The Soviet Union as a Great Power: The Need for Reform

By Brown, Thomas G. | American Economist, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview
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The Soviet Union as a Great Power: The Need for Reform


Brown, Thomas G., American Economist


The reforms of perestroika took the western world by surprise. However, the application of economic analysis to the last half century of Soviet history reveals a country in economic decline. Additionally, while the country contracted economically, the Soviet political sector insisted upon increased military expenditures to preserve the nation as a great power. I propose that this combination was impossible to sustain in the long-run, and that perestroika is evidence that some members of the Soviet government have recognized this fact. I then examine the prospects of perestroika, in present form, curing the Soviet Union's economic and military woes.

I. Introduction

Over the last few years, the actions and policies of Mikhail Gorbachev have received a good deal of public attention, and deservedly so. This paper investigates the motives behind his actions and policies, many of which seem to have had predictably adverse effects on the stature of the Communist Party and on the security of Gorbachev's position itself. In the first section I set current events in a historical context. In the next section I describe the legacy Gorbachev has inherited from the past. I then turn to an examination of the course that perestroika must take. Finally, the actual economic and political reforms of perestroika and glasnost are examined. I conclude that these reforms are superficial and will not, in present form, effect any economic recovery in the U.S.S.R.

II. Cautionary Note

Analysis of current events in the Soviet Union is, as it has been, difficult because information about the U.S.S.R. is often uncertain. Consider, for example, a report on CNN Headline News on May 3, 1990 of a coup attempt against Gorbachev's regime on February 25, 1990 by the Soviet Military - clearly an event with important implications. However, no story was run in any major American newspapers about such a coup attempt. Did the papers view the source of information as less than credible? It is impossible to say, but the essential point to make is that information from a society in which the State has ultimate control should be viewed with healthy skepticism.

III. Historical Context

Keeping this dubious fact in mind, then, it will be useful to trace the Soviet Union's rise to Great Power status. The importance of this history stems

from the fact that the Soviet Union which President Gorbachev presently governs inherited the legacy left by his country's rise to Great Power status.

World War I and the Bolshevik revolution wreaked havoc with the Soviet economy on a scale unparalleled in the rest of the world. Europe, excluding Russia, lost around 5 million civilians due to war induced causes, but "the Russian total, compounded by heavy losses in the civil war, was much larger" (4, p.278). When the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 and the border conflicts in eastern Europe, Armenia, and Poland are accounted for, the total casualty list for the period may be as high as 60 million people, with almost half of them from Russia (4, p. 278). So, including natural deaths, the Russian population fell from 171 million to 132 million between the years 1914 and 1921. This enormous population loss, combined with the loss of political control over Poland, Finland, and The Baltic states either removed, or rendered inoperable, many of the country's industrial plants, farms, and railways (4, p. 321). The results are truly staggering. Taking an index of production to be 100 in 1913, manufacturing production fell to 12.8 by 1920 (4, p. 280). During this period there was also a virtual collapse in the production of many commodities - iron ore production fell to 1.6 percent of the prewar level, pig iron to 2.4 percent, steel to 4.0 percent, and cotton to 5 percent (4, p. 321). Foreign trade disappeared altogether, and farm production fell by one half. The result was a 60 percent reduction of per capita income from the prewar level.

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