The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years, Part I: The Moral and Spiritual Dimensions of the Collapse

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the first in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Gorbachev addresses
a Communist Party rally

A number of foreign policy journals and think tanks have focused on the revolution in 1991 at its twentieth anniversary. As I have read through these articles and attended several seminars on this topic in recent months, I am surprised at how little we have learned.

Despite a dramatic increase in scholarly publications that highlight the importance of religion in international affairs, the leading Western scholars on Russia have not gotten the message. I attended a one-day seminar at the distinguished Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and listened to nine panelists who discussed the collapse of the Soviet Union without mentioning the role of religion and the impact of Russian Orthodox priests and other religious leaders. Even when several of us in the audience asked questions about this omission, the topic was largely dismissed.

The foreign policy elites in the West continue to operate as “genteel secularists” and this blind spot on religion is continuing to hamper their analysis, in my judgment. At the Kennan Institute seminar, a former U. S. ambassador to Russia described the three revolutions in Russia in 1991 – the political revolution that ended the one-party rule of the Communist Party, the economic revolution that replaced the centrally-controlled economy with a free market, and the military or imperial revolution that brought a dramatic reduction in the size of Russian armed forces and their pull-back from their former satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe.

This analysis focusing only on political, economic and military factors is the typical lens through which Western scholars and policy analysts view developments internationally. But this analysis is like viewing events with one eye closed. There were not just three revolutions taking place in Russia in 1991 — there were five.! In addition to the political, economic and military revolutions, there were two others – a social revolution and a moral/spiritual revolution. This was a unique phenomena in modern history.

The social revolution involved the complete collapse of all the supporting mechanisms for families and communities. The Young Pioneers and their summer youth camps were disbanded, the various Communist Party social and cultural centers that provided training and childcare were closed, along with numerous other social networks.

These were an integral part of life throughout the Soviet Union, enabling parents to work while providing activities for their children. Their disappearance left families without the support they needed to endure the radical political and economic changes underway.

Overlooking the dramatic social revolution of the late 1980s was an unfortunate oversight, but missing the moral/spiritual revolution was egregious. While, on the one hand, the failure of Western scholars to understand the importance of dramatic changes in the moral and spiritual environment in Russia is not surprising because they view religion as unimportant, what is surprising is that moral and spiritual factors were overlooked even when Russian leaders involved in these dramatic events talked and wrote about them openly and frequently!

Mikhail Gorbachev’s bestseller, Perestroika, discusses the reasons for his and his colleagues’ “new thinking” related to the re-structuring of the Soviet Union. He describes how Communist Party leaders in the late 1970s began to realize that the country “began to lose momentum” – a kind of “braking mechanism” had formed affecting social and economic development. In addition to economic stagnation and deadlock, Gorbachev identified the “gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people.” He noted how a “breach had formed between word and deed” which caused a “decay” in public morals.

To the author of Perestroika, the challenge was clear: to re-structure Soviet society, including its moral life. In his own words, Gorbachev makes this point: “Today our main job is to lift the individual spiritually, respecting his inner world and giving him moral strength. . . . Perestroika means the elimination from society of the distortions of socialist ethics, the inconsistent implementation of the principles of social justice. It means the unity of words and deeds, rights and duties.” Gorbachev was describing a moral and spiritual revolution! How did Western scholars miss this?

Gorbachev visits Pope John Paul II
at the Vatican (1989)

During his visit to the Vatican in 1989, Gorbachev again made his views explicit. He said: “We need spiritual values, we need a revolution of the mind. This is the only way toward a new culture and new politics that can meet the challenge of our time. We have changed attitudes toward some matters – such as religion – that, admittedly, we used to treat in a simplistic manner. . . . Now we not only proceed from the assumption that no one should interfere in matters of the individual’s conscience; we also say that the moral values that religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too. . . .”

Western scholars and policy makers failed in their diagnosis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and their failure to see and understand the moral and spiritual dimensions of Russian society will continue to limit the value of their analysis. Gorbachev saw something that Western scholars and policy makers continue to overlook – that the moral and spiritual foundations of Russian society need to be rebuilt before free and just political and economic institutions can be formed.