Two decades on from the USSR’s collapse, Russia is still coming to terms with its Soviet moral inheritance

Washington DC, Keith Gessen: On the way back from a recent visit to Ukraine, I found myself flying Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline. I’ve always liked Aeroflot’s international flights: the planes are new, everything’s clean, and maybe because of the airline’s less-than-­stellar reputation, the crew always seems to be trying extra hard to please. Nonetheless, on this particular trip, I had hoped to avoid Aeroflot; an airline half-owned by a government that had turned homophobia into a national project and then invaded Crimea could get its $600 from someone else. But AeroSvit, the flagship Ukrainian airline, had gone bankrupt and ceased operations in 2013, and there is no longer a direct flight from Kiev to New York.

Two decades on from the USSR’s collapse, Russia is still coming to terms with its Soviet moral inheritance

Ten Russian politicians depicted in matryoshka...
Ten Russian politicians depicted in matryoshka doll form: Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita Khrushchev, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Nicholas II, Catherine the Great and Peter the Great. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note: Excerpt is taken from those –
Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism From the Revolution to Putin. BY WILLIAM ZIMMERMAN. Princeton University Press, 2014, 344 pp. $29.95.
Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History. BY ORLANDO FIGES. Metropolitan Books, 2014, 336 pp. $28.00.

So there I was on Aeroflot Flight 100 from Moscow to New York. As luck would have it, a lot of people on the flight were drunk. Some of the sober passengers didn’t appreciate this, which almost led to a fistfight; the pilot had to come out and convince one of the drunker passengers that if he did not calm down, he’d be spending his first night in the United States in jail. He calmed down.

The man sitting next to me — Sergei, I’ll call him — was also drunk, and he decided to engage me in a discussion of geopolitics. He said he was a graduate of MEPhI, an elite technical university in Moscow, and that he had made millions in software design. Sergei was, theoretically, the sort of Russian who might be expected to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he was not. He was thrilled that Russia had seized Crimea, if only because in doing so, it had extended a big middle finger to the West. Sure, the United States was stronger than Russia, but it was stretched thin. And Russia was unpredictable, which gave it an advantage.

“Oh, we’ll lose,” Sergei said, “like we always lose. But what a lot of laughs there’ll be along the way!”

We landed soon after that, but the conversation stuck with me. I kept thinking — I keep thinking — what, exactly, is wrong with Russia? Why is it still so aggressive nearly 30 years after the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched the process of “normalizing” Russia and its relations with the world? Why, despite two decades of optimistic predictions that it was on the path to becoming, or was on the verge of becoming, or had already become a “normal” country, had it never become one? Why couldn’t it be more like Germany, another country that used to invade other countries but now focuses on making quality automobiles and protecting the health of the euro?

At least part of the trouble is that Russians have never been able to agree on what “normal” means. Gorbachev’s reform program explicitly aimed to make Russia more normal; but the opposition to Gorbachev, which coalesced into an attempted putsch against him in August 1991, also came out in favor of normal. “An uncontrollable situation, in which there are no clearly defined spheres of authority, has come about in the country,” said Vice President Gennady Yanayev, one of the coup plotters, in a now infamous press conference in which he and his fellow conspirators tried to explain themselves. “Under these conditions, normal life is impossible.”

Yanayev wanted to go back to the past: to him and many other Soviet citizens, that’s what normal meant. Boris Yeltsin, who quashed Yanayev’s coup attempt and went on to lead post-Soviet Russia, wanted to head in the opposite direction, toward a future in which normal meant something like “western European.” But Yeltsin was never quite clear on the details, a fact revealed in an exchange he had with the BBC’s John Simpson in September 1991:

Simpson: Gorbachev . . . was talking about Swedish social democracy; that is his model. . . . Is your model . . . François Mitterrand’s France, or John Major’s Britain, or the United States, or Japan, or Spain, or Germany?

Yeltsin: I would take everything together; I would take the best from each system and introduce it in Russia.

Yeltsin, it seemed, had not given the question much thought. And as the decade advanced, it came to seem that there were many other questions to which Yeltsin, along with his Russian and Western advisers, had also not given much thought. The West and its ideas, they believed, were an unmitigated good, except where those ideas did not apply. Free markets, they believed, were going to solve everything, except for the things that markets were incapable of solving. And most of all, the Soviet experiment was an unmitigated disaster, except for those parts of it (oil wells, nickel mines, housing, infrastructure) that were going to come in handy. All countries struggle to square their histories with their self-images, but over the past two decades, Russia has found the history of the Soviet era especially vexing and difficult to accommodate.

That history is the subject of two recent books, both of which reflect on the continuing relevance of Russia’s past to the country’s present. The histo­rian Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia and the political scientist William Zimmerman’s Ruling Russia tell similar stories and focus on many of the same events. And both were written before the streets of Ukraine erupted into revolution earlier this year and Russia responded by seizing Crimea. Nonetheless, they represent two different possible ways of thinking about Russia’s history — and, thus, about Russia’s present and future. Figes’ tale is smoothly told and deterministic, with a central trauma (the Bolshevik Revolution) at its core. Zimmerman’s account is more jagged and less linear, allowing for more agency on the part of Russia’s political elite, which could suggest a better future for the country, but could just as well mean that things will remain as they are, or even get worse.


Figes’ book traces Russia’s turbulent history from 1891 to 1991. The starting date is somewhat arbitrary; Figes argues that the widespread unrest that accompanied the famine of 1891 set in motion a series of events that culminated in the revolution of 1917. But many other start dates would have served just as well, and Figes’ focal point is actually 1918, the first full year of Bolshevik rule under Vladimir Lenin and the first year of the civil war, which would end with a definitive victory for the Red Army. Figes’ interpretation of the trajectory of Soviet communism from that point onward takes a conventional anti-Bolshevik line. As soon as the Bolsheviks launched the campaign of mass killings and torture known as the Red Terror and instituted the command economy known as “war communism,” in 1918, the Soviet regime rendered itself irredeemable. From that point on, according to Figes, it could only get worse or collapse. Soon enough, under Joseph Stalin, it got worse. Eventually, under Gorbachev, it collapsed.

Zimmerman’s book covers the same ground but does so quite differently. Zimmerman writes that he began the project by trying to present a quantitative account of Russia’s political “normality” — or lack thereof — but gave up after realizing how little consensus there was on what a normal Russia would look like. Instead, Zimmerman has put together a political typology of modern Russia, in which the word “normal” appears most in the phrase “normal authoritarianism,” a style of rule that Zimmerman places on a continuum of political systems that runs from democratic, to “competitive authoritarian,” to “normal authoritarian,” and, finally, to totalitarian.

Competitive authoritarianism features contested elections combined with all sorts of restrictions on democratic participation; this aptly describes Russia in the mid-1990s and Ukraine for most of the last 20 years. Normal authoritarianism yields a one-party dictatorship that doesn’t ask too much of its subjects in terms of sacrifice or deep belief: this matches the Soviet Union in the early 1970s under Leonid Brezhnev and Russia in recent years under Putin. Finally, totalitarianism (which Zimmerman also calls “mobilizational authoritarianism”) gives the state’s subjects no choice but also demands that they like it. That description fits Soviet Russia from 1928 to 1953 — and it’s where Putinism might be headed as the country mobilizes for war.

Zimmerman applies all sorts of measurements — for example, the number of times the Politburo met during particular periods (toward the end of Stalin’s rule, very seldom) — to the question of just how authoritarian Russia has been at different times over the past hundred years. His conclusion is that the country has oscillated between pure tyranny and limited forms of responsiveness; “normal” has meant, for the most part, a normal authoritarian state, one in which both outright totalitarianism and anything approaching democracy were the exception rather than the rule.

Take, for example, two of the most terrible periods in Russian history. Stalin pursued a policy of violent collectivization in the late 1920s that amounted to a war on the countryside. But in 1930, he temporarily pulled back in the face of an armed peasant resistance. A few years later, in 1934, Stalin began a series of bloody purges, which reached their apogee in 1937. But the following year, the purges ended: at that point, the need to prepare for a likely war with Germany overcame whatever lingering fears Stalin might have had about enemies within. (After World War II, Stalin carried out a new round of purges.) In both cases, Zimmerman’s point is not that Stalin had a change of heart but that he was capable of responding to events by adjusting the level of repression he applied.

By the same token, Zimmerman’s analysis also shows that reductions in some authoritarian behaviors did not necessarily reflect a consistent commitment to change. Gorbachev and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev are rightly remembered as reformers who tried to make the Soviet system more humane, but Zimmerman shows how both leaders also managed to gather a great deal of personal power into their own hands. Gorbachev cheerfully arranged for members of the Soviet legislature to run in (and often lose) local elections in 1989 but made sure that he himself did not have to stand for office. Khrushchev claimed that, unlike Stalin, he consulted on all important matters with the council of deputies known as the Supreme Soviet Presidium. But in 1964, he secretly sent his son-in-law to West Germany to mend fences with the Federal Republic. It also later emerged that despite Khrushchev’s claims of “collective leadership,” sending nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 had been his idea. Even Yeltsin, the first president of a newly democratic Russia, often behaved autocratically — for example, in sending army tanks to shell the Russian parliament building during the constitutional crisis of 1993 and by unilaterally appointing a successor, Putin, to run the country when Yeltsin left office on New Year’s Eve in 1999.


Figes, the historian, tells a story of continuities; Zimmerman, the political scientist, tells a story of variations, contingencies, and even discontinuities. Figes recognizes the differences between Lenin and Stalin and devotes several pages to Lenin’s famous “testament,” in which the dying leader called, too late, for more democracy within the party and for the removal of Stalin from his post as general secretary. But Figes clearly sees Stalinism as the apotheosis of the Soviet regime. The years between Stalin’s death and the fall of the Soviet Union represent more than half the time the Soviet Union existed but merit just three short chapters out of the 20 in Figes’ book. For Figes, Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” denouncing Stalin was not an attempt at a new beginning but rather “the beginning of the end.”

Zimmerman, by contrast, devotes a great deal of attention to the 1960s and 1970s. He shows how, after the death of Stalin in 1953, “intraelite norms” emerged to govern power struggles within the Communist Party. Under Stalin (at least after 1934), the losers of such conflicts could expect to be shot. Under Khrushchev, they fared far better: after losing a political fight, an elite member of the party might receive an appointment as ambassador to Mongolia or the task of overseeing a hydroelectric station in northern Kazakhstan. Under Brezhnev, the consolation prizes got even better. Those who lost their positions, Zimmerman writes, “whether as a result of opposition to policy or because they had been indiscreet enough to betray the fact that they thought Brezhnev was not an intellectual powerhouse,” might become ambassador to a dull, prosperous country such as Canada or Denmark.

When it comes to the Putin era, Figes fixates on the lingering specter of Stalinism, pointing to various recent opinion polls in which a substantial proportion of Russians expressed a desire for “a leader like Stalin” to run their country. Zimmerman also notes such baleful trends, and he presents data showing that between 1996 and 2008, Russian presidential elections became less free and fair. But he also finds, surprisingly, that the elections of 2012 were the cleanest since 1996. The mass protests that followed the blatantly rigged Duma elections of December 2011 shook Putin’s regime, and the government found it expedient to behave itself the next time around.

This does not lead Zimmerman to predict a rosy future. Writing in the relatively mild days of mid-2013, before the pressure of the Ukrainian revolution pushed Russia closer to mobilizational authoritarianism, he nonetheless predicts that Putin will most likely remain firmly in charge of the country through the next presidential election, in 2018, and then for as long as the constitution currently allows — that is, until 2024.


There is no question that Russia has not become what most people hoped it would in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Whether they yearned for a return to the stability of the Soviet past or dreamed of a more European future, they have been disappointed. For ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was wracked by poverty and social decay: the country suffered a demographic collapse on a scale never before witnessed in an industrial country outside of wartime, as deaths outstripped births and the country’s population shrank by some 800,000 people each year. In 1998, the country went bankrupt and defaulted on its debts.

During the second post-Soviet decade, the economy boomed, boosted by rising commodity prices, and many Russians were able to access a wide variety of consumer goods. But increased prosperity did not lead to a parallel process of democratization — in fact, as Zimmerman shows, the country became more, rather than less, authoritarian during the first decade of the current century.

Memories of the Soviet Union, and the legacy of Soviet times more broadly, continue to exert an ambiguous influence. The tremendous support among Russians for Putin’s decision to invade and then annex Crimea confirmed that many still pine for an empire. There is also increasing nostalgia for Soviet cultural products; since 2004, most basic cable television packages in Russia have carried the Nostalgia channel, which shows old Soviet movies, and, in the past decade, the Russian film industry has produced two feature-length biographies of the Soviet hockey great Valery Kharlamov, which is probably one more than even a player as good as ­Kharlamov deserves.

In the political realm at least, this nostalgia attaches itself not to Brezhnev or Khrushchev but to Stalin. When Putin wants to appeal to Russian patriotism, he invokes Stalin’s triumph in World War II rather than the achievements of the less tyrannical leaders who followed Stalin. More broadly, Russian political elites have clearly decided that they will no longer beat themselves up for the sins of the past — after all, other countries have sinned, too, they like to note, in the style of classic Soviet “whataboutism.”

Still, not all the nostalgia is unjustified. As a brief visit to Moscow will show, a lot of what the Soviets built still stands and remains in daily use, and as the critic Tony Wood recently argued in an essay in the New Left Review, the much-maligned “Soviet legacy” in housing, manufacturing, and infrastructure in fact prevented what could have been a more calamitous social collapse. The same is true for all the big export commodities, most notably oil. As the political scientist Thane Gustafson detailed in his excellent recent book, Wheel of Fortune, the vaunted success of post-Soviet oil giants such as Yukos, Rosneft, and Lukoil has rested mostly on the intensive exploitation of oil fields first developed in the Soviet era; very few new oil discoveries have been made since, in part because the Soviet fields have remained so rich until recently. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for 20 years, the entire country has lived off the Soviet legacy, whether in crumbling apartment blocks or on magnificent yachts purchased with money made from Soviet-era mines and mills.

The moral inheritance from Soviet times is equally mixed. It’s depressingly true that many Russians today admire Stalin. On the other hand, as the cultural historian Alexander Etkind has argued, many others hate Stalin — including quite a few who like Putin. Writing in 2009, Etkind noted that

the vast majority of Russians support Putin, but about half of these supporters hate Stalin and about half respect him. Most probably, it means that these people are divided in their actual, substantive idea of Putin as well: some support Putin because they see him as different from Stalin, while others support Putin because they believe he is similar to Stalin.

It is also worth recognizing that although an expansionist foreign policy is one ideological legacy of Soviet communism, so is a belief in a strong social safety net, egalitarianism, and the dignity of workers. If those more progressive values can survive the corruption and cronyism that suffuse Russian economic and political life today, Putinism’s internal contradictions might become more apparent. Putin’s regime stands on a Soviet material base that is rapidly crumbling, and his political style, with its gaudy embrace of the very Western consumerism it claims to disdain — Brezhnev would never have cruised around Moscow in a convoy of Mercedes-Benzes — might over time come to seem fundamentally alien to the Russian body politic.

The drunk, jingoistic computer programmer I sat next to on that Aeroflot flight is certainly one face of the new Russia. But so are the tens of thousands of people who poured into the streets of Moscow in March to protest the Russian military incursion into Crimea. With Putin cracking down on dissent and squeezing the remnants of the independent media, and with much of the country in the throes of a kind of war lust, things do not look good. But if there’s any lesson to be learned from Russian history, it’s that things can change very quickly. A balding, exiled bookworm named Lenin can return to Russia and in a few months seize control of the state, then in a few years reconstruct the fallen Russian empire under a new name. And a balding, long-winded general secretary named Gorbachev can quickly dismantle that empire all over again. Just a few months ago, in prerevolutionary Ukraine, people wondered if they would ever see the last of President Viktor Yanukovych, who seemed to be solidifying his increasingly autocratic grip on power. Many Ukrainians, and at least some Russians, are now asking the same question about Putin. The only thing anyone knows for certain is that the answer, eventually, will be yes.