Waving communist flags near a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin
Participants wave communist flags near a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin during an International Worker's Day parade in Donetsk, east Ukraine, May 2014. 
Marko Djurica / REUTERS

Russia was for many centuries separated, geographically and politically, from the development of Western civilization and culture, and thus came late into what, for most of Europe, would be called the modern age.1 But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, witnessing as they did an extensive overcoming of these earlier barriers, permitted a very considerable progress in the modernization of Russian society. By the time the country was overtaken by the First World War, its situation was not entirely discouraging. Industrialization was proceeding at a level only two or three decades behind that of the United States. There was under implementation a program of education reform which, if allowed to continue unimpeded, would have assured total literacy within another two decades. And the first really promising program for the modernization of Russian agriculture (the so-called Stolypin reforms), while by no means yet completed, was proceeding steadily and with good chances for ultimate success.

These achievements, of course, had not been reached without conflicts and setbacks. Nor were they, alone, all that was needed. Still to be overcome as the war interceded were many archaic features in the system of government, among them the absolutism of the crown, the absence of any proper parliamentary institutions and the inordinate powers of the secret police. Still to be overcome, too, was the problem of the non-Russian nationalities within the Russian Empire. This empire, like other multinational and multilingual political constellations, was rapidly becoming an anachronism; the maintenance of it was beginning to come under considerable pressure.

But none of these problems required a bloody revolution for their solution. The removal of the autocracy was, after all, destined to be achieved relatively bloodlessly, and the foundations of a proper parliamentary system laid, in the first months of 1917. And there was no reason to despair of the possibility that Russia, if allowed to develop without war or violent revolution, might still encompass a successful and reasonably peaceful advance into the modern age. It was, however, just this situation, and just these expectations, that were to be shattered by the events of the final months in that fateful year of 1917.


The Russian oppositional movement of the last half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth had always included extreme radical factions that did not want reform to proceed gradually, peacefully and successfully. They wanted nothing less than the immediate and total destruction of tsarist power and of the social order in which it operated. The fact that their own ideas of what might follow upon that destruction were vague, unformed and largely utopian was not allowed to moderate the violence of their intentions. Participating, though in quite different ways, in both of the major revolutionary parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats (out of whom the Communists emerged), these factions found themselves, in their bitter opposition to gradual reform, in a state of limited and involuntary alliance with the most radical reactionary circles at the conservative end of the political spectrum. After all, these latter also did not want to see change proceed gradually and peacefully, for they did not want it to occur at all. So it was not by accident that the ideas and aims of both extremist elements were to find a common expression, as Robert C. Tucker has so persuasively pointed out in his recent work, in the Stalin of the future.

Up to the outbreak of war, to 1917 in fact, the leftist extremists had met with very limited success. In the final prewar years they had actually been losing political position and support. What changed all this, and gave them opportunities few of them had ever expected, was Russia's involvement in the war, and particularly the ill-considered attempt by the provisional government to continue the war effort into the summer of 1917, in the face of the epochal internal political crisis already brought about by the recent fall of the monarchy.

It had been a folly, of course, for Russia to involve itself a decade earlier in 1904-05 in the war against Japan. This alone had brought the country to the very brink of revolution. It was a greater folly (and this might have been clear, one would think, to Russian statesmen at the time) to involve Russia in the far larger strains of participation in a great European war. The war was, of course, not the only cause of the breakdown of the tsarist system in 1917; it may be fairly said, however, that without Russia's involvement in the war that breakdown would not have come when it did or taken the forms that it did, and that anything like a seizure of power by the Bolshevist faction would have been improbable in the extreme. Seen in this way, the establishment of communist power in Russia in November 1917 has to be regarded as only one part of the immense tragedy that World War I spelled for most of European civilization. But the consequences of the Russian Revolution were destined long to outlive the other immediate effects of the war and to complicate the world situation over most of the remainder of the century.

By mid-1917 in any case, the die was cast for Russia. The stresses of the first two and a half years of war, together with those of the earlier months of that year-the exhaustion of army and society, the sudden collapse of the tsarist police force, and the program of land reform that lent itself so easily to demagogic exploitation-made possible the successful seizure of power, first in the major cities, then throughout the country, by Lenin and his associates. Thus the straitjacket of communist dictatorship-the restraint under which it was destined to writhe throughout the life span not only of the generation then alive but of its children and grandchildren as well-was fastened upon an unprepared and bewildered Russian society.

One hesitates to summarize what this development was to mean for Russia. No summary could be other than inadequate. But the effort must be made, for without it the communist epoch now coming to an end cannot be seen in historical perspective.

Let us start with what happened to most of the educated and culturally important elements of the Russian society of that time. The Leninist regime, in the initial years of Soviet power, succeeded in physically destroying or driving out of the country the greater part-most of an entire generation, in fact-of what would have been called, in the Marxist vocabulary of that day, the "bourgeois" intelligentsia. Stalin later completed the process by doing the same to most of the Marxist intelligentsia that remained. Thus Lenin and Stalin contrived, between the two of them, to eliminate a very large portion of the rather formidable cultural community that had come into being in the final decades of tsardom. And with this loss there went, more important still, the loss of much of the very cultural continuity of which this generation was an indispensable part. It would never thereafter be possible to reunite fully the two frayed ends of this great chain of national development, now so brutally severed.

Not content with these heavy blows to the country's intellectual and cultural substance, Stalin, as soon as his power was consolidated in 1928, turned to the peasantry and proceeded to inflict upon this great portion of the population (some 80 percent at that time) an even more terrible injury. In the Stolypin reforms, emphasis had wisely been placed on the support and encouragement of the most competent and successful segment of the farming population. Stalin, in his sweeping campaign of collectivization launched in 1929, did exactly the opposite. He set out to eliminate precisely this element (now referred to by the pejorative Russian term of "kulaks"), to eliminate it by ruthless confiscation of what little property most of its members possessed, by deportation of a high proportion of those and other peasant families, and by the punishment-in many cases the execution-of those who resisted.

The results were simply calamitous. They included a major famine in certain key agricultural regions of the country and the loss, within a short time, of some two-thirds of the country's livestock. Through these cruel and ill-considered measures, a blow was dealt to Russian agriculture that set it back by decades, and from which it has not fully recovered to the present day.

The collectivization campaign roughly coincided in time with the First Five Year Plan, the announcement of which in 1928-29 made so deep and so favorable an impression upon many well-meaning people in the West. Actually, the plan as announced, and later the claimed statistics on its completion, masked a ruthless and reckless program of military industrialization. This program did indeed provide certain basic components of a great military industry, but did so in an extremely hasty and wasteful manner, at vast expense in human deprivation and suffering, and with reckless abuse of the natural environment. Despite limited improvements in later years, these same features were destined to mark much of Soviet industrialization down through the ensuing decades.

It was on the heels of these early Stalinist efforts at revolutionizing the Soviet economy that there was then unleashed upon Soviet society that terrible and almost incomprehensible series of events known historically as "the purges." Beginning with an obvious effort on Stalin's part to remove from office and destroy all those remnants from the Lenin leadership in whom he suspected even the slightest traces of resistance to his personal rule, these initial efforts, savage enough in themselves, soon grew into a massive wave of reprisals against a great portion of those who at that time were taking any part in the governing of the country or who enjoyed any prominence as members of the cultural intelligentsia. So terrible were these measures, so arbitrary, indiscriminate and unpredictable was their application, that they culminated, in the years 1937 and 1938, in a deliberately induced mass frenzy of denunciation-a frenzy overcoming millions of innocent but frightened people who had been encouraged to see in the reckless denunciation of others, even others they knew to be as guiltless as themselves, the only possible assurance of their own immunity to arrest and punishment. In the course of this hysteria, friend was set against friend, neighbor against neighbor, colleague against colleague, brother against brother, and child against parent, until most of Soviet society was reduced to a quivering mass of terror and panic. In this way a very considerable proportion of the administrative and cultural elite of the Soviet Union-tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of them-were induced to destroy each other for the edification, perhaps even the enjoyment, of a single leader, and this, while lending themselves to the most extravagant demonstrations of admiration for and devotion to this same man. One searches the annals of modern civilization in vain for anything approaching, in cynicism if not in heartlessness, this appalling spectacle.

So preposterous, so bizarre, so monstrously destructive, and so lacking in any conceivable necessity or advantage to anyone at all were these measures that it is impossible to imagine any rational explanation for them, even from the standpoint of the most fearful, jealous and suspicious of tyrants. What, in these circumstances, explained Stalin's motives in launching and directing them? And how was it possible that an entire society could submit passively to so dreadful an abuse of its social intactness and moral integrity? These are crucial questions.2

Suffice it to say that when Stalin finally perceived that things had gone too far, when he realized that even his own interests were being endangered and finally began to take measures to dampen the terror and the slaughter, several million people were already either languishing or dying in the labor camps, and a further number, sometimes estimated in the neighborhood of a million, had been executed or had died of mistreatment. To which tragic count must be added those further millions who had themselves escaped persecution but who cared about the immediate victims-their parents, lovers, children or friends, and for whom much of the meaning of life went out with the knowledge, or the suspicion, of the sufferings of the latter. Bereavement, in short, had taken its toll on enthusiasm for life. Fear and uncertainty had shattered nerves, hopes and inner security.


It was, then, on a shaken, badly depleted, socially and spiritually weakened Russian people that there fell, in the first years of the 1940s, the even greater strains of the Second World War. Russia, to be sure, did not become formally involved in that war as such until June 1941. But the interval had been in part taken up with the war with Finland, which alone had caused some hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties. And what was then to follow, after the German attack, was horror on a scale that put into shade all the sufferings of the previous decades: the sweeping destruction of physical installations-dwellings, other buildings, railways, everything-in great parts of European Russia, and a loss of life the exact amount of which is not easy to determine but which must have run to close to thirty million souls. It is virtually impossible to envisage, behind these bare words and figures, the enormity of the suffering involved.

It will of course be observed that, if the tragedies of the 1920s and 1930s were brought to Russia by its own communist regime, the same cannot be said of those of the 1940s. These were the doing of Hitler; Stalin had actually gone to great lengths to appease Hitler with a view to diverting the attack; it was not his fault that he did not succeed.

There is much truth in this statement. Nothing can diminish Hitler's responsibility for bringing on what the Soviets have subsequently referred to (ignoring most of the other theaters of operation in World War II) as the Great Patriotic War. But it was not the whole truth. Stalin himself heightened in many ways the horrors of the struggle: by the cynicism of his deal with Hitler in 1939; by the subsequent treatment of Russians who had become prisoners of war in Germany; by his similar treatment of those civilians who had found themselves on territory that fell under German control; by the brutal deportation of entire subordinate nationalities suspected of harboring sympathies for the German invader; by the excesses of his own police in the occupied areas, of which even the appalling Katyn massacre of Polish officers was only a small part; and by the liberties allowed to his own soldiery as they made their entry into Europe. More important still, one will never know what might have been the collaboration in the prewar years between Russia and the Western powers in the confrontation with Hitler, had the regime with which those powers were faced on the Russian side been a normal, friendly and open one. Instead, to many in Europe, the Soviet state looked little if any more reliable and reassuring as a partner than did the Nazi regime. Let us, however, leave such speculations aside and proceed with our recitation of the miseries that overtook the Russian people in these seven decades of communist power.

It was an even more weary, even more decimated and ravaged Russian people that survived the trials and sacrifices of the war. And their miseries, as it turned out, were not yet at an end.

War against a hated enemy had aroused elementary nationalistic feelings among the Russian people. So long as hostilities were in progress, Stalin had wisely (if presumably cynically) associated himself with those feelings. The people and regime had thus, as it seemed, been brought together in the common effort of resistance to the Nazi invasion. And this had produced new expectations. Not unnaturally, there was hope in all quarters, as the war neared its end, that victory would be followed by a change in the habits and methods of the regime-a change that would make possible something resembling a normal relationship between ruler and ruled, and would open up new possibilities for self-expression, cultural and political, on the part of a people long deprived of any at all.

But Stalin soon made it clear that this was not to be. Government would continue as it had before. There would be no concessions to the Soviet consumer; there would only be more of the same ruthless effort of military industrialization, the same suppression of living standards, the same familiar yoke of secret police control. Seldom, surely, has a more bitter disillusionment been brought to an entire people than this callous indifference on Stalin's part to the needs of a sorely tried population just emerging from the sufferings of a great and terrible war.

This, however, was the way things were to be. And the final years of Stalin's life, from 1945 to 1953, wore their way much as the final prewar years had done: the same tired litanies of the propaganda machine; the same secrecy and mystification about the doings of the Kremlin; the same material discomforts; and the same exactions of a police regime the ferocity of which seemed, if anything, to be heightened as an aging Stalin became increasingly aware of his dependence upon it for his personal security and for the preservation of his own power.

Even Stalin's death, in 1953, brought about no sudden or drastic change in the situation. Stalinism, as a governing system, was by now far too deeply planted in Russian life to be removed or basically changed in any short space of time. There was no organized alternative to it, and no organized opposition. It took four more years before Khrushchev and his associates succeeded in removing from power even those in the leadership who had been most closely associated with Stalin in the worst excesses of his rule and who would have preferred to carry on in much the same manner.

But Khrushchev himself did not last very long thereafter, and in the ensuing years, down to the mid-1980s, the country was ruled by a number of mediocre men (Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev's patron, was an exception). While they had no taste for the pathological excesses of Stalinist rule (which, as they correctly saw, had endangered everyone, themselves included), these men were heirs to the system that had made these excesses possible, and they saw no reason to change it. It represented, in their eyes, the only conceivable legitimation of their power and the only apparent assurance of its continuation. It was all they had and all they knew. The sort of systemic changes Gorbachev would eventually endeavor to bring about would have surpassed the reaches of their imaginations. And after all, from their standpoint, the system appeared to work.

But it did not, of course, work very well. The Soviet system involved the continuing necessity of suppressing a restless younger intelligentsia, increasingly open to the influences of the outside world in an age of electronic communication, and increasingly resentful of the remaining limitations on its ability to travel and to express itself. Beyond that, it rested upon an economy that, just at the time when the remainder of the industrialized world was recovering from the war and moving into the economic revolution of the computer age, was continuing to live in many respects in the conceptual and technological world of the nineteenth century, and was consequently becoming, on the international scene, increasingly uncompetitive.

Finally, the ideology as inherited from Lenin was no longer really there to support this system. It remained as a lifeless orthodoxy, and Soviet leaders would continue on all ceremonial occasions to take recourse to its rituals and vocabulary. But it had been killed in the hearts of the people: killed by the great abuses of earlier decades, killed by the circumstances of the great war for which Marxist doctrine offered no explanations, killed by the great disillusionment that followed that war.

It began to become evident, in short, in those years of the 1970s and early 1980s that time was running out on all that was left of the great structure of power Lenin and Stalin had created. Still able to command a feigned and reluctant obedience, it had lost all capacity to inspire and was no longer able to confront creatively the challenge of its own future. The first leader to perceive this, to read its implications and to give a dying system the coup de grace it deserved, was Gorbachev.

One cannot end this review of the blows suffered by Russian society at the hands of its own rulers over the decades of communist power without being aware of the danger of a certain Manichaean extremism in the judging of those rulers and of those who tried faithfully to follow them. Not all that went by the name of communism in Russia was bad; nor were all of those who believed in it. And to recognize the tragic consequences of its exercise of power is not to question the intellectual seriousness or the legitimacy or the idealism of the world socialist movement out of which, initially, communism arose. One's heart can go out, in fact, to those many well-meaning people in Russia and elsewhere who placed their faith and their enthusiasm in what they viewed as socialism and who saw in it a way of bringing Russia into the modern age without incurring what they had been taught to see as the dark side of Western capitalism. It is important to recognize that Russian communism was a tragedy not just in its relations to others, but also a tragedy within itself, on its own terms.

But it is impossible, in the view of this writer, to review the history of communism-in-power in Russia without recognizing that the left-extremist wing of the Russian revolutionary movement, as it seized power in 1917 and exercised it for so many years, was the captive of certain profound and dangerous misconceptions of a political-philosophical nature, revolving around the relationships between means and ends, between personal and collective morality, between moderation and unrestrained extremism in the exercise of political power-misconceptions that were destined to have the most dire effects on the nature of the authority it was assuming to itself. It was the Russian people who had to pay the price for these misconceptions, in the form of some of the most terrible passages in their nation's long and tortured history. Seen in this way, the October Revolution of 1917 cannot be viewed otherwise than as a calamity of epochal dimensions for the peoples upon whom it was imposed.


And what of the future?

It is not easy, in any discussion of Russia's future, to avoid preoccupation with the distressing and dangerous state of disarray that prevails in that country today, and to distinguish the short-term aspects of this situation from those causal features that may be expected to have determining significance in the longer future.

The postcommunist Russia we now have before us finds itself not only confronted with, but heavily involved in, the Herculean effort to carry out three fundamental changes in the national life of the country.

The first of these changes is the shift of the vital center of political power from the Communist Party, which has had a monopoly on power for so many years, to an elected and basically democratic governmental structure. The second is the shift of the economy from the highly centralized and authoritarian administrative basis that has governed it since the 1920s to a decentralized free-enterprise system. The third is the decentralization of the structure of interrelationships among the various national components, originally of the tsarist empire and more recently of the Soviet Union, that has generally prevailed over the last three centuries.

These three changes, if successfully implemented, would represent in many respects an alteration of the life of the Russian state more fundamental than that which the communists endeavored to introduce into Russian life in 1917-more fundamental, because whereas the communists' changes purported, rather vaingloriously, to deny, ignore and consign to oblivion the Russian past, the present efforts at change are linked, consciously or otherwise, to that past, and reflect an inclination not only to respect but in part to resume the struggles for modernization that marked the final decades of tsardom. If successfully carried through, these changes would constitute the greatest watershed in Russian life since the Petrine reforms of the early 18th century.

What are the chances for success in this momentous effort? Many factors would have to enter into any adequate answer to that question; they cannot all be treated here. But certain outstanding ones may well deserve attention in this context.

First, in estimating the chances for success of the first two of these efforts at change-the basic reforms of the political and economic systems-one has to take account of the enduring effects of seven decades of communist power. One is obliged to note that, when it comes to the bulk of the population, the state of preparedness to meet these challenges is smaller than it probably would have been in 1917. It is sad to reflect that among the many other disservices that the Soviet regime did to traditional Russia, not the least was the fact that it left, as it departed, a people so poorly qualified to displace it with anything better.

It would be easy to regard the communist decades as a tragic seventy-year interruption in the normal progress of a great country and to assume that, the interruption now being over, the country could pick up where things left off in 1917 and proceed as though the interruption had never occurred. The temptation to view things that way is heightened by the evidence that many of the problems the country now faces, as the heavy communist hand withdraws, represent the unfinished business of 1917, existing much as it then did because so little of it was, in the interval, sensibly and effectively addressed.

But things are not quite like that. The people we now have before us in Russia are not those who experienced the events of 1917; they are the children and grandchildren of the people of that time-of those of them, at least, who survived enough of the horrors of the ensuing years to leave progeny at all. And these children and grandchildren are divided from their parents and grandparents by something more than just the normal generational change. The intervening events, primarily Stalinism and the carnage of the wartime battlefields, were decisive, each in its own way, in their legacy for future generations. Certain people were more likely than others to survive them; it is to these latter that the next generation was born. We have already noted the decimation of much of the prerevolutionary Russian intelligentsia in the early years of communist power. This has had its effects; of those who saw something of Russia before that decimation was completed, this writer surely is not alone in noting a certain comparative brutalization in the faces one now encounters on the Moscow streets-a result, no doubt, of long exposure to not only the exactions of a pitiless dictatorship but also the ferocious petty frictions of daily life in a shortage economy.

Nor may we ignore the social effects of all these upheavals. Political persecution and war left tragic gaps in the male parental population, particularly in the villages. Family structure was deeply destabilized, and with its stability there were forfeited those sources of inner personal security that only the family can provide. As so often before in the more violent passages of Russian history, it has been the broad and long-suffering back of the Russian woman, capable of bearing a great deal but also not without its limits, on which an inordinate share of the burdens of the maintenance of civilization has come to rest. The effects are painfully visible in a whole series of phenomena of that woman's life: the weariness, the cynicism, the multitudinous abortions, the fatherless families.

Particularly distressing is the fact that so many of the present younger generation have very little idea of what has happened to Russia in these past decades, of why it happened, or of its effects. With the lives of the tens of millions who perished in the earlier vicissitudes went also their memories and the lessons learned from the events of those times. This younger generation has been thrust with little parental guidance and almost no historical memory into a world whose origins it does not know or comprehend.

It was inevitable that this state of affairs should have had its effects on intellectual outlooks. It is true that a larger part of the population than was the case at the time of the revolution has now received at least a grade school education and some technological training. But on the philosophical, intellectual and economic sides the picture is a disturbing one.

The governmental structure to which the center of gravity of political power is now being transferred from what was formerly the party's political monopoly may adequately serve as the outward framework for a new and democratic form of political life, but only that. It will have to be filled in at many points with an entirely new body of methods, habits and-eventually-traditions of self-rule. For this, the minds of the younger generation are poorly prepared. It is not too much to say that there was much more real understanding for the principles and necessities of democratic rule-for the compromises, the restraints, the patience and the tolerance it demands-in the Russia of 1910 than is the case today.

And the same applies when it comes to an understanding of economic realities. Seven decades of relentless suppression of every form of private initiative or spontaneity have left a people trained to regard themselves as the helpless and passive wards of the state. Seven decades of economic hardship and low living standards have largely destroyed good-neighborly relations, and have produced an atmosphere in which a great many people peer spitefully and jealously every day over the backyard fence to assure themselves that their neighbors have not contrived to get something they themselves do not possess, and, if the neighbors have done so, to denounce them. All this has encouraged the prevalence of a sweeping and exaggerated egalitarianism, under the influence of which it is sometimes held to be better that all should continue to live in a state of semi-poverty and abject dependence upon centralized power than that any should be permitted to take the lead, by their own effort and initiative, in elevating themselves even temporarily over the living standards of others.

Faced with such attitudes it will not be easy to make quick progress in the systemic changes Gorbachev and others are trying to bring about. These are not the only handicaps of this sort, but they will perhaps prove the most recalcitrant and long-lasting. For what will be required for their correction will be a long and persistent educational effort-an effort for which, in many instances, a new generation of teachers will have to be provided, and one that will presumably have to proceed in the face of much instability in Russian life.

If the full seriousness of the problem is recognized and taken into account, and if the requisite patience and persistence can be mustered, there is no reason to preclude the possibility of eventual success. But the effort cannot be other than a long one; until it is completed, the prejudices and the forms of ignorance just described will continue to lie heavily across the path of Gorbachev's efforts at reform.

We come now to the third of the great elements in the process of change in which Russia is now involved: the readjustment of the interrelationships among the various national and ethnic elements that have heretofore made up the tsarist/Soviet state.

This readjustment is inevitable. The complete maintenance in any of its former forms of the multinational and multilingual empire of past decades and centuries is incompatible with the powerful force of modern nationalism. Most of the other empires of this nature have already been compelled to yield to that force. Russia, too, had begun to yield to it in 1917; but here, too, the process was interrupted and long postponed by the establishment of communist power. Now the demand for it has reasserted itself with redoubled vigor, and not all of it, surely, is to be withstood. But this is a highly complex and even dangerous problem, which even the benevolently inclined outsider should approach only with greatest circumspection.

That the three Baltic states deserve their independence, and will eventually have it, seems beyond question. There are others that are demanding sovereign status but in whom the requisite experience and maturity of leadership, as well as other essential resources, have yet to be demonstrated. There are still other non-Russian entities where the demand for independence has not even been seriously raised and where the ability to bear the strains and responsibilities of an independent status is even more questionable. There is, in short, no uniformity in the needs and the qualifications that the respective Soviet peoples bring to any far-reaching alteration in their relationship to the Russian center. And no single model, not even one from the outside world, could possibly provide a useful response to all the problems such an alteration would present.

Very special, highly intricate, and full of dangerous pitfalls are those problems that present themselves in the case of the relationship between the Ukraine and Russia proper. Many Ukrainians can and do offer compelling reasons why their country should have at least a greatly changed if not fully independent status in the new era. But Ukrainians do not always speak with one voice. Some speak with a Polish voice, some with a Russian, and some with a more purely Ukrainian one. It will not be easy for them all to agree on how a future Ukraine is to be independently governed, or indeed, even on what its borders should be. To which must be added the fact that so extensive is the interweaving of the Russian and Ukrainian economies that any significant detachment of the two governments would have to be accompanied by the widest possible arrangements for freedom of commercial and financial exchanges between them, if confusion and even hardship were to be avoided.

Pregnant with problems of equal, if not greater, gravity are the demands for a virtual independence on the part of the Russian center that now embraces nearly half of the population, and an even larger proportion of the material resources, of the Soviet Union. These demands, too, are not lacking in serious foundation. Russian national feeling, while not without weaknesses and distortions (notably in the tendencies towards xenophobia and intolerance), is deeply rooted in the culture, the religion and the traditions of the Russian people. No less than the similar feelings of the other national parts of the Soviet Union do they deserve recognition and consideration. To which must be added the fact that the recent discussion within Russia proper of the separate future of that part of the country has been marked, notwithstanding all the handicaps noted above in this article, by an encouraging level of seriousness and responsibility.

But here, very serious complications present themselves. For were the process of designing an independent future for the Russian people alone to go too far, this would place in question the very raison d'être for any supranational center such as the Soviet government now presents. Were the Russians, in other words, to establish a separate sovereignty, or even a far-reaching degree of national independence, this, coming together with the similar detachment of other nationalities of the present Soviet Union, would raise the question as to whether enough would be left of the traditional tsarist/Soviet empire to justify any great coordinating center at all.

The relationships that have existed between the many non-Russian parts of this traditional multinational structure and the Russian center have deep historical roots. Few would be prepared for the situation that would develop if all these ties were to be abruptly severed. The economic confusion would be enormous. Worse still is the growing evidence that certain of these non-Russian entities, if left suddenly to themselves, would either make war against each other or become subject to highly destructive civil conflicts within their own confines. Finally, there is the very serious problem that would be created by the fragmentation of responsibility for the nuclear weaponry now in Soviet hands.

Beyond this, there is the need of this entire region for a single voice-a mature and experienced voice-in world affairs. The importance of this problem is apparent in the commanding figure and present position of Gorbachev, a statesman of world stature and competence, without whose service as a spokesman for peoples of this entire area all would be impoverished. It is hard to think of any of the aspirants for independence who, trying to "go it alone," could be as useful to world peace, or even to themselves, as this one common and enlightened voice in world affairs could be to all of them. The preservation of the Soviet government as a coordinating center will demand, most certainly, a far higher level of input on the part of these other entities into the development of a common foreign policy than they have enjoyed in the past, but to forfeit the advantages of this arrangement would be, for most if not all of them, to lose more than they would gain.

Of greatest importance in this connection would be the effect on international life of any complete breakup of the Russian/Soviet state. The abandonment of any general political center for the peoples of the region would mean the removal from the international scene of one of those great powers whose interrelationships, with all their ups and downs, have constituted a central feature of the structure of international life for most of this century. Experience has shown (not least in the sudden breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918-19) that any major change in the composition of the international community, although perhaps unavoidable or even desirable over the long term, is pregnant with possibilities for unpredictable complications and for grave dangers if it takes place too abruptly and without careful preparation.

It is clear, then, that no satisfactory solution to these problems will be found at either of the extremes of contemporary opinion in the Soviet Union-neither at that of total independence for everyone nor at that of a total preservation of the sort of subordination to a single central political authority that its component national entities have known in the past. Compromises will have to be found, restraint and patience will have to be observed on all sides.

All this would suggest the necessity for some sort of a federated interrelationship among those of the present components of the Soviet Union that are not to become entirely independent. This would have to be a highly flexible arrangement, and probably a looser one than that which Gorbachev now envisages. But the total absence of such ties would present dangers of great gravity for Russia itself, for the other Soviet nationalities and for the peace of surrounding regions.


Let the following stand, then, as a summary of the considerations set forth above.

What is now emerging on the territory traditionally known as Russia will not be-cannot be-the Russia of the tsars. Nor can it be the Russia of the communists. It can only be something essentially new, the contours of which are still, for us and for the Russians themselves, obscure.

The tasks to be encompassed are immense. A workable system of humane representative government-something of which Russian history provides only the most rudimentary experience-will have to be devised and rendered acceptable to a people among whom the principle of reasonable compromise, essential to its success, is largely foreign. A new economic system, compatible with Russian traditions but not limited by them, will have to be devised; and an essential feature of this new system will have to be a wholly new organization of the agricultural process for which, in the main, there will be no precedent in Russian experience. And, finally, the immensely complex and dangerous process of political and institutional decentralization of the traditional Russian state will have to be in some way managed.

For the meeting of these demands the Russian people are today poorly prepared. The events of this century have, as we have seen, taken a terrible toll on their social and spiritual resources. Their own history has pathetically little to tell them. A great deal will have to be started from scratch. The road will be long, rough and perilous.

How can we best relate to a people that finds itself in such straits, confronted with such tremendous and difficult tasks? The lingering tendencies in this country to see Russia as a great and dangerous enemy are simply silly, and should have no place in our thinking. We have never been at war with Russia, should never need to be, and must not be. As Gorbachev has often pointed out, we live in an age when other people's problems are essentially our own. This is the way we must come to view Russia's.

The Russians will need help from wherever they can get it. Some of that help, in our case, may from time to time take the form of economic assistance; but this will be of minor importance. The greatest help we can give will be of two kinds: understanding and example.

The example will of course depend upon the quality of our own civilization. It is our responsibility to assure that this quality is such as to be useful in this respect. We must ask ourselves what sort of example is going to be set for Russia by a country that finds itself unable to solve such problems as drugs, crime, decay of the inner cities, declining educational levels, a crumbling material substructure, and a deteriorating environment.

The understanding, on the other hand, will have to include the recognition that this is in many ways a hard and low moment in the historical development of the Russian people. They are just in process of recovery from all the heartrending reverses that this brutal century has brought to them. They are not, seen in the historical dimension, entirely themselves. We should bear this in mind. We, too, may someday have our low moments. And while we should beware of our American tendency to idealize those foreign peoples whom we consider to be particularly unfortunate, there is no reason why an understanding American attitude towards Russia at this juncture in its history should not include a reasonable measure of compassion.

Beyond this, while we speak of understanding, we can try to bear in mind that along with all the dark aspects of their development, the Russians have shown themselves historically to be a great people-a people of many talents, capable of rendering significant contributions, spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic, to the development of world civilization. They have made such contributions at times in the past. They have the potentiality for doing it again-in a better future.

The obligation to respect and cherish that potentiality is primarily their own. But in another sense it is ours as well. Let us accept that responsibility, and meet it thoughtfully, imaginatively and creatively wherever we can.

1 My reflections have been stimulated by Professor Robert C. Tucker's new study of the crucial and formative years of the Stalin dictatorship (Stalin in Power: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941, W. W. Norton, 1990). For anyone who, like the writer, lived in Moscow through parts of the period he describes, Tucker's account was bound to stir many reflections about the place of those terrible years, and indeed of the entire communist epoch now coming to an end, in the historical development of the Russian state. Some of these reflections find expression in the present article.

2 Insofar as the historical evidences provide answers, Tucker has given them in his book, and they richly deserve reading. But they are extraneous to this bare listing of the misfortunes endured by the Soviet peoples under communist rule.

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  • George F. Kennan is Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Copyright (c) 1990 by George F. Kennan.
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