Sunday, June 21, 2009

Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism To The New Cold War by Stephen F. Cohen

Stephen F. Cohen's latest publication, "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism To The New Cold War," deals with a variety of events within Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history while outlining missed opportunities/roads not taken within each specific event. He does not so much deal in 'what-if' or 'counterfactual' scenarios as set up and explain existing alternatives that could have been pursued. Simply showing that alternatives within Soviet society existed inevitably puts into question much of the reasoning behind the idea that the Soviet Union was unreformable, especially when put into context with the sustainability of the Soviet Union through, for example, Khrushchev's reforms.

The text is made up of seven chapters; the first is devoted to Nikolai Bukharin, someone Cohen has written about in the past. While I do not think Bukharin could have been a rival to Stalin, in the full sense of the word (perhaps as Trotsky was), I think Cohen's real point within the chapter is encompassed in his discussion of NEP (New Economic Policy) which lasted some eight years, until the five year plans began. This phase of the Soviet Union is viewed by many as a 'golden' time, a time of at least some opportunity when state owned enterprises existed along side privately run companies/trades. But Cohen stops short of guessing what the Soviet Union could have become had NEP policies been pursued rather his point here is solely to show that an alternative to Stalin's five year plans existed, had been implemented and accepted by both the government and its citizens, and could have continued and evolved for years to come.

The next chapter discusses the GULag returnees during Khrushchev's administration. It was only after Khurshchev's condemnation of the 'cult of personality' in 1956 that millions of those convicted and imprisoned under Stalin were exonerated. Cohen then covers how these former zeks were treated by Soviet society as well as their impact on Khrushchev's administration and the reforms of his era. Some died in tragic or lonely circumstances while others rose through the ranks of their respective professions. Cohen does point out that while no former prisoners acquired positions in the highest rungs of power, many became local leaders and were able to play a role in the future policies Khrushchev would become responsible for. This was also a time period which saw accusations by Khrushchev and his allies against the likes of Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov, who were soon expelled from the party. Many often wonder why there was no Soviet equivalent to the Nuremberg trials, this was probably as close as the Soviets came. Other initiatives were begun against former Communist party higher ups, but the problem is that Khrushchev himself had blood on his hands and if he began to seek out those responsible for the previous crimes of the Soviet state against its own population, most likely more people would have been imprisoned than were being rehabilitated and released.

The third chapter deals with "Soviet conservatism" and the figure of Yegor Ligachev. Undoubtedly conservatives in the US differ markedly from those in the Soviet Union but, as Cohen explains through the lens of Ligachev, they are not simply neo-Stalinists bent on terrorizing the Soviet population and hording power at the top. On the contrary, after examining Ligachev's history Cohen attempts to show that "Soviet conservatism" in this case signified a yearning to reform the Soviet Union and keep it in tact. This type of conservatism has to be understood vis-a-vis the policies Gorbachev implemented during the late 1980s. Men like Ligachev aimed to have Soviet policies improved upon not reinvented.

Building on the previous chapter the fourth chapter goes into detail about whether the Soviet system was reformable. Of course, following how Cohen views NEP, the answer is that he believes it was. Today many in the west, with exaggerated egos, believe that the Soviet system was doomed to failure, even though none predicted its end. If a nation like America can exploit the system of slavery for centuries and then turn around and champion their emancipation followed a century later by the civil rights movement, why is it that the USSR, and Russia in general, is forced to carry the stigma of an empire beyond redemption? On the contrary, from the early years of the revolution the Soviet state modified itself to suit the needs of its government, ideology, and population. From creating war communism, to NEP, to five year plans, the destruction of Stalin's 'cult of personality' together with Khrushchev's reforms, a movement of what some label 'neo-Stalinism' under Brezhnev, to a reform minded Gorbachev who instituted Glasnost and Peterstroika, considered by some to have been the most 'democratic' period of recent history. Are these the actions of an unreformable empire?

Chapter five works off the previous chapter and takes on the fate of the Soviet Union, specifically, 'Why did it end?' While there are many figures one can point to, I believe Cohen is quite candid in placing his blame on the shoulders of Yeltsin and perhaps to a lesser degree on Gorbachev. While Gorbachev seems to come out as partly realistic and idealistic in his outlook, Yelstin was simply a man bent on acquiring power, no matter who he had to go through, lie to, or manipulate. An interesting argument is made regarding Gorbachev's reforms and their 'destabilizing' of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, his reforms were not meant to stabilize a system that was not working, rather they were supposed to destabilize it and propel it forward via new initiatives and policies. Evens so, it was Gorbachev's "promarket policies" that initiated the rapid grab for assets, in both legal and illegal means, through which today's Russian oligarchs were created. Yeltsin eventually used these same oligarchs, and they him, in helping curb democratic principles throughout the 1990s. Personally, I viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as inevitable, there just seemed to have been so much going wrong all at once. Specifically, I saw nationalism as playing a large, if not the largest, role. Cohen, however, argues to the contrary. The demonstrations and protests by various ethnicities, which many quickly attribute to ideas of self-determination or "nationalist revolution-from-below" were in fact organized to redress grievances "within the framework of the Union" or directed against other ethnicities, but not that of the USSR. The rest of the chapter deals with all the other usual suspects in the collapse of the USSR (economy, reforms, etc) and Cohen puts them into a coherent and understandable context which has made me rethink what happened and what an alternative might consist of.

The next chapter goes into the legacies of Gorbachev. While he failed in his reforms, obviously he was not aiming at the dissolution of the USSR but rather an improvement on the model before him, what came after under Boris Yeltsin was another step in the wrong direction. Cohen adheres to the idea that it was Gorbachev rather than Yeltsin who ushered in democracy, contrary to what many specialists believe today. Cohen believes this "historical amnesia" was inspired by US ideology which after the breakup of the Soviet Union rewrote the history of the Cold War's end to include a "US Victory" rather than the agreed upon "end" between the two sides with no victors or losers. Throughout the 1990s Yeltsin began to use the oligarchs that Gorbachev's policies first created in cracking down on democratic liberties. The mass media began to be used for manipulation purposes which has continued to this day. Journalists reminisce about Gorbachev's reforms, a time when they were able to pry into Soviet history and spark debates about taboo topics, while during Yeltsin the public was kept in the dark about corruption, human rights abuses, and crime. For Cohen there is a real similarity between 1917 and 1991. In both instances small groups were ushered into power based on promises of "evolutionary progress" but in the end struggles over property and territory tore the nation apart and standing economic institutions were done away.

The last chapter, and by far the most interesting of this book, deals with who was/is responsible for the cooling of relations between the Russian Federation and America. In this case Cohen is not afraid to utilize the expression 'Cold War' to define the attitudes of the US and Russia toward each other, and, perhaps, in a way he is right. But Cohen is also not afraid to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of whom he thinks is in the wrong, Washington. From announcing to the US that the Cold War was won by the US in 1992 (by George H. W. Bush) to the failed policies under Clinton, which seem solely to have plunged Russia into an ever expanding economic hole and let NATO expand its influence to Russia's proverbial doorstep, to the presidency of the second Bush who moved away from arms treaties and provided new impetus for Russia to feel threatened and again seek to find friends among the likes of Iran, Venezuela, etc. Even with the current Obama administration many of those responsible for the initial policies and activities vis-a-vis Russia are still in place, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. The double standards and hypocrisy of the US government, mass media, and even academics is clearly laid out. Another opportunity lost for the US, especially at a time when Russia could have contributed greatly to many American initiatives, including the "war on terror." The largest problem, for Cohen, in how the US deals with Russia is that some parties seem to encourage a destabilization of the current regime. How helpful is that if Russia still possesses stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons? Not very. But apparently showing off a US with the ego and arrogance of a sole superpower means more to Washington's power elite than trying to help Russia and encourage a friendly, open, and reciprocal relationship that will undoubtedly pay off in the long run more so than antagonizing Putin and his country to the point of creating an atmosphere akin to a "cold war."

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