Implications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union
20 years ago one of the two superpowers ceased to exist. The Soviet Union, which was the principal enemy for most of the Western World for almost half a century was gone, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Matthew Rojansky, Deputy Director of Carnegie Endowment’ Russia and Eurasia Program shares his views on the perception of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the U.S. establishment as well as among common people and points out differences between modern leftists and leftists of the Cold War era.
The assessment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the part of “official” America was quite diffuse or was a combination of many different simultaneous, sometimes conflicting evaluations of what was going on. Americans, or better yet the entire world, including Russians, failed to predict the event, and so a part of the response was an attempt to justify what happened, to understand, in the first place, how something so unexpected could have happened. You could have seen a lot of attempts immediately after 1991 trying to look back and understand what had happened.
There was another dimension which was very important – trying to understand, given that we missed this big development, as it caught us by surprise, trying to get ahead of the curve and understand where things were going to go. And, of course, peoples’ values as well as national interests came into play, and this was the beginning of the whole movement, which became quite well-known in the 1990’s, of helping to rebuild the former Soviet state, namely Russia. Other countries, too, and this is where many great idealistic experimental projects came into play, were trying to help rebuild the Russian economy as a free market economy, experimenting with privatization, etc.
Therefore, all of the reactions can be called as very intuitive. People pursued many different and diffuse paths in responding to what had happened because people had very different views on this very momentous event. It was even more than a decade after 1991, during the resurgence of Russia, specifically after Putin comes to power and Russia begins to regain international standing, when Americans finally start to sit back and think about what had really happened in 1991 in a comprehensive way.
So, there is a sort of irony, that while it was happening we were sort of stuck in the details of it, and that it wasn’t until after it happened when we were able to pull out and pull back; and here is the real irony – by the time Americans began to think about the collapse of the Soviet Union in a more comprehensive way we couldn’t really do anything about what was happening in the Soviet space anymore anyway. That was the time when Russia had essentially decided where it wanted to go.
As much as common Americans remember important historical events and honor our veterans and our history we are very much a forward-looking society, and we shouldn’t forget that we are a nation of immigrants, we tend to think about the future, we love new technology and new developments; and so, in a sense, if 1989-1991 was an end to a historical era, the era of post-WWII, Cold War, the end to the defining of international order by the Soviet-American interaction, or the Soviet-Western interaction, Americans were really prepared, as soon as all of that left headlines in the newspapers.
Specifically after 1991, Americans were prepared to move on. At the moment when Gorbachev resigned there were lots of headlines in the newspapers about the event, which CNN was covering live from Moscow, Americans thought mostly in terms of victory because it had been defined as a struggle between one set of ideas and values and another and one of them simply ceased to exist. So when that happened, it appeared to be a victory.
Nevertheless, I don’t think it was a victory that Americans reveled in or dwelled or obsessed in or one that we made a big part of our national identity. If we think about the presidential campaign in 1992 that brought Bill Clinton to power, we can note that he wasn’t campaigning on the end of the Soviet Union – in one way or another – the only part of his campaign, and I am pointing to Clinton’s campaign because he ultimately won.
George H. W. Bush, who, as some could argue, was the man who managed from the American perspective the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, as part of Reagan’s team and then on his own, was the one who could campaign on winning the Cold War. Clinton couldn’t – he had nothing to do with it. He was the governor of Arkansas. The only part of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union that played any real significance in his coming to the scene was what he called the “peace dividend”, and that was basically unloading a lot of expensive military obligations that the United States had in Europe and at home because there was no longer an external enemy.
Therefore, the general mood of the Americans was about forgetting the past or shaking off the baggage of the past and looking forward. And, by and large, it’s a very American way to react to this event.
However, today a new leftist trend has emerged – mainly as Occupy Wall Street movement though you can witness rise in the global left. I can’t say how it changed from the inside, because I’ve never been a part of it. But as an outside observer, the obvious change was really after 1989, after the Soviet influence was rolled back out of Central and Eastern Europe. That’s when the sense of legitimacy that accompanied a lot of the overtly ideologically leftist governments evaporated, and obviously, for the Soviet Union, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it stopped subsidizing regimes around the world, not only in Europe but also Cuba and Africa.
So, all of a sudden the trappings of legitimacy, of being a legitimate part of the international system that went with these experimental, unsustainably irrational leftist governments disappeared. Therefore, the effect that that has had over the past two decades on non-governmental leftist movements, whether you look at, for example, the Union in the West, even socialist parties and communist parties are almost an irrelevant factor, so you have to look at relatively moderate leftist groups, despite the fact that they increasingly became a full part of the system and find their own place within the system rather than aspiring or even having the backup option available of an alternative system.
It’s just incredible, the view that there is a wholesale alternative system that you can turn to that would be better than the current system – perhaps our view of change within the context of the current system. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the global protests are perfect example – if you look at the people occupying American cities, they are not protesting in the way that leftist protestors did in the 1960’s and 70’s. They’re not saying “Bring down the corporate state!”, but they are saying that it’s unfair the way that wealth is being distributed right now in the current system and it should be changed. They’re not saying “Bring down the state!” It’s a big difference, because they know that if you bring down the state there is nothing credible to replace it with. There is no alternative model of governance out there. And that is a big difference. In 1985, and certainly in 1975, you couldn’t have said that because there was an entire world representing an alternative model, which wasn’t sustainable and we know that now – but at that time it wasn’t clear.
Matthew Rojansky is Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.