching (we will allow ourselves to recall the official epithets that were applied to this event in the past). As is only natural, this anniversary suggests a serious and thoughtful reflection – both historical and with an eye to the future – on the Soviet contribution to this country’s development. Questions about the significance of our Soviet legacy (including the Soviet foreign policy legacy) are certainly extremely important and topical for us today in the context of efforts to identify the ideological and axiological underpinnings of present-day policies. Thus it is quite clear why the Valdai Club is so concerned with these issues.

The problem is that at the official level, the beginning and the end of Soviet history are assessed in a totally different way. The easily understandable conservative approach to the 1917 revolution can be summed up by a simple phrase – Never Again! – a saying that admits no variations. Addressing the International Investment Forum in Sochi some time ago, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made an unequivocal statement to this effect: “That revolution is a clear example of how the loss of stability led to the destruction of the economic foundations and the loss of the prospect for economic growth for years to come. It is for this reason, I think, that we should cherish what we have today.” There is no doubt that this antirevolutionary and counterrevolutionary approach will dominate the official ideological campaign throughout the forthcoming anniversary year. One would think the figures of Lenin (and his alleged German funding), Trotsky (and his quite certain US funding) and other leaders would be assessed correspondingly. At the level of carnival culture, old jokes will resurface. All of this will be added to the context of several years of semi-official idealization of Grigory Rasputin (and his fight against liberal plotters manipulated by the British Embassy). The question is, what official (or semi-official) assessment will be given to the last Tsar, Nicholas II? Will the trend towards perceiving him as an absolute nonentity who “frittered away” his country be promoted (inviting a comparison with Gorbachev, a highly relevant one under present circumstances), or will there be a U-turn towards seeing him as a martyr, an interpretation popular in the Yeltsin epoch? This is perhaps the main source of suspense of the official outlook on the anniversary.

On the other hand, a symbolic assessment of 1991 (and the Soviet period as a whole), which will certainly reappear at the official ideological and axiological levels in the context of the 1917 anniversary, is of an opposite nature. Everyone remembers President Vladimir Putin’s famous statement that the disintegration of the USSR was the 20th century's greatest geopolitical disaster. Events like Yuri Gagarin’s orbit and Victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the two key dominant factors in Russia’s current policy of stimulating historical memory, also encourage deference to the Soviet epoch. The positive reassessment of Stalin’s role that we have observed recently (he is assessed as an advocate of a strong state, not as a Communist) is also a throwback to Soviet times, and was given powerful media support in February 2016, during a celebration of the anniversary of the 20th CPSU Congress (“Stalin built, while Khrushchev ruined”).     

An additional incentive to perceiving the Soviet legacy at the symbolic and axiological level emerged after Russia’s reunification with Crimea in March 2014, even though the main historical symbol, which President Putin referred to at the time, was the “sacral Chersonese,” the cradle of the Russian Orthodox faith, which was the same for Russians as Jerusalem for Jews and Mecca for Muslims, while the Soviet-era deeds (“Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainians”) were invariably presented in a negative light. Vladimir Putin’s remarks at a rally near the Kremlin wall on the evening of March 18, 2014 (“Crimea and Sevastopol have sailed back to their own haven”) made many Russians nostalgic for what had linked them with Crimea in the past: its fame as the “national health resort,” Artek, nights near the “blue sea,” Crimean movies, poems and songs. The philological term “geopoetics,” a combination of literary and artistic associations with a particular place, is a very accurate reflection of how the Crimean events were perceived by the Russian popular opinion.

But if we put aside the Soviet values that are still impacting ideological policy in Russia and ask, “What if the USSR hadn’t collapsed?” we will have to come up with certain historical reconstructions and consider them from the point of view of current policies.

The towering question related to these “bifurcations of history” is, “What if there were no Gorbachev?” This question breaks up into several components. First, “What if Andropov had lived longer?” During his slightly more than a year in power, he managed to tighten workplace discipline on a national scale, achieve some results in fighting corruption and take a hard line in foreign policy. It was in 1983, when Andropov was at the helm, that the reciprocal deployment of medium-range missiles in Europe reached its apex. It was then that Ronald Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire” and a Korean airliner was shot down. Add to this the cheap vodka Andropovka (symbolizing the union of the authorities and the people), and the “tightening of the screws” against the dissidents (although, as is evident from memoirs on both sides of the divide, this issue was not as simple as it might seem). But it is still unclear whether he would have wanted (and would have been able, even if he had wished) to launch full-scale economic modernization (we shall not call it “reform”), and thus become a Soviet Deng Xiaoping.

Finally, some published sources indicate that Andropov was favorably inclined toward Gorbachev and would have made him his successor – an unofficial “second secretary” of the CPSU Central Committee instead of Konstantin Chernenko – had he lived longer. But another conspiracy theory has it that in this case, Andropov would have soon discovered Gorbachev’s “rotten gut” and would have promoted someone else from the “young team” of politicians, who later held high posts in the Central Committee’s Politburo and Secretariat and in the Council of Ministers (Heydar Aliyev, Yegor Ligachev, Grigory Romanov, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Vitaly Vorotnikov and others).

The second question is more paradoxical: “What if Chernenko had lived longer?” It would seem that this mortally ill man, who could not breathe without an oxygen mask, made the years 1984 and 1985 the most shameful and ridiculed period in Soviet history. Chernenko had a reputation as a perfect political staffer, who managed the Central Committee’s internal life with great efficiency during Brezhnev’s last years. Chernenko would have been accepted as Brezhnev-2, along with his conservative, but efficient and stable, rule. Gorbachev, on the contrary, would have failed to acquire as much power in the Central Committee Secretariat as he had under the sick Chernenko. But even being ill, Chernenko was not evading reforms (it was under him that the large-scale secondary school reform was launched). He also refused to rehabilitate Brezhnev’s Interior Minister Nikolai Shchelokov, whom Andropov had dismissed for corruption. Tellingly, Shchelokov shot himself during Chernenko’s (not Andropov’s) tenure. Another telling fact is that it was Chernenko who readmitted Stalin’s closest ally, Vyacheslav Molotov, to the CPSU after his expulsion by Khrushchev. In any event, Chernenko’s aides vie, in their memoirs, with Andropov’s aides, both groups claiming that history would have taken a turn for the better had their chief lived longer.

Finally, the question emerges of what would have happened if Chernenko had been succeeded by someone other than Gorbachev. Open sources mention a number of alternative candidates, including Grigory Romanov, Viktor Grishin, Andrei Gromyko and Vladimir Shcherbitsky. I think each of them would have persisted with a conservative course as Brezhnev 2.0. But the Ukrainian leader, Shcherbitsky, merits an individual historical reconstruction, if only because some memoir writers claim that Brezhnev himself had named him his successor. This reconstruction would be particularly interesting against the backdrop of the current Ukrainian crisis. Eventually, however, the alternatives failed to materialize, while Andrei Gromyko, who had thrown his weight behind Gorbachev, subsequently told his family, “What a mistake I’ve made!”

Another group of “historical bifurcations” concerns whether the USSR could have avoided a collapse under Gorbachev. This question logically invites another one: Could anyone have stopped Gorbachev? At this point it should be noted with regret that the “staff culture” in the CPSU Central Committee often turned “collective leadership” into fiction, with the prevailing maxim, “your superior is always right.” Therefore, it is impossible to answer in the affirmative the key question about acceleration being possible without perestroika, as it was in China, where Deng Xiaoping conducted economic reforms by politically conservative methods and was not afraid to crush a student rebellion on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Obviously, Gorbachev’s enthusiasm and the activities of his closest allies (Yakovlev, Shakhnazarov, and others), who prodded him into launching a political reform, made political perestroika inevitable. Gorbachev is often reproached for focusing on foreign policy at the expense of domestic affairs (unlike Deng Xiaoping, who avoided involvement in international affairs and concentrated on internal reforms). But there was hardly any alternative: Gorbachev’s pivot from foreign to home policy was highly unlikely in light of several factors, including his visit to London in 1984, when he was charmed by Margaret Thatcher and developed a taste for the effects of international PR, his infatuation with new foreign policy ideological constructs (eagerly supplied by his aides, many of whom were international experts) and finally the controversial figure of Eduard Shevardnadze as foreign minister.

There were also a number of external factors that eroded the stability of the Soviet system. One was Chernobyl, the 30th anniversary of which was marked not so long ago. The event encouraged the publication of numerous media articles and even a feature film, all implying that the USSR would have remained united and powerful were it not for Chernobyl. A separate topic is the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s and the decline in budget revenues occasioned by Gorbachev’s anti-drinking campaign (in contrast to Andropov). Yet another topic is Gorbachev’s wife’s influence on his political decision-making (all memoir writers mention Raisa Gorbachev in highly negative terms in this context).

Finally, the last question is about whether it was possible to save the Soviet Union as it reached a historical bifurcation in 1990-91. Could Shatalin and Yavlinsky’s 500 Days economic program have started working? What would have happened if the Committee for the State of Emergency had not attempted its coup? Would a new union with Nursultan Nazarbayev as prime minister have been viable? Was Gorbachev himself behind the attempted coup as some memoir writers claim? What would the USSR’s foreign and home policies have been, had the coup succeeded? Alas, history knows no “ifs” and we will never get direct answers to these questions. But an analysis of the entire set of sources suggests that some inescapable evil fate was leading Gorbachev and his country to perdition and this could not be stopped. In any event, it has become a textbook example illustrating the role of the individual in history.

All these issues will be in the focus of the Valdai Club special meeting. I am confident that it will be extremely interesting.

Oleg Barabanov is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, Head, Department of EU Politics at the European Studies Institute at Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the MFA of Russia (MGIMO University).
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.