The demise of the USSR
In the mid-1990’s, two Western researchers on the USSR set out to answer the question of what brought the USSR down – and to do so without assuming that the final result was inevitable. David Kotz and Fred Weir, both Russian experts who had lived and worked in the USSR, interviewed hundreds of senior Soviet officials, men and women who had been in the halls of Russian power as the empire peeled away from them day after day.
“Great powers have declined in history,” they later wrote, ” but never so rapidly and unexpectedly.”
Kotz and Weir’s research concluded that the USSR didn’t collapse because of popular pressure upward from the grass root of Soviet life – but largely because of the ruthless power math of Soviet elites themselves and some terrible miscalculations by Gorbachev.
Politburo members like Gorbachev certainly held sway on the macro level, but the Soviet nomenklatura, a label that means “list of names” in Russian, actually ran the country.
The nomenklatura were the army officers, professors, and officials who had managed the day-to-day work of the USSR since the 1917 revolution.
These elites were a very small percentage of the Soviet population. But, Kotz and Weir found in their discussions, the nomenklatura decided, once Gorbachev began reforming a system that had protected their rights and privileges, they had more to gain by letting the USSR fracture than by holding it together.
If you were sitting on top of the empire when it fell down, the nomenklatura logic went, you would surely be in the best place to pick up the pieces.
This was a cold, selfish decision. It was also, fatally, one that Gorbachev hadn’t anticipated in full.
“The ultimate explanation for the surprisingly peaceful and sudden demise of the Soviet system,” Weir and Kotz wrote, “was that it was abandoned by most of its own elite.”
Had the USSR collapsed in face of a real revolution, like the one that created the Soviet Union in 1917, it would look very different today.
After all, the mark of the a true people’s revolution, is that the old leaders are shot, exiled, or forgotten.
But two decades later, all across the former USSR, the top leaders, the richest billionaires, and the most powerful politicians were usually the same men who had lingered near the top of the system in the old days. Was Vladimir Putin, the two-term Russian president who followed Boris Yeltsin, some-up-from-the-streets ideologue?
No. He was once an elite KGB agent, a prince of the old order.