The Collapse of the USSR: Vladislav Zubok Interview

Vladislav Zubok

Charlotte Cowell, Russophile and writer, sat down with the author of Collapse, the story of the USSR and Gorbachev's demise.
Home » Author interviews » The Collapse of the USSR: Vladislav Zubok Interview

Vladislav Zubok, Collapse is a brilliant book and incredibly comprehensive, but there are polar opposite narratives about this historical period which focus (for example) on the nefarious actions of the KGB in Eastern Europe. Did you deliberately avoid exploring the darker side of the KGB in equal depth to your economic analysis?

The story of the Soviet collapse is enormous and monumental enough. When I wrote its fifteen chapters, I made a decision to focus only on those developments and events that have direct impact on or relationship to the galloping Soviet crisis and the process of Soviet disintegration.

There are a number of books that focus on the Cold War and the KGB activities. They form a literature of its own kind, and readers who are interested may easily locate those books. In my view they do not help to understand why the Soviet Union collapsed so suddenly and with relatively little violence (to what was expected). History is not a morality play, and gross injustices usually do not lead to inevitable “punishment.”

The KGB surfaces in my book many times. At one point I explain to the reader why Gorbachev trusted the KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov so much. And I seek to explain why such a dreaded and powerful organization, which could effectively isolate Gorbachev in August 1991, utterly failed to carry out a coup d’etat and sweep away Yeltsin’s opposition.

Do you think the Soviet Union was excessively demonised by Western Governments and Media?

Excessively? Mutual demonization of the enemy is an aspect of every conflict, and because the Cold War was an existential conflict, it is hardly surprising that in American imagination the Soviet Union appeared as an incarnation of evil. Americans often tended to demonise those who stood in their way, beginning with the native Americans and ending with the Japanese in World War II.

This demonisation had a certain racial and Orientalist aspect. The Soviet Union was imagined as a huge and semi-barbaric Asiatic country. And many assumed the “Russkies” (the Russians) were culturally alien to the West, like the Huns or the Horde of Ghengis Khan.

This racialized message could not be entirely successful, of course, as it was obvious that Russia always belonged to European culture. Hollywood even after McCarthyist purge made many films where “Russians” were presented with nuances, not as KGB-trained killing machines. Still, the image of the Soviet military, spies, and communist apparatchiks was so negative and became so pervasive that it formed the dominant perception in mass culture.

Americans, as a country of immigrants, also presented the Soviet Union, like the tsarist Russia earlier, as a cruel empire that enchained freedom-loving peoples: the Poles, the Czechs, the Balts, and the Ukrainians. Diasporas from those ethnic groups, who lived in Canada and the United States, actively promoted this image. When Gorbachev’s reforms unleashed national movements and triggered separatism, sympathies of most Americans were on the side of the “freedom-loving peoples” who wanted to leave “the empire.” This paradigm had no room for any nuances and circumstances. And still does not.

The western Europeans saw more shades and hues in the Soviet Union. Their history was interlinked with Russian history for centuries. And their own colonial-imperialist past made them less moralistic and more understanding of multi-ethnic realities of the Soviet society than Americans.

The recent TV series, Chernobyl, shows the horrific impact of the disaster, and also suggests it was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union – would you agree?

It was a factor, but not a major one. The impact of the 1986 explosion was indeed horrific, particularly on the Ukraine and even more on Belarus (whose lands were much more affected by radioactive fallout). Yet this impact was not a major factor that led to national separatism of those republics. I argue that Ukraine’s independence bid was a consequence of the political warfare in the Soviet center later, in 1990-91.

Keeping the damage from Chernobyl under control cost the Soviet state up to 10-12 billion rubles, a bit over one percent of the Soviet GDP. This is a lot, but it did not make an irreparable hole in the Soviet finances.

The film and some books were too quick to conclude that Chernobyl produced a crisis of faith in the Soviet system and the state. To some extent this was true: the same Ukrainian intellectuals that had earlier hailed the construction of Chernobyl nuclear plant as a sign of “progress” now began to speak about “inhumane system” that destroys “people’s ecology,” etc.

At the same time Chernobyl did not undermine the Soviet system. And in some way allowed this system to demonstrate its capacity to marshal huge resources – the military, scientific, and others – that enabled to avoid the worst outcomes of Chernobyl. Mikhail Gorbachev, who cut a rather poor figure in the TV-series, was not in charge of rescue works. It was prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, who performed heroically, along with tens of thousands of so-called “liquidators”. Had it not been for “the rotten system,” there would have been a much greater environmental catastrophe.

Would you agree that a major cause of collapse was that increasing numbers of citizens of the eastern bloc saw the relative prosperity of the west, and so wanted a piece of the action?

This is a longer-term factor that contributed to the collapse of the communist economic system. Yet, as China demonstrated, one could fill the shelves without dismantling the political system.

For decades, as early as the 1950s, it became clear that the countries with state-owned centralised economy without market mechanisms could not solve the problem of supply and affordability of goods and services. The Soviet leaders began to try various reforms, but never dared to shift to a market and private property. And vast majority of Soviet citizens lived behind the double “curtain”: their living standards were much lower than even in eastern European countries, not to mention the West, and they were not supposed to know about it.

As long as the Soviet state controlled the traffic of people and information across Soviet borders this problem could be managed. But when Gorbachev in 1989 granted freedom of travel to Soviet provincial elites and the middle classes, there was “a supermarket shock” and cascading disillusionment in Soviet way of life. This happened at the time when Gorbachev’s economic reforms made the situation with consumer goods worse, not better – even catastrophic.

The contrast between “prosperous” West and “miserable East” was unbearable and became a major driver in a major shift of Soviet elites: they defected from an idea of reform (promoted by Gorbachev) and from the eroding Soviet system to a market revolution and self-enrichment.

How do you think the world would be different if Russia or the Soviet Union was the world’s preeminent superpower rather than the USA or (perhaps in the near future), China?

The Soviet Union was a military and industrial superpower only, but lacked too many other aspects of power, above all financial, but also (after the 1950s) ideological. Only the United States had all dimensions of power and was able, despite all defects and failures, like Vietnam, build a global capitalist liberal system and lead it. The Soviet Union failed to do anything comparable. Moscow had long stopped being a communist Mecca. It had quite a few clients from Cuba to Ethiopia, but had to fund all of them. When the Soviet coffer was emptied by Gorbachev’s reforms, the “socialist community” lost its main and only donor.

Russia is a truncated part of the former Soviet Union and its share of global economy is just three percent; it is a giant in terms of nuclear power and oil trade only. What kind of pre-eminence one can talk about?

Only China’s economic pre-eminence is something realistic to discuss. Yet China should become a financial and military leader as well to reach pre-eminence, and this is a far-fetched possibility for the next half a century – provided the United States and the West do not commit a suicide.

Having read Collapse, we understand why Putin considers Gorbachev to have been the worst Russian President in history, but not why he considers Stalin to have been the best. Do you think he’s right and, if so, please help us understand why?

I have never heard Putin praising Stalin as “the best Russian president in history.” He called him once “an effective manager,” but also criticized his terror. Some of Putin’s style sometimes superficially resembles Stalin’s: he can be ruthless, he does not shrink from the use of force, he suspects western intelligence is behind everything that goes wrong, and he manipulates Russian public opinion quite deviously.

Yet I cannot say that Stalin is a role model for Putin. What I do see is that Putin is very careful in his assessments of Stalin and Stalinism. Most likely because he understands that the society is split on this figure and period of history. There are plenty of Russians who believe that Stalin had successfully industrialized a backward Russia and won the war against Hitler. Putin probably shares this conviction. He also views modern attacks on Stalinism and Stalin misdeeds, such as the Nazi-Soviet pact and Sovietization of Eastern Europe, as a use of history against Russia’s security interests – and responded to this with conviction and real passion.

Otherwise I believe (and I hope I am right) that Putin is clever enough to understands that Russia cannot and should not return to the times of Stalin’s methods of governance.

Tell us something about Russia or the Soviet Union which might surprise those who haven’t read your books?

The biggest surprise is a crucial role that the Russians themselves played in undermining and finally destroying the communist system as well as the central state that many in the West considered to be “a Russian empire.” Another big surprise, at least for me, was the role money played in the story of Soviet collapse. The Soviet Union had a unique financial system that seemed to ensure that the state would never go bankrupt – and it did not, even during calamity of World War II. Yet Gorbachev’s misguided reforms managed to achieve what even the worst war in human history could not do – the leadership of the country lost control over the ruble. And this proved to be more fatal for the Soviet statehood than all anti-communist rebellions from the Baltics to South Caucasus, as well as Cold War burden and Chernobyl.

As a lifelong admirer of Russian art, music and literature, I’m interested to know what do you think is the greatest achievement of the Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union advertised its cultural achievements to the world, but to a vast extent those achievements should be attributed to the great Russian culture and the artists who had been inspired by it. The Soviet dictatorship did not conduct such a total cultural revolution like the Chinese regime, yet because of wars, terror, and mismanagement most of great cultural capital of imperial Russia was destroyed, squandered. Thousands of creative artists perished.

At the same time the Soviet Union, particularly in the second half of its history, proudly presented itself as a country of great culture, mostly high culture. We all know the Bolshoi and the Kirov ballet, fantastic composers, and other kinds of performative arts. Soviet pictorial art, however, never reached the fame of Russian vanguard art, destroyed by Stalinism in the 1930s.

The greatest cultural project of the Soviet Union was, however, not an elitist one. It was a set of state-funded cultural and educational projects that made the treasures of world literature and culture available for tens of millions. Among those projects was a fantastic, unparalleled effort to translate classic literature of the world into Russian language.

I would like also to mention a tradition of humanities that survived despite the Soviet state, and produced such remarkable writers and poets as Boris Pasternak, Vassily Grossman, Anna Akhmatova, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov. The Soviet intelligentsia was never fully Soviet. It had a powerful undercurrent of moral and humanist intellectualism, opposed both to the oppressive power of the state and to the more subtle power of money and corruption. Many Western intellectuals who travelled to the Soviet Union in the 1960s-80s, remember this with great warmth.

Ironically, this cultural phenomenon faded quickly after the death of the Soviet Union under implacable pressures of market economy and mass culture.

Vladislav Zubok is professor of international history, with expertise on the Cold War, the Soviet Union, Stalinism, and Russia’s intellectual history in the 20th century. Collapse: The  Fall of the Soviet Union is his latest book and is published by Yale University Press.

You can read Charlotte’s review of Collapse here.

Aspects of History Issue 7 is out now.