Stephen F. Cohen


On his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

Cover Interview of July 09, 2009

A close-up

On page 116 I pose the question: How is the historic end of the Soviet Union to be explained?  This is a question discussed in most American high schools and colleges.  And the answer is almost always that the Soviet Union ended for two reasons: because it was evil, and because we defeated it.

But according to the Bible, evil does not end.  So that’s not even a good theological argument.  And it is a historical misrepresentation to say we “defeated” the Soviet Union.  Ronald Reagan would be among the first to tell you that was not what happened.  Reagan, and after him the first President Bush, said that the end of the Cold War had been negotiated, by the both sides, without winners or losers.

In the ten or so pages following page 116, I challenge prevailing clichéd explanations that appear in our media, our textbooks, and our discourse, about why the Soviet Union ended.

Many of these “explanations” are simply mythical.  Some say that the Soviet Union died because its economy failed.  Well, first of all, there are no cases in modern history of large states dying of economic crisis.  Ours didn’t die during the Great Depression.  And, in the 1990s, after the end of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet Russian state survived an even greater economic crisis.

Or, it is often said that there was famine in the Soviet Union in 1991, and that’s why it ended.  But there was no famine.  People do not know that almost all Soviet workers and schoolchildren had their main meal of the day, what we call “lunch,” not at home, but at school or at the place where they worked.  And those cafeterias were still functioning fairly well, as I know from my personal experiences.

I’m struck by the fact that soon after the Soviet Union ended in December 1991, Washington, the American media, textbooks, virtually all of our opinion-makers, created a new triumphalist narrative of our recent history.  After the Clinton administration took office in January 1993, we came to believe that by defeating the Soviet Union, we had emerged as a historic triumphant nation.  There was a sense that if we could defeat the mighty Soviet Union, we could defeat anyone.  That mindset helped lead us into Iraq.  It’s the triumphalist foreign policy we have pursued since we came to believe we “defeated” the Soviet Union that has led us into catastrophic situations, since 1991.

Another page a reader could first turn to is 141.  This page begins the chapter titled “Gorbachev’s Lost Legacies.”

Mikhail Gorbachev led Russia closer to democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history.  And with the partners he found in American presidents Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, Gorbachev came closer to ending the decades-long Cold War than anyone before him.

The democracy issue is extremely important.  For various reasons, the American political class and media have been obsessed with the state of democracy in Russia.  There is a relentless demand that the United States “bring democracy” or “democratization” to Russia.  There is also the view that Russia had democracy after the end of the Soviet Union, until Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 and dismantled it.

The history of democratization in Russia is different from the one generally told in the United States.  Briefly put, I argue that Russia reached its high point of democratization, while still Soviet Russia, during Gorbachev’s reforms, from 1989 to 1991.  And that lasted a bit after the Soviet Union ended.

The “de-democratization” of Russia, a word that’s used to characterize Putin’s rule, actually began in the 1990s, under President Boris Yeltsin.  And it was supported by the Clinton administration.  Putin is the result of that de-democratization—not the primary cause of it.  We have something to answer for in this regard.

The argument that Yeltsin began the de-democratization of Russia leads to an explanation of what has happened in Russia during the last twenty years.  Yeltsin allowed a small elite to plunder the property of the state, the country’s enormous natural riches.  It was the procreation of this oligarchical class that brought an end of democracy.  No plundering oligarchical elite can allow the people to vote freely: the people would vote against them, and probably do even worse to them.

Some role was played, of course, by “the Russian tradition.”  But the immediate cause of de-democratization was the desire of the oligarchical class, which had much of this property, to hold on to it.  The fear that a democratic Russia, a freely elected parliament, for example, would not only cost them their property, but perhaps even their lives, continues to be the main reason why Russia does not have a democracy today.

In other words, my book argues that something has to happen about the billions and billions of dollars that were stolen, before we begin to think about re-democratization in Russia.  A number of real Russian democrats are aware of this.  And they have come up with various proposals to solve the property question.  But there is little, if any, awareness of that in the United States.  I’ve never seen any of this in the American media, even in our leading newspapers.

The fate of democracy in Russia is tied to the plundering of the State property.  Some people may not see the connection.  But if you think about it, it’s logical.  Why did slave owners in the American South not want universal suffrage?  Slaves would have voted against slavery.