Scholar: USSR Would Still Exist Today, if Not for Gorbachev’s Failed Reforms
/ Go to the mediabankFlag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (File) / Go to the mediabankInternationalIndiaAfricaOn December 30, 2022, the world marked the100th anniversary of the establishment of the Soviet Union. For some people, the first socialist state was the bane of their existence, while for others it was a glimmer of hope for a better future, an image of humankind united in peace and equality.Sputnik discussed the ups and downs of the USSR with Geoffrey Roberts, professor of history at University College Cork, Ireland, a leading scholar on Soviet diplomatic and military history. The researcher elaborated on the main principles of the Soviet state and its deep impact on the global history.Sputnik: The USSR was intended to be “a voluntary association of peoples with equal rights,” one that would guarantee the “peaceful coexistence and fraternal cooperation of peoples” while serving as “a faithful bulwark against world capitalism.” How did the formation of the USSR change world politics and diplomacy for the next 70 years?Geoffrey Roberts: You have to remember that the USSR was formed with a view to the spread of revolution from Russia to other countries. The Bolsheviks expected other revolutionary states to join the USSR and that eventually there would be a global socialist federation that would replace the system of sovereign states.The Russian revolution remained isolated but the Bolsheviks did not abandon their global socialist aspirations. They adapted to peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world but continued to support socialist movements in other countries.The Bolsheviks were internationalist socialists. Frombeginning to end the USSR championed the struggle for peace and liberation from imperialist oppression. For more than seven decades it stood as radical, socialist alternative to western capitalism.© Sputnik / Vladimir Rodionov / Go to the mediabankThe USSR state flag and coat of arms at the Kremlin Palace of CongressesThe USSR state flag and coat of arms at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses / Go to the mediabankSputnik: What was absolutely new that the USSR managed to introduce, both for its own people and abroad?Geoffrey Roberts: It was the world’s first socialist country, a system based on public ownership, state planning, social welfare and egalitarianism. It showed that such a system was not utopian but a practical possibility; indeed, at times the Soviet system threatened to economically outperform even the most advanced capitalist countries.Certainly, the Bolsheviks succeeded in building a world industrial power, one that defeated Nazi Germany and then fought the United States to a standstill during the cold war. A system that created the military, economic, scientific, technical and cultural power that underpins the strength of contemporary Russia.CC BY 4.0 / Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation / (cropped image)Ranks of sappers with tracker dogs marching on Red Square during the first Victory Parade, 24 June 1945Ranks of sappers with tracker dogs marching on Red Square during the first Victory Parade, 24 June 1945Of course, the Soviet socialist system was highly flawed: it was bureaucratic, repressive and often corrupt. One should never forget the millions of innocent people who fell victim to Stalin’s fanatical determination to defend communist power from those he saw as its enemies.Even so, the USSR inspired a great deal of idealism and popular support throughout its existence. Tens of millions of people around the globe look back on Soviet socialism with nostalgia. Even those like me, who were socialist critics of system’s authoritarianism and lack of democracy have to admit that it had many virtues as well as vices.
Sputnik: Do you believe the core idea of such a state was viable? Was it somehow ahead of its time?Geoffrey Roberts: The USSR had two core ideas: socialism and multinationalism. This was a highly viable combination and the USSR would still exist today had it not been the destabilizing impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political reforms in the late 1980s. Gorbachev aimed to revitalize and democratize the Soviet system but his failed reforms opened the door to nationalists and liberals who wanted to collapse communism and fragment the multinational USSR.As a multinational state, the USSR has been described as an ‘affirmative action empire’ – which sought to end Russian ethnic oppression and domination of minority nations and establish harmonious relations between the state’s different nations and ethnic groups.As internationalists the Bolsheviks, were implacably opposed to nationalism – which they saw as a distraction from class struggle and progress towards communism. But they were willing to countenance and encourage cultural nationalism – the expression of national identity – as long as it didn’t threaten communist party rule and was compatible with the values of socialism. At the same time, they sought to foster a common Soviet identity, a patriotism that encompassed people of all nations and ethnicities.The disintegration of the USSR has served to obscure the success of the Bolsheviks and their communist successors in creating a common Soviet identity. Not long before the USSR collapsed, Gorbachev staged a referendum on the continuation of a multinational Soviet state – a goal that was endorsed by the great majority of voters.© AP Photo / Liu Heung ShinFILE – In this Sept. 9, 1990 file photo U.S. President George Bush shakes hands with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the conclusion of their joint news conference ending the one day summit in Helsinki, Finland.FILE – In this Sept. 9, 1990 file photo U.S. President George Bush shakes hands with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the conclusion of their joint news conference ending the one day summit in Helsinki, Finland.Another measure of the deep roots of Soviet patriotism is its continuation in contemporary Russia. As a multinational state, the Russian Federation is the direct successor of the USSR – a Russia that is headed by a President – Vladimir Putin – who continues to promote citizenship and patriotism as the foundation of the system, albeit one that is also conservative and capitalist.Sputnik: Was the collapse of the USSR inevitable?Geoffrey Roberts: Not at all. It is probably true to say that by the early 1990s the Soviet communist system was doomed – the best prospect being its gradual replacement by a mixed economy similar to the social democracy of, say, Scandinavia.The disintegration of the Soviet state system was another matter. The USSR didn’t just fall apart; it was broken up by Boris Yeltsin and other local leaders who utilised local nationalist movements as part of their power grab. Interestingly, while Yeltsin unleashed the forces of Russian ethnic nationalism and then pursed the so-called shock economic therapy of the 1990s – the spirit of multinational Soviet patriotism prevailed in post-Soviet Russia. It is one of the most striking features of the conduct of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, though there are strong ultra-nationalist elements who would like the war to transform into some kind of nationalist-ethnic struggle.
Sputnik: What, in your view, were the USSR’s indisputable achievements?Geoffrey Roberts: Its multinationalism, internationalism, and anti-imperialism. Its idealism and egalitarian aspirations. Above all, its valorization of peaceful coexistence between different peoples, systems and values.