In the Soviet Union, as founded in 1922, power lay with the communist party. The party claimed legitimacy not from legal principle or continuity with the past, but from the glory of the revolution and bright promise of the future. In principle, all authority lay with the working class. Workers were represented by the party, the party by its central committee, the central committee by its politburo, and the politburo usually by a single leading man, Lenin and later Stalin. Marxism-Leninism was a politics of inevitability: the course of events was known in advance, socialism would displace capitalism, and party leaders knew the details and made the plans. The initial state was purpose-built to accelerate time, to replicate the industry that capitalism had created elsewhere. Once the Soviet Union had the factories and the cities, it could undo the principle of property, socialist harmony would result, and the state could fade away.
Although the USSR’s state-controlled agriculture and planned economy did generate a modern infrastructure, workers never gained power and the state never vanished. Because no principle of succession was ever established, the death of each leader threatened the system as a whole. After Lenin’s death in 1924, it took Stalin about six years to defeat his rivals, several of whom were killed. He presided over the dramatic modernization of the First Five-Year Plan of 1928–1933, which built cities and factories at the price of the starvation of millions and the exile of millions more to concentration camps. Stalin was also the chief author of the Great Terror of 1937–1938, in which 682,691 Soviet citizens were shot, and of a smaller terror of 1939–1941, when Soviet borders were extended westward during the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany. Among other episodes of mass killing and deportation, this smaller terror involved the murder of 21,892 Polish citizens at Katyn and other sites in 1940.
Stalin was surprised when he was betrayed by his ally Hitler in 1941, but after the victory of the Red Army in 1945 he portrayed himself as the savior of the socialist project and the Russian nation. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union was able to establish an outer empire of replicate regimes on or near its western frontier: Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria. It also reincorporated Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the three Baltic states it initially annexed thanks to Stalin’s alliance with Hitler.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, only one candidate for power was killed, and by the end of the 1950s Nikita Khrushchev seemed to have consolidated power. Khrushchev, however, was superseded in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev. It was Brezhnev who proved to be Stalin’s most important successor, because he redefined the Soviet attitude to time: he buried the Marxist politics of inevitability, and replaced it with a Soviet politics of eternity.
The Bolshevik Revolution had been about youth, about a new start to be made after capitalism. This image depended, at home and especially abroad, on the blood purges that allowed new men and women to rise through the party ranks. When these ceased in the 1960s, Soviet leaders aged along with the Soviet state. Rather than of a victory of communism to come, Brezhnev spoke in the 1970s of “really existing socialism.” Once Soviet citizens expected no improvements from the future, nostalgia had to fill the vacuum left by utopia. Brezhnev replaced the promise of future perfection with a cult of Stalin and his leadership in the Second World War. The story of revolution was about the inevitable future; the memory of war was about the eternal past. This past had to be one of immaculate victimhood: it was taboo, indeed illegal, to mention that Stalin had begun the war as Hitler’s ally. For a politics of inevitability to become a politics of eternity, the facts of history had to be sacrificed.
The myth of the October Revolution promised everything; the myth of the Great Fatherland War promised nothing. The October Revolution foresaw an imaginary world in which all men would be brothers. To commemorate the Great Fatherland War was to evoke an eternal return of fascists from the West who would always seek to destroy the Soviet Union, or perhaps simply Russia. A politics of radical hope gave way to a politics of bottomless fear (which justified extraordinary expenditures on conventional and nuclear armaments). The great military parades of the Red Army on Red Square in Moscow were meant to demonstrate that the Soviet Union could not be changed. The men who ruled Russia in the 2010s were educated in this spirit.
The same held for the actual deployment of the Red Army: it was to preserve the status quo in Europe. In the 1960s, some Czechoslovak communists believed that communism could be renewed. When the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to overthrow reform communists in 1968, Brezhnev spoke of “fraternal assistance.” According to the Brezhnev Doctrine, Soviet armies would halt any development in communist Europe that Moscow deemed threatening. The post-invasion regime in Czechoslovakia spoke of “normalization,” which nicely caught the spirit of the moment. What was, was normal. To say otherwise in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was to be condemned to an insane asylum.
Brezhnev died in 1982. After two short interludes of rule by dying men, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Gorbachev believed that communism could be reformed and a better future promised. His main opponent was the party itself, in particular the ossified lobbies accustomed to the status quo. So Gorbachev tried to build new institutions to gain control over the party. He encouraged the communist leaders of the Soviet satellites in eastern Europe to do the same. Polish communists, facing economic crisis and political opposition, took him at his word, scheduled partially free elections in 1989, and lost. This led to the creation of a non-communist Polish government and copycat revolutions throughout eastern Europe.
Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev faced a similar challenge. The Soviet state, when constructed in 1922, had taken the form of a federation of national republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and so forth. To reform the state, as Gorbachev wished, meant enlivening the federal units. Democratic elections in the various Soviet republics were held in order to generate new elites who would implement economic reform. For example, elections held in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in March 1990 created a new assembly, which chose Boris Yeltsin to be its chairman. Yeltsin was typical of new leaders produced by democracy, in that he believed that Russia had been ill served by the Soviet Union. Societies of every Soviet republic believed that they had been exploited by the system to the benefit of other regions.
The crisis came in summer 1991. Gorbachev’s own legitimacy had come from the party, but he was trying to replace the party with a state. To do so, he had to find a formula that would both recognize the status of the republics and create a functional center, in an atmosphere of nationalist discontent, political anxiety, and economic shortfall. His solution was a new union treaty, to be signed that August. A group of Soviet conservatives had Gorbachev arrested in his dacha on the night of August 18, during his vacation. They had little idea of what to do next, aside from broadcasting ballet on television. The victor of the coup proved to be Boris Yeltsin, who defied the plotters in Moscow, stood on a tank, and made himself a popular hero. Gorbachev was able to return to Moscow, but Yeltsin was now in charge.
Once Yeltsin became its most important politician, the days of the Soviet Union were numbered. Western leaders feared instability and campaigned to keep the USSR intact. In August 1991, President George H. W. Bush traveled to Kyiv to urge Ukrainians not to leave the Soviet Union: “Freedom is not the same as independence,” he instructed them. In October he told Gorbachev: “I hope you know the position of our government: we support the center.” In December 1991, Yeltsin removed Russia from the Soviet Union by signing an agreement with newly elected leaders of Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union became an independent state known as the Russian Federation. All of the other former republics of the Soviet Union followed suit.