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Soviet collapse due to poor leadership, not ideology

Author:Wu Enyuan     Source: Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-02-22

On Jan. 22, Sina.com reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a negative comment about Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) on the previous day, igniting a controversy in Russia.

According to the report, during a consultative meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education in Moscow on Jan. 21, Putin said that Lenin’s ideas led to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and they planted an atomic bomb under the building that was called Russia, which later exploded.

Comment on Lenin

At the meeting, Putin indeed made remarks about some of Lenin’s ideas and their relation to the fall of the Soviet Union. However, he was not referring to Lenin’s ideology as a whole. He especially emphasized Lenin’s idea of “national autonomy” and then talked about “global revolution.”

News from websites like Sina.com just left out these details and reported that he said “Lenin’s ideas ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union.” This severely distorted the truth and misled readers to think that Putin criticized all of Lenin’s ideas.

At another meeting on Jan. 25, Putin elaborated on his atomic bomb metaphor. He said that there was once a debate between Lenin and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) on how to establish a new kind of country. Lenin suggested that the Soviet Union should be made up of four entities: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the southern Caucasus Federation. He contended that these countries should enjoy equal rights and have the right to withdraw from the Soviet Union. It was this idea that Putin thought was wrong. Also, he criticized Lenin’s ideas of cultural and national autonomy. He argued all these factors as well as ineffective economic and social policies were the “atomic bomb” that slowly detonated.

Obviously, Putin did not comment on all of Lenin’s thoughts.

Evaluation of the Soviet Union

In his speech, Putin indeed heavily criticized problems of the Soviet system. He condemned the repressive measures the Bolshevik Party used during the October Revolution (1917), such as the execution of the tsar’s family and the killing of thousands of the clergy in the civil war. However, his positive remarks about the Soviet system were overlooked by those websites.

“The planned economy of the Soviet Union had definite advantages. It could concentrate national resources to accomplish major tasks. For example, it resolved the problem of health care, which was undoubtedly an achievement for the Communist Party,” Putin said.

He noted that the Communist Party also addressed education. The Russian people had the lowest level of education among European nations before the October Revolution. Two-thirds of the country’s population was illiterate. By 1940, the number of people with a primary education in the Soviet Union had reached 245 per 1,000 as a result of Lenin’s “cultural revolution.” In education, the country was outperforming developed capitalist nations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan, Putin added.

He especially stressed the great role Soviet industrialization played in boosting national defense capabilities. He said the Soviet Union would not have been prepared to fend off the Nazi Germany invasion if it had not concentrated and utilized national resources. It would have been a great tragedy for the country if they had lost World War II.

Putin also indicated his attitude about the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and communist ideas while commenting on Lenin, saying he always had an affinity for communist and socialist ideas.

Attitude towards history

In recent years, Putin has met with Russian historians many times to discuss Soviet history and historical figures. He mainly emphasized that the country’s history should not be distorted, and history should be treated dialectically.

At the end of December 2014, academician Alexander Chubarian, academic leader of the Russian National History Textbook Revision Committee and head of the World History Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, reported to President Putin about the modification of textbooks.

According to the committee, the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war can be called the “great revolution,” compared with similar revolutions in other countries. Chubarian said to Putin that most Russians could accept the aforementioned view.

Putin had little love for the tsarist autocratic system overthrown by the October Revolution. “The ideas of old Russia do not conform to today’s country. We would not have won the war against fascism if we had still been in the period of Tsar Nicholas II (reigned 1894-1917),” he said.

Putin also said that Lenin’s importance is underscored by the fact that the revolution he led is called the “great revolution.”

At a symposium in December 2014, Putin explicitly pointed out that the influences of prominent figures and major events on history should be respected, and special attention should be paid to the Soviet period. Achievements made during that period are unassailable, he added.

Reason for collapse

Academics argue that the fall of the Soviet Union involved historical and practical factors. In general, the former refers to defects of the Soviet system, while the latter means the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted reforms.

Putin’s remarks about the Soviet Union’s collapse prompted a major debate within society. People focused on whether the historical or practical factors were mainly responsible for the collapse.

On Jan. 26, the day after Putin’s speech, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian newspaper, published an interview with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev about the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union. That day, another Russian paper The Point, reviewed the interview on the front page in a story titled “Russian Government Drawing Lessons from the Soviet Union’s Collapse.”

Patrushev argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union was absolutely not caused by social economic problems but by Soviet leaders. They did not know what to do and could not find ways to resolve national difficulties. More importantly, they could not bear the responsibility and neglected the fundamental principle of governing a country, he said.

Patrushev used the conflicts in Georgia and Lithuania as an example. Troops were sent to local areas at the time, but they made no difference when they arrived. Lacking political will at a key moment, Soviet leaders lost the capacity and confidence needed to protect the nation. They did not adopt necessary economic measures as well, he said.

Russian newspaper The Independent also said that the main reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was the failure of Gorbachev’s reform policies. He did not formulate strategic plans for economic and political reform. He also pushed the Soviet Communist Party to relinquish its leadership over the state, resulting in the chaos while failing to adopt measures to protect the country, including economic measures. Furthermore, he did not act to quell national riots in areas such as Georgia and Lithuania.

It is rare to hear a senior Russian official like Patrushev denounce a Soviet leader for the fall of the Soviet Union and for a Russian newspaper to review the reason for its collapse on the front page more than 20 years after the event. The remarks made by Patrushev were just an interpretation and complement to Putin’s speech as well as a cogent reply to academics in the debate on the Soviet Union’s collapse.


Wu Enyuan is the former director of the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


Editor  :  Ma Yuhong

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