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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: Decline and Fall of the USSR: 1953–1991

By David M. Durant

Decline and Fall of the USSR: 1953–1991

After Stalin’s death in 1953, none of his eventual successors was willing or able to amass the kind of all-encompassing autocratic control he wielded. Realizing that the paradoxical, self-destructive nature of Stalin’s rule made it unsustainable, the leaders who replaced him, ultimately led by Nikita Khrushchev, sought to reform the system. Khrushchev was replaced in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev. His reign ushered in an era of stability, which gradually turned into stagnation. It eventually became obvious to many of the party’s top leaders that the Soviet system needed some form of change to rejuvenate it. Thus, in early 1985, the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the USSR. Six years later, the USSR and Soviet communism ceased to exist.

Scholar William Taubman has written definitive biographies of both Khrushchev and Gorbachev, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era and Gorbachev: His Life and Times. The most interesting commonality between them is that both men saw themselves as committed Marxist-Leninists, each seeking to revitalize Soviet communism and return it to the true path of Lenin. As to why Gorbachev’s reform program led to the system’s demise, two very different books offer useful insights. Stephen Kotkin in Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970–2000 and Vladislav M. Zubok in Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union echo Taubman’s emphasis on Gorbachev’s Leninist idealism and desire to implement “socialism with a human face.” The problem was that Gorbachev sought to produce revolutionary change without using revolutionary methods, thus losing control of the process. While 1991 was very different from 1917, in both cases the existing elites proved unwilling to defend the old order at the moment of crisis. Above all, both authors recognize the importance of contingency. While the decline of the Soviet system may have been inevitable, its sudden collapse likely was not.

One last aspect of the Soviet experience worth discussing is its conduct of the Cold War. A good overview of Moscow’s efforts to export revolution and expand its influence can be found in Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Of particular relevance is the role of the Soviet intelligence and security services, whose main organization became known in 1954 as the KGB. These organizations were tasked with waging an undeclared political war against the United States and its allies from the end of World War II until the fall of the USSR, using espionage, propaganda, disinformation, and political subversion. A detailed account of the KGB’s campaign against the West is Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. A solid, accessible overview of Soviet foreign intelligence can be found in Jonathan Haslam’s Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence.

The most important takeaway from these studies is that by the end of the Soviet era, the KGB believed it was winning, only to have the proverbial rug pulled out from underneath it by the collapse of Soviet communism. In Haslam’s words, “The end of the Soviet experiment thus left those services and the men who gave their lives to them with a deep-seated and justified feeling of having been cheated on the very eve of their most momentous successes” (p. xxiii). This sense of resentment would have major implications for the present, when a former KGB officer would become the head of a twenty-first-century form of Russian autocracy.

Works Cited