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Don’t Cry for Soviet ‘Center'--It Was Dead, Anyway : Ukraine: Its independence vote should show that economic integration need not go hand-in-hand with political union. Listen up, Gorbachev.

<i> Steven Merritt Miner, an associate professor of history at Ohio University, is the author of "Between Churchill and Stalin: The USSR, Great Britain and the Origins of the Grand Alliance" (University of North Carolina Press)</i>

In the mid-1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn argued that an abrupt transition from the closed Soviet system to a Western-style open society would be disastrous. The result would be like a scuba diver who contracts the “bends” by returning too suddenly from the depths to the surface. Although dismissed at the time by many Western writers as the rantings of an authoritarian Russian nationalist, Solzhenitsyn’s words now appear sadly prophetic.

Last week, Mikhail S. Gorbachev said as much when he darkly warned that “the fatherland is threatened.” The precipitous disintegration of what was once the Soviet Union, he claimed, would lead to economic disaster and conflict between former Soviet nationalities. Not only the civil peace of his own country would be imperiled; the stability of Europe and the world would be at risk.

What had prompted Gorbachev’s grim anxieties was the overwhelming vote by the Ukrainians to secede. Ukraine accounts for almost one-third of Soviet industry and supplies an even higher proportion of its food--an especially grave concern as food lines lengthen daily in Russia. Roughly 90% of those voting in Ukraine opted for independence; perhaps most surprising to the outside world, even a large majority of the some 12 million ethnic Russians living in the former republic voted for separation.

Ukraine’s secession, coupled with the flurry of independence declarations in many other Soviet republics and the secession of the Baltic republics, raises fundamental questions: Can one still speak of a Soviet Union? Has the descendant of the Russian empire, which existed for three centuries, gone the way of earlier half-remembered empires, to be replaced by a host of small successor states?

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The short-term answer is yes. The old Kremlin leadership has lost most of the attributes of sovereignty. Its legal and political authority scarcely runs beyond Moscow; it cannot enforce peace between warring nationalities in the Transcaucasus; it has almost totally lost control of an economy that was once directed entirely from the center. Even the Soviet armed forces are no longer unambiguously answerable to Gorbachev. One Soviet general, heading a mechanized division recently withdrawn from Eastern Europe to Ukraine, despairingly told a Western news organization that he no longer knew to whom he should report--the Soviet ministry of defense, the Ukrainian government or Boris N. Yeltsin’s Russian republic.

Indeed, Gorbachev’s central government exists only on the sufferance of Yeltsin’s republic. So strapped for cash is the old Soviet “center” that Gorbachev had to go, cap in hand, to Yeltsin merely to pay its bills. Yetsin agreed, thus showing in the most dramatic fashion that he, not President Gorbachev, controls the purse, always the most basic state power.

Yeltsin can only meet Soviet financial obligations by selling Russian commodities--chiefly oil and timber--on the international market. He cannot raise money by taxing Russians, since they have no money worth the name. Five years ago, the ruble was officially, though fraudulently, valued at two-and-one-half times the dollar; it now trades for roughly one penny. Even this may be an exaggeration: The Soviet currency lost half its value during the past week alone.

A Soviet worker’s average monthly pay is worth about two dollars in a hyper-inflationary economy. Russians can survive only by bartering scarce goods and services, a situation that leaves the old and the disabled without any purchasing power whatsoever.

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Amid this economic and political collapse, Gorbachev, who once appeared to many non-Soviets as a man in command of events, now looks isolated and ineffectual, his program of perestroika in tatters. He also seems wildly out of touch with the mood of the people he claims to lead. Following the Ukrainian vote, for instance, he bemoaned the loss of “our cultural ties, which were a source of special pride.”

This was either ignorance or pretense. The non-Russian nationalities are leaving the union largely because their national cultures were smothered for 70 years by the same artificial Soviet internationalism that Gorbachev now mourns. Ukraine, in particular, has little reason to regret the passing of the union. With the publication of honest histories, ever more Ukrainians are learning the details of Josef Stalin’s murderous collectivization of Soviet farms between 1929 and 1933, a campaign that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians and the destruction of countless churches and historical monuments.

Many Soviet moderates are frightened by the revolutionary pace of the union’s collapse. Significantly, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who resigned from Gorbachev’s government a year ago vowing never again to serve under his old comrade, has returned as Gorbachev’s foreign minister. His recently published memoirs suggest reasons for his abrupt reversal. He admits that “we ourselves (meaning Gorbachev and his advisers) created the situation in which we ended up” by refusing to grant timely concessions to democratic forces in the Soviet republics. Shevardnadze writes that the disintegration of the Soviet Union has now led to “a revolutionary syndrome” that “will bring enormous suffering into the lives of millions of people.” Evidently, Shevardnadze believes that only the maintenance of some form of union can forestall disaster.

It may already be too late. Stronger forces push toward disunion than toward the early reconstitution of a reformed union. The economies of the various republics are deeply interwoven, though in a period of near-complete economic collapse this may be a moot point. The proliferation of numerous currencies will certainly complicate interrepublican trade, but new currencies could hardly be less valuable than the discredited ruble. There is a legitimate fear concerning control of the vast stockpiles of Red Army weaponry; but non-Russian nationalists have already begun to view these arms as bargaining chips for dealing with a giant Russia--and, more ominously, for fighting ethnic rivals.

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Gorbachev’s nostalgic longings for the old, failed union are less realistic than Yeltsin’s cooperative approach to devolution. Yeltsin, once routinely derided as a possibly alcoholic demagogue with no real program, has moved quickly and shrewdly to recognize the political independence of seceding republics while simultaneously holding out the olive branch of economic cooperation. Yeltsin realizes what Gorbachev apparently has not grasped: Economic integration need not go hand-in-hand with political union or a top-heavy centralized government.

Yeltsin’s sound moderation may not prevail. He could be a casualty of the economic disaster he inherited, and his successors may be nationalist leaders bent on regaining Russia’s lost dominance through force. There is cause for cautious optimism on this score, however: The past seven decades of police-state utopianism have cauterized Russians, making them heartily skeptical of demagogic promises of quick, easy solutions. Russians are better educated than ever before, and they are aware of liberal democracy’s success. Also, unlike previous periods of upheaval in Russian history, today’s outside world is benign, even helpful.

Only the success of the new generation of moderate, elected Russian leaders, such as Anatoly Sobchak in St. Petersburg and Gavriil Popov in Moscow, working alongside Yeltsin, will enable some form of a central government, though no doubt weaker, to be recreated.


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