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THE FINAL CURTAIN : THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE : Sifting the Ashes of an Epoch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Time has finally run out for communism.

But its edifice has not yet crumbled.

May we not be crushed beneath its rubble instead of gaining liberty.”

-- Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, “Rebuilding Russia,” July, 1990

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Maria Mironova was fighting her way across Palace Square. A biting wind was sending icy snowflakes cutting into her face. The winter dusk had turned all the vibrant yellows, blues and greens of the square into a gloomy gray. In the distance she could see the line at the bread store growing, and she began to hurry to get two loaves for dinner.

But it was Solzhenitsyn’s warning of a year and a half ago that was on Mironova’s mind. “That we will be crushed, that is the great danger now,” she said. “Communism is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, and everything is falling down around us. It is not that socialism was a good system--it wasn’t. It did terrible, terrible things to people. But we do not know that what is coming will be better.”

Mironova, 54, a professor of mathematics, the mother of two, a survivor of the World War II siege of Leningrad, a Hero of Socialist Labor in the old Soviet Union, is not a whiner. Although a Communist Party member for nearly 20 years, she rejoices over the collapse of the Soviet Union and welcomes the rebirth of Russia as a modern democratic state.

“Everything that has happened is good, for we are finally free of a system that had enslaved us to an ideology that had failed,” Mironova said. “The Soviet state could not save itself, and the people did not think it worth saving. It died, and I am not mourning. . . .

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“But just how do we get to this new paradise of democracy and full markets? This is where my optimism gives way to a profound pessimism because I doubt that we know the way or will find it easily.”

Across Russia and the other 14 republics emerging from the ruins of Soviet socialism, the excitement of new beginnings is alloyed with apprehension such as Mironova’s over the uncertain future.

They are celebrating the advent of democracy in Russia, a land that has never been free, and they welcome the dynamic economic development they believe it will bring after years of stagnation and now collapse.

But the Soviet system’s cancerous decay has sapped everyone’s energy, and the agony of the system’s final months left many unable to appreciate a change as likely to shape the 21st Century as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution here shaped the past seven decades.

“To comprehend the scope of the change is hard--it gathered speed so quickly, it is so all-encompassing and, most of all, it is so fundamental,” Otto Latsis, a leading political economist, commented in Moscow. “To say the changes under way are historic is to minimize them. It is truer to say that yesterday was another country, that the Soviet Union was another epoch.”

One of the great political, social and economic movements of the modern world has failed, and the consequences will touch the lives of almost every person on Earth.

Socialism had grown at one point to govern the lives of almost half of humankind, it had seriously challenged every rival system--notably the West’s capitalism--and in this it had dominated much of the history of the 20th Century.

Even in its defeat--and the struggle by its domestic and foreign opponents had lasted its entire 74 years--Marxism-Leninism is becoming an object lesson.

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Communism is condemned not only as a failure but as inhuman by the West’s politicians, economists and philosophers, all now more secure in their own beliefs thanks to the disappearance of the alternative political system.

The Soviet Union’s disintegration is also studied closely by those worried about destabilization in a world where the East-West power balance gave a measure of security. Where there had been one Euro-Asian superpower, there are now four new states armed with nuclear weapons.

Finally, Moscow’s “mistakes” are being scrutinized by those nations--China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam--that remain on the “socialist road” and want to avoid the fate of the nation that once so proudly called itself “the first country of socialism.”

“We were a sociopolitical experiment on an unprecedented scale, and we failed,” Alexander Tsipko, a leading political philosopher in Moscow, commented. “But the failure of the socialist hypothesis means that the rest of the world can, and should, now explore different options. Russia was the guinea pig for Marxism’s laboratory test, but it nearly killed us.”

The wreckage that socialism left here is fearsome, whether it is assessed in economic decline and national impoverishment, in a political system not able to cope with the country’s multiple crises, in an environment poisoned beyond all measurement or in the broken lives and pervasive alienation that result.

“There is no escaping the fact that our country has cruelly forfeited the entire 20th Century,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in his seminal essay, “Rebuilding Russia.” “All our much-trumpeted achievements have turned out to be illusory. From a flourishing condition, we have been hurled back to the state of semi-barbarity, and we are sitting in the wreckage.”

Few would quarrel with Solzhenitsyn’s judgment today, though the essay was regarded by many as exaggerated, full of political hyperbole, when first published.

“Our life has become a good news, bad news joke--the good news is the bakery has bread, the bad news is that it may be gone before I get there,” Mironova said, hurrying her pace across Palace Square-- a focus of the 1917 revolution.

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“Bread--it is always bread for us Russians,” she said as she slipped into the back of the queue at the bakery, still hoping for two loaves for dinner and the next day. “We measure everything by bread. When there was bread on the table, we felt socialism was working; then there was no bread, and we knew it had failed. If the democrats we have as leaders today are to succeed, they must give us bread.”

It’s All for the Scrapheap’

At Special Iron Products Factory No. 4, a grimy, turn-of-the-century plant on St. Petersburg’s waterfront, workers are busy stripping away anything that might be sold on the open market.

“We are going out of business, and they want to make sure they get paid,” Vyacheslav Rodionov, the managing director, explained as workers pulled the wiring from the ceiling of the darkened workshop and took panes of glass out of its windows. “Unfortunately, there’s not much worth stealing. Who would want a lathe made in 1931, a drill press that’s even older or this absolutely unique cutting tool that requires a minimum of four men to operate? No, it’s all for the scrapheap, and so are we.”

The factory specialized in made-to-order control devices and parts for marine engines for the Soviet shipbuilding industry, but it stopped production a month ago. It had received no materials for 5 1/2 months. It had delivered almost nothing since early February as shipbuilding and even refitting came to a halt in St. Petersburg’s once-bustling shipyards. It had stayed in production through November, using all the materials it had stockpiled, only in order to draw further advances from the Soviet State Bank and pay its 240 workers.

“We’ve got about 2 1/2 years’ inventory in the warehouse now, but it all belongs to the bank,” Rodionov said. “We have no orders, and our customers have no orders.

“The association (corporation) that owned us has gone out of business, the associations for which it worked are also shut down, the ministry to which they belonged was abolished and so are the ministries for which they did most of their work. The bank has told us we will not get another kopeck. So, what to do? Steal the light bulbs and leave.”

Rodionov, 57, and his assistants searched far and wide for someone who would buy what they make, but received only three or four small orders from Indian shipping companies that needed spares for older vessels built here. They had dreams of a management buyout, of an employee-owned enterprise, of a foreign partner.

But their factory is too small, too specialized, too old and, they frankly admit, too inefficient to survive as the Soviet Union’s state-owned, centrally planned economy gives way to the forces of supply and demand and private entrepreneurship.

“We should have been modernized years ago--or shut down,” Rodionov said, “but that was not the Soviet way. There was no money in the state budget for plant renewal or replacement, only for new investment. There was no money for research and development at the enterprise level. There was no direct relationship between what our customers needed and what we produced, between the value of what we produced and what it cost to make it, between our revenues and our profits. . . .

“Frankly, it did not seem to matter because everyone worked for the state. The state supplied everything and bought everything. The State Planning Commission oversaw everything and coordinated everything. Our government and our party had created, we believed, a brilliantly efficient system, and indeed it had taken Europe’s most backward country and made it a world power, a superpower. Those were empirical results--how could we argue with them?”

Yet the system was fatally flawed, which became increasingly clear as the Soviet economy grew in size and complexity.

Sixty years ago, Ludwig von Mises, a conservative Austrian economist, had pronounced socialism an “impossibility” because, he argued, no central planning system could ever gather the enormous amount of information needed to make it work. Put another way, it was beyond the ability of man to devise and manage a “scientifically planned” society.

The problems were not immediately evident because the earliest Soviet achievements, notably the country’s industrialization under the dictator Josef Stalin, depended less on economic coordination than on the political marshaling of vast labor forces. But “contradictions,” as Soviet economists call them, emerged as natural resources, manpower and investment funds became scarcer and choices had to be made in allocating them.

“No one had any idea what anything really cost, and thus there was no basis for a rational decision beyond a very subjective, ‘We need this because of this or that,’ ” Nikolai Shmelev, a leading free-market economist, commented in an interview earlier this year. “A premise of our economic system was demonstrably invalid--we could not make the so-called scientific decisions that were required.”

For the Soviet economy to “work,” its planners, managers and their political bosses had to decide, as far as five years in advance, the quantity, quality, production date, delivery date and price of every single item--from socks to screws, from tires to turbines, from sugar cubes to milk and meat--that would be made here each year. Then they had to ensure that all the necessary raw materials were also produced, that the factories or farms needed to manufacture or process them were built, that their workers would be fed and housed and that what could not be made here could be bought abroad. And in making these assignments, the planners had to give priority to the military, which together with the munitions industry consumed about 22% of the country’s output.

In 1986, before Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched his economic reforms, the State Planning Commission issued sets of instructions for more than 15,000 product categories, such as rolled steel, lumber and lathes, and gave them as orders to the 100 or so industrial ministries, which in turn subdivided them into 50,000 types of products multiplied many times by the size, weight or other characteristic desired. By the time the process was finished, there were nearly 25 million separate items to track.

“Inevitably, we had producers making things that no one needed, and consumers looking for things that no one made,” Shmelev recounted, bitter about the absurdity of it all. “While there were some direct, horizontal ties, the links that mattered were vertical. That meant a shirt factory’s need for a new piece of equipment in Kazan had to travel all the way up the chain of command to Moscow for a decision, then all the way down to the factory, say in Yerevan, that would produce it. This then had to be incorporated in the next year’s plan to ensure the Yerevan factory had the components, raw materials, electrical power and work force necessary. Finally, there would be a new style of shirt in Kazan.”

When the system first faltered in the 1960s, Soviet officials tinkered with it, decentralizing decision-making and giving managers at lower levels more authority. Basic reforms were postponed. When the system started to shudder violently in the 1970s, international oil prices soared unexpectedly, and the Soviet Union, as the world’s largest oil producer, was able to buy abroad the food, consumer goods and industrial machinery that it could not produce. Again reforms were put off. But when oil prices fell in the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s economic disintegration began.

Redemptive Violence

“For me, the most unacceptable but integral part of Marxism is its concept of violence and revolution,” Alexander N. Yakovlev, the principal ideologist of Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms, commented last week, reflecting on the collapse of Soviet socialism and his own loss of faith in communism. “Why should we destroy everything and then build it anew?”

Although communism promised that true justice and the perfection of human nature would come with the abolition of private property, the Bolsheviks needed violence to gain power in 1917, and their state never shed that coercive character.

Like the world’s great religions, communism offered an explanation of what life is all about. For millions, the totality of this creed was captivating and reassuring--an understandable system of thought, a plan of action to create a better future. It gave to workers, peasants and intellectuals alike a sense of direction and a moral justification, and it offered most their first chance to participate in politics.

For Marxists, the revolution was redemptive, its hardships purifying, and the goal of a just and rational society now within reach of humankind.

Yet it all rested on what V. I. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, had glorified as “revolutionary violence.” Violence was used first to destroy the old order--to defeat the feudalism of czarist Russia and the embryonic capitalism here, dispossessing those who owned property and suppressing any “enemies of the people.” Then it was used to develop socialism, ensuring that no one else acquired the “means of production” and the economic power that this would give them over others. Finally, violence was used to extend socialism, first to Russia’s neighbors to forge the Soviet Union, later in Eastern Europe and then into the Third World in a series of revolutionary wars.

“Marxism introduced the concept of the disruption of the historic process,” historian Yakovlev said, pictures of Lenin still on the walls of his Kremlin office. “But in reality you cannot disrupt the historical process. And it must not be interrupted at the expense of all the old values being destroyed. . . .

“Take the French Revolution or the October (Bolshevik) Revolution--both were based on denying all the old values--morals, economics, human relations, religion, traditions, everything. This is destructive.”

As a consequence, the human costs of socialism were even greater than the economic ones. The death toll began with at least a million executed as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power and continued with millions more as the independent peasantry was eliminated in the collectivization of agriculture, and later as whole nations were forcibly resettled.

The human costs mounted as life expectancy began to decline in the 1960s and infant mortality then started to increase in the 1970s. Other costs were also measurable in the Soviet Union’s own economic statistics--a housing shortage that meant that a third of Moscow families lived in communal apartments; increasing malnutrition in outlying areas; the sharp growth of violent crime, especially among youth.

“The pattern of social pathology was very clear, and its trail led straight back to the origins of our state and our political system,” Tatiana Zaslavskaya, a leading sociologist, said in Moscow this month. “There are some things that you can measure, others you can observe, but the cost in human alienation, in wasted and broken lives, you can only imagine.”

A second defect in the Soviet political system in Yakovlev’s view was the concentration of power in so few hands. The result of Lenin’s reliance on a “revolutionary vanguard,” this concentration created a bureaucratized party dominating the entire structure of society through its nomenklatura , a system of top-down control over all appointments.

After more than seven decades, the Soviet Union’s original revolutionary violence was no longer visible in the form of armed contingents in the streets, the execution of political opponents or even the imprisonment of dissidents. But it remained implicit in the pervasive controls the state exercised over its 295 million citizens and the authority that the ruling party of 19 million, one of eight or nine adults, exercised over the government.

“This is a society where ‘they'--it is always some ‘they’ speaking for ‘the people'--decide what work you will do, where you will live, what education you will get,” said Vladislav Osipov, 37, a master welder by profession, a trade union activist by necessity and a political firebrand by nature.

“ ‘They’ decide even what clothes you will wear, whether you can buy a television, what books you can read or movies you can see or music you can listen to. ‘They’ decide what medical care you get, where you take your vacation, when you can stop working and retire. ‘They’ controlled everything at every level in every sphere of life.

“If you displease ‘them,’ ” Osipov continued, biting off all the theys with a deep and bitter anger, “then ‘they’ will label you a troublemaker, a social parasite, anti-Communist. These are not just names; there is no escape from them, no exit from this system, not even emigration. And, every day, you know that ‘they’ can crush you because ‘their’ power is total--it is the might of the state with no recourse for the individual.”

But there was a cost for the state, too, for the creative political life of society was repressed along with many of its most talented people. As the creation of the Communist Party, and not the people, the state had less and less legitimacy in their eyes. It was seen in the loss of any work ethic--"They pretend to pay us,” went the joke, “and we pretend to work"--and the widespread cynicism in which the party became a vehicle for career advancement.

Soviet leaders, from Lenin through Gorbachev, acted as if they were still a conspiracy in power, whose decision-making had to be shielded from a hostile nation. Even with Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost , or political openness, and the advent of parliamentary government, the Kremlin remained shrouded in mystery. Believing that they had unique insights into human history and were entitled to shape the future, even by force, they mistrusted anyone who disagreed with them.

“When we failed to trust the people, they lost trust in us,” Gorbachev remarked to journalists in Moscow last week. “We can debate where that trust was lost, but it will be regained only with much, much effort. And without trust it is impossible to govern, to lead.”

In the early days of the perestroika reforms, Yakovlev had urged the Communist Party to give up its longtime monopoly on political power and split into two or more competing parties. But there was such resistance that many reformers, notably Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, despaired of making fundamental changes until the Soviet state was destroyed.

“This was a necessary destructiveness,” Zaslavskaya said. “It was impossible to reform this rigid society where every little joint and ball bearing were fixed to their levers and ribbons. To make this society different without breaking this whole mechanism was absolutely impossible.”

Only when the “second Russian revolution” overthrew the Communist Party and then brought down the Soviet state this month did the situation change, according to Osipov, a leader of Moscow’s independent trade union movement. The new unions are trying to ensure that workers participate in the decisions that are shaping new political and economic structures.

“My question now,” Osipov said, “is whether we will have democracy or another set of ‘theys’? Democracy is not something that seems to come naturally to Russians; we understand it in theory but have very little experience of it in practice. We hope Yeltsin is a democrat, but we worry that he might turn out to be a new-style Bolshevik.”

Roller-Coaster Ride

At 7:35 p.m. last Wednesday, Valentin Kuzmin lowered the Soviet flag over Gorbachev’s office in the Kremlin, and in its place Kuzmin and a colleague raised the Russian tricolor of white, blue and red. Gorbachev had just signed his resignation, effectively bringing the Soviet era to an end. Yeltsin, as the elected president of Russia, was assuming leadership of the nation.

For Kuzmin, it was a moment of intense emotional conflict. He had worked in the Kremlin for nearly 20 of his 50 years and, although not a government or party official, he had loyally supported the Soviet system and Gorbachev’s efforts to reform it. Now, the reforms had failed, the system itself had collapsed.

“I am very sorry that under this flag we have reached such an impasse,” Kuzmin said, folding the 10-by-20-foot cotton banner, probably the last flag of revolutionary red to fly over the Kremlin. “It was a flag under which our people achieved a lot, and it was a flag that had brought many hope of a better future. We must still look to tomorrow, I suppose, but. . . . “

Kuzmin lapsed into silence, the thought unfinished. What worries so many Russians, as well as Ukrainians, Belarussians and other nationalities of the old Soviet Union, is less the collapse of socialism and the breakup of the only country they have known than the uncertainty that what will follow will be any better.

“People feel like they are on a roller-coaster ride,” said Nikolai Popov, a prominent pollster. “They rose from the depths of despair under Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982) to a peak of hope under Gorbachev when perestroika began. They crashed when the reforms made many things worse rather than better. With Yeltsin, they are on the rise again, but afraid of another crash.”

Popov’s polls again and again show an overwhelming popular support for radical political and economic reforms--but an equally strong desire to keep the welfare benefits of socialism and a personal disdain for active politics.

“A majority of the popular masses--not everybody, but a majority--want conservative decisions, but made in a democratic way,” Yakovlev commented. “This is very interesting and very important for the understanding of the situation in our country. . . . They want order, discipline. At the same time, they don’t want to return to the totalitarian past.”

Gorbachev was caught in these contradictions. Economists told him, for example, that he had to end state subsidies to money-losing enterprises as a condition for any real reform, but he understood how the tripling of food prices that would result could tear apart Soviet society. Liberals like Yakovlev told him that he needed to break the Communist Party’s political monopoly, but he asked, how then could he govern? Who would support him?

He was pressed from the left by his closest colleagues, among them Yakovlev and former Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, to accelerate the pace of reform, to broaden its scope and to move boldly toward a free-market economy and full democracy.

From the right, from the party apparat, from the government bureaucracy, from the military-industrial complex, came pressure--and ultimately the abortive August coup--to pursue a more cautious, managed change.

Gorbachev had come to power in 1985, determined to succeed where others had failed in reforming Soviet socialism. “We cannot continue to live this way,” he told colleagues. He had seen, both from the provinces and from the center, how fast the political and economic flaws of socialism were growing. And he had seen repeated attempts at reform fail.

“When through destiny I found myself at the helm of this state, it was already clear that something was very wrong in this country,” he recounted in his farewell address last week. “We had a lot of everything--land, oil, gas, other natural resources--and there was intellect and talent in abundance.

“However, we were living much worse than people in the (Western) industrialized countries, and we were increasingly falling behind them.

“The reason was obvious even then. This country was suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic-command system. Doomed to cater to ideology and suffer the onerous burden of the arms race, it found itself at the breaking point. All the half-hearted reforms--and there have been a lot of them--fell through, one after another. This country was going nowhere, and we couldn’t possibly live the way we did. We had to change everything radically.”

But radical change would have so altered the Soviet system that virtually every institution that held power fought Gorbachev’s reforms. Each might have waged only a delaying action, but the cumulative delays deprived him of the momentum needed to implement the reforms. And the more he compromised, the more vulnerable he became.

“When something new is being born in an old system, the old must die off,” Yakovlev observed, “but this system would not die off. On the contrary, it not only made an attempt to save itself last August, but to abort perestroika. But the system failed to preserve itself and in the end killed itself.”

Exactly so. Compromise after compromise by Gorbachev, plus the August coup, led Yeltsin, who had moved far to the left of Gorbachev in his advocacy of radical change, to conclude that socialism was beyond reform and thus the Soviet Union, established as the state structure for socialism, was also beyond salvage.

“At some point, I misjudged the situation,” Gorbachev said a week ago. “For all the importance of strategy, it is very important in politics to take the right decision at the right moment. . . . I should have forged a strong common front with the democrats.”

Yet he, too, had come to see Soviet socialism as such an evil that its destruction outweighed the preservation of the Soviet Union in a reconstituted and democratic form. With Soviet power at an end, Gorbachev told Soviet journalists, “The main goal of my life has been accomplished.”

Yeltsin, a burly and forthright Siberian, had waited for his moment and, with the sudden deftness of a sumo wrestler, forced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s resignation. It was a coup in itself, but quick, clean and bloodless.

In the end, Soviet socialism’s refusal to adapt had been its fatal flaw. It stemmed from the coercive self-perpetuation of Communist Party rule, from its roots in a revolution increasingly perceived as illegitimate and destructive, from its historic reliance on violence and its inability following Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms to use it again.

Historians will probe much further, for the collapse of such a powerful state is rare--the Romans and the Ottoman Turks are perhaps the closest examples--and because communism was such a determinant force in the 20th Century.

What Maria Mironova sees coming from all this, however, is another “Time of Troubles,” a repetition of the period of political upheaval, popular unrest and civil war that followed the death of the 17th-Century Czar Boris Godunov.

“Maybe the system’s refusal to adapt was really the people’s refusal to change,” she said, her two loaves of brown bread now safely stowed in her shopping bag after a stop at the bakery. “And maybe what we call the ‘Soviet system’ was, indeed, the Russian people rejecting Gorbachev and his reforms. You see, this was a political system that was ours, from start to finish, and not something a foreign power imposed on us.

“We are still not quite so calm about the way we discarded socialism in a virtual coup by Yeltsin. As in the ‘Time of Troubles,’ again there is a question of political legitimacy, again there is the issue of threatened violence, and again we have decisions made by many individuals no one elected. We have gained, I know, but how?”

Voices

“The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world. . . .”

--Pope John Paul II, May 2, 1991 in his encyclical “The Centenary”

“I am convinced that the discrediting of socialism in the eyes of the masses is a passing phase.”

--Mikhail S. Gorbachev, from his memoir, “The August Coup”


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