Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Post-Sovietology Blues: Reflections on a Tumultuous Decade

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Post-Sovietology Blues: Reflections on a Tumultuous Decade

Article excerpt

It is generally agreed that Soviet studies was caught flat-footed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Observers of the Soviet scene were trapped by a kind of groupthink: Institutions such as the Communist Party and central planning had existed for seventy-five years; hence the task of the academic was to explain how they worked. Critical thinking about the viability of the Soviet system only took place at the margins of the profession, on the political extremes of left and right.

More than a decade has passed since 1991. Have academics done a better job of analyzing the post-Soviet trajectory of Russia than they did studying the final years of the USSR? It would be hard to give an unequivocal "yes" in answer to this question. Events moved with bewildering rapidity, especially in the first half of the decade, and observers were constantly running to catch up. Developments in Moscow continually took Western analysts by surprise. Consider, for example, the following events. None of them was foreseen; even the possibility of their occurring was not widely discussed before they actually happened.

First, Mikhail Gorbachev, a career party functionary and dyed-in-the-wool Leninist, decides to introduce democratization. In trying to save the Soviet Union, he destroys it. Out of the blue, Gorbachev's hard-line opponents launch the August 1991 coup--and then, bizarrely, prove themselves unwilling to shed blood to save their system. Contrary to all expectations, the Soviet Union is calmly and quickly dismantled by the communist bosses who had risen to rule each of its republics. Russia embarks on a program of radical market reform, even though the domestic interests lined up against such a program seem overwhelming.

Almost unnoticed, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan become the first states in history to give up nuclear weapons. Uberdemocrat Yeltsin solves his separation-of-powers dispute with parliament, his former power base, by dismissing the Constitutional Court and sending tanks against the White House. (And this time, the tanks open fire.) The first democratic election in Russian history is won by a mad nationalist who favors irradiating Lithuania (Zhirinovsky's party scores 23 percent in December 1993). A year later, the tanks roll again, into the hitherto ignored republic of Chechnya. Westerners are shocked to discover that the privatization that they so warmly welcomed has been hijacked by corrupt excommunist elites and Mafia bosses. A slick and expensive media campaign resurrects Yeltsin from political oblivion, helping him to go from a 3 percent approval rating to electoral victory in less than six months.

The August 1998 economic crash proves that Russia has achieved neither fiscal nor monetary stability, nor does it have a functioning banking system. Then comes the millennium surprise: Yeltsin resigns, becoming the first Russian leader in history to voluntarily relinquish power. Yeltsin's hand-picked successor is a virtually unknown seventeen-year KGB veteran, who surprises the West by becoming very popular among Russians. Again confounding expectations, Putin embraces market reform and at least the rhetoric of democracy, while pursuing a strongly pro-Western foreign policy.

Not only were these developments baffling at the time, but they remain, for the most part, unexplored and enigmatic. It is a struggle to find a few books or articles on each of these phenomena that offer a really profound analysis.

It was, understandably, difficult for researchers to keep pace with the developments in real time, as they occurred. Graduate students in particular--the workhorses of primary research--were in a quandary. The gestation cycle of a doctoral dissertation is at least five years, so doctoral students who focused on the hot topics of 1989 (such as miners' strikes or the USSR Congress of People's Deputies) found their subject long since buried by the avalanche of history come dissertation-defense time, five years later. …

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