Although the Soviet productive apparatus was becoming ossified by the 1970s, and aggregate economic output stagnating or declining by the early 1980s, the USSR wasn’t inherently doomed as a political entity, necessarily. Cuba and North Korea, which haven’t liberalized much, show this. Massive cuts to foreign aid and military expenditure, to free up resources, combined with a ruthless suppression of dissidents, could have allowed for a “Chinese road”. Basically, the USSR could have been turned from an authoritarian socialist, to a (de facto) authoritarian fascist country, like the People Republic of China. This would have probably meant letting go of some republics, but might have allowed for smoother transition to basically where Russia is today.
GORBACHEV was, in my view, the biggest ‘reason’ the union collapsed. Rather than crack down on dissidents while the economy and foreign policy were reformed, he freed them. His Glasnost policy saw government dirty laundry aired, helping to further de-legitimize the communist party. Most importantly, although Gorbachev was a deep admirer of Lenin, often reading Lenin’s writings and speeches for clues to solving his own political problems, he eschewed the use of violence (what sort of commie is he!). He allowed ethnic activists in the -stans and Caucuses to riot and protest without serious consequences. Gradually, people stopped fearing him, ultimately ending in the (in)famous Belarus hunting trip by Yeltsin, Shushkevich, & Kravchuk, where they agreed to dissolve the USSR and create the Commonwealth of Independent States. It’s noteworthy that the Soviet Union collapsed in as unlikely a way as it was established (Bolsheviks usurping the October revolution), including an ineffective military coup.
After the USSR
FOOD distribution simply didn’t work, or wasn’t made to work after the fall of communism. Prices went through the roof as production collapsed and salaries failed to match hyperinflation. A barter economy emerged. Gardens and small time animal husbandry, which had been much better preserved in the Communist Bloc than in the west, due to unreliable official food distribution, became essential for survival. Many factory workers went back to their home villages and subsisted on a barter economy.
PHYSICAL CAPITAL: The planned Soviet economy was a nightmare to organize. Instead of having relatively diffuse production, industries tended to be highly concentrated, often a single industry would be allocated to only a few, massive factories, to reap the benefits of economies of scale and cut down on complexity. This meant that after the collapse, individual regions would be highly vulnerable to unemployment if their primary industry fell apart. Ukraine and especially Russia ended up inheriting much of the heavy industry, while outlying republics got more consumer industries, such as shoe production in Estonia. Many parts of Russia saw harrowing levels of unemployment as orders for their military goods (20% of soviet citizens worked in the Military Industrial Complex) dried up.
MILITARY: It was impossible, at least within the new Russian state, to cut the military apparatuses back. Although the state had allocated roughly 1/7th the funds it had in Soviet times to the military, it was, on paper, supposed to fund a military roughly 2/3rds the size of the late Soviet Red Army. The result was that by the mid 90s, officers were going 3 months at a stretch without being paid. Corners were cut everywhere, and a lack of discipline and outright corruption set in. Basic upkeep on the vast inherited Soviet arsenal was neglected, hardware was sold to third world countries, often off the books. ICBM silos began to fill with water and it now seems questionable if Russia could have defended herself in a nuclear exchange by the mid 90s. Things got so bad that by the late 1990s, the US Army was operating more HIND attack helicopters (captured from Iraq) as part of a training outfit than Russia or Ukraine. One area of mitigated disaster was that the vaunted ex-Soviet military industrial complex, most of which was in Russia, was still able to produce new hardware and make investments in R&D, thanks to orders from India, China and other countries.
POLITICS: In the 1995 parliamentary elections in Russia, the Communist party won an overwhelming victory. Gaidar says that at the time he was doubtful that it would be possible to stop them from taking power again. However, Yeltsin was able to mount a successful reelection bid, thanks in part to overly frank talk by his communist challenger who, when asked how he would change the system, he stated he would “take out” the wrong people and “put in” the right ones. The 1995 vote turned out to be in essence a protest against the disastrous transition, and voters backed down after they got to vent in the parliamentary election.
CRIME: within months of the end of the soviet union crime began to skyrocket. Muggings, home invasion, property theft became widespread in the dog-eat-dog chaos that reigned. This was aided by the zero-sum thinking that state Communism had fostered in people over the past 70 years, the collapse in economic output, and, most importantly, by the disregard of the police in Ukraine and Russia (better in Belarus) who became just another criminal enterprise, scrambling to loot the pockets and sell the organs (figuratively), of the recently deceased Soviet Union.
SHOCK THERAPY: Yegor Gaidar, a Soviet economist, self-trained in western academic economics, created a package of reforms known as “Shock Therapy” (a term borrowed from Jeff Sachs). The reforms we essentially a giant asset divestiture, where each Russian citizen was given shares in ownership of formerly large state owned enterprises, whether be the Moscow biscuit conglomerate or the Novosibersk nickel mine. After 70 years of communism, Russians knew little of what to do with these “shares”, and many sold them at fire sale prices to men who quickly became known as the Oligarchs – who ended up owning gigantic portions of the Russian economy and becoming billionaires in a few short years. Although difficult to know to what extent his reforms were well intentioned or nefarious as a means of transferring state assets to Gaidar’s co-ethnics, it might be telling to note that a day after Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radiation in 2006, Gaidar was also poisoned and nearly died. In 2009 at the age of 53 he died unexpectedly from a pulmonary edema.
POLAND is interesting in that provides a sort of ‘control’ case for the former USSR’s transition. Basically, Poland implemented a similar reform package of “Shock Therapy” but it went better overall. One thing Poland did was limit privatization however. The state retained ownership of Polish industry, which was only gradually sold off through the 90s and 00s. This prevented Oligarchization. Two things stand out on this question: Poland is partially behind the Hajnal Line (Poles are less quarrelsome/more cooperative than Russians, for example), and Poland was ethnically homogeneous, nearly 100% Polish-Catholic. Russia had an aggrieved population of Jews, some of whom ended up owning much of Russia’s productive infrastructure until the mid 00s. Still, Poland’s PPP GDP per head is comparable to Russia’s today (if more evenly distributed) so maybe a hard road was just inevitable coming out of a central planning mess.
The End of the USSR: Good or Bad?
AN AMERICAN POINT OF VIEW: On the one hand, it saw the cessation of nefarious KGB activities in the US, reducing weapons technology espionage and subversive cultural propaganda (but then our own CIA and Hollywood were happy to do that too). It also saw the end of communism in the central European vassal states, which seems to have been unambiguously good (this may have been nearly inevitable, even if Gorbachev went Chinese and kept the USSR together, as these countries were highly disloyal by the 1980s). But on the other hand, it removed any sort of check on American power projection. In effect the Russian rump state only managed to stand up when the US was set to install a secular progressively liberal EU government in Kiev and unleash an Islamic nightmare in Syria. It’s a general truth that one needs challenges in life, and in the absence of any constraints on foreign action, the US has become, probably a force for outright evil in the world (bombing Serbia, Iraq, Libya, possibly funding Islamists). It is interesting that much of US weapons procurement has become wasteful and ineffective since the fall of the USSR, with nearly all our effective weapons systems having their roots in the cold war era, when we faced the Soviet challenge. It’s important not to make too much of the pattern, but it does appear that the stress of communism inoculated the Warsaw Pact countries against Cultural Marxism/POZ, and now Russia and the Visegrad countries are standing against the old cold war “West” countries and their civilizational death wish. These countries, while much poorer, and in the case of Russia, much more chaotic and in many ways unfree, seem closer to solving the big problems of mass society (thinking MPC’s SCALE). It’s worth pointing out that while the USSR, even after it mellowed out in the 1970s, was not a fun or happy place, it was socially traditional. One wonders if the present obsession with promoting homosexuality, gender dysmorphia and pedophilia could have been taken on so rapidly and with such enthusiasm (first “civil union” law was in 2000) had there been a white, rival superpower to provide a counter example. Or maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.