5.12 What Went Wrong with the USSR

The Cold War

In historical hindsight, the paradox of a “communist” country that so profoundly failed to realize its stated goals of freedom, equality, and justice, has led many people to speculate about what was inherently flawed with the Soviet system. There are many theories, three of which are considered below.

One idea is that the Soviet state was trapped in impossible circumstances. It was cut off from the aid of the rest of the world until after World War II, and the Bolsheviks inherited control of a backwards, economically-underdeveloped nation. They did their best, however brutal their methods, to catch up with the nations of the West and to create at least the possibility of a better life for future Soviet citizens. This thesis is supported by the success of the Red Army: if Stalin had not industrialized Russia and the Ukraine by force, the theory goes, the results of World War II would have been even more awful.

Another take is that communism is somehow contrary to human nature and thus doomed to failure, no matter what the circumstances or context. Here, scholars note the incredible prevalence of corruption at every level of Soviet society: the huge black market and the nepotism and infighting present in everything from getting a job to getting an apartment in one of the major cities. Greed proved an implacable foe to communist social organization, with the Party reaping the benefits of their positions – better food, better housing, vacations – that were never available to rank-and-file citizens.

A more subtle and sympathetic interpretation is that some kind of communism might be possible (social democracies have thrived in Europe for decades, after all), but the Soviet system went mad with trying to control everything. The Soviet economy was the ultimate expression of the idea of a “command economy,” with every product produced according to arcane quotas set by huge bureaucracies within the Soviet state, and every industry was beholden to equally unrealistic quotas. The most elementary laws of supply and demand in economics were ignored in favor of irrational, and indeed arbitrary, systems of production. The results were chronic shortages of goods and services people actually needed (or wanted) and equally vast surpluses of useless, shoddy junk, from ill-fitting shoes to unreliable machinery.

All of these ideas have something to them. It should also be considered that there had never been anything like a democratic or liberal society in Russia. There was no tradition of what the British called the “loyal opposition” of political parties who may disagree on particulars but who are still accepted as legitimate expressions of the will and opinion of parts of the citizenry. There were no “checks and balances” to hold back corruption either, and by the Brezhnev era political connections were far more important than was any kind of heartfelt devotion to Marxist theory. Thus, the kinds of decisions made by the Soviet leadership were inspired by a pure, ruthless will to see results against a backdrop of staggering inefficiency and corruption.

In the end, perhaps the biggest problem with the Soviet system was the fact that it was more important to fit into the system than to speak the truth. The essential threat of violence and imprisonment during the Stalinist period cast a long shadow on the rest of Soviet history. Conformity, ideological dogmatism, and indifference to any notion of fairness were all synonymous with “success” in Soviet society. Before long, competence and honesty were threats to too many people already in power to be allowed to exist – as an example, famous Russian scientists lived under house arrest for decades because they could not be disposed of, but neither could they be allowed to state their views openly.

It also bears consideration that not everything about Soviet society was, actually, a failure. After the “Thaw” in the early 1950s, almost no one was executed for simply disagreeing with the state, and prison terms were much shorter. Standards of living were mediocre, but medical care, housing, and food was either free or cheap because of state subsidies. The kind of “leveling-out” associated with communist theory did happen, in a sense, because most people lived at a similar standard of living, the perks allowed to senior members of the Communist Party notwithstanding. In the end, the Soviet Union represented one of the most profound, albeit often blood-soaked and inhumane, political experiments in world history.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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