How the Impossible Becomes Inevitable: The Public Sphere and the Collapse of Soviet Communism

Mark R. Beissinger, Princeton University

Viewed in retrospect, the collapse of Soviet communism appears over-determined for all the reasons often cited. A highly repressive political system that could broker no genuine pluralism; a sclerotic, ritualized ideology that had lost its meaning; the inflexibility of a planned economy and its inability to compete with a post-industrial, globalizing capitalism; Soviet overreach abroad; a falling standard of living; endemic corruption; stalled upward mobility; an increasingly educated and complex society; the legacy of Stalinist coercion–the list is indeed a long one.

And yet, when viewed from the perspective of late 1986 and early 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policy of glasnost’ (openness), the collapse of Soviet communism appeared utterly inconceivable to nearly everyone. The Soviet collapse was one of the most notoriously unanticipated developments of modern history. Western experts overwhelmingly believed at the time that while reform of the Soviet state was probable, the end of the communist regime and the dissolution of the Soviet state were highly unlikely, if not impossible. Even the vast majority of Soviet dissidents were totally dumbfounded by these events as they unfolded. In this respect, the issue that needs to be addressed in any understanding of the Soviet collapse is not whether larger structural conditions made the demise of Soviet communism and the disintegration of the Soviet state the only outcome that could have possibly occurred; rarely is history ever so pre-determined that agency and choice have absolutely no say in the matter. Rather the critical question is how Soviet collapse–as opposed to its alternatives–came to be widely viewed as inevitable by a population that, only a short while before, could barely imagine such an outcome.

And here, the emergence of a public sphere under glasnost’ and the political contention that this set in motion played central roles. In a country in which political discourse was tightly controlled, glasnost’ was Gorbachev’s policy of creating a public sphere, of drawing society into processes of reform in order to confront longstanding social problems, to hold bureaucratic secrecy and corruption up to the bright light of public scrutiny, and to establish a sense of societal ownership over the state. At first, glasnost’ manifested itself primarily in the operation of official institutions through the lifting of censorship. Films and literary works previously banned began to appear, and the press rushed headlong into the opening space to occupy former “forbidden zones,” to discuss previously taboo social problems, and to fill in the “blank spots” in official history. But within a few months small groups of the repressed and the marginalized (hippies, environmentalists, Jewish refuseniks, Russian nationalists, Crimean Tatars, and Baltic dissidents) began to test the boundaries of the permissible by engaging in protest demonstrations, opening up an alternative public sphere on the streets. Throughout the glasnost’ revolution the public spheres emerging within and outside of official institutions were closely intertwined. The discursive space that developed within official institutions reverberated onto the streets, as groups tested the limits of the possible. And what occurred on the streets in turn reflected itself back into the government office, fostering divisions among elites and playing into the politics of Gorbachev’s institutional reforms. Indeed, most of the protests through the middle of 1989 took place under the banner of Gorbachev’s program of perestroika (restructuring), and Gorbachev repeatedly portrayed these acts not as a threat, but as a positive instrument for change.

But completely contrary to Gorbachev’s intentions and those of the rest of the Soviet leadership, issues of nationalism pushed themselves onto the political agenda, ultimately coming to dominate it. In this respect, the establishment of an autonomous public sphere threw into sharp relief issues of identity and legitimacy that underlie any political order and that, in the Soviet case, were particularly acute given the legacies of Stalinist coercion and longstanding limitations on political and cultural expression. It also provided the space in which a politics of contention could play itself out. If evoking an autonomous public sphere into existence was intended to subject the state to society’s ownership, then the thorny questions of “whose state?” and “which society?” naturally arise, particularly in a multicultural context in which voice had been routinely suppressed, exit prohibited, and loyalty compelled. Nationalist discourse and consciousness crystallized only gradually, over a protracted five-year period in which new revelations filled the newspapers every day, a dizzying array of institutional changes were enacted, and dozens (at times hundreds) of protests came to be mounted on a daily basis–many of them spectacular events. In fact, the first major eruptions of nationalism did not even take place until almost a year-and-a-half after glasnost’ had begun (in February 1988 in Armenia and Azerbaijan, when millions demonstrated over the issue of Karabakh) and had nothing to do with the secessionist issues that ultimately pulled apart the Soviet state. But as politics moved increasingly from the government office into the streets, issues of nationalism, once effectively marginalized, pushed themselves stridently into the emerging public sphere. At first, most nationalist mobilization centered around calls for freedom of movement, increased autonomy, and linguistic and cultural expression, following closely the liberalizing and reformist spirit underlying glasnost’. But as institutional constraints diminished, and as events took on a momentum of their own, demands began to be framed with increasing boldness, focusing in a number of republics on outright secession.

Leading the way in this nationalist upsurge were the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which, almost five decades earlier, had been forcefully incorporated into the USSR as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In spring and summer 1988, in connection with Gorbachev’s Nineteenth Party Conference convened to enact major political reforms, what began as calls by the official intelligentsia in the Baltic for truthfulness in the writing of history and a decentralization of economic decision-making developed into a powerful wave of nationalist mobilization. Under the banner of perestroika, euphoric crowds of hundreds of thousands seized control of the new public sphere, ousting local party bosses, singing long-forbidden nationalist songs, and affirming their desire for “sovereignty” (which, under the influence of subsequent events, would quickly develop into demands for full-fledged independence). Over the course of the following year, as other groups emulated the success of the Balts, the USSR experienced an explosion of nationalist protest. By summer 1989 demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands (and sometimes up to a million) racked the Baltic, the Transcaucasus, Ukraine, and Moldova, and multiple violent inter-ethnic conflicts broke out across the southern tier of the USSR, in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Large-scale protest spread to the Russian community as well, as massive coal miner strikes enveloped eastern Ukraine, western Siberia, and northern Kazakhstan.

In fall 1989 this tide of mobilization overflowed Soviet boundaries into Soviet-dominated East Europe, helping to precipitate a dizzying three-month cascade of events that brought an end to communist regimes there and to the Cold War division of Europe. In turn, the collapse of communism in East Europe further accelerated and radicalized processes of nationalist revolt within the Soviet Union, leading to a sense that a momentum had built up against the Soviet state and regime that could no longer be contained. With republican elections in the first half of 1990, separatist movements came to power in multiple regions of the USSR, and the authority of the Soviet government was confounded by a concatenation of sovereignty declarations–including that of the Russian republic. Indeed, throughout this period Russians, the dominant nationality of the Soviet Union, had come to understand themselves in radically different terms in the ways in which they borrowed from, allied themselves with, or struggled against the tide of nationalism that was washing across the country. In 1988 the idea that Russia might someday declare its sovereignty vis-a-vis the Soviet Union seemed completely absurd. By May 1990, under the influence of events elsewhere in the Soviet Union, a Russian declaration of sovereignty was taken for granted by all factions within the Russian legislature, including the Communist Party faction. Even earlier, in March 1990 the new government of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union; Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia had made clear their intentions to follow suit. Azerbaijan was prevented from doing so only by a bloody intervention by the Soviet army in January 1990, and Ukraine was sending signals that it too might opt for exit unless it was given the right to its own army and national currency. In the meantime, the Soviet and Russian governments remained at constant loggerheads over the reach of their respective sovereignties, and the Soviet economy descended into complete collapse. Public opinion polls show that by December 1990 a little over a quarter of the Soviet population had come to believe that what was once the unthinkable–the disintegration of the Soviet Union–had become “inevitable” (an astounding figure given that this was still eight months before the failed August 1991 coup that would eventually precipitate the ultimate demise of the country). After August 1991 the populations of most republics voted overwhelmingly in support of independence. Even public opinion polls inside Russia indicated clear majorities favoring the end of the Soviet state. In short, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, not only had the unthinkable become the thinkable; it had become the prosaic.

Viewed in light of what came before and after, the glasnost’ era was a highly unusual period of “thickened history” in which the pace of events accelerated tremendously and acquired a sense of their own momentum. The formation of a public sphere under glasnost’ generated processes that brought about immense transformations in how both Russians and non-Russians thought about themselves and their relationship to political authority. As the collapse illustrates, normally there is a strong tendency for individuals to adjust their beliefs to the limits of the possible, accepting a given institutional arrangement as unalterable and natural precisely because it cannot be changed. The introduction of an autonomous public sphere in the Soviet Union in the form of glasnost’ thus altered the course of modern history by altering the boundaries of the possible and the thinkable, creating a space in which individuals could gain a new understanding of themselves under a daily onslaught of challenge and change and could act to transform the seemingly impossible and unimaginable into the seemingly inevitable.

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