Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years Part VI: Rebuilding Russia

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the fourth and final in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The failure of the coup in August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 are events that few people ever anticipated. In fact, some government leaders in Washington, D.C. were less than enthusiastic about the implosion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics because they now had to deal with fifteen different governments rather than one known enemy.

What became clear in the months following the collapse of the USSR was this simple reality: it is much easier to tear something down than it is to replace it with a viable alternative. President Boris Yeltsin had keen political sensitivities and he knew how to mobilize support to dismantle the Communist regime, but he had little idea how to rebuild Russian society based on the rule of law, political freedom and governmental accountability.

The Firm Rejection of Communist Values

Like the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the implosion of the Communist government took place because it had lost its moral legitimacy and there was no constituency large enough to defend it. During the Gorbachev years and the early years of Yeltsin’s presidency, there appeared to be a strong desire to restore civil society, political pluralism, the rule of law, private property and free enterprise.

Take, for example, the parliamentary elections of December 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no major national party that advocated a return to centralized economic planning. There was no major party in favor of using military force to restore the former Soviet empire. There was no major party claiming to be the sole source of truth and political power, like the Communist Party did for 70 years. All of the parties who gained representation in the parliament because of this election operated on the basis of political pluralism under the rule of law.

For three generations the Communist Party had advocated collectivism under the guise of “socialist internationalism,” but there was not one political group in 1993 that supported this policy. A solid consensus had formed that combined patriotism with a market-oriented economic system.

“The Velvet Revolution” in Russia

Moscow Protests, Dec. 2011
Timothy Garton Ash has helped us understand the unique character of the revolutions that took place in 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe and Russia. The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Mao’s Chinese Revolution, were all violent, utopian, class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. But the revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, by comparison, were nonviolent, anti-utopian, and based on broad social coalitions. They utilized mass social pressure, not terror, to force those in power to negotiate.

Unlike the earlier violent revolutions, changes in the post-Communist world were the result of “negotiated revolutions” and many of the ruling elites were able to hang on to their positions of power, because the protestors lacked experience in governance. Many retained their social positions and wealth and converted their former political power into economic power. They did not wind up hanging from lampposts, as in France in 1789, but became leaders in the new governments.

Vladivostok Protests, Dec. 2011
It is not surprising that over time the Russians who protested and filled the city squares to demonstrate against the Communist regime would become disillusioned with the “new” leaders who talk about democracy and the rule of law, but have no interest in building a new political order with accountability. In fact, the demonstrations all across Russia during the last few weeks shows how angry people are with the corruption and lack of dignity and respect they feel from government leaders. It is very hard to predict how these demonstrations will impact Russia’s future or how the Putin administration will respond, but it appears that the days of political passivity on the part of the middle class are over.

For many Russians, the transition to a market economy, while painful in process, brought a standard-of-living that they have not experienced before. They quickly and gladly became consumers, but are still learning how to become citizens. Learning civic responsibility, after 70 years of living under a Communist regime that discouraged independent grassroots associations, is a slow time-consuming process, but it is happening in Russia.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part III: The Role of Religious Dissidents

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR.  On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation.  This is the third in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Human Rights Protesters
in Moscow, April 1980
Based on my experience in Russia since 1990, I am convinced that the role of religious leaders and institutions, as well as religious belief, are not only critical to Russia’s future development, but were also key factors in why the USSR collapsed.  This is not a topic that gets much attention in foreign policy circles either in the States or in Russia.

The First Protests Inside Russia

When Nikita Khrushchev began to close down churches in the late 1950s, hundreds of Christians decided to resist.  During this period, the first open letters of protest to the Communist leadership began to appear.   They predated the political samizdat (underground literature) generated by human rights groups by a decade.

Three thousand residents of the village of Pochaev signed a letter to the leaders of the USSR claiming that Party officials had tortured local nuns and that some of these nuns had died from the beatings they received.  In a follow-up letter, the villagers demanded that Party officials stop meddling in church affairs.  This became known outside the USSR when a copy of this letter was given to Western tourists in September 1962.

A better-known dissident appeal from the early 1960s was a forty-page letter written by two parish priests and sent to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The priests asked the Patriarch to petition the Communist government to stay out of church affairs and respect the separation of church and state.  The priests also requested that the Patriarch convene an All-Union Church Synod to review activities of the church hierarchy and all other aspects of church life.

It is significant that these two priests cited the existing Soviet constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion and they used as a rallying cry “Respect your own Constitution” which later became the central theme of the human rights movement in Russia.  The immediate results of this letter were prison terms for the two priests and a suspension of their status as priests by the Church hierarchy.  But the deeper significance of this bold action was that it ended the period of silence of parish leaders and people of faith.  They now became convinced that they must resist the submission of church leaders to the Soviet government.

Religious Leaders and the Human Rights Movement

In the decades that followed, clergy and laymen became active in building human rights organizations and sowing dissidence against the Communist regime.  The first of these was the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights and many of the noted human rights activists from these early days specifically cited their Orthodox faith as the inspiration for their political activities. 

By the mid-1970s, “. . . it was religious samizdat alone that accounted for more than half of all underground publications,” according to Professor Nicolai Petro, and “. . . by the end of the 1970s, religious dissidents of all faiths numbered roughly fifty thousand as compared with ten thousand human rights and civil rights dissidents.”  It is a little known fact that for most of these people their struggle for a free society coincided with their struggle for a free church.

In 1976, the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR was formed.  During the next four years, although its leaders were being arrested and jailed, the Committee distributed more than four hundred documents on violations of the civil rights of people from all religions.  It is interesting to note that leaders of this Committee did not see their activities as anti-Soviet government, but rather as a natural extension of their Orthodox faith.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms and Russia’s Future

The anti-Soviet movements of the 1960s and 1970s were the products of grassroots organizations, many of which were formed by religious leaders.  Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign of 1960 -1964 unexpectedly raised the stature of Christians who took leadership in the human rights movement.  The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in religious samizdat, as well as the founding of underground journals devoted entirely to religion.   Regular sections on religion were also included in leading cultural publications.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he was convinced that he needed to the stop the persecution of the churches and, instead, partner with them.  He joined forces with the surging underground movement – top-down now connecting with bottom-up. 

Years later, Gorbachev made this observation: ‘The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels; it was defeated on the cultural level.  Our society, our people, the most educated, the most intellectual, rejected the model on the cultural level because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically.”
I agree with Nicolai Petro’s unique insights: “In post-communist Russia, the [Russian Orthodox] Church will continue to play an important role in the reassertion of Russia’s alternative political culture.  For now it is primarily the politically conservative forces who have recognized this and tried to associate their agenda with the Church, but it is only a matter of time before these values will be espoused by a much broader political spectrum.  .  . Without a proper appreciation of this religious context, it will surely be impossible to understand post-communist Russian politics.”  I would add, however, that the role of all Russian churches and religious institutions, not just the Orthodox Church, will be important influences in shaping Russia’s future.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

“The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part II: The Loss of Moral Legitimacy

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the second in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The moral and spiritual upheaval in Russia that contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union is a phenomenon largely overlooked by Western scholars and policy makers. Western elites, who do not consider religion to be a major factor in a nation’s corporate life and who find people’s belief in transcendent values to be of little interest, have missed essential factors that helped to undermine the Soviet regime.

In my last “Reflections,” we reviewed Mikhail Gorbachev’s open and repeated statements about the need for a moral and spiritual revolution in the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev severed the link between Marxism-Leninism and atheism in 1988, this was a dramatic reversal in Communist Party ideology.

The USSR was the first nation in the 20th century to be specifically created as a secular state and its militant atheism was firmly grounded in Marxist-Leninist thought, which identified religion as “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev knew that the policy of militant atheism was a failure and he pushed through a new law in 1990 that “guarantees the right of citizens to decide and express their attitudes toward religion.” He realized that the Soviet state had failed to eliminate religion from Russian society and that Christians had made and were making important contributions to their country, as they were in the West.

On the occasion of the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia in 1988, Gorbachev honored the Russian Orthodox Church. Gorbachev recognized, more than many politicians in the US and Western Europe, that a new political and economic order could not be built without a moral foundation.

As Leon Aron (American Enterprise Institute) has pointed out, Gorbachev’s key advisers shared his strong convictions about the need for a moral revolution. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the “godfather of glasnost,” in an interview in 1989, said “Enough! We cannot live like this any longer. Everything must be done in a new way . . . . There has come an understanding that it is simply impossible to live as we lived before. . . .”

Gorbachev’s Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, noted that the “moral state of the society” in 1985 was its “most terrifying” feature. He boldly declared that Communist Party leaders “stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another.” The Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, recalls telling Gorbachev in 1984-85: “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.”

Mikhail Bulgakov
These radical changes in the perspectives of the government leaders in Gorbachev’s cabinet was a reflection of larger currents in society. Bottom-up changes were also underway. In my many trips to Russia in the early 1990s, I repeatedly asked Russian university students what their favorite books were. One book stood out with no challenger in sight – Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

This brilliant novel, written in 1940 but not published until 1967 because of the opposition of Soviet censors, creatively weaves together three stories. The first is a love story about an author (called “the Master”) and his girlfriend Margarita; the second is a delightful satire on life in Moscow in the 1930s in which a professor of black magic (who is Satan portrayed as Professor Woland) causes havoc through his supernatural powers; and the third story deals with the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate leading up to and including Jesus’ brutal crucifixion.

I know a number of Russian students who have read this book 20-25 times! If I had to summarize a book as complex and intricate as The Master and Margarita, I would say one of its central messages is this: Only a fool believes there is no God! The brilliance of Bulgakov is that he used Satan’s testimony to prove the existence of God.

Chingis Aitmatov
There are many other examples in the creative arts and in the mass media that illustrate the basic crisis that Marxist-Leninist ideology was going through. Chingis Aitmatov, the popular writer from Kirghizia, wrote a remarkably pointed essay in Pravda in February 1987 in which he stated that 70 years of Soviet power succeeded in removing Christian values but failed to replace them with anything positive. He charged that Soviet society was devoid of “compassion” and dominated by ruthlessness in a way that raped the concept of social justice.

From the bottom-up and then the top-down, a moral and spiritual revolution was underway in the 1980s that contributed to the collapse of the USSR. The bottom line was this: Marxism-Leninism was a false ideology that lead to the creation of a corrupt society and a government that had no moral legitimacy. Just like the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the Communist Party of the USSR lost its moral legitimacy and had no defenders left in December 1991.

Twenty years ago, the Russian people decided that they had had enough of the lies and hypocrisy of the Soviet system and instead wanted dignity, freedom and true citizenship. Unfortunately this powerful moral impulse, as Leon Aron notes, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the successful remaking of a country. Reflections on this will follow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part I: The Moral and Spiritual Dimensions of the Collapse

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the first in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Gorbachev addresses
a Communist Party rally
A number of foreign policy journals and think tanks have focused on the revolution in 1991 at its twentieth anniversary. As I have read through these articles and attended several seminars on this topic in recent months, I am surprised at how little we have learned.

Despite a dramatic increase in scholarly publications that highlight the importance of religion in international affairs, the leading Western scholars on Russia have not gotten the message. I attended a one-day seminar at the distinguished Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and listened to nine panelists who discussed the collapse of the Soviet Union without mentioning the role of religion and the impact of Russian Orthodox priests and other religious leaders. Even when several of us in the audience asked questions about this omission, the topic was largely dismissed.

The foreign policy elites in the West continue to operate as “genteel secularists” and this blind spot on religion is continuing to hamper their analysis, in my judgment. At the Kennan Institute seminar, a former U. S. ambassador to Russia described the three revolutions in Russia in 1991 – the political revolution that ended the one-party rule of the Communist Party, the economic revolution that replaced the centrally-controlled economy with a free market, and the military or imperial revolution that brought a dramatic reduction in the size of Russian armed forces and their pull-back from their former satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe.

This analysis focusing only on political, economic and military factors is the typical lens through which Western scholars and policy analysts view developments internationally. But this analysis is like viewing events with one eye closed. There were not just three revolutions taking place in Russia in 1991 -- there were five.! In addition to the political, economic and military revolutions, there were two others – a social revolution and a moral/spiritual revolution. This was a unique phenomena in modern history.

The social revolution involved the complete collapse of all the supporting mechanisms for families and communities. The Young Pioneers and their summer youth camps were disbanded, the various Communist Party social and cultural centers that provided training and childcare were closed, along with numerous other social networks.

These were an integral part of life throughout the Soviet Union, enabling parents to work while providing activities for their children. Their disappearance left families without the support they needed to endure the radical political and economic changes underway.

Overlooking the dramatic social revolution of the late 1980s was an unfortunate oversight, but missing the moral/spiritual revolution was egregious. While, on the one hand, the failure of Western scholars to understand the importance of dramatic changes in the moral and spiritual environment in Russia is not surprising because they view religion as unimportant, what is surprising is that moral and spiritual factors were overlooked even when Russian leaders involved in these dramatic events talked and wrote about them openly and frequently!

Mikhail Gorbachev’s bestseller, Perestroika, discusses the reasons for his and his colleagues’ “new thinking” related to the re-structuring of the Soviet Union. He describes how Communist Party leaders in the late 1970s began to realize that the country “began to lose momentum” – a kind of “braking mechanism” had formed affecting social and economic development. In addition to economic stagnation and deadlock, Gorbachev identified the “gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people.” He noted how a “breach had formed between word and deed” which caused a “decay” in public morals.

To the author of Perestroika, the challenge was clear: to re-structure Soviet society, including its moral life. In his own words, Gorbachev makes this point: “Today our main job is to lift the individual spiritually, respecting his inner world and giving him moral strength. . . . Perestroika means the elimination from society of the distortions of socialist ethics, the inconsistent implementation of the principles of social justice. It means the unity of words and deeds, rights and duties.” Gorbachev was describing a moral and spiritual revolution! How did Western scholars miss this?

Gorbachev visits Pope John Paul II
at the Vatican (1989)
During his visit to the Vatican in 1989, Gorbachev again made his views explicit. He said: “We need spiritual values, we need a revolution of the mind. This is the only way toward a new culture and new politics that can meet the challenge of our time. We have changed attitudes toward some matters – such as religion – that, admittedly, we used to treat in a simplistic manner. . . . Now we not only proceed from the assumption that no one should interfere in matters of the individual’s conscience; we also say that the moral values that religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too. . . .”

Western scholars and policy makers failed in their diagnosis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and their failure to see and understand the moral and spiritual dimensions of Russian society will continue to limit the value of their analysis. Gorbachev saw something that Western scholars and policy makers continue to overlook – that the moral and spiritual foundations of Russian society need to be rebuilt before free and just political and economic institutions can be formed.