As a Czech poster put it, “the Poles took ten years, the Hungarians ten months, the East Germans ten weeks, and the Czechoslovaks only ten days” to topple regimes once viewed as unassailable. Here is an attempt to distinguish the good news from the bad, taking note of what is most surprising as well as what is not.
Evil Empires: One Down, One to Go
The best news is that imperialism and political authoritarianism have once again succumbed to human aspirations. Shortly after World War II, the Soviet Union imposed its priorities on the sovereign nations of Eastern Europe. From the perspective of over 100 million East Europeans, what has mattered most since then is that for 40 years their governments have ruled only at sufferance of the Kremlin.
There is no justification for one people dictating the social affairs of another, even if the institutions “exported” are benign compared with indigenous arrangements. But in this case there is no need to consider the subtleties of the adage “revolution cannot be exported” because in post-war Eastern Europe the system imposed by force was not progressive. (1) Political life in any positive sense ceased to exist for two generations. Instead, “politics” became resisting police states in apparent competition to see which could first hire as many informers as informed upon. (2) The effect of “socialist realism” on East European culture was little different from the effect the Vandals had on Rome. In Czechoslovakia, for example, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of 1968, a flourish of activity in cinema, drama, and literature was stamped out completely and replaced with “socialist realist” propaganda, mislabeled “culture.” And, in the end, (3) the question of whether Soviet-East European trade was a rip-off or a subsidy hardly mattered since the system imposed created “zombie” economies in East Europe, just like their Soviet prototype.
We should not be deceived by the seeming ease with which one regime after another has been toppled in the past 12 months. For the past 40 years, the overwhelming unpopularity of Soviet imperialism has been demonstrated in daily passive resistance as well as periodic, heroic rebellions. The Czechoslovak, East German, and Bulgarian people benefited greatly in 1989 from the domino effect of events in Poland and Hungary. But events in Hungary reflected over 10 years of self-disciplined, painstaking changes that whittled away Soviet dominance while expanding the borders of tolerated dissent. In the case of Hungary, the changes were largely orchestrated by factions within the Communist Party, something like puppets toying with their puppet masters. The people of Poland won their freedom with a ten-year slowdown strike after one of the most impressive organizations ever to challenge an authoritarian regime, Solidarity, was physically crushed by the Polish military using the excuse, “better Polish than Russian bayonets.”
Moreover, the gradualist Hungarian struggle from 1968 to 1989 was largely a reaction to the Soviet invasion of 1956. And the rise of Solidarity in 1980 had been preceded by important challenges from intellectuals and workers in 1976 and 1970. And while the Czechs benefited from the domino effect in 1989, they paid their anti-imperialist dues during the Prague Spring of 1968.
In any case, we have just witnessed an anti-imperialist victory of immense proportions. More than 100 million people who have had little or no say over their internal and external affairs for 40 years are beginning to exercise their sovereign rights. What requires explaining is why the revolutions could succeed in 1989, and why so many anti-imperialist militants in the West are having trouble rejoicing.
Of course the most self-serving and easily disprovable interpretations are offered by the gloating Western establishment and mainstream media. They see: (1) the West finally winning the Cold War due to “our” steadfast defense of freedom and liberty, and (2) the triumph of capitalism over socialism.
First, NATO intransigence and the Reagan arms buildup acted only to delay the end of the Cold War by giving Breshnev and company an excuse for continued belligerence. If there was any Western contribution to ending the arms race, it was by the Western peace movement who apparently taught Mikhail Gorbachev and masses of West and East Europeans, if not their own leaders, that since in nuclear war everyone loses, anyone who can start a nuclear war is as powerful as the side with the largest arsenal.
Moreover, the Western Alliance did not send troops into Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1981, or break relations until the Havels of Eastern Europe were freed from jails. Official Western support for the Eastern European opposition was always calibrated to deflect scrutiny of injustice in the West by focusing attention on injustice in the East. While Gorbachev is no “born again” anti-imperialist, it was his decision not to send tanks into Eastern Europe that facilitated the East European revolutions of 1989. Western escalation of the arms race did not force this concession. It was the cumulative moral, political, and economic costs of holding onto an empire, and the incompatibility of the Breshnev Doctrine with the internal reforms Gorbachev seeks, that brought an end to the doctrine.
Second, the claim that the 1989 revolutions vindicate capitalism over socialism is even more absurd. The argument is a non-sequitur now, as it would have been 60 years ago if someone had claimed then that the Great Depression in the West vindicated Stalin. And the claim that the failures of the Eastern European and Soviet economies are the failure of socialism is also false. Regardless of what their rulers and detractors conspired to call them, as we will explain below, none of these economies was ever socialist.
Once it was clear that Moscow was unwilling to send tanks, the days for Communist governments in East Europe were numbered. Whether Gorbachev foresaw that this would lead not only to the demise of hard-line regimes, but of reform Communist regimes, Comecon, and the Warsaw Pact is hard to know. But the alternative of ordering military intervention to support regimes committed to perpetuating precisely what he was intent on dismantling in the Soviet Union was, apparently, even more problematic.
In any case, what is now obvious, and should have been all along, is that the Soviet puppet governments in Eastern Europe were completely dependent on external military support. When politics finally was reduced to a matter of internal forces, one side had nobody on it. The puppet Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe melted away just as fast and bloodlessly as the government in El Salvador would disappear if politics in Central America was reduced to a question of internal forces, say by our electing Jesse Jackson president of the U.S. on a Rainbow Coalition ticket.
Ethnic Revolt in the Soviet Union
But if anti-imperialists can unabashedly celebrate the death of Soviet rule over Eastern Europe, what should we make of challenges to Soviet government authority coming from Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Kishinyov, Baku, Alma-Ata, Dushanbe, Ashkhabad, Tashkent, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Kiev?
The Soviet Union, according to a 1990 National Geographic map, is “the largest country on earth, an unwieldy federation containing a hundred ethnolinguistic groups” and almost as many movements seeking national liberation.
The BalticRepublics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were independent between the world wars but were ceded to the Soviet sphere of influence in 1939 as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and annexed by Stalin in 1940 along with Moldavia, which Stalin pressured Romania into ceding at the same time. Not surprisingly, nationalist and separatist sentiment is strongest here.
Most of the other republics were inherited from the old Czarist empire as a result of the February and October revolutions of 1917 and the civil war of 1918-1921, in which internal opponents, actively aided by all the Western powers including the United States, failed in their efforts to dislodge the new Bolshevik government. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in 1922, it consisted of the Russian, Byelorussian, and UkrainianRepublics, and the Republic of Transcaucasia, which included all of what are now the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
On the other hand, various Central Asian nationalities fought a guerrilla war with the new Soviet regime during the 1920s. And while the Republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were added relatively quickly in 1924, the Tajiks, who speak an Iranian language and were once part of the Persian empire, were not integrated into the Soviet Union until 1929. But with the exception of the BalticRepublics, Moldavia, and Tagikistan, non-voluntary integration of minority nationalities predated the Bolsheviks. And in the important case of Azerbaijan, splitting the Azeri “community” between what is now Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union predates the Russian Revolution.
But this is not to say “nationality” has not always been a serious issues in the political life of the Soviet Union, nor that the legitimacy, much less the wisdom, of central government policies in this regard are unimpeachable. Quite the contrary: In large part, today’s ethnic problems in the Soviet Union result from “community” policies every bit as mistaken as the “political” policy of creating a single-party state, or the “economic” policies of authoritarian management within enterprises and bureaucratic, central planning.
From the very beginning, Lenin and the Bolsheviks promised a different relation between the central government and the historically distinct communities that had been forcibly integrated into the Czarist empire. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was described as a voluntary union of republics with legitimate, autonomous rights, including rights of secession, guaranteed in the Constitution. But, from the beginning, the relation between Soviet rhetoric and reality in this regard was a case study in “doublespeak.” The gap between rhetoric and reality widened steadily during Lenin’s years and assumed Orwellian dimensions during Stalin’s long reign. While rhetoric highlighted “voluntary association, autonomy, and respect for indigenous cultures,” reality featured a policy more aptly labeled “cultural homogenization.”
Proponents of cultural homogenization defend it as the only means of preventing genocide, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, pogroms, and religious persecution. The idea is that integrating historically distinct communities into a single, shared culture characterized by “scientific” rather than “primitive” modes of thought and by socialist norms and values can resolve antagonisms between the likes of Armenians and Azerbaijanis while creating communist men (and women?). Clearly the Azeri pogroms against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the retaliatory expulsions of Azeris living in Armenia, the arming of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan and the Armenian National Movement, the well-planned pogrom against Armenian residents in Baku that precipitated the Soviet Army intervention, and the recent events in Ashkhabad and Dushanbe where Moslem majorities reacted to rumors of preferential resettlement of Christian Armenian refugees in their republics, indicate that the policy has failed. When dictatorial repression disappeared, the old antagonisms proved to be sharpened, not softened, by years of cultural homogenization.
While some people argue that the failure of cultural homogenization to resolve these and other “intercommunity” hostilities was due to faulty implementation of a sound policy, and while others attribute it to the fundamental intractability of the human condition, a more plausible explanation is that the policy of cultural homogenization is inherently flawed and self-defeating. Moreover, it was not for lack of numerous “revisions,” “corrections,” and attempts to “perfect” the policy that it failed. For 70 years the central government alternated a “hard sell” and “soft sell” version of cultural homogenization—sometimes executing, arresting, or deporting nationalists and religious leaders, burning books written in non-Russian languages and non-Cyrillic alphabets, and banning symbols of cultural identification; and sometimes relaxing restrictions to the point of celebrating “quaint” local customs and “native” dances and music. But the shifts have always been tactical. The ultimate goal has always been relegating community differences to a harmless past while forging a new, common cultural identity.
The case of Sultan-Galiev is illustrative. Sultan-Galiev became a Communist in 1917 and organized the Musulman Communist Party. He fought against the White general, Kolchak, in the civil war, and received promises from central Bolshevik authorities—over opposition by local Russian leaders—that he would be permitted to establish a MusulmanState at the war’s conclusion. Stalin, who was in charge of national matters for the Party even in Lenin’s time, later withdrew the promise and ordered the merging of the Musulman Communist Party with the local Russian Communist branch in Central Asia.