Armageddon averted

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Stephen Kotkin. Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxi, 235p. $14.95

Contents

SUMMARY

In his book, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, Stephen Kotkin attributes the decline and fall of the Soviet Union to its search for stability through a centrally planned economy. This approach restricted the invisible hand of market forces and addicted the Soviet population to government subsidies for inefficient and unprofitable commercial activity. Kotkin makes the case that this condition [WHICH CONDITION?] was a systemic one born of internal attitudes and conditions [CAN YOU USE ANOTHER WORD BESIDES CONDITION?].

Like a good general, a capitalist economy never reinforces failure. When profits in a particular area dry up, so do the commercial operations there; these resources are then shifted to more productive areas. For the planned economy, there are no such generals. Economic sectors that are favored by those running the planned economy are artificially sustained by state resources. In the 1970s and early 1980s, these economic realities were at work in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the United States, traditional heavy industries were failing. The domestic production of steel and durable goods (cars, electronics, appliances) were trailing off as foreign competitors proved they could make better-quality goods at lower prices with greater productivity. At the same time, the Soviet Union was pumping money into state industries (also producing durable goods), even though these facilities were unprofitable, unproductive, and obsolete. Kotkin makes the case that the Soviets were able to do this because of revenues from surplus oil exports; however, their actions kept the forces of natural economic reform from reshaping the Soviet economy into something more efficient and competitive.

The lord of this process was Leonid Brezhnev, a czar of the centrally planned economy who had come to power in the late 1960s as a reaction to the erratic reforms of Nikita Khrushchev. Soon after taking office as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Brezhnev and the Soviet establishment were rocked by the Czechoslovakian Revolt of 1968. This failed attempt to establish a liberal socialist state, along with Khrushchev’s experience, convinced Brezhnev that a harder-line economic agenda of central planning was the surest source of stability. Eventually this idea of stability through central planning became the mantra of the upper ranks of the Soviet elite. Secure in the rightness of this established policy, the elite disregarded warnings that the economy was becoming moribund.

Kotkin makes the case that in many ways, Soviet problems were a consequence of World War II. That conflict had slaughtered an entire generation of would-be Soviet leaders, which meant there was a gap between the old guards like Brezhnev and the younger reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. This gap appeared in the 1970s when the old guard, secure in its ideas, oil money, and bureaucracy, refused to alter the face of Soviet economics, and the next generation was too junior to effect significant change. For 15 critical years (1970-1985), this condition persisted before Gorbachev and the reformers would have a chance to clean house. By the time these reformers got their opportunity, the Soviet economy had degraded too far, and oil revenues had dried up.

The Soviet Union inherited by Gorbachev in 1985 was in poor condition. A generation of industrial stagnation lay upon its Rust Belt; oil revenues were declining as the oil glut of the 1980s took hold of the global market; and the Eastern European satellites were demanding ever-greater cash infusions from Moscow. Clearly reform was needed, but the long period of economic lethargy had produced a state in which only radical reform could hope to revive prosperity. However, so entrenched were the institutions of central planning that any attempt of that nature would risk a cure that was worse than the disease. Gambling on his mandate as a reformer, Gorbachev embarked on a program of “shock therapy” reform. The result was chaos and conservatism.

Central planning had, for generations, insulated the Soviet economy and provided authoritarian direction. Most segments of this economy could not continue to operate without the governmental supplements; the supplements’ cessation caused massive commercial and demographic dislocation. This instability undermined local and regional deference to the authority of the Soviet government, and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Republics were cut loose from their traditional economic and political moorings. Under such circumstances, the Nazis were able to seduce Germany, yet radicalism did not sweep the Eastern Bloc.

Kotkin makes the case that Russia and Eastern Europe were saved from the grips of radical doctrine by conservatism. After World War II, the faith of the Soviet government and indeed of its rank-and-file citizens was in the doctrine of central planning, because it appeared to offer the best hope of stability and prosperity. When the Soviet government collapsed in the late 1980s, this faith shifted to institutions that eschewed liberal ideas. It was expected that these institutions would be more responsive to economic conditions and the general will of the people, but this will was decidedly slanted to the right and towards stability.

Kotkin makes the case that this shift to conservatism was the key element that allowed the Soviet establishment to slip from power without a significant military demonstration. In effect, the rise of conservatism gave the Soviets a face-saving movement to which they might honorably shift their allegiance.

Commentary

Ray Clark 13:33, 19 Apr 2006 (EDT)

The key weakness in the USSR was not its economy but in the nature of the Union itself. It was a union imposed by Moscow on the constituent republics. To maintain the fiction that this was a union of the willing the Union Treaty and the Constitution of USSR provided that “Each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR” (Art. 72, 1977 Constitution of the USSR). As long as the central authority was able to enforce its will on the Union Republics none dared attempt to secede. As long as Moscow would not hesitate to sent troops across foreign borders to Budapest or Prague to keep wayward governments in line it certainly would not hesitate to use them inside its own borders to put down descent in Vilnius or Kiev. What Kotkin does not emphasize enough is the weakness this structure created in the USSR as a whole.

When Gorbachev failed to use force to keep the Warsaw Pact states in line it was a foregone conclusion in the opinion of the majority of those who studied the USSR that the Baltic States would attempt to exercise their right to freely secede. This reviewer was a member of an analysis team in the fall of 1989 that arrived at just this conclusion along with the opinion that if the Baltic States were not dealt with swiftly then the Ukraine, Georgia and possibly Byelorussia would follow quickly in the move for independence.

Kotkin like many commentators sees a binary relationship between western style democracy and communism you can have one or the other but not both. This attitude comes from the Leninist version of communism practiced in the USSR rather than the core Marxist concepts. Leninism itself developed in response to official oppression of a radical political group. Yet by the end of the last century the CPSU was not a fringe underground movement fighting for its existence but the political force of world power. Gorbachev was attempting to move the Party and with it the USSR away from this conspiratorial and centrally directed mindset inherent in Leninism toward a more open and participatory society.

Kent Sturken, Spring 2007

One of the main features of Kotkin's work is a consistent impression that the primary causes of the fall of the Soviet Union were internal. He repeatedly cites systemic failures of the ruling class and government bureaucracy, which failed to respond to shifting times until it was too late. The West's role in this chain of events is limited to that of tempting Soviet citizens away from the Soviet model through a better living standard. This focus on internal causation places Kotkin at odds with historians like Gaddis, who place more blame on external sources.

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