Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, by Yegor Gaidar (Brookings Institution Press, 332 pp., $29.95)
What do the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s and present-day Russia have in common? If Yegor Gaidar’s Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia is any guide, both nations suffered from post-imperial syndrome. In Germany’s case, this eventually led to the Nazi regime, with Hitler exploiting nostalgia for a lost empire. Nostalgia is always and everywhere easy to sell, writes Gaidar. But Germany was in a desperate economic situation in the 1930s. This is not the case in Russia today.
Nevertheless, Gaidar wonders what would happen if petroleum prices fell and the oil-addicted Russian state went bankrupt. How then could Russia escape the temptation to resurrect an aggressive authoritarian regime? Gaidar stresses the importance of historical memory. Most young Russians do not understand why the USSR collapsed, he contends; if they did, they would not yearn for its return. According to Gaidar, most Russians believe that the Soviet Union was a stable and powerful country 20 years ago. Then, strange people—perhaps agents of foreign intelligence services—enacted political and economic reforms, with catastrophic results. Luckily, around 2000, new leaders arose, dedicated to the nation’s interests; life improved again. This is more or less the story that Russian president Vladimir Putin tells and what his huge constituency believes. It’s a dangerous myth, Gaidar says.
Inspired by the eighteenth-century historians Edward Gibbon and Charles de Montesquieu, who attempted to explain the downfall of the Roman Empire, Gaidar boldly assesses why the Soviet Empire was doomed. He may not reach their stylistic heights, but he has the advantage of having been there—he served as Boris Yeltsin’s economic adviser and acting prime minister. He even attended the USSR’s formal disintegration under the December 1991 Belavezha Accords. For exclusively economic reasons, he writes, Soviet failure was preordained. The centralized Soviet economy was incapable of adapting to change and completely dependent on world-market oil prices. Its heavy military spending precluded productive investments. In the late eighties, when oil prices crashed, a balance-of-payment crisis was the last straw in bringing down the regime. It was as simple as that.
This account employs an ironic kind of Marxist rationale for the Soviet collapse, assigning causality only to economic forces while dismissing other factors. In Gaidar’s telling, human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were minor actors. Nor did Ronald Reagan play a major role in the Soviet fall: Gaidar rejects American neoconservatives’ theory that the new arms race that Reagan triggered led to Soviet bankruptcy. There was no arms race, he explains: Soviet inertia rendered the military unable to compete with the U.S. from the outset.
Russia was lucky, Gaidar writes, that he and Yeltsin were around to pick up the pieces. The two happen to be the most vilified politicians in Russia today, which is one of Gaidar’s motives for writing this book. Under their leadership, he argues, Russia became a functioning free-market democracy in less than a decade. It was far from perfect, but a free press and an independent parliament did provide checks and balances. Private entrepreneurship, albeit corrupt, fostered an economic resurrection, aided by skyrocketing oil prices. Paradoxically, the new prosperity gave birth to the post-imperial syndrome. Nostalgia for the USSR emerged as a by-product of a better life. Putin has systematically exploited this sentiment to rewrite Soviet history and resurrect an authoritarian central state. However, Gaidar is honest and cautious enough not to confuse this “soft authoritarian” Russian state, which he does not see as a threat to the world, with the totalitarian USSR.
Still, the Russian economy’s excessive dependence on historically anomalous oil prices could make for a risky future. Gaidar wonders whether Russia’s political and economic institutions will prove flexible enough to cope with another balance-of-payment crisis. If not, Russia may yet meet an end similar to the Soviet Union’s. And on this critical point, Gaidar—no Cassandra, but rather a sober analyst of the half-baked illiberal democracy that is Russia today—has written a book far more instructive than most of the Western media’s mass-produced anti-Putin pamphlets.