The Hill


A recently released documentary film produced by murdered opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation is making waves among Russians. Titled “The Traitors,” the film tries to figure out what went wrong in Russia in the 1990s — and points fingers at former President Boris Yeltsin and a number of oligarchs and reformers.

As two Russian analysts see it, the film’s “main goal is to seek an understanding of how Russia derailed in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In the film-makers’ view, the country had a chance to become a normal, rules-based democratic country, but failed because those entrusted with the people’s hopes betrayed them.”

A serious stock-taking in Russia is long overdue, and one hopes that Russians will do more than place the blame for Vladimir Putin’s malevolent rise to power, and his dismantling of Russia’s quasi-democratic institutions, on a few individuals. Russian history, Russian culture, Russian elites and the Russian people also bear much of the blame.

Western policymakers and analysts also need to take stock. They, too, got it wrong, largely supporting the policies that “The Traitors” denounces.

The intellectual roots of the West’s mistakes predate the Soviet Union’s collapse. The conventional wisdom within the Sovietological community in the 1980s was that while the USSR required radical reform, it was fundamentally stable. The dissidents were dismissed; the population was believed to be quiescent or coopted; the military and KGB were thought to be fully in control; the non-Russians were deemed bit players.

Mainstream Sovietology completely underestimated the importance of the non-Russians. By the same token, the USSR was deemed to be nothing more than an “authoritarian welfare state” with a multinational population. Had the USSR been conceptualized as totalitarian and imperial, analysts might have come to appreciate that totalitarian systems are intrinsically dysfunctional and that empires are oppressive entities that don’t just disappear, even when they formally collapse.

Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the USSR’s imperial totalitarianism and failed. Giving the non-Russians a voice via glasnost enabled them to question the legitimacy of the Communist Party and Soviet state and, thus, to undermine Gorbachev’s efforts to reform totalitarianism. In order to continue with perestroika, he would have had to crack down on the non-Russians, but doing so would have ended perestroika and glasnost.

In short, the Sovietological community, the U.S. government and indeed Gorbachev himself lacked the conceptual tools — empire and totalitarianism — to make sense of the system. They also downplayed and/or misunderstood the non-Russians, who proved to be the driving force behind the USSR’s collapse.

As a result, the West proved incapable of understanding that, in the aftermath of the USSR’s formal end, totalitarian institutions (such as the KGB and Communist old-boy networks) and imperial connections (such as an imperial and supremacist Russian political culture and the economic dependence of the non-Russian states on Russian energy) would continue to play an important role in Russian and non-Russian relations.

In effect, the failure to recognize that the USSR had been totalitarian and imperial meant that American recommendations of an economic Big Bang were doomed to failure — as one wit put it, going from a market economy to central planning was like making fish soup out of fish, while going from central planning to a market economy was like making fish out of fish soup. Thus, economic modernization resulted in the discrediting of the democrats and the emergence of a populist strongman who would promise to restore the empire, stabilize the economy, muzzle the democrats and make Russia great again.

The West might have been able to forestall the emergence of an authoritarian strongman and regime if it had supported the non-Russians before the breakup and especially thereafter. This would have sent a clear message to the Kremlin that the U.S. would not tolerate the restoration of empire. President George H.W. Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech was exactly the wrong thing to say. Washington should have prepared for the USSR’s demise by training the requisite diplomatic cadres, forming links with diaspora communities and negotiating with allies.

In particular, NATO membership should have been considered for Ukraine and Belarus (when Russia was in no position to object to Western indifference to promises that may or may not have been made to Gorbachev). Instead, Ukraine and Belarus were ignored and relegated to an untenable geopolitical no-man’s land that would ultimately invite Russian aggression against both. Belarus was demoted to Russian vassal status, while Ukraine was invaded and became the target of genocide.

The West erred by thinking that the transition to a market economy could be accomplished quickly and in such a manner as not to politically undermine the reformers. The United States and its allies should have supported the creation of democratic institutions, even at the cost of a delayed economic transformation. Instead, the West helped bring about a “Weimar Russia” scenario in which imperial collapse was followed by economic distress, democracy’s discrediting and the rise of a strongman who exploited the traditional Russian adulation of powerful leaders in order to establish what eventually became a fascist, proto-Nazi regime.

The past can’t be fixed, but the lessons of the past can prepare us for the future. If there are two words that describe Western attitudes toward the USSR and Russia, they are “wishful thinking.” Russian history has always disappointed the wishful thinkers; it’s rarely disappointed the pessimists and the cynics.

Which brings us to Putin, of course. For over two decades the West assumed the best about him. It’s high time to assume the worst — and to act accordingly.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”