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Mainstream, VOL L, No 51, December 8, 2012

USSR: The Contemporary Scene

Wednesday 12 December 2012, by I K Gujral


The main subject of my talk at this august forum is the tidal waves of change in the Soviet Union. Let me begin with a confession. It is not an easy subject to dwell upon. What we are witnessing is not change in the daily meaning of that word. It is a dissembling of history, of much that has gone into the making and un-making of the world during this century.

When we see before our eyes the discarding of communism by the leaders and peoples of the Soviet Union; the CPSU banned from most of the institutions and all the heights of Soviet life; the great Soviet state in a condition of dissolution, we feel numbed because this is something for which we did not prepare ourselves.
More than 150 years ago, Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto and launched communism on a world tour. Marx expected the first communist revolution to occur in one of the three countries he regarded to be “civilised”—Germany, Britain and France. History, however, proved Marx and Engels mistaken. The first communist revolution took place in semi-feudal Russia which was an empire built on the foundation of decades of conquests and expansion.
It was Lenin, not Marx, who applied Marxism on the ground and laid the foundation of the first socialist state. But Lenin died within a decade of the Bolshevik Revolution.

It was left to Josef Stalin to build the USSR into a mighty proletarian dictatorship with whip-lash industrialisation; forced collectivisation of agriculture; and a massive helping of terror as an instrument of socialist construction. The result was a great industrial power emergent in a mere span of 20 years, a power that could take on and crush the mighty armies of Adolf Hitler to the tremendous amazement of the entire world. The accomplishments of the USSR made many men and women all over the world turn their eyes away from its great shortcomings and terrible aberrations. Some noted individuals turned away crying that the gods of revolution had failed them. For most of outside observers like us, wrote novelist Graham Greene,

Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society and been indifferent.

“I would rather have blood on my hands than walk away like the Pilate,” he said.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore both saw with their eyes and felt with their senses the darker sides of the Soviet experiment. But what created a much greater and more enduring impression on their great minds were the extraordinary achievements of the USSR in mass education and health, in a great flowering of the arts and music and dance, and almost a painfully oppressive longing for the future liberation of humankind from the shackles of poverty, inequality and injustice.

The Soviet state dominated world politics for most of this century. The allies of World War I intervened to dismember the infant USSR. The allies of World War II determined to contain it and roll back its influence from Eastern Europe. It was the mythical Fatherland of all revolutions, it had the tremendous ego to claim the direction of all revolutions anywhere on the earth.

After World War II, it became the Other Superpower in spite of all its technological weakness and its lags in democracy and human rights. In fortyfive years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed parity with the United States and was conceded parity not only in strategic nuclear weapons but also as the leader of a rival international system challenging the might and power of the capitalist system.

And now, suddenly, that mighty state is prostrate. Its creed and doctrine, communism, is in disgrace. Not because it has been defeated in a traditional hot war by a mightier power, but because its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, inspired by stirring visions of the future not only of his own homeland but also of the entire humankind, determined to transform a seventy-year-old rugged dictatorship into a social democracy drawing its life-blood from the free consent of its deeply diverse population. This unique background to the collapse of the communist state in the USSR imparts to a tragedy a nobility that must not escape our minds.

WROTE Noble Laurate Anatole France:

In every great change, we leave behind us a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we enter into another.

What we witness before our eyes is the dying of one life of 240 million people and of a mighty state, and hopefully, its rebirth as another. We also see the dying of something in ourselves.

The causes of the collapse, however, will puzzle and torment thousands of people all over the world for years to come. We are too close to the Great Dissolution to be capable of an objective, clinical judgement. All the same one could say that the end of the Cold War has not gone in favour of the Soviets. Human history has never witnessed a Cold War earlier and had not visualised its consequences for the defeated side. We are now slowly grasping them.

The collapse has certainly gladdened cold warriors all over the world, especially in the Unites States and Western Europe. Their verdict, accentuated and carried by the electronic media to the far corners of the earth, is that communism has failed and capitalism has triumphed. The President of France, Francois Mitterand, observed the other day:

The revolution that gained its momentum in Moscow with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and which, having gone round the Central and Eastern European capitals under communist control, came back to Moscow for its completion and is raising questions for the whole of Europe.

In other words, perestroika has done to the Soviet state in 1991 what it accomplished in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Perestroika means restructuring, rebuilding a political society. In the rebuilding of the Central and East European states, with the bricks and mortars of the Market, West European assistance was immediately available, while Gorbachev himself provided the assured framework of a stable transition. However, the changeover has affected the life of millions of people in ways they were hardly ready for, and it will take these newly transformed market economies at least a decade, perhaps longer, to find their feet in the prosperous community of the West Europeans. Meanwhile, they are described as the “third world” of the affluent West, with a claim to its generous hands of assistance far stronger than that of the real Third World.

The Soviet Union is a very different affair. It is three times the size of India. It carried in its now shattered body politic 15 republics; hundreds of ethnic communities—with their languages and cultures and historical memoires; and its geography extended from the Baltics in the west to Siberia in the east. The state that Stalin built is a gaggle of many nations within the single Nation of the Soviet people.

What kept them together all these three-score-and-ten years and more? This is the most tormentful question that we must seek answers for. Was it the ideology of communism with its egalitarian appeal, its promise to build a higher and nobler civilisation? Hardly. The people of the USSR and East Europe have turned against communism with a fury no one expected or accounted for, including—I dare say—Mikhail Gorbachev. The 19 million members of the CPSU seem to have accepted its collapse with instant surrender. The coup of August illustrated the epic disarray of the Communists of the Soviet Union. It failed even before it could muster the strength to stand on its feet. Like all coups, it gravely distorted the foundation of the political society, and accelerated the pace of decay and collapse. The coup robbed Gorbachev of whatever resources and opportunities he had to work out an orderly transition from communism to social democracy.

What is a transition? A famous political philosopher of the nineteenth century, John C. Calhoun, described transition as “the interval between the decay of the old and the establishment and formation of the new”. A transition, he observed, “must necessarily be a period of uncertainty, confusion, error and wild and fierce fanaticism”.

We find some of these aspects of transition in our own country too when from a single-party dominated polity we are moving to a multi-party, highly pluralistic one. The accents of chaos and confusion in the Soviet Union are far deeper and louder. Which returns us to the question that I asked a moment before. What made the great and mighty Soviet state collapse so rapidly into a welter of mutually warring nations or nationalities, of clashing nationalist aspirations and economic decay?
Evidently, communism as an ideological cement could not hold the USSR together, as the command control political system and the totally centralised economy was being dismantled. Suddenly, the accumulated feelings of 350 million people, dammed up for 70 years by an inviolable dictatorship, gushed forth with a fury that few could anticipate. The failures and shortcomings of the Soviet experiment looked much larger than its accomplishments.

As the Indian Ambassador in Moscow for five years, I myself saw many of these failures—the gross inequalities between the privileged governing class of Communists and the mass of ordinary people; the not-altogether-suppressed nationalist sentiments; the failure of the system to bring the fruits of a massive industrial revolution to the doors of its citizens in the form of material comforts and even the material wherewithals of modern life. The deprivations could not be hidden from human eyes and ears. But there were also the unquestionable achieve-ments of Soviet science and technology, and there was the large modern infrastructure from the Baltics to the Pacific waters and there was the great international role of a superpower.

But when the winds of change became a whirlwind of transition, the people of the USSR cared little for the achievements of 70 years. They suddenly woke up to their diverse nationalist urges, to their olden tradition of religiosity, and showed an awesome craving for the creature comforts of the advanced capitalist democracies which eclipsed from the minds the once-hallowed appeal of communism.

GONE with the winds of change were many myths of the past. The Nationality Policy of Stalin, in the crafting of which our M.N. Roy had a hand, was held up as the solvent of the nationalities problems of all multinational states. It had “solved” the national question in the USSR “for all times”, we were told. But reality has treated us to an entirely different picture. Not only was the nationality problem in the USSR not resolved, it was there all the time accumulating its corrosive grievances and senses of deprivation. And as soon as glasnost and perestroika lifted the shackles of dictatorship it gushed out as a mighty flood and almost washed away the state of the proletariat that was built over a period of seven decades.

The republics are declaring their independence. In Georgia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and even in the Central Asian republics, the desire to break away from the Russian rulers of the past seems stronger than the wisdom to stay together in a world where the integration of sovereign states is one of the megatrends of global change.

The conclusion is unavoidable that it is the dictatorship, the command-control political system, the denial of democratic rights to the people that lay at the roots of the Soviet collapse. No amount of casuistry can hide this fact from the peoples of the world. This hard fact must change the basic outlook of Leftists, progressives and revolutionaries all over the world. A huge debate is already welling up from the anguished minds of Marxist and socialists in many countries.

I am not going into the details of the puzzle-ments, dilemmas and agonies inflicted on the minds of radical Leftists including myself over the world by the collapse of Soviet communism and the proletarian state in the USSR. However, some questions do come to my mind and will have to find convincing answers in the current debates.

Is Marxism-Leninism going to be confined only to the agrarian societies of the developing world while in the industrialised and post-industrial societies of the North, it returns to its fountainhead of social democracy? Can the proletarian dictatorship succeed in the present epoch of technological and information revolution? And in a global upsurge of the democratic urges of humankind? Will democracy in the real sense of the term, with social and economic substance as well as political liberties, and human rights, also in their widest sense, replace socialism and communism as the major guidelines of the struggles of the denied, the deprived, the exploited and the oppressed all over the world whose number runs into nearly three billion of the total humanity of five billion? The struggle of these people for a better life and a better deal in their own societies must continue and will continue because capitalism, in spite of its realitively high threshold of social protection, leaves many problems of human development cynically untouched.

Perhaps the forms of struggle, its ideological language and operational thrusts will change. And perhaps with the passage of time, but before the end of the century, we will find the winds of political democracy blowing in the societies of the Third World too.

Meanwhile, what is emerging in the place of the fallen socialist republic of the Soviet Union? The picture is blurred, dotted with too many ifs and buts. One can build up pessimistic as well as optimistic scenarios. The most pessimistic scenario is the total break-up of the USSR into a gaggle of 15 sovereign states, some of them at war with their own ethnic minorities, and the entire region plunged into a period of darkness with the emergent nations feuding, perhaps fighting, with each other over their claims to its wealth and resources.

The most optimistic scenario is that the twelve republics—the three Baltics have gone out and taken their seats in the United Nations as sovereign states—will join a loose federation or confederation that will guarantee the maximum autonomy to the constituent units, while foreign policy, defence and perhaps certain aspects of communication and currency will be with the Union Government. This is the design for which Gorbachev is now working together with Boris Yeltsin.

The new hierarchy is roughly as follows: There will be a State Council presided over by the President of the Union, who is now Mikhail Gorbachev. It will be made up of the Presidents of the republics and will be incharge of the overall coordination of foreign and domestic policies. The Supreme Soviet will have two chambers—a 332-member Council of Republics that will deal with republican matters, and a Council of the Union, whose number of members is still to be determined, which will look after Union affairs. Under the State Council, there will be an Inter-Republican Committee consisting of officials from the republics, endowed with special responsibility for the economy of the entire union. And, finally, there will be Republican Ministries and Union Ministries, the latter substantially reduced in number. The overall framework will be federal or confederal, and there will be a tremendous devolution of power and resources from the Union to the republics.
This architecture, I must say, will not be erected easily. The Union treaty that was about to be signed by eight republics on August 20, and which triggered the coup a day before, is being re-negotiated, with the republics asking for the maximum of powers. As and when the Union treaty is revised and concluded, there will be innumerable demands for autonomy from the autonomous regions within the republics. There are as many as 38 in the huge Russian Federation alone.

These constitutional and political issues will not be resolved without a definite facelift of the economy for which will be needed large amounts of foreign aid and transfer of technologies from the West. But will these be available? Visible portents don’t seem to be helpful.

IF things go reasonably well, one can expect the new Soviet state to emerge with clarity in the second half of this decade. But things may, perhaps will, get worse before they get better.

What is in the offing is an entirely new Europe. President Mitterand expects the birth of a new Europe of at least 33 states, if not more, which he visualises will come together as a single European Home sometime early in the next century. Whether his expections are too optimistic or not, the new Soviet state, which will not be committed to socialism but which will retain a high threshold of social protection, will identify itself with Europe rather than with other socialist countries. It is already in the process of disengagement with Cuba, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Its friendly relations with China do not wear any ideological patina. Its huge market will allure the leading industrial powers—the Americans, the Germans and other West Europeans and the Japanese.

Once the Soviet Union has discarded commu-nism, it has at once shuttled into the affections of the Americans. Perhaps in the coming competition and rivalries among the industrial powers, we will see much American effort to keep the new Soviet Union on its side. The very large community of Slavic Americans will put up a lot of pressure for this to happen. Meanwhile, the Gorbachev-Yeltsin team will do everything that is necessary to humour the Americans so that there is no international recognition for the independence of the republics, so that the Soviet Union remains a single political entity. The obvious dangers of its break-up into many sovereign nations for the entire international community is acting as a favourable factor for the preservation of its loose political unity and integrity.
What do the melancholy developments in the USSR portend for India? I use the word melancholy only to refer to the post-coup situation. Gorbachev’s attempted reforms were welcomed in India alongwith his robust visions of a peaceful cooperative world relieved of its burden of overkill nuclear and conventional arms and weapons. The post-coup situation has disembodied the Soviet state with which we have built an enormous economic and security relationship over the last three decades.

Seventy per cent of our defence imports come from the USSR, over 80 per cent of our exports of consumer goods go there. The Soviets are there. The Soviets are involved in numerous high-profile projects in the core sectors of our economy. They also supply us with four million tonnes of petroleum and three million tonnes of petroleum products every year. This entire vast fabric of economic relationship will now have to be revised. Not only because of the sheer inability of the distressed Soviet system to deliver on the commitments, but also because the rupee-rouble trade will soon come to an end; and our economic transactions will have to be conducted in hard currency. We will have to find hard currency for the import of defence equipment and spares or make them ourselves. At least for some time we will have to settle for a relatively modest level of defence capability in view of our dependence on external sources for sophisticated weapon systems.

It will be necessary for us to earn much more than we have been doing from our exports. Generate far greater resources at home. Work harder with the instruments of diplomacy and foreign policy to reduce tensions and arrest drifts to military conflicts. And expand our now woefully limited network of economic cooperation with the outside world. The policy of liberalisation and opening up to the world outside has a point, but we must act with caution and not expect bonanzas to drop on our laps immediately.

There is not much of surplus capital in the world, there are candidates for investment and aid more weighty than us—the Soviet Union is the leading candidate now—and the world image of our country is still that of a democracy beset with a minority government and an overload of internal conflicts. We must summon the will of the nation to resolve our internal conflicts, build a peaceful homefront and peaceful cooperative relations with our neighbours.

We must also seek new pastures of significant cooperation with countries close to us—the ASEAN bloc, South Korea, the countries of West Asia and the leading members of the Latin American community. In short, we need a grand strategy of national peace, regional cooperation and larger economic and political relations with the rest of the world.

Looking beyond the clouds of today’s misfortunes to the horizons of the future, I see that towards the end of the decade our relations with a reborn Soviet state will acquire a new vigour and newer thrusts of cooperative deve-lopment. There is a profound fund of goodwill and friendship for India among the Soviet people, and there is a great deal of affection in India for the Soviet Union. India and the USSR mingled together in objective as well as subjective fluids of understanding and friendship for thirty years, creating a very large pool of non-conflicted visions and perspectives. This great fund of human will to pull together in days fair or foul will not die away.

I would just like to focus on the fate and future of the Central Asian republics with whom we had close relationships in all phases of history. The lava of every socio-political eruption there had, sooner or later, traversed into our lands.

The dogma-based polity there—whatever its other de-merits—had modernised and secularised the medieval societies. Any reversal of this phenomenon could bring in fundamentalisms and inter se civil wars that could cast a long shadow on our subcontinent too.

Afghanistan has always been of vital geo-strategic interest to us. The Soviets have now backed out of their commitments to supply arms to the Kabul regime. It is difficult to say if the USA will encourage the fundamentalist segments of the mujahideen to ascend or let a moderate coalition of various factions emerge. Details of the Baker-Pankin agreement—recently signed in Moscow—are not yet known but it may be reasonable to hope that Moscow may not totally withdraw its interests in this region. At present the situation is very fluid and calls for a great deal of diplomatic vigilance and activity on our part.

Let me conclude by saying that we must wait for a reborn Soviet Union, by whatever name it may be known, and meet each other on the undistant horizon of Time as old partners of a new world order. Let me end on the optimistic note of hope with a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore:

When old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break out from the heart,
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

(Mainstream, Annual 1991)

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