Collapse – 50 Years in 50 Books

Published in 2021, Vladislav Zubok’s book Collapse is a major study of the collapse of the Soviet Union—showing how Gorbachev’s misguided reforms led to its demise. Thirty years on, Collapse offers a major reinterpretation of the final years of the USSR.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Vladislav Zubok reflects on how his book Collapse challenges the dominant narratives in Russian-Soviet history.

Article by Vladislav Zubok

It is a great honour for me to see my book, Collapse, featured in the Yale University Press 50th anniversary series.  The YUP published milestone books about Russian-Soviet history, particularly on the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. Those books formed a whole shelf in my home library and greatly influenced the way I study and teach this history. When in the summer of 2020 the YUP offered me a book contract, I knew I should deliver fast. At that moment I had already spent a longer time researching the demise of the Soviet Union than Mikhail Gorbachev was in power! So I decided to send the book to the press in the Spring of 2021 – in time to commemorate thirty years of the events I wrote about. Fantastic encouragement and assistance from the YUP allowed me to meet this deadline.  

Current events provided another reason to speed up: Europe and the world were about to enter another “inflection point” of history. As I completed my manuscript, Vladimir Putin threatened the existence of Ukraine, although at the time only a few people in Moscow and Washington knew how grave his plans were. In the last chapters of Collapse, the Ukrainian road to independence looks extremely precarious. Strangely, it was a surprise for me as the author. In 1991 people in Moscow where I lived did not look much at Ukraine; everybody believed that the future would be decided not there, but in the heart of Russia. This was, one may say today, a form of “democratic imperialism.” Just like the Bolsheviks in 1917, democratic activists of 1991 fervently believed that the triumph of democracy in Russia would ensure the freedom and independence of other republics. In high-level discussions in Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington, however, the Russian-Ukrainian “divorce” appeared to be troubled from the start. Some well-informed observers even feared that Russians and Ukrainians might go to war, just like the Serbs and the Croats in Yugoslavia. It did not happen then and was a miracle that too many underestimated.

A major theme in Collapse is the great unpredictability of history; the grave consequences of miscalculations and erroneous policies. When I was writing my book, I was thinking of other cases of unpredictable developments and erroneous decisions, among them the instability in the Middle East, European economic recession, Brexit, and the election of Trump. Still, I did not expect that another shock and tragedy were just around the corner. At the moment when I pressed “Send” to deliver the manuscript of Collapse, to the YUP editors, I continued to hope that the greatest follies belong to the past. I was too optimistic. When the book appeared in stores, the tension around Ukraine already turned to brinkmanship and international crisis; four months later Russian army attacked Ukraine in full force. In August 1991, during the hardline coup in Moscow, Soviet tanks got stalled and turned back. The Soviet Union then fell apart, and Ukraine became independent. Thirty years later, the Russian tanks got stalled and withdrew. Yet Russia continues the war. The Kremlin ruler remains in control and still thinks he can prevail. It is not the first time in history, that an autocrat, who committed a terrible miscalculation, prefers that people pay for it rather than quit the historical scene.

Another theme on my mind when I wrote Collapse was the fate of reforms in Russia. The perestroika of Gorbachev in 1986-88 ushered in economic de-centralization, glasnost, and political democratization. The lofty promises from the Kremlin made millions expect a better, freer, more prosperous life. The country did not see such an explosion of hope since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Yet again, those hopes dimmed rapidly, and the same millions experienced a steep and for them inexplicable descent into misery and violence. This bred massive cynicism and passivity, new ruptures, and renewed yearning for authoritarian power. I thought a lot about Gorbachev’s dilemmas and dilemmas. He inherited a terrible legacy of authoritarianism and slavishness, terror and traumas, multi-national identities, minimal experience of freedom, and general ignorance about liberal ways of life. Amazingly, despite this, he boldly proceeded with liberalization and democratization that far exceeded the limits that the society, at least in Russia, could absorb. Thirty-five years later, reading endless meetings of Politburo and other councils that Gorbachev created in 1989-91, I could see how heroic, but also feckless his leadership was. An image of the ship with a hapless captain came up and remained etched in the book. As the manuscript progressed, I questioned more and more Gorbachev’s political prudence, as the Soviet leader abandoned one after another the levers of power which allowed them to guide, control, and contain the changes he unleashed. I could see that Gorbachev’s idealism was genuine, yet he had a bizarre role model, Vladimir Lenin. Paradoxically, the founder of Bolshevik dictatorship inspired Gorbachev to open the Pandora’s box of mass politics and self-determination for Soviet republics, all in the name of “genuine socialism.” Yet Gorbachev turned out to be in the position of sorcerer’s apprentice. He liked power to start his “revolution”, but he abhorred the use of force that was necessary to adjust changes. And he vacillated too many times, when Leninist logic dictated action. In just two years, by misguided and confusing economic and political reforms, the last Soviet leader managed to destroy the economic and financial stability, alienate party elites, and state bureaucracies, and make millions follow a populist strongman, Boris Yeltsin, who stole Russia and the Kremlin from Gorbachev.

In Western narratives that appeared before Collapse, Gorbachev comes off as a man who ended the Cold War and liberated mankind from fear of thermonuclear war. Those narratives depicted the Soviet demise as collateral and inevitable damage to this glorious global transformation. At best, Gorbachev’s reforms came to be regarded as a launching pad for “Russian democracy” that would someday come back, and people would praise the last Soviet leader as its “father.” I followed a different paradigm: the end of the Cold War was part of Gorbachev’s ambitious reformist design, and it became the only part that succeeded brilliantly – while others floundered.  Perhaps the most important failure was Gorbachev’s hesitancy to put the Soviet economy on market rails, while he inadvertently opened the floodgates for radical populism and political forces. The resulting economic and political deluge shattered the centralized authoritarian structures, but also destroyed Soviet-time middle classes, the only real base for a potential liberal democracy. Ultimately, this made Gorbachev a tragic figure not only because of his loss of power and his unfulfilled plans, but also because in the next thirty years his dream of “Europe from the Atlantic to Vladivostok” and inclusion of Russia into the liberal order was sent into the dustbin of history by his successors in the Kremlin. The state authoritarianism began to rise at the times of the late, sick Yeltsin and was fully reconstructed under a new guise by Vladimir Putin. While Gorbachev dreamed of “socialist democracy” and cultivated parliamentary institutions to educate people to act as “democrats”, Yeltsin’s neoliberal reformers created a new class of “oligarchs” and destroyed the acting parliament. Some of them falsely claimed that the super-presidency and the oligarchs would be a better barrier to future despotism than the fair distribution of property and creation of “democrats.” The falsity of this idea was revealed in the 2000s, when Russian oligarchs readily succumbed to Putinism, to keep intact their business empires.

Looking back, nobody can say which decisions could have ensured a more evolutionary and positive outcome of the demise of the Soviet communist system. One thing, however, must be said: too many people in the Soviet Union and in the West mistook the destruction of the old order for a birth of new democracy. This had happened to Russia in the Spring of 1917 and lasted only a few months, until Lenin imposed a dictatorial rule. The deceptive “Russian revolution” of 1989-92 lasted longer, but was buried as well –this time not by the totalitarian coup, but by the collapsing state, economic and financial structures. Some Western and Russian liberal reviewers of Collapse accuse me of “authoritarian nostalgia”; they saw me as putting authoritarian economic and constitutional reforms, backed by the state and state capitalism, ahead of political liberalization and democratization. These critics are too quick with their verdicts. Any student of Russian history can clearly see that modernizing reforms, not supported by the force of the state, repeatedly failed – and the resulting collapse and chaos re-opened a new cycle of authoritarianism, violence, and de-modernization. I dedicated my book to “all reformers,” because I want them to be better prepared for the next opening for Russian liberal democracy when it comes. Without finding a way to operate through the state, not against the state, and give time for “democrats” to emerge in the society, they were destined to fall again into the same trap that the Soviet-Russian past had left for them, just like Gorbachev, and Yeltsin’s “Russian democrats.”

Reagan and Bush meeting with Gorbachev on Governor’s Island, New York in 1989, Public Domain

Last but not least, a major theme in Collapse concerns policies and dilemmas of the West, above all of the US Administration. In defeating Nazi Germany and Japan, the United States became a huge force of transformation and integration of those shattered societies and economies into the liberal global order. As the Soviet leader struggled to reconstitute his country on a post-communist, liberalized platform, he appealed to the US and other Western leaders to adopt the same approach. His appeal met with a lukewarm response. Only a few Western admirers of Soviet reformers lobbied for a major involvement to help the Soviet-Russian transformation. One Harvard political scientist implored the Bush Administration to repeat American feat in Japan and Germany, through “post-war transformation without occupation” (p. 249). What he meant was to use American financial and technological powers and to tap into enormous good will towards the West among the disillusioned Soviet citizenry. As I finished my book in 2021, there was no doubt on my mind that the United States could have made much more to back Soviet reforms. At the same time it became very clear to me why Gorbachev’s appeal fell flat.

In 1990-1991, as Gorbachev devolved more autonomy to the Russian Federation and the other fourteen republics that constituted the Soviet Union, Western businesses became confused and upset by the chaos that this generated. The Soviet Union did not appear a stable country, like for instance China, to invest into. And the Bush Administration and other Western governments were concerned that Soviet demise might go out of control. They did not seek the break-up of the country and some of them considered a possible emergence of independent Russia as a danger rather than an opportunity. Above all, Western politicians worried about the safety of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. But they also reasoned that liberal democracy had even fewer chances to emerge from the rubbles of Gorbachev’s state than it could under Gorbachev’s central leadership.  Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser of President George H.W. Bush and his close friend, believed that Russian democrats would inevitably fail again, doomed by Russia’s history and traditions – and then a revanchist Russia would emerge instead of the old liberalizing empire. This sceptical outlook explains why in 1991 the US leaders sat on the fence, rather than investing into Gorbachev’s regime (p. 182). Only after the August coup of 1991, when Boris Yeltsin posed as a heroic opponent to the inept Soviet junta, Western leaders were forced to go against their instincts and publicly supported “Russian democracy” – yet very few believed in its good chances.

It is hard to blame Western strategists, as Gorbachev and reformers inside the Soviet Union did. The United States in particular needed time and reason to reclassify the Soviet Union and Russia as “partners” after decades of the Cold War and anti-Russian propaganda. Despite Gorbachev’s charisma, much of the American elites continued to regard the Soviet Union as “an evil empire”. Any talk about a new Marshall Plan or huge engagement into a transformation of the collapsing former enemy fell flat for these reasons. The US engagement with the defeated Nazi Germany and Japan after 1945 was due not only to the desire of Washington to build a liberal order, but also to its strategy to build it against the communist and Soviet threat. In 1990-91, the main enemy in the US crosshair was Iraq of Saddam Hussein. To Gorbachev’s immense disappointment, the West was ready to collect $100 billion to defeat the Middle Eastern dictator, but not to back the epochal experiment of remaking the USSR into a stable Western partner. When later the US and other Western politicians professed greater interest in the democratic future of Yeltsin’s Russia, it was too little and perhaps too late. Russia, as the legal successor to the collapsed Soviet Union, was already ruled by the sick President and greedy oligarchs, in the grips of chaos, resentment, and revanchism. There was no room for “democrats”– just like Scowcroft had foreseen.

Collapse is a book that does not seek to confirm dominant narratives. Instead, it challenges these narratives and raises questions that many would find uncomfortable. Yet questioning the past is a worthy mission for historians, particularly at a time of new global uncertainty and shocking, unexpected changes. I am thankful to the Yale University Press for their faith in my project and for their inestimable help in making my private reflections a part of the global public domain.

About the Author:

Vladislav M. Zubok is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of A Failed EmpireZhivago’s Children, and The Idea of Russia. He was a finalist for the 2022 Cundill History Prize.

About the book:

The Fall of the Soviet Union

Vladislav Zubok

Collapse offers a major reinterpretation of the final years of the USSR, refuting the notion that the breakup of the Soviet order was inevitable. Instead, Vladislav Zubok reveals how Gorbachev’s misguided reforms, intended to modernize and democratize the Soviet Union, deprived the government of resources and empowered separatism. Collapse sheds new light on Russian democratic populism, the Baltic struggle for independence, the crisis of Soviet finances—and the fragility of authoritarian state power.

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Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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