Dmitry Orlov deconstructs commonly held assumptions about the former USSR and the people it comprised
This article originally appeared at ClubOrlov
One of the fake stories kept alive by certain American politicians, with the help of western media, is that Vladimir Putin (who, they vacuously claim, is a dictator and a tyrant) wants to reconstitute the USSR, with the annexation of Crimea as the first step.
Instead of listening to their gossip, let's lay out the facts.
The USSR was officially dissolved on December 26, 1991 by declaration №142-H of the Supreme Soviet. It acknowledged the independence of the 15 Soviet republics, and in the place of the USSR created a Commonwealth of Independent States, which hasn't amounted to much.
In the west, there was much rejoicing, and everyone assumed that in the east everyone was rejoicing as well. Well, that's a funny thing, actually, because a union-wide referendum held on March 17, 1991, produced a stunning result: with over 80% turnout, of the 185,647,355 people who voted 113,512,812 voted to preserve the USSR. That's 77.85%—not exactly a slim majority. Their wishes were disregarded.
Was this public sentiment temporary, borne of fear in the face of uncertainty? And if it were to persist, it would surely be a purely Russian thing, because the populations of all these other Independent States, having tasted freedom, would never consider rejoining Russia. Well, that's another funny thing: in September of 2011, fully two decades after the referendum, Ukrainian sociologists found out that 30% of the people there wished for a return to a Soviet-style planned economy (stunningly, 17% of these were young people with no experience of life in the USSR) and only 22% wished for some sort of European-style democracy. The wish for a return to Soviet-style central planning is telling: it shows just how miserable a failure the Ukraine's experiment with instituting a western-style market economy had become. But, again, their wishes were disregarded.
This would seem to indicate that Putin's presumptuously postulated project of reconstituting the USSR would have plenty of popular support, would it not? What he said on the subject, when asked directly (in December of 2010) is this: “He who doesn't regret the collapse of the USSR doesn't have a heart; he who wants to see it reborn doesn't have a brain.” Last I checked, Putin does have a brain; ergo, no USSR 2.0 is forthcoming.
Interestingly, he went on to say a few more words on the subject. He said that the USSR had a competitive advantage as a unified market and a free trade zone. This one element of the USSR is now embodied in the Customs Union, of which Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and several smaller countries are members, and it appears to be a success.
The Ukraine—with over 40 million inhabitants, a major piece—refused to join while continuing to trade mostly with Customs Union members. This strategy has turned out to be, to put it mildly, disadvantageous, with Ukrainian economy now in rapid collapse, having declined over 17% in just the first quarter of this year. Thus, while the theory of competitive advantage may or may not be valid, the converse competitive disadvantage of *not* joining the Customs Union is there for all to see.
To be sure, many aspects of the old USSR have been happily consigned to oblivion. Among them:
• The communist ideology: the Communist Party no longer has a monopoly on power.
• The bloc mentality: the Warsaw Pact evaporated, leaving NATO behind as the one hand clapping. The new system is a multipolar one.
• Central planning: replaced with a market economy
• Economic isolationism: replaced with an export-driven economy based on trade agreements with numerous nations around the world
• Authoritarian governance: replaced with authoritative governance, in which leaders derive their authority from their popularity, which is based on their performance in office, whereas previously the General Secretary of the CPSU was a bit like the Pope—infallible by definition.
These are all positive changes, and very few people regret that they have occurred, or wish for a return to status quo ant.
There are many other aspects of the old USSR which have been degraded, sometimes severely, but nevertheless remain in place. Among them are public health and public education.
The USSR had a system of socialized medicine that excelled at some things and was mediocre in others. The shift to privatized medicine has been a success in some ways, but is very hard on those who cannot afford the care or the medications. The educational system is still very good at all levels, but here too there has been significant degradation, bemoaned by many observers.
The USSR invested heavily in science and culture, and much has been lost during the difficult years of the 1990s—something that many people regret very much. The USSR led the world in basic scientific research, probing into matters that did not have any commercial applications, simply because they were scientifically interesting and led to publishable results. The US led the world in product design, something that Soviet engineers were happy to simply copy much of the time, to save time and effort. Since they were not attempting to export into the western consumer market, a slight lag in time to market was of no consequence to them.
On the other hand, Americans have always had trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of financing scientific research that had absolutely no conceivable commercial applications. In addition, the anti-intellectualism prevalent in American culture caused a proliferation of other sorts of “scientists”: political scientists, social scientists, food scientists... a certificate in “janitorial science” wouldn't be too much of a stretch.
Basic science is the premier transnational intellectual endeavor of the human species in modern times, and the damage done to Soviet science has caused significant damage to the pursuit of scientific knowledge throughout the world, and a diminution in the stature of the scientific endeavor. Now even in Russia scientists are forced to chase after grant money by pursuing avenues of research that lead to patentable gizmos and gadgets.
One of the things that has been retained is the living arrangement. Over the seven decades of the USSR's existence, there took place a thorough transformation from an agrarian population dispersed across the countryside to an industrialized population concentrated in major cities. The people went from being log cabin-dwellers to apartment-dwellers. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the housing stock was privatized, and now many families own their residences free and clear. The ability to live rent-free provides them with a very large competitive advantage compared to families in high-rent, debt-ridden countries such as the US.
Along with apartment buildings built in dense, walkable clusters went a system of public transportation. This, too, has remained largely intact, and in many cities has been expanded and modernized. This, again, provides numerous benefits to the population, and gives them an advantage vis à vis people in car-dependent countries, where the people spend much of their life stuck in traffic, and where the elderly, who are too old to drive safely, are often forced to choose between being stuck in their homes and taking their lives (and those of others) in their own hands behind the wheel.
When something is said to have collapsed, people often assume that it has simply ceased to exist. But the effects of collapse depend on the nature of the thing that collapses. When a hydroelectric dam collapses, it ceases to produce electricity, plus it destroys lots of things downstream from it, plus it may disrupt access to water. When a school collapses, it may kill some schoolchildren, and some teachers, but it doesn't necessarily destroy the knowledge that was being imparted. And when a mausoleum collapses, only its description changes: it can then be described as “ruined.”
Some collapses are common, others not. Economies, especially bubble economies, collapse all the time. Empires collapse with great regularity. Civilizations are said to collapse, but do they really? A civilization can be viewed as a functioning apparatus, but doing so seems to confuse a set of principles with the entity that which embodies them. Civilizational principles can be quite durable: the Roman empire was gone for a thousand years when Europe once again became capable of large-scale social organization, but, sure enough, the Europeans dusted off the old Roman legal codes and principles of organization, and started applying them. In the meantime, in the colleges and universities, Latin had remained the language of learned discourse, in absence of any surviving Latins being present to teach LSL classes. It would appear that civilizations don't really collapse; they just become quescent. New developments may spark them back to life, or they may eventually be supplanted—by another civilization.
The USSR is gone as a political entity, but as a civilizational entity it appears to be holding its own, though it lacks a name. The two-part name—Soviet, plus “Soyuz” (Union)—fell apart. The word “Soviet,” used as an adjective, applies only to the past. As a noun, it means “council,” having originated from the revolutionary workers' councils, and this is still used, although cautiously: “to help with council” is, to a Russian, to only pretend to help. But the term “Soyuz” lives on; it is the name of the only spaceship that can still ferry passengers to the International Space Station; the new Customs Union is a Customs Soyuz. And Russian children still grow up in the Soyuz, in a manner of speaking, thanks to Soyuzmultfilm, the Soviet-era studio that produced excellent children's animated films, which are still hugely popular.
Let us think of the Soyuz—as a civilization, rather than of the USSR—which was a political empire. A major effort was made to supplant it with western civilization, through the introduction of market economics and a flood of western imports, both material and cultural. Western civilizational principles dominated for a time, among them such western innovations as granting equal status to homosexual practices, disregarding the role of ethnicity in political organization, and the abnegation of economic and political sovereignty to the imperial center in Washington, DC. All of these were, for a time, masticated thoroughly. Then they were rather forcefully spat out, everywhere in the former USSR except for a few sorry basket cases, the Ukraine foremost among them. But everywhere else, once the full fiasco of western values became clear to all, previous civilizational principles came roaring back to life.
Perhaps foremost among them is social conservatism. The Russian Federation has two major religions: Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and a great deal of effort goes into maintaining their mutual compatibility, so that religion does not become a divisive factor. Introducing constructs that are alien to both, such as gay marriage, is a nonstarter. But polygamy is not off the table, and a senior Chechen official recently took a young bride to be his second wife. This event caused quite a sensation, but was allowed to proceed—in Moslem Chechnya.
Second is the principle that ethnicity is significant to social and political organization. Russia is not a nation—it is a multinational federation. There are over 190 different nations that make it up, with ethnic Russians accounting for a little over two-thirds of the population. This percentage is likely to decrease over time: Russia is second only to USA in the number of immigrants it absorbs, and their country of origin, sorted by the number of immigrants, is as follows: Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, China, Germany and USA.
During the existence of the USSR, the multi-ethnic composition of the country was given much emphasis. Numerous small nations had their languages written down for the first time, using the ever-expanding Cyrillic alphabet, and endowed with a national literature. National languages were included in school curricula, and various nations used them in their local self-governance, to enlarge their autonomy and improve social cohesion. In essence, the Russian Federation provides for ethnic sovereignty—each nation can claim a measure of sovereignty for itself, rule itself and create its own laws, provided they do not conflict with the larger whole. A prime example of this is modern Chechnya: Moscow is content to let it persecute its own anti-terrorist campaign, to put down the remaining foreign-financed jihadis.
Imagine the principle of ethnic sovereignty being applied to the US, where one's ethnicity is of no consequence provided one looks, sounds and behaves sufficiently Anglo. In the US, ethnicity has been reduced to questions of music and cuisine, with perhaps a festival here and there, but always with the tacit understanding that “ethnic” means “other”: there is no such thing as an “ethnic Anglo.” Since ethnicity is essentially taboo, the completely artificial construct of race is used instead, with artificial, discriminatory labels attached to categories of individuals. The label “Latino” is particularly bogus, since there is very little in common between, say, a Cuban and a Bolivian, except that both are likely to face discrimination, neither being considered sufficiently “white”—Anglo, that is. But imagine if the Mexicans or the African-Americans were to be granted a similar level of autonomy within the US? It would blow the country to pieces!
A country predicated on protecting “white privilege” cannot possibly survive such a corruption of its founding principles. The US fought a revolution to keep slavery legal (it was about to be abolished by the British); then it fought a civil war to change slavery from one form to another (there are more African-Americans in US jails now than there were slaves in the Confederate South prior to the Civil War).
Nobody knows what wars lie in its future, or what will provoke them, but this particular intercivilizational fault line is likely to be very important. For what is a nation? Is it your tribe, or is it a bunch of mercenaries pretending to be Anglo so that they are allowed into the country club? Only time will tell which of the two civilizations will prove to be more durable.