Ariel Cohen Leon Aron has an interesting retrospective on the fall of the USSR. He dismisses material and materialist causes. The Soviet economy, he notes, was not prospering, but it was not imploding either. The Soviets had experienced some setbacks abroad, but nothing catastrophic. Instead, Cohen says that the collapse was impelled by glasnost and perestroika, and these were in turn rooted in a moral revulsion at the corruption of the USSR, and what the Soviet system had done to the human spirit:
For though economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs. Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be?
Cohen Aron depicts a similar moral crisis today, and intimates that it may be the catalyst for a 1991-style collapse of the ruling regime:
Which is why today’s Russia appears once again to be inching toward another perestroika moment. Although the market reforms of the 1990s and today’s oil prices have combined to produce historically unprecedented prosperity for millions, the brazen corruption of the ruling elite, new-style censorship, and open disdain for public opinion have spawned alienation and cynicism that are beginning to reach (if not indeed surpass) the level of the early 1980s.
One needs only to spend a few days in Moscow talking to the intelligentsia or, better yet, to take a quick look at the blogs on LiveJournal (Zhivoy Zhurnal), Russia’s most popular Internet platform, or at the sites of the top independent and opposition groups to see that the motto of the 1980s — “We cannot live like this any longer!” — is becoming an article of faith again. The moral imperative of freedom is reasserting itself, and not just among the limited circles of pro-democracy activists and intellectuals. This February, the Institute of Contemporary Development, a liberal think tank chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev, published what looked like a platform for the 2012 Russian presidential election:
In the past Russia needed liberty to live [better]; it must now have it in order to survive.… The challenge of our times is an overhaul of the system of values, the forging of new consciousness. We cannot build a new country with the old thinking.… The best investment [the state can make in man] is Liberty and the Rule of Law. And respect for man’s Dignity.
It was the same intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country’s past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991. The tale of this intellectual and moral journey is an absolutely central story of the 20th century’s last great revolution.
There is one major problem with this conjecture: Putin et al saw the same movie. Worse yet (in their eyes)–they lived it. They saw that the attempts at reform set off a reaction that led to the collapse of the system. They may not have read de Tocqueville, but they understand what
Cohen Aron takes from the Frenchman:
Delving into the causes of the French Revolution, de Tocqueville famously noted that regimes overthrown in revolutions tend to be less repressive than the ones preceding them. Why? Because, de Tocqueville surmised, though people “may suffer less,” their “sensibility is exacerbated.”
They certainly despise Gorbachev, most particularly for what they perceive to be his softness and sentimentality.
And they profit quite handsomely from the corruption, thank you.
Having lived the past, Putin and his ilk are not keen to repeat it. Quite the contrary. Hence the parallels
Cohen Aron sees–notably, the widening belief that “we cannot live like this any longer!”–are exactly why things will play out quite differently. Putin et al see that cry as a warning, and will not repeat Gorbachev’s mistake by reforming the system. To the contrary, they will see it as a reason to redouble their efforts to atomize society, manage the politics, create a simulacrum of democracy and representation to gull the gullible, and lean on or suborn those who are less gullible. No, Putin will make his own mistakes: he certainly will not repeat the mistakes he believes–knows–Gorbachev made.
The Russian state and Putinism are brittle. They could collapse quickly and unexpectedly. But they will not collapse in the way that the USSR collapsed. The very fact that those in control today lived through what happened 20 years ago virtually guarantees that.