An interview with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and author of several books, including Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.
Washington Profile: There have been several prominent theories proposed as to why the Soviet Union collapsed. In your extensive research on the subject, what is the conclusion that you have reached?
Stephen Cohen: It is fresh in my mind because I just published a little book in Moscow in Russian on this question. I call this book:
“Why did the Soviet Union end?” The publisher called it: “Vopros voprosov, pochemu ne stalo Sovetskogo Soyuza.” I don’t use the word collapse because I think that prejudges an explanation. If you say collapse, it implies an analogy with the end of tsarism in 1917, because we always say tsarism collapsed. And it suggests that the system collapsed because of some internal and irreparable, inevitable factors or defects. So I simply ask, ‘Why did it end?’ And as I went through the literature, I was astonished to discover that there are somewhere, depending on how you define them, six to10 rather different explanations of why the Soviet Union ended. You find this many in both the Western scholarly literature and the Russian serious literature, scholarly or journalistic. I go through, in this little book of mine, each of the six which I believe to be the most prominent. In order to explain the end of the Soviet Union, as historians will be trying to do not only on this fifteenth anniversary, but probably for the next 100 or 200 years, you need to take into account three factors.
The participating factor was Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms that began in 1985 and reached their peak at about 1990 in a form of a rather extensive democratization of the former Communist system. Essentially by 1990 Gorbachev had dismantled the communist political system, what used to be called the totalitarian system (I didn’t use that word, but we know what we mean by it). He had loosened state control of the economy. That made possible other factors to come into play. Some people, for example, say the Soviet Union ended because of nationalism or the Soviet Union ended because of popular unrest. But none of these factors would have come into play, probably not even today, had it not been for Gorbachev’s reforms. Then came the second factor, and that was the emergence of Boris Yeltsin by about 1989, 1990. Now you had something rather unusual in history, but not unusual in Russian history where leaders have played special roles: you had a conflict between two Russian leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, between two men of extraordinary political will. I define it as Gorbachev’s extraordinary will to reform and Yeltsin’s extraordinary will for power. This conflict created the possibility that Yeltsin could go to Belovezh Forest on December 8 and abolish the Soviet Union in order to be rid completely of Gorbachev, and to beat him completely by abolishing his presidency and his country. But then that leaves a third question and a third factor. Yeltsin didn’t control an army, he didn’t even have a political party. How would he be able to abolish what was still a nuclear super power of what was still nearly 350 million people, in the face of the Soviet elite, particularly the state nomenklatura, not necessarily the party, that had based its position on this state. Why did they permit Yeltsin to do this? And here I think would be the third factor, that, the high nomenklatura that might have stopped Yeltsin had been too busy privatizing the wealth of the state to care about defending it. The struggle over property actually did not begin until after the end of the Soviet Union, but early on in the late 1980s. But by 1990 and 1991, main members of the high elite, ministerial elite, even the army elite, certainly the party elite, were seizing state property for themselves, so while they were stripping the state’s assets, they had no interest in defending it, so they simply stepped aside and allowed the political struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev to unfold, and it unfolded in the end of the Soviet Union.
WP: If those circumstances hadn’t come together the way they did, and the Soviet Union had remained in tact, what, in your view, would “the post-Soviet space” have looked like today?
Cohen: Well, it would have depended on a central question. Gorbachev set into process a Soviet reformation. He called it perestroika, but putting it into the context of history, and not just Russian history, we would call it an attempted reformation. Had that reformation continued, with or without Gorbachev, because by 1989-1990 it no longer required Gorbachev’s leadership; his historic role was to put it into motion? After all, there was a moment in the struggle between Gorbachev and Yeltsin in 1990 and 1991 when Yeltsin’s intent had not been to abolish the Soviet Union, but to become president of the Soviet Union and displace Gorbachev. The question is, would there have continued to be a reforming Soviet Union, or would something like the failed putsch of August 1991 happened again and stopped the reformation? If the Soviet Union had continued to reform, it would have meant the reform of the Union Treaty, and therefore the Soviet Union certainly would have been smaller. Three Baltic countries would have certainly gone, it’s possible that Georgia would have gone. It’s not clear about Ukraine because that was a very unusual situation, driven more by elite politics then public opinion. But if a reforming Soviet Union had continued to exist, I think the outcome would have been a smaller Soviet Union, maybe eight, nine, 10 republics, but still the bulk of Soviet territory, people, and resources. In so far as, say, the Central Asian republics had remained under the political influence of Moscow, they would have had to continue to democratize. The democratization of Central Asia ended with the end of the Soviet Union. The only reason they began democratization in the Central Asian republics was because they were compelled to do so by Moscow’s leadership. Once free of that, they reverted to authoritarianism.
In the economy you would have gotten some unstable but functioning mix of a state economy and a private economy, something like what Putin is probably trying to recreate today. You would have had a Soviet Union, I see no reason why you wouldn’t have, but it would have been a different Soviet Union. On the other hand, had the reformation been ended, and it only could have been ended by force, and you can’t rule that out, then you would have had a very nasty looking dictatorship. Remember, when the coup makers sought to overthrow Gorbachev in August of 1991 and imposed martial law in Moscow by bringing troops into the center of Moscow, almost all of the republic leaders, who until then had been acting as though they were sovereign or independent, immediately either fell silent or collaborated with the coup makers. In other words, they were afraid of Moscow. It is only when Moscow under Yeltsin said, “We no longer want you, clear your own way, we are no longer going to subsidize you,” they went away, ran away. But had that not happened, had Moscow not driven them away, or really, disowned them, because remember, the Soviet Union was abolished by the three Slavic republics. The others would have still been there, certainly Kazakhstan would have been there; Nazarbaev wanted to preserve the Union. The others were afraid of Moscow, they would have stayed. So it all depends on whether this reformation would have continued, and had it done so, I think the Soviet Union would not have looked bad today. Had it not done so, it would have been pretty terrible.
WP: With the war in Iraq and the focus on anti-terrorism, Russia is by far not the main foreign policy concern for the United States. How would you characterize the U.S. “Russia policy”? What are its goals and what have been its results?
Cohen: I think American policy toward Russia today actually began in the 1990s, particularly during the Clinton administration. My view is that not all, but a large part of the negative content of American-Russian relations today — and that relationship is very, very negative, as bad as it has been in many years — is the result, primarily but not only, of the Clinton administration’s decision to treat Russia as a defeated nation in the Cold War. When the Cold War ended — it was officially said to have ended in Malta in December 1989– the first President Bush and Gorbachev announced that the Cold War was over. In announcing that the Cold War was over, both said there are no winners, there are no losers. We have agreed in the Cold War, and in that sense, we are both winners. That tone changed after December 1991, when the Soviet Union ended and the first President Bush began to say, not as a matter of policy but more as a matter of getting himself reelected, that the United States had won the Cold War, but it didn’t have much consequence then. The Clinton administration embraced this view and drew an analogy between the defeat of Russia in the Cold War and the defeat of Germany and Japan in WWII, that we were the victor nation, they were the defeated nation, and therefore they should be supplicant and subordinate to the United States. That was a terrible mistake, and some of us warned against it at the time. What we said was, that’s not what happened, without Gorbachev the Cold War would not have ended, so Russia deserves as much credit as the United States, and secondly, Russia is weak now, and you can get away with using and abusing Russia, as we did when it was ruled by Yeltsin, but, we warned, that’s not going to last. And if you treat Russia like this now, you are going to regret it. Because when Russia rises to its knees, it’s going to be resentful about how it was treated. And that’s what’s happened. Because the Clinton administration did two things: first, it tried to control Russia’s post-communist transition by telling Russia what to do and not to do. To a degree, we were sending legions of advisors there to write their legislation. Americans were sitting in Russian ministries, writing legislation about privatization, textbooks, all sorts of intimate matters involving a nation that no foreign nation has any right to meddle with. There was bound to be a backlash against this, particularly when economic and social catastrophe came upon Russia in the 1990s.
The second thing we did which was equally bad, and this is often forgotten, that in 1990-1991, when Bush asked Gorbachev to permit both a united Germany and a united Germany in NATO, and Gorbachev agreed and that was a historic agreement, Gorbachev was promised, Russia was promised by Bush, and I’ll quote his secretary of state at the time, James Baker, that “NATO will not move one inch to the east.” That was a solemn promise. Now in Russia, it is said that Gorbachev should have gotten it in writing as a treaty. But when it came to the United States, Gorbachev was a little naive. He was smitten with his own ideas of the new thinking, a common European home of human values. He thought that we ascribe to those values, that the United States saw eye to eye to him about that and about how great powers should treat each other. But Clinton during the 1990s violated that solemn promise and began to expand NATO eastward toward Russia, and that continues today. That expansion of NATO and the violation of that promise that has driven the conflicts with Russia over both Ukraine and Georgia, and so long as NATO continues to take those former Soviet republics in, that conflict will continue to exist?After all [NATO is] a military alliance, right to Russia’s borders. NATO is now in Ukraine, bases are in central Asia, Russia sees itself as being encircled, and so long as that is happening, so long as Russia has that view, there will be no good or stable relations between Russia and the West. Now let me say that Yeltsin went along with all this for reasons that don’t have to concern us today; I think they were partly economic and partly psychological; it was partly Yeltsin’s sense that he had done something illegitimate, that he abolished the Soviet Union and he gave the wealth of the state to the oligarchs and he needed somebody who passionately supported him, as Clinton did, because certainly nobody at home of any repute much supported him by the mid 1990s. But once Yeltsin was gone, Putin was clearly a different cat altogether, although he may have been put there by Yeltsin to protect Yeltsin and the oligarchs, but the United States began to realize this in about 2001, 2002, 2003.
There were different episodes, there was the so-called NTV episode, there was the Khodorkovsky affair, there was Ukraine, there were various episodes. But a good deal of the animosity toward Putin grew out of the growing awareness of the American political class that he wasn’t Yeltsin, that he wasn’t going to play the supplicant role that Yeltsin had played. Now once that became a factor, the Russian political elite under Putin didn’t handle it very well. They did a lot of stupid things to make the matter worse. But I think as we were proactive, they were reactive. They were responding to us, to the way we treated them in the 1990s, to the expansion of NATO, and had they been clever people about international affairs, they could have responded in a way that might have changed American foreign policy in some way, but they didn’t. But as Reagan liked to say, now we have two tangoing. And we really are back in a cold war. You can call it whatever you want, but it is a cold war whose frontiers, whose epicenter has moved from Germany to Ukraine and Georgia, and it’s very dangerous. A new arms race is under way. Both sides are building nuclear weapons. If you look at the Litvinenko affair, that’s worse than anything that has happened in the Cold War. I don’t recall anybody ever accusing Brezhnev of killing anybody abroad.