Gorbachev's death and Russia's fate: From Perestroika to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Mikhail Gorbachev

On 31 August 2022, news of Mikhail Gorbachev's death at age 91 filtered into Japan in the midst of sweltering heat and the spread of COVID-19. The Perestroika and Glasnost that Gorbachev carried out after 1985, when he became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, are still praised as full-scale attempts to break away from Stalinism. Ending the war in Afghanistan and taking steps toward nuclear disarmament are also commended.

However, Gorbachev failed to show any decisive political leadership during two crucial moments: a (half-hearted) coup d'état by a pro-USSR group led by his close associates, and a (full-scale) reverse coup d'état by a pro-Russia group led by Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev quickly abdicated responsibility by dissolving the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This irresponsible political escapism was the cause of the chaos and political collapse that followed. Having lost the Communist Party as its political glue, the Soviet Union was thereafter almost automatically dismantled.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers imposed their shock doctrine and neoliberal policies on Russia and other former Soviet states. These drastically reduced people's living standards, destroyed social stability, and left common property to be plundered by the old bureaucracy and Western capitalists. Because of this extreme social chaos, the population of Russia plummeted in the 1990s, as it had done during the great wars. This decline was caused by mass exodus, premature deaths, and curtailment of births due to declining livelihoods.

It was Vladimir Putin who ended this social turmoil with his iron fist and rebuilt the Russian economy. Despite all his repression and intransigence, many Russian people support him because no one forgets the disastrous years of a decade prior. The Western media demonises Putin, but it was Western shock doctrine and neoliberal plunder that created this "devil". Now the West faces the consequences of its own irresponsible policies in the form of Russian imperialist invasion of Ukraine. And those who are being made to pay for this policy with their lives and bodies are the ordinary people of Ukraine and the young Russian soldiers who have been sent to Ukraine to lay their corpses on foreign soil.

After World War II, US imperialism did its utmost to include Germany, Italy, and Japan, who were its sworn enemies, in the Western camp by implementing comprehensive economic aid policies like the Marshall Plan, rather than through policies of retaliation. In so doing, these countries never again rebelled against the U.S. and became its firm allies.

But what the Western powers imposed after the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the aid policies of the Marshall Plan, but shock doctrine and neoliberal plunder. The peace of Versailles after World War I should have amply demonstrated the historical lesson that such policies risk creating even more vicious enemies. The West had forgotten this lesson. But this forgetting cannot be put down to mere political amnesia; the social and political situation had changed drastically in the intervening period.

Immediately after the war, there were four factors that led the US to curb its imperialist behaviour, adopt the Marshall Plan and devise an aid policy for the ex-Axis powers:

  1. The U.S. had an overwhelming superior economy that made aid possible;
  2. The economic intervention and welfare state policies symbolised by the New Deal and the Beveridge Report represented the policy tone of the time;
  3. There existed a strong restraining power comprising working people from below through global anti-fascist and anti-colonial struggles; and
  4. Above all, the existence of the Soviet Union itself, a new and powerful postwar rival of the West, made it necessary for the US to politically incorporate other capitalist countries in order to counter the USSR.

These four conditions had disappeared or significantly weakened by the 1990s. The US economy lost much of its economic dominance in the 40 years since the war. From the 1980s, the dominant political tendency became neoliberalism rather than economic intervention and welfare state policies. The ability of the working people to restrain imperialist policies from below was also severely weakened by the defeat of the 1968 Revolution and ten years of neoliberal politics. Above all, the collapse of the Soviet Union spelt the disappearance of a leader in the "communist" camp, and because at that time it was not expected that China would become such an economic power, the West did not feel any need to politically subsume Russia.

Thus, all factors that had led the US to adopt a hegemonic strategy of political incorporation after World War II by curbing its typically imperialistic behavior were gone. Imperialism behaved like imperialism, and with all its attendant consequences.

Imperialism has always faced this dilemma. It is the dilemma of whether to confront socialism and communism, or to confront other imperialisms. In the post-World War I period, the latter confrontation was realized because socialism/communism was still weak (the Soviet Union was expected to collapse soon). On the flipside, after World War II, confrontation with other imperialisms was avoided in order to confront socialism/communism. And during the 50 years of the Cold War, the thought of prioritising the former (i.e confronting socialism) became so dominant that the possibility of the latter was forgotten. Western leaders thought that Russia would obediently follow the Western powers in any case, and Putin initially seemed to be on the same page. But it did not last long.

In the 19th century, the Russian Empire had been the common enemy of European democracy. Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw it as the strongest and last bastion of the European reactionary order. This empire was not toppled by Napoleon, the hero of the French Revolution, nor by the reactionary German imperialism of the Hohenzollerns, but by the revolution of the workers and the people themselves (with socialist tendencies) within the Russian Empire.

Can we expect the same thing today? There has been no difference between Putin and the Western powers in containing and eradicating socialist/communist forces. It would now be hypocritical, to say the least, to be surprised and bewildered in the face of unchecked Russian imperialism after having thoroughly undermined the forces that could have most powerfully restrained it from within.

Those who believe that this Russian invasion of Ukraine is the result of Satanic Putin's territorial paranoia will face surprise and bewilderment over and over again. Even if the invasion of Ukraine is somehow "resolved," it will never be truly resolved as long as the conditions and circumstances that created it remain intact.