“The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part II: The Loss of Moral Legitimacy

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 second in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The moral and spiritual upheaval in Russia that contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union is a phenomenon largely overlooked by Western scholars and policy makers. Western elites, who do not consider religion to be a major factor in a nation’s corporate life and who find people’s belief in transcendent values to be of little interest, have missed essential factors that helped to undermine the Soviet regime.

In my last “Reflections,” we reviewed Mikhail Gorbachev’s open and repeated statements about the need for a moral and spiritual revolution in the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev severed the link between Marxism-Leninism and atheism in 1988, this was a dramatic reversal in Communist Party ideology.

The USSR was the first nation in the 20th century to be specifically created as a secular state and its militant atheism was firmly grounded in Marxist-Leninist thought, which identified religion as “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev knew that the policy of militant atheism was a failure and he pushed through a new law in 1990 that “guarantees the right of citizens to decide and express their attitudes toward religion.” He realized that the Soviet state had failed to eliminate religion from Russian society and that Christians had made and were making important contributions to their country, as they were in the West.

On the occasion of the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia in 1988, Gorbachev honored the Russian Orthodox Church. Gorbachev recognized, more than many politicians in the US and Western Europe, that a new political and economic order could not be built without a moral foundation.

As Leon Aron (American Enterprise Institute) has pointed out, Gorbachev’s key advisers shared his strong convictions about the need for a moral revolution. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the “godfather of glasnost,” in an interview in 1989, said “Enough! We cannot live like this any longer. Everything must be done in a new way . . . . There has come an understanding that it is simply impossible to live as we lived before. . . .”

Gorbachev’s Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, noted that the “moral state of the society” in 1985 was its “most terrifying” feature. He boldly declared that Communist Party leaders “stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another.” The Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, recalls telling Gorbachev in 1984-85: “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.”

Mikhail Bulgakov

These radical changes in the perspectives of the government leaders in Gorbachev’s cabinet was a reflection of larger currents in society. Bottom-up changes were also underway. In my many trips to Russia in the early 1990s, I repeatedly asked Russian university students what their favorite books were. One book stood out with no challenger in sight – Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

This brilliant novel, written in 1940 but not published until 1967 because of the opposition of Soviet censors, creatively weaves together three stories. The first is a love story about an author (called “the Master”) and his girlfriend Margarita; the second is a delightful satire on life in Moscow in the 1930s in which a professor of black magic (who is Satan portrayed as Professor Woland) causes havoc through his supernatural powers; and the third story deals with the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate leading up to and including Jesus’ brutal crucifixion.

I know a number of Russian students who have read this book 20-25 times! If I had to summarize a book as complex and intricate as The Master and Margarita, I would say one of its central messages is this: Only a fool believes there is no God! The brilliance of Bulgakov is that he used Satan’s testimony to prove the existence of God.

Chingis Aitmatov

There are many other examples in the creative arts and in the mass media that illustrate the basic crisis that Marxist-Leninist ideology was going through. Chingis Aitmatov, the popular writer from Kirghizia, wrote a remarkably pointed essay in Pravda in February 1987 in which he stated that 70 years of Soviet power succeeded in removing Christian values but failed to replace them with anything positive. He charged that Soviet society was devoid of “compassion” and dominated by ruthlessness in a way that raped the concept of social justice.

From the bottom-up and then the top-down, a moral and spiritual revolution was underway in the 1980s that contributed to the collapse of the USSR. The bottom line was this: Marxism-Leninism was a false ideology that lead to the creation of a corrupt society and a government that had no moral legitimacy. Just like the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the Communist Party of the USSR lost its moral legitimacy and had no defenders left in December 1991.

Twenty years ago, the Russian people decided that they had had enough of the lies and hypocrisy of the Soviet system and instead wanted dignity, freedom and true citizenship. Unfortunately this powerful moral impulse, as Leon Aron notes, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the successful remaking of a country. Reflections on this will follow.