Part 4 - From Reformist Czars to Gorbachev
Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918
Editor's note: In the fourth part of his masters thesis, "The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism", St. Petersburg University graduate Kevin Cyron examines the history of political and economic reforms in Russia from the 19th century Czars to Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Click on the extended post to read part four of this extended essay.
Soviet President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev unintentionally hastened the collapse of the USSR while trying to save the Socialist system
19th and 20th Century Czars and Reforms
Tsar Alexander I
The Russian hero who defeated Napoleon was a very liberal thinking Tsar in the beginning of his reign. Due to Russia's jurisdiction of Poland, the Tsar had to approve the Polish Constitution. In 1815 Alexander I approved one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe which called for the power of the state to be distributed between the king, administrative council, state council and parliament.
Domestically, Tsar Alexander I believed that the reforms of Peter the Great were now outdated and needed to be modernized. Therefore he established a Privy Committee to replace the Collegiums. It served as an advisor and consultative body during his reign composed of people the tsar could trust. The committee discussed and made recommendations on senate reform and eventually created a cabinet. There was a much larger government reform plan in place which called for the creation of an official parliament and a state Council. The Governing Senate was to be transformed into a supreme court. However due to the Napoleonic Wars of 1810 and increasing opposition from the ruling landed gentry elites, these were halted.
His successor Nicholas I proved to be a more conservative ruler by attempting to restrain Russian society by creating a secret police force to monitor civilian activities. This was due to Nicolas' experiences with the Decembrist revolt which protested the ascension of Nicolas to the throne after his brother Constantine refused the crown.
Tsar Alexander II (The Liberator)
Alexander II is best known for his emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861 which he did by establishing a council to advise him on the conditions of the peasant class. Tsar Alexander II also instituted economic liberalization by the creation of Limited Liability Companies, judicial reforms which where modeled after the French system, permitted self government rule in rural districts and large towns, abolished capital punishment and created assemblies which restricted taxation. One of his last acts was the creation of an elected parliament, however due to his assassination the document, signed the day before, never was released.
Alexander II also did much to encourage the autonomy of Finland by establishing its own currency and re-establishing the Diet of Finland which was the Finish national assembly.
Unfortunately, Russia's following Tsar, Alexander III returned to a more authoritarian path of restricting civil liberties and destroying his predecessor's plans of an elected parliament.
Tsar Nicholas II
The last attempt to create democratic institutions by a Russian Tsar was during the reign of Nicholas II. Nicolas finally agreed after much delay and a revolution in 1905 to the creation of a State Duma and a State Council of Imperial Russia which would attempt to share power. During 1906-1917, the status of the Duma was enshrined in the Russian Constitution of 1906 and whose chairman was appointed by the Tsar. Originally, half of the members were appointed by the Tsar and the other half by elections from various categories of society, such as: clergy, Russian Academy of Science, universities, merchants, and industrialists. However there was a reversal of policy in 1910, when it was decreed that only the Tsar appointed the members.
It should be noted that at this time that other parts of civil society were starting to emerge as well. As the NIC Report points out,
"Presenters did identify some precedents for greater pluralism and burgeoning civil society in Russia. In the late imperial period, non-state activity--in the form of charitable associations and volunteer fire departments--grew as Russia urbanized. Ultimately, however, all of the organizations sought the state's protection, allowing themselves to be co-opted in return for state assistance."(60)
Unfortunately for Russia, Nicolas's constant contradictions, reversals of policy, desperate attempts to hold on to complete autocratic power and refusal to recognizes Russia's cries for democratic reforms eventually led to his forced abdication of the throne. The ensuing chaos eventually manifested itself into the bloodiest Revolution since the French Revolution in 1789.
Transition from Monarchy to Communism -- The Russian Revolution and Provisional Government of 1917, Civil War, and NEP
After the fall of the Tsar, the debate on which direction the country would take in terms of political ideology was thoroughly debated and fought over. Surprisingly, the first product of the Russian revolution was the establishment of a democratic provisional government. This was set up for the purpose of the government transition from a Monarchy. The Provisional Government was most democratic, not only in Russia but also the world. It called for universal, equal and direct suffrage which included minorities and women. This is something that had not yet even occurred in the most liberal democratic societies, even the United States at the time. It was the design that the provisional government would create a solid democratic institution. However this did not come to pass. The provisional government failed to take root and eventually was removed after only 7 months (March --October) by the second part of the Russian Revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October. This second Revolution also marks the beginning of the Russian Civil War.
An interesting fact is how divisive the Socialist movement in Russia actually was. Originally there was just one socialist party which was led by Vladimir Lenin. This was the Russian Social Democrat Labor Party.
However, during an intense debate at the Second Congress of the Party, the party split into the Bolshevik (Majority) and the Mensheviks (Minority). The Mensheviks were the more moderate of the two and supported the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks sought a more radical approach and eventually overthrew the Provisional Government.
Despite the Bolsheviks support after the removal of the Provisional Government, there was still the call for democratic reforms from the people which was a result of poor economic conditions.
As Ronald Suny writes in The Soviet Experiment:
"Even without political allies among the other parties, the Bolsheviks never seriously contemplated giving up power. But the deteriorating economic situation and the inability of the Bolsheviks to improve conditions soon eroded their base support among the most loyal constituencies, the Petrograd workers. On March 13, 1918 workers met in an Assembly of Factory and Plant Representatives in Petrograd and expressed their suspicion of all parties. They feared that Bolsheviks were undermining soviet democracy and felt that the soviet leaders were no longer responsive to the workers. They called for freedom of the press."(61)
These demands for greater freedom and growing distrust only were intensified in the following months. Soon competition was building against the Bolsheviks and going in favor of the Mensheviks. The workers were calling for the creation of an Assembly. As Ronald Suny writes, The Soviet Experiment:
"In the eyes of many politically active workers in the largest cities, the Bolsheviks stood mostly firm for the workers' government, but others followed the call of the Mensheviks to participate in an Assembly of Representatives in Petrograd in May and early June 1918. The conference came out in favor of restoring the Constitutional Assembly. One Menshevik even proclaimed, "Long live capitalism!" though that message had few supporters among the workers."(62)
This again was to only last a short while. The Bolsheviks won the following elections and used their power to disband the Menshevik-led assembly.
During the Civil War that followed, the Mensheviks soon found themselves split between the Red Bolsheviks and the White liberals. As Suny states, "The moderate socialist, the Mensheviks and SRs, who hoped for constitutional order, with the gradual transition to some kind of democratic socialism, were caught in between the Reds and the Whites."(63)
The desire for democratic institutional reigned in the regions as well during the Civil War. When the Red Army captured a town or city in Siberia the next governor would reverse policies. As Ronald Suny explains:
"Once the area was secured, the new governor issued a decree reinstating all the laws of Russia before 1917. This White counterrevolution shared few values with anti-Bolsheviks on the Volga and in Siberia, who were promoting the Constitutional Assembly." Further he explains, "When the Czechoslovak troops reached Omsk, the "capital" of western Siberia, anti-Bolshevik groups joined them and formed a West Siberian Commissariat, headed by a Right SR, as an anti-Soviet Government. Here a new center of opposition, one identified, not with the reactionary Cossack generals of the Don, but with more democratic elements." Further still, "In Samara government, called Komuch (Committee for the Constituent Assemble), was established with the purpose of restoring Russia's elected parliament." Later he writes, "Peasants in the Volga region resisted the efforts of Soviet authorities to establish themselves in the villages and longed for the return of the village democracy that they had enjoyed in 1917-1918" and again, "Peasants purged the soviets of Communist and reelected the more democratically. Peasant rebels usually had only local interest and were opposed to central government in any form"(64)
These democratic tendencies were enforced by the international coalition that had interceded in the Russian Civil War. Ronald Suny writes:
"Though they were never strong enough to destroy the Soviet regime and create an unchallenged anti-Bolshevik authority, their aid was enough to prop up the SRs and the Whites for a time and establish several independent power centers throughout the former Russian empire."(65)
What's more, is that in order to effectively win the civil war the Soviet government had to liberalize the Army. Ronald Suny points this out:
"The civil war was not only a war of armies but of ordinary people who had to chose in whose ranks to serve and whether to hold their positions under fire or desert. In the flush of the October Revolution, the Soviet government had replaced the old army with a socialist militia, abolishing all ranks and titles and forming a volunteer army with elections of officers by the rank and file."(66)
Repression and Reforms in the Soviet Union
This Soviet policy was quickly undone by Trotsky once the Bolsheviks consolidated control. The Red Bolshevik Armies eventually became dominate and emerged victorious over the Whites in the Civil War. The inability of the Whites to unite to form one strong opposition is the reason why they lost. As Ronald Suny writes:
"The White forces were unable to find a social base for their movement. They remained and army without a loyal population. Their unwillingness to consider social reforms and the reliance on a purely military solution alienated significant groups of the population. The Whites suffered from their inability to unite all the anti-Bolsheviks into a single movement. Monarchist officers hated the moderate socialist almost as much as they hated the Bolsheviks, and liberal politicians remained under suspicious by more conservative elements, united Russia alienated the non-Russians."(67)
As the Civil War ended, the last remnants of the old democratic institutions were swept away. Four years after the death of the last Russian Tsar, on July 23, 1922, General Diterikhs of the Far Eastern White Army convened the last Zemsky Sobor of the Amur region in Vladivostok. This assembly was calling to all Russian people to repent for the overthrow of the Tsar, reinstituted a monarchy by naming Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich Romanoff tsar. Patriarch Tikhon, who was not present, and neither was the Grand Duke, was named as the honorary chairman of the sobor. Two months later the Amur region fell to the Bolsheviks.
During this time the Soviets were debating the benefits of federalism. Due to the immense size of the Russian territory, it become a question of control and manageability. This idea eventually became incorporated into the Soviet Russian Republic and later into the Constitution of the Soviet Union. As Ronald Suny writes:
"Most importantly, and with little real ability to effect its will in the peripheries, the Soviet government responded to the centrifugal movement of non-Russian away from the Russian center and accepted by January 1918 the principle of federalism." Further he states, "By the end of the month, the Third Congress of Soviets resolved: "The Soviet Russian Republic is established on the basis of a free union of free nations, as a federation of Soviet national republics." Both federalism and national territorial autonomy were written into the first Soviet constitution, adopted in July 1918. Soviet Russia was the first state in history to create a federal system based on ethno national unites."
Later he states, "The six republics received a formal right to secession from the union, but that right was considered a fiction for the next sixty-five years. The new union had a bicameral legislature, elected by the Congress of Soviets, in which one house, the Soviet Union, was selected on the basis of population, and the other, the Soviet of Nationalities, represented national groups; but they were largely formal bodies that did not seriously debate issues. The constitution of the new Soviet Union was ratified on January 31, 1924, just days after Lenin died."(68)
Underground Opposition to Stalin's Dictatorship
Though mostly ceremonial in nature, these seeds where planted and although they stunted the growth of true democratic institutions they in some time would be called upon and activated.
What was left of the political opposition groups still tried to influence and in some cases actually were effective in influencing polices. As Ronald Suny writes:
"Despite the 1921 ban on factions, the Communist Party remained through the decade deeply factionalized and in many ways was several parties within one." Further he writes, "Denouncing these activities as factional, Stalin offered the Opposition a compromise: if they agreed to renounce factional activities and unconditionally accept decisions of the party, they would be free to express their views within the limits of the party line." Further he states, "The Opposition made a last attempt to unseat the Stalin-Bukharin majority. In May a vigorous debate took place in the Comintern at which Trotsky spoke against the leadership. At a Moscow factory, some people shouted, "Down with Stalin's dictatorship! Down with the Politburo!"(69)
These groups were later physically completely destroyed by the Stalinist Purges, but ideas and wants just went underground and this was the beginning of the Soviet dissidents.
Following the collapse of the provisional government and the establishment of the Communist Regime there was the development and implementation of something completely
un-communistic, something more open and liberal, which was the National Economic Policy.
Lenin's National Economic Policy Allows Private Property
The NEP brought back many democratic ideas and principles most notably the control over one's own money and limited private ownership. Economic freedom is a big step to developing more freedoms. The fact that the highly democratic provisional government failed was a tragedy in trying to establish freedom and democracy in a political sense in Russia. However, as noted in the definitions of democracy, the elements of democracy are not strictly political but are economic and cultural as well. The NEP is a good example of such a distinction. This policy, though much delayed, had a direct influence on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that Stalin eliminated the NEP it was brought back, the "echo" was felt through Perestroika and the economic factor is what opened the system. As Ronald Suny writes:
"Though the "command economy" of the earlier civil war period and the later Stalinist period was not in place under NEP, the party and state constantly overruled industrial directors, and party committees drew up lists of acceptable candidates for workers to "elect" to factory committees. But on rare occasions when the party-state attempted to push workers too far or too fast there was a backlash. When enthusiasts for Taylorism attempted to introduce greater intensification of labor in textile mills in 1925, a series of strikes involving about 100,000 workers, most of them female, broke out. The party bosses were forced to back down, ease the new regulations, increase wages, and allow greater democracy on the shop floor."(70)
The Legacy of NEP - Planting the Seeds of Perestroika
During the time of NEP, private ownership of business was restored to small sections of the economy, specifically farming. This did not include private property of land. The policy ended "War Communism" policy which was implemented by Vladimir Lenin in 1918 as a crisis strategy to ensure a Bolsheviks victory in the Civil War against the White Army. As Ronald Suny writes, "The New Economic Policy ended the militarization and forced mobilization of labor of the civil war years, allowed a free market in labor, and introduced wage differentials."
The NEP also liberalized trade, and attempted to regain agreements with foreign countries. NEP improved the ability to distribute food which benefited the peasants.
NEP also provided for a certain amount of individual and local autonomy as well. Peasants could lease and hire labor, more economically liberal than socialistic. Also for a short while before collectivization, the peasants were allowed to keep a surplus after paying a certain proportion of their tax to the government. As Ronald Suny writes:
"The village commune remained largely autonomous of the official state and party authorities, and was much more independent than it had been before the revolution. A kind of dual power existed in the villages, with the peasant-run village communes, vying with the soviet institutions in the district towns, which were controlled by urban, literate men."(72)
The NEP policy was eventually ended by Premier Stalin. However their benefits were realized and would prove later on to be an inspiration not only for economic recovery but also for the economic effects on civil society. As Ronald Suny writes, "A growing consensus among scholars held that Stalinism destroyed the budding civil society of the NEP and suppressed the mark at a time when the state could not provide the material goods that the people required."(73)
The Transition of the Millenium - the Pendulum Swings Back to Freedom
The long centuries of authoritarianism and totalitarianism finally reached a point that was no longer sustainable in the later part of the 20th century. The democratic institutional "echoes" that again were very minor but still a part of the Russian soul helped bring about this change. The traditional belief is that the negative effects of socialism along with the reforms issued by the government is what brought the transition from Communism to Democracy.
However, a third element should be added which is the "echo" of the democratic desire or the lust for freedom. As demonstrated above, throughout Russia's long history there have been many transitions within the realm of authoritarianism. The pendulum of political ideologies shifted back and forth within that sphere. However when the collapse happened, due to an attempt at rapid economic reforms to keep Russia in the sphere of authoritarianism, it was the ghosts of the past that finally pushed Russia into the transition to sustainable Democracy.
By the time of the late 1980's the socialist and communist experiment had failed miserably. Socialism did collapse the Soviet Union because it put the country in such an economic bankrupt state that the government had to look to more efficient, open, and liberal democratic ideas that were implemented in the provisional government and the NEP. As Dr. Thomas Barnett explains on his web log (in a post that prompted an interesting exchange with the editors of Russia Blog about modern Russia's demographic problems):
"The Soviet Union was long shielded from markets and liability. When Russia was suddenly thrust into that world, the country found that much of what it owned was useless, much of what it made was useless, and much of what it knew was useless. What caused Russia's collapse was 70 years of socialism, not reforms, which merely pulled the curtain back on that vast human tragedy."(74)
The reforms did not cause the collapse but the innovations did ensure Russia's permanent push into the establishment of democracy.
Unlike the democratic attempts made in the Provision Government or the weak democratic institutions set up by the former Tsars, which tried to establish a more democratic government first, the reforms' of the 1980's started with economics and dragged in the democratic institutions. This provides the link between liberal economies and developing democracies.
Gorbachev and Perestroika
By the late 1970s and early 80s it was apparent that the socialist system was coming under increasing pressure. The model itself seemed to limit the potential of Russia. It was during this time that Mikhail Gorbachev looked to the past to create a plan to reform his country. The term Perestroika or "restructuring" was a term used by Mikhail Gorbachev to explain his modernizing policies. He recognized that the "restructuring", which eventually led to the transition to democracy, was rooted in a "revival". As Mikhail Gorbachev states in his book, Perestroika:
"Perestroika is the all-round intensification of the Soviet economy, the revival and development of the principles of democratic centralism in running the national economy, the universal introduction of economic methods, the renunciation of management by injunction and by administrative methods, and the overall encouragement of innovation and socialist enterprise."(75)
Gorbachev continues by describing a "revisit to the Leninist concept of socialist construction" which the success of the NEP significantly influenced. When Stalin ruthlessly destroyed the NEP through collectivization and the purges he not only forever undermined Lenin's vision of a Socialist Communist Russia, but by doing it in the manner that he did, he also made the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R and the transition to democracy inevitable. This is why when Gorbachev was "restructuring" he called upon the "echoes" of Lenin. He states in his book:
"I stress once again: perestroika is not some kind of illumination or revelation. To restructure our life means to understand the objective necessity for renovation and acceleration. And that necessity emerged in the heart of our society. The essence of perestroika lies in the fact that it unites socialism with democracy and revives the Leninist concept of socialist construction both in theory and in practice. Such is the essence of perestroika, which accounts for its genuine revolutionary spirit and its all-embracing scope."(76)
Originally Gorbachev wanted to modify central planning, but did not make any truly fundamental changes. It was not until later that he and his team of economic advisers introduced more fundamental reforms, which became known as perestroika or economic restructuring.
1987 - The USSR Formally Legalizes Private Property
In July 1987, the Supreme Soviet passed the Law on State Enterprise. The law stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Businesses had to fulfill state orders, but they could dispose of the remaining output as they saw fit. Owners bought inputs from suppliers at negotiated contract prices. Under the law, they became self-financing; that is, they had to cover expenses which included wages, taxes, supplies, and debt service through revenues. This meant that the government could no longer rescue unprofitable enterprises that could face bankruptcy. Finally, the law shifted control over the business operations from ministries to elected workers' collectives.
The most liberal of the reforms during perestroika was the Law on Cooperatives. For the first time since Lenin's NEP, private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors was permitted. At first this law demanded high taxes and employment restrictions, but it was later changed in order to avoid discouraging potential private-sector growth. Soon the government removed the monopoly on most trade and allowed the ministries to conduct international trade in areas of the economy under their responsibility rather than through the trade ministry. Further reforms permitted foreigners to invest and to form joint ventures with Soviet ministries, state enterprises, and cooperatives.
The Intended and Unintended Consequences of Perestroika
By 1990 the Soviet government was unable to control the economy. Soon the republics and local governments began withholding tax revenues from the central government under the desire for regional autonomy.
The reforms of perestroika started the process leading to the dismantling of the Soviet-era command economy and its replacement with a market economy. The economic freedoms granted by Gorbachev during perestroika revealed the long legacy, influence and initial success of the NEP. It was this revival that unraveled the Soviet society and accelerated the end of the Soviet Union. It is this economic freedom that ensures Russia's march to democracy and revents the slide back away from it.
In addition to Perestroika, there is another set of government initiatives that brought about dramatic change. While in the West the notion of "glasnost" is linked with freedom of speech, the main goal of this policy was to make the country's management transparent and open to debate. It was a tool to get the country to mobilize around the economic reforms of Perestroika. As Michael McFaul states in his book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution:
"To breathe new life into the state and make it a counterweight to the conservative Party apparatus, Gorbachev took the radical step of activating what he called the human factor. By giving society a new public voice and a greater political role within the state, Gorbachev believed he could rely on state institutions rather than the Party as his own political power base for furthering the process of perestroika."(78)
Glasnost gave new freedoms to the people, such as freedom of speech and also a greater degree of liberty within the media. In the late 1980s, the Soviet government came under increased criticism, as did Leninist ideology, and members of the population were more outspoken in their recognition that the Soviet government had become a failure. Glasnost did indeed provide freedom of expression, but far beyond what Gorbachev had intended, and it changed citizens' views towards the government, which played a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is interesting to note Gorbachev's own words in his book, Perestroika:
"We need wholesome, full-blooded functioning by all public organizations, all production teams and creative unions, new forms of activity by citizens and the revival of those which have been forgotten. In short, we need broad democratization of all aspects of society. That democratization is also the main guarantee that the current processes are irreversible."(79)
The Post-Soviet Rebirth of Democracy in Russia
The reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost which were brought about by instituting old economic stimulus ideas led to the awakening of the democratic desires of the people which for centuries had been attempted but were never given a genuine opportunity to succeed.
(60) NIC Report 2007 - http://www.dni.gov/nic/PDF_GIF_confreports/putin_era.pdf
(61) Suny, Ronald p. 68
(62) Suny, Ronald p. 68
(63) Suny, Ronald p. 69
(64) Suny, Ronald p. 76, 92
(65) Suny, Ronald p. 77
(66) Suny, Ronald p. 77
(67) Suny, Ronald p. 94
(68) Suny, Ronald p141, 144
(69) Suny, Ronald p. 154, 157, 158,
(70) Suny, Ronald p. 176
(71) Suny, Ronald p. 175
(72) Ibid p.177
(73) Ibid. p 218
(74) www.thomaspmbarnett.com June 21, 2007
(75) Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika (New York: Harper Collins, 1987), quoted in Mark Kishlansky, ed.Sources of the West: Readings in Western Civilization, 4th ed., vol. 2 (New York: Longman, 2001), p. 322.
(77) Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika (New York: Harper Collins, 1987). p 43
(78) McFaul, Michael p.46
(79) Gorbachev, Mikhail p.32
Kevin Cyron is a native of Burke, Virginia, USA and a graduate of Marymount University in Maryland. Mr. Cyron has worked on the staff of Congressmen Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Washington D.C., and for an MP in the European Parliament in Brussels. In 2005, Mr. Cyron moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to begin his Masters degree in European Studies the following year. While completing his Masters, Mr. Cyron worked for the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. Mr. Cyron graduated from St. Petersburg State University with an M.A. in Sociology in June 2008.