Book Review: Stephen Kotkin's 'Armageddon Averted'

By Peter Crowley
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

As the world's first real Marxist experiment, the , by virtue of lasting seventy odd years, proved Western intelligentsia wrong. The latter had long thought it was doomed to fail. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, Western conservatives and liberals alike felt vindicated. United States conservatives would point to Reagan's military arms buildup which the Soviet Union could not keep pace with, while liberal capitalists believed in the inherent unfeasibility of a nonmarket system. Contrary to these suppositions, Stephen Kotkin's Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collape 1970-2000, paints a picture of a behemoth, bureaucratic state resting atop a superannuated industrial infrastructure. Yet he maintains that if the Soviet elite had so chosen, they could have sustained it decades longer.

Instead, the impulse to reform - a sporadic element of Soviet rule - drove Mikhail Gorbachov to enact glasnost, or openness in society. When this openness came, contrary to Gorbachov's expectations of what he thought would lead to a “humane socialism”, it led to a seemingly inevitable crumbling of the Soviet Union and the greatest privatization of property in history. Kotkin's thesis also argues that the 1990s were not actually a time of “liberal reforms” but rather a perpetuation of Soviet collapse. It was not until the turn of the century that began to pick itself up and that standards of Russian living and general stability began to return.

Kotkin offers a refreshing view of pre-Soviet collapse and post-Soviet Russia that is not seen through an obvious American lens. Generally, Americans like to see themselves as the world hegemon and thus all significant world events must be the consequence of American action or inaction. This inevitably clutters the typical view of Soviet collapse. Kotkin hardly subscribes to this view. Nevertheless, he asserts infectious Western consumer did affect Soviet Union in the late 1960's.

During the Brezhnev era, the people employed in the black market economy were an estimated 20 million people, while the official labor force throughout the 1970's was calculated at 17.8 million (Freeze, 375, 376). As the government ownership of the economy could not provide goods that were necessary and desired, people purchased products through a shadow economy. Consequently, rock n' roll records, washing machines, typewriters, refrigerators and other goods became part of Soviet life. Kotkin writes that during the Brezhnev era, “Soviet public spaces were decorated not just with official slogans but also with graffiti about sports teams, rock music, sex, and the merits of punk music versus heavy metal. Schoolchildren „ranked' each other by their jeans, with Western brands being the highest (43).” The Western world had set an example painting a picture of ready access to consumer goods; this was the Soviet people's first glimpse into an alternate life in the West.

The Soviet Union had the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 to thank for continuing the status quo and not dabbling into much needed Khrushchev-style reforms. With the Soviet Union being a major oil exporter, skyrocketing oil prices put money in the pockets of elites, helping bankroll the war in Afghanistan at the end of the decade and a massive military buildup that put the Soviets on the same level with the United States. This gargantuan oil revenue helped the Soviet Union to perpetuate without much change in the years preceding the rise of Gorbachov to General Secretary in 1985. Yet underneath the oil money; military might; and planned economy, consumerism had infected the Soviet people – a kind of satori, or awakening, one has when introduced to a new material good that solves the problem of menial work (like a washing machine); a realization that most people in other Western countries had these helpful products made one grow a bit dubious of one's own system. Later, when Gorbachov opened the Russian people to other potential political systems during perestroika, the people would often correlate wealth and higher standards of living with Western countries and to his dismay, would chose a democratic system over .

In the early 1980's, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had turned into a walking corpse and all his potential successors were hardly in better conditions. “The average age of Politburo members rose from 55 to 68 between 1966 and 1981” (Freeze, 373). The Soviet elite was decaying and needed new blood. After brief reigns of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both whom died of natural causes associated with old age within a few years, Gorbachov became General Secretary of the Soviet Union. His leadership, Kotkin argues, was indispensable to a change that was one of the most profound yet at the same time almost entirely peaceful, as the top elite of an empire decapitated itself. Instead of taking the world down with it by giving destructive orders to the largest military in the world and unleashing their enormous nuclear arsenal, the Soviet Union succumbed to its own death rattles with little more than a mild cough.

Gorbachov entered the office of General Secretary of the Soviet Union with the belief that change was needed. Oil revenues dropping, an obsolete industrial infrastructure, and an inflated state bureaucracy were just some of the problems he faced. The latter problem manifested itself in such a way that the organs of state – the party - were redundant to every managerial position, thus greatly inhibiting efficiency. At 47 upon entering office, Gorbachov began reforms that brought unintended consequences; consequences that would spiral out of control and eventually lead to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachov's reforms were as wide-ranging as: economically painful legislation that aimed at reducing alcoholism, cutting back on military spending and rivalry with the United States, reducing censorship, and allowing organizations to burgeon outside of the official party. In the economic sphere there was a shift towards more competitive practices such as “joint ventures” and a greater autonomy for industry.

Gorbachov's belief in Communist ideals had led him to venture beyond Khrushchev's reforms and he had the cunning to not get ousted in the process; all the while believing that the Soviet people would opt for a “humane socialism” over a democratic capitalist model. Kotkin's concise analysis (66) of the situation in which a system is suddenly opened to the world is telling:

“Prior to 1985, the planned economy – greased with extensive black marketeering, choked by phenomenal waste, and increasingly dependent on key foreign imports – had stagnated, but it had functioned. Compared with their parents and grandparents, the Soviet population was better fed, better clothed, and better educated. Comparisons, however, were made not with the Soviet past, or developing countries, but with the richest nations of the world, and both the leadership and population expressed increasing impatience. To compete withadvanced capitalism the only recourse seemed to be going beyond partial reforms and introducing the very mechanism, private property and the market, whose suppression constituted the essence of socialism – in short, undoing the r and the regime's identity.”

What Kotkin is essentially saying is within an insulated system all one can compare to is one's immediate neighbor and one's own past. But, with the risk of using an over-the-top analogy, when a prison is opened after seventy years and prisoners are allowed to comment on the prison system, criticize it and eventually elect their own wardon, the prison collapses. When the most visible aspect of Soviet power and the entire system was taken down in November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachov did nothing to stop it; this set a peaceful precedent to civil disobedience that would, at its core, tatter the Soviet Union.

Throughout the late 1980's and in 1990 Gorbachov sometimes grew wary of some of the unintended effects that his earth shaking reforms were having. For instance, after urging satellite states to become more politically open, he tried to regain control of the Soviet republics that he had essentially federalized, giving them de facto autonomy. In 1990 he reneged on this reform somewhat and gave the republics limited control over their resources and made Russian be their official . But when republics bristled he refused to clampdown as would have nearly any other Soviet ruler; instead, he shifted to the left only months later and in April 1991 opened direct negotiations with nine republics that were willing to have some relationship with Moscow (91-92).

By the early 1990's Gorbachov had promised a market economy and in 1989 had already paved the way for competitive for a New Congress of People's Deputies. In May of 1990 Boris Yeltsin, a populist “crowd bather” was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Congress. A year later, what had been the Soviet Union was on the very edge of a precipice with two presidents – one elected by parliament, Gorbachov, and one by the people, Yeltsin – and a Union Treaty whose “working text dropping the word „socialist'” (96) and made Union membership voluntary.

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