Modern Synthesis

The Soviet Legacy: political, economic, and social challenges – by Nikolay Sandev

Posted in History, International Relations, Political Science, Sociology by modernsynthesis on April 27, 2009

Communist rule in the USSR failed due to multiple variables. The legacy the Soviet Union left upon its succor states has been a long lasting one. This paper will explicate the deeply ingrained flaws within the Soviet system which caused its collapse and the lasting impact Communist rule has had on Russia and the rest of the Soviet successor states. Historical and theoretical background is necessary in order to fully understand the contemporary problems in these states.

Historical Analysis

Theory. The roots of the Soviet system are based on Karl Marx and his social science tenets. The theoretical roots of the Communist party reveal much knowledge regarding why the system was bound to failure. Due to its centeredness on struggle Marx’s theory is one perfect for a revolution, “For Marx, the process of self-enriching alienation through the master-slave dialectic comes out as the class struggle…this struggle is not a struggle of minds and souls, as with Hegel, but a violent, physical struggle.”[1] As Martin Malia points out, “the historical contribution of Marx was to give the quest for equality a wrathful and agonistic thrust, one possible only after the French Revolution.”[2] Although a proletarian revolution in a peasant country seemed like a paradox, the deeper Marxist structure was still there: “the self-enriching alienation of privation and suffering, as this dynamic was expressed after 1914 in the devastation of modern, total war.”[3] The application of a theory so rooted on suffering and antagonism is bound to lead to turbulent times in any polity. Malia also points to Gerschenkon’s “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective,” which claims that:

The farther east in Europe one goes, the more agrarian and backward societies become, and therefore, the faster the pace at which they must move to catch up with a constantly rising standard of modernity set by the western edge of the continent. Under these circumstances the only possible agent for such accelerated transformation is the state.[4]

The state in Russia was the agent of development, to a much greater extent than the rest of Europe. The forcing of reforms in a top-down fashion is a characteristic of Russia seen to this day. These reforms have spiraled out of control more often than not (glasnost), contributing positively only in the short term, while having negative long lasting effects: “socialism came into existence almost simultaneously with liberalism, a pattern quite unlike that of far-Western Europe, where several decades elapsed before the political stakes were raised so dramatically…the Great Reforms of Alexander II, instead of initiating an orderly transition to a modern political system, inaugurated a revolutionary movement that would not abate during the remainder of the Old Regime”[5]

Great Men

Apart from the theoretical and structural background, another important variable to consider when explicating the foundation of the Soviet system is the leaders who took advantage of the opportune time in order to realize the Soviet state. As Martin Malia points out, “a constitutional crisis unfolded in the midst of a losing war and while the economy was beginning to break down: Only with the combination of these three circumstances could the social discontent of February among the Petrograd workers becoming the February Revolution of 1917.”[6] While these circumstances did amount to a perfect storm, it is important to avoid historical determinism. Lenin and Stalin may have been left in the trash bin of history if not for their conscious decisions.

Lenin. Lenin, as Malia claims, was a “practitioner of revolution and a technician of power. Thus his great task was to adapt the general worldview of Marxism to the particularities of the Russian situation.”[7] Lenin’s contribution was theoretical and organizational. He essentially flipped Marxism on its head with his concept of the vanguard party, saying that revolution will not be sparked but led by a party: “Lenin launched the idea of his ‘party of a new type,’ a party designed to ‘overturn all Russia;’ its defining characteristic was that it would not be a mass organization but a conspiratorial body of professional revolutionaries.”[8] This essentially validates the standard logic of history, where all revolutions are an exercise by the elites, rather than “the people.” Lenin’s creation of the party had profound structural implications, ultimately being the main reason for the corruption that the system produced, corruption, which as will later be shown, is prevalent in all of the successor states as a main social and political obstacle:

The Party did not govern directly…the dual, is the great Bolshevik innovation in politics…real power in the country was held by the Party, a self-appointed organization recruited entirely by cooptation; it was thus in effect a secret society, or what has been called a ‘conspiracy in power,’ which ruled behind the scenes through a formal state apparatus theoretically resting on the people.[9]

The seeming contradictions in the system the Bolsheviks created were perfectly legitimate in the eyes of the secret society. The apparatchiks “were anarchists in order to pulverize the old, capitalist world, and dictatorial in order to build a new, socialist world.”[10] These contradictions will in the long turn amount to the demise of the system, since the means do shape the ends.

Stalin. Stalin represents the culmination of the Soviet system, its high point. As Malia argues, it is impossible to somehow extirpate Stalin from the Soviet canon in search for a more logical explanation of socialism. “Stalin would go down in history as the creator of the two great pillars of the mature Soviet order, Planning and Collectivization.”[11] Both these pillars were a colossal failure and contributed to the later downfall of the Soviet Union:

The results were a perennially disastrous organization of agriculture and an enduring wound on the national psyche. Hence ‘modernization’ is hardly an appropriate term for what Stalin wrought: We are dealing rather with the ultimate ideocratic and partocratic revolution. In the short term this revolution permitted a great spurt of basic industrialization, yet for the long term it left behind a structurally crippled society and economy.[12]

The key to the failures of planning and collectivization is that they were political solutions to economic woes. This is seen throughout the regime: “In order to solve an economic problem Khrushchev had resorted to a political solution, for under Soviet conditions the economic and the political were inextricably intertwined.”[13] Ultimately the ultra-ideological nature of the regime was its ultimate demise; as such a total view of the world permitted no pragmatism.


The Party’s devotion to the notion of a socialist state brought about the demise of the system. Stalin’s totalitarian-in-pursuit system was based on a surrealistic system susceptible to crumbing as fast as it was erected. As Malia postulates, “it is perhaps inherent in the real logic of history that ideologies are almost invariably debased on contact with political action; the higher the ambition of the ideology, and the more drastic the contemplated action, more likely is the debasement in practice.”[14] This debasement is no better illustrated than in Stalin’s purges. Stalin’s rationale was that, the closer the country got to socialism, the more intense the class struggle due to bitter resistance from enemies. Of course, “This was the ultimate debasement of the cardinal principle of Marxism, for no semblance of a social class was involved in the purge; there was only a struggle of the leadership against the bulk of the Party.”[15]

If a system under strain begins to reform itself, it is highly likely that these reforms will not be controllable by the state. Just as Tsarist reforms opened the window for this ideological revolution, reforms will expose it for what it became: “glasnost, which had been intended to revivify the system, had in fact undermined it by discrediting the myths that sustained it…This loss of legitimacy would prove fatal to the system, for its surreal structures were such that they could not survive exposure to the truth.”[16] Ideology and reality were never the same in the Soviet Union, and when the truth was exposed the system collapsed.

Successor States

While the Soviet Union collapsed, the structural changes is brought have been much slower to disappear. The Soviet Union’s successor states all inevitably suffer from their legacy as part of the socialist experiment. Political, economic, and social challenges in these states are in most cases, directly related to the Soviet system.

Political. Corruption is the main challenge. Nearly all the successor states have problems with high-level corruption.[17] This can be attributed to the Soviet system since these corrupt back-room deals were the norm. The system itself was such that it encouraged dealing between the elites of the Party. The Party did not have to answer to the people, and its final word was law. Many elites from the Soviet era continued to be quite influential in politics after the demise of the system (to name a few: Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma, Modova’s Vladimir Voronin, Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov).

Economic. Diversification of the economies and reliance on Russia are the main economic problems. A perfect example of this is Ukraine. Ukraine’s infrastructure was built on the assumption that the Soviet Union will stay intact. This is true for the pipelines built in the 1960s, which now make Ukraine dependent on Russia for energy.[18] Russia is in turn, using dependence for political purposes.[19] Some nations have been slow to recover from the central planning system. This is demonstrated by the unfavorable conditions for outside business investment.[20]

Social. Population declines, brain drains and emigration occur in all the states as people seek to find brighter futures in other countries. Some of the most drastic population declines are found in successor states, such as Russia and Ukraine.[21] Migration of professionals and young people (extrapolated from remittances) paints a bleak picture.[22] Many young and educated people are leaving the successor states, which may even cause generational disparities in the near future. Further social problems arise from ethnic conflicts. These conflicts are prevalent since the Soviet Union was a very heterogeneous state, and upon its disintegration many of its borders were arbitrarily drawn, leaving some ethnicities completely displaced such as the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh,[23] the Ossetians in Georgia or the Chechens in Russia. This has fueled many bloody conflicts with political, social, and economic consequence with which the successors must constantly combat: “Russia had grown accustomed to life with the suppurating Chechen wound. Chechnya kept flaring up with bloody terrorist acts, even in Moscow.”[24] It can now be seen that these national identities could never have been replaced with the identity of the united socialist workers.

It is hard to assess how well these polities have dealt with these problems since their responses have been so varied. External intervention seems to be very powerful, as the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have benefited greatly by EU membership, contrastingly the Eurasian states have been slow to reform, since geographically they are still reliant on Russia for energy.

Modern Russia

Centralization. Russia, like all of the Soviet successor states suffers from a largely negative legacy left by Communist rule. This can be seen by the power of the executive, a vestige of the power Stalin harbored. As Lilia Shevtsova argues in her book Putin’s Russia, “The political center on which the Kremlin counted, the pro-Putin United Russia, remained amorphous and balanced on a single principle: servility to the leader.”[25] The system’s centralization is causing major problems. While it is possible to make the argument that this centralization of power does not destroy responsibly, since the people know exactly who makes policy, this makes for a very unstable system reminiscent of a populist state. The leader has no parties to fall back on and is evaluated purely on performance:

Soft Bonapartism guaranteed his power if his administration achieved good economic results and brought at least some normalcy into the lives of ordinary people. But if there were social problems, if corruption and degradation of the state continued, the fickle Russian electorate might begin looking for a new object of affections.[26]

This makes for a highly volatile system in a state begging for some stability. Shevtsova points out that, “This system could not be consolidated; that is why its outward stability was deceptive, hiding underneath incompatible trends and permanent conflicts. But that forced the leader to constantly monitor the political scene, leaving him no time to think on a macro level.”[27] In Russia, the president is the only full fledged political actor, clearly a vestige of the Soviet era.

Bureaucratic authoritarianism. Russia’s legal structure is bureaucratic by nature, as a continuation of Soviet times, when the legal profession virtually did not exist. The bureaucracy is used as a control mechanism, thus creating a lack of fluidity in the system: “Order can be legal or it can be bureaucratic. Putin’s Russia followed the path toward bureaucratic order—through reliance on the apart, administrative methods, subordination, loyalty, and instructions from above.”[28] Ultimately this serves as an impediment to the promotion of democracy: “As long as society and the regime do not come to terms with restructuring power on the basis of the law, the monopolistic-corporate tendency inevitably deforms or subsumes the weak democratic impulse.”[29] This presents one of the greatest challenges facing Russia, as it is something of a Catch-22. The system must reform itself, however reform only comes from the top, and elites have no incentives to reform: “To give up bureaucratic authoritarianism, the president may have to use his authoritarianism (this will add pressure) to put an end to it. In his day, Charles de Gaulle used his personal power to modernize France and to create better-working and democratic systems. Russia has not had politicians of that stature, who could use their personal power to set the limits on it.”[30] This fact is due to the self-perpetuating nature of the Russian system. Russia has not been able to produce politicians of that stature since most of them are elites from the Soviet era. Diversification of interest is on the rise,[31] and it seems that change is coming gradually and Russia has great potential for fostering a vibrant democratic society on all fronts.

[1] Martin Malia. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York, N.Y. The Free Press, 1994. p.38

[2] Ibid. p. 41

[3] Ibid. p. 50

[4] Ibid. p. 56

[5] Ibid. p. 65

[6] Ibid. p. 90

[7] Ibid. p. 73

[8] Ibid. p. 75

[9] Ibid. p. 114-115

[10] Ibid. p. 122

[11] Ibid. p. 184

[12] Ibid. p. 215

[13] Ibid. p. 338

[14] Ibid. p. 193

[15] Ibid. p. 247

[16] Ibid. p. 435

[17] Freedom House Foundation. Nations in Transit Report.

[18] Energy Information Administration. Country Analysis Briefs. Ukraine. 2007.

[19] Russia Steps Up Gas Pressure On Ukraine. Radio Free Europe. April 07, 2009.

[20] World Bank. Doing Business 2009 Report.

[21] Ukrainian Population Census 2001.

[22] Migration and Remittances Team, Development Prospects Group, World Bank.

[23] Thomas De Waal. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 240

[24] Lilia Shevtsova. Putin’s Russia. Washington D.C. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003. 285

[25] Lilia Shevtsova. Putin’s Russia. Washington D.C. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003. 226

[26] Ibid. p. 228

[27] Ibid. p. 229

[28] Ibid. p. 257-258

[29] Ibid. p. 326

[30] Ibid. p. 350

[31] Zimmerman, William. The Russian People and Foreign Policy: Russian Elite and Mass Perspectives, 1993-2000. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.


De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

Energy Information Administration. Country Analysis Briefs. Ukraine. 2007.

Freedom House Foundation. Nations in Transit Report.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York, N.Y. The Free Press, 1994.

Migration and Remittances Team, Development Prospects Group, World Bank.

Russia Steps Up Gas Pressure On Ukraine. Radio Free Europe. April 07, 2009.

Shevtsova, Lilia. Putin’s Russia. Washington D.C. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003.

Ukrainian Population Census 2001.

World Bank. Doing Business 2009 Report.

Zimmerman, William. The Russian People and Foreign Policy: Russian Elite and Mass Perspectives, 1993-2000. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.

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  1. Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for writing. I will likely be subscribing to your site. Keep up great writing

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