As states go, the Soviet Union died young. It also never made it to where it really wanted to be: communism.
The first socialist state – and empire, and then superpower – did not die innocent or, actually, without achievements. It has left humanity a rich record of stifling bureaucracy, ideological mulishness, and, last but not least, a legacy of tyranny and oppression, at first manically bloodthirsty and then (mostly) depressingly drab. But it also left us – almost hidden in plain sight – the imprint of its crucial contribution of eliminating the scourge posed by Nazi ideology. It's a fact abused for propaganda, but it's still a fact.
The centenary of 1917 brings home just how short the life of that country so ambitious, so failed, and so consequential really was. While its mythical birthday is only a century ago, it has already been more than a quarter century since its death. Middle-aged professors – like this author – who teach about it can remember it, but most of their students cannot. This simple fact must have consequences for how we think about the Soviet system, which the October Revolution of 1917 spawned.
For now, never mind about some eternal questions: that maybe the Bolshevik seizure of power didn’t deserve to be called a revolution; that we can count two (or maybe many more?) revolutions; that perhaps the collapse of Russia’s Old Regime was more important than both; or that the real founding of the Soviet Union took place not in 1917, but in the years of civil war that followed it.
Instead, let’s speculate. Not by asking what the revolution would look like now if Stalin had not happened, or Trotsky or Bukharin had. Let’s ask about something equally counter-factual, but perhaps more realistic: what would the revolution look like now if the Soviet Union still existed?
Lots of intriguing ‘what ifs’ surround the Soviet Union’s implosion. For instance, what if the long awaited, yet totally unprepared plotters hadn’t attempted to oust the first and last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991?; what if Gorbachev’s rival, Boris Yeltsin, had been less ambitious and vengeful?; what if Soviet elites all across the empire had not been what their regime so thoroughly raised them to be, opportunists and cynics?
If fate had twisted or turned just a little differently, could the Soviet Union – or maybe most of it, say, minus the Baltic States – have become what Gorbachev seemed to dream about: a democratic society opting – counter-intuitively given its experiences – to give Soviet socialism yet another chance at reforming itself?
Most likely, not.
A life cut short has no time for being nostalgic even about a bad childhood. Yet if it had lasted, what would our coverage of the revolution look like now? In that alternative universe, the revolution could be presented as the beginning of an ultimately viable future by linking up to a present that would have overcome some – extremely brutal – aberrations on the way to becoming its authentic, grown-up self.
This year is not just the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s revolutionary experience, it also has featured a massive congress in China, in which a Communist Party ruling a rising global power celebrated itself in pomp and splendor. Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a keynote speech of top-notch apparatchik breadth and length, and The Economist – no less – described him as “the world’s most powerful man.” All set against a backdrop of political decay in the USA, that old Cold War nemesis of the Soviets.
Could the Soviet Union have been China? We now know that the Soviet elite did not simply overlook the question; we also have been told why, by the 1980s at least, the answer may well have been an inescapable “no.”
Yet, what would we say about the October Revolution if its duly transformed product was still with us – not in the shape of the oxymoronic Leninist social democracy that Gorbachev was dreaming about, but as a largely nationalist and capitalist system run by an authoritarian oligarchy still tied to a party calling itself communist? In this scenario, maybe the October Revolution (and Stalinism as well) would perhaps experience the same treatment as Mao in today’s China.
If a recent addition to China’s constitution on “Xi Jinping Thought” can establish a line of heroic succession that runs from the Great Helmsman, via Deng Xiaoping to the current leader, a Soviet Union somehow having executed a successful Chinese-style turn could have offered us a narrative that seamlessly merged the October Revolution and Stalin’s gulags with a self-confident present.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin – a man occasionally preoccupied with questions of history, tragedy, and grievance – recently offered his take on the October Revolution and its consequences. According to his remarks at this year’s Valdai forum, 1917 was the beginning of a bad deal for Russia (never mind for now Putin’s Soviet-Russia slippage) and a good one for the West. In essence, Putin’s complaint holds that by subjecting itself to communism, his country served as a spur to Western development because capitalism had to adapt to meet the communist challenge.
As with all good myths, there may be some truth to that: chronology is not causation, but somehow the existence of the Soviet Union did coincide with a Western transition from red-in-tooth-and-claw competition to capitalism with a human face, for some at least. And, oddly enough, the absence of the global Soviet challenge since the end of the Cold War has largely coincided with a neoliberal hardening of attitudes.
Which brings us to our last scenario: what if the Soviet Union was still around, maybe having entered (and passed through by now) another 1970s-style cycle of oil-and-gas windfalls? What would we in the West think of the revolution in a world corresponding not to the dreams of Mikhail Gorbachev or Vladimir Putin, but of Yuri Andropov? We would probably be more afraid, not only of the still threatening Soviets, but of their type of revolution and its mystique as well.
Strangely (or really unsurprisingly?) enough, outlasting the Soviet Union during the Cold War does not seem to have made policymakers in the West any wiser. Maybe they somehow did need that big Communist Other to maintain self-discipline, maturity, and realism.
Tarik Cyril Amar is an Associate Professor of the Soviet Union, Russia, and Ukraine at Columbia University.