The great irony of the cold war
The weird thing about Soviet collapse was how democratic it was. By 1991, Ukraine already had an elected President and Parliament. 90% of Ukrainian people voted to leave in a referendum. The other republics eventually followed them out. It was the original Brexit, only better managed.
There was a chain reaction: Ukraine did not want to be in the Union, Russia could not imagine the Union without Ukraine, and the rest of the republics could not imagine it without Russia. (The Last Empire⁴⁶⁷)
On Christmas Day, Gorbachev got on TV, the Soviet flag came down, and they handed the nuclear briefcase to the already elected President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. It was a clean collapse, affected by the people of the republics and their leaders. In short, democracy.
George H.W. Bush quickly got on TV to take say he was Santa Claus, but it wasn’t true. America didn’t flip the communist table over. All the legs just left.
Until the last weeks of the existence of the USSR, Bush had resisted its disintegration and tried to keep Gorbachev in power at all costs. But now that Gorbachev had resigned, Bush and his team were ready to take the credit for something they had worked hard to avoid — the loss of a reliable junior partner in the shaping of the post-Cold War world. (The Last Empire⁴⁴³)
America’s only concern was what happened to the nukes. They forgot that people can also explode, just on a longer fuse. The great missed historical opportunity was that America could have rebuilt the former republics, as they did to former enemies after WWII. Bush’s adviser James Baker strongly advised the same:
After meeting with the new democratic leaders, who wanted change but were clearly unprepared to govern the country, Baker wrote to Bush suggesting a Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union in all but name.
“The simple fact is we have a tremendous stake in the success of the democrats here. Their success will change the world in a way that reflects both our values and our hopes… The democrats’ failure would produce a world that is far more threatening and dangerous, and I have little doubt that if they are unable to begin to deliver the goods, they will be supplanted by an authoritarian leader of the xenophobic right wing.” (Last Empire, citing Baker’s book The Politics Of Diplomacy, 526–539).
But there was no Marshall Plan (from either Bush or Clinton). Just some pittance of humanitarian aid. Millions of people were thrown headlong into capitalism in the middle of winter and they suffered greatly for years. In the end, Russia did get an authoritarian leader, and so here we are.
Imagine a world where Germany and Japan were still angry. That’s how America ended the Cold War. That’s where we live, and it’s blown up in America’s face more than anyone else’s. Now Vladimir Putin is fracking the American psyche mercilessly as they now go through a collapse of their own.
The great paradox is that American collapse is less democratic than the Soviet one. It’s like they passed each other on the democracy escalator.
America today is beating protestors and occupying itself in a way the late Soviets never did. The federal government robbed PPE from states in a way Soviet Republics would not have tolerated. Soviet democracy was rising at the end. American democracy is going down.
One benefit of democracy is that it at least degrades gracefully. People vote rather than fight to leave. When the USSR collapsed a bunch of mostly elected leaders had meetings at hunting lodges and just hashed it out. When hardliners staged a brief coup against Gorbachev it was resisted by his otherwise enemies, including Yeltsin. Democrats defended the last Soviet, and then peacefully took him down.
America is, to say the least, not degrading gracefully. It’s not even clear how it can. America has a federal structure like the Soviets, but it’s federal in name only. It’s not like they occupy the Philippines anymore, and their colonies like Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa are small. The parallel to Ukraine leaving would be California seceding, but can you see that happening? No one speaks Californian. It’s not a national identity. The cookie just doesn’t crumble that way. The danger then, is that the cookie explodes.
The fact is that America is already fascist. They haven’t noticed because they’re frogs in a pot, but that’s how fascism works. It’s a slow boil, not an explosion, and America is already in the soup. Their federal government is completely lawless, violent, and corrupt. At least 40% of the population is ginned up to beat or kill the rest. They already have the concentration camps, Gestapo, and forced sterilizations. Perhaps they haven’t got to you yet, but ask Martin Niemoller. This is literally how fascism works. First they come for X, and you don’t say anything. Then they come for you.
I read The Last Empire to see some parallels to America’s situation but America’s situation is surprisingly worse. There were at least responsible adults in charge at the Soviet Union. America is run by political arsonists cheered on by a base of conspiracy theorists, all completely detached from reality. It’s much more dangerous.
Hence you can’t apply Soviet lessons to America because the USSR was too rational and democratic. The great irony of the Cold War is that Soviet democracy killed the USSR and American authoritarianism is killing the USA.
The conventional knowledge is of course the other way around. The idea is that the good Americans yelled at the evil Soviets until they fell over, but that’s just not how it happened. It’s the wrong lesson to learn.
Weirdly enough, the main lesson from the collapse of the USSR may be this. Late America should try to be more like the late USSR. We should be so lucky. Free California!
For further reading I recommend The Last Empire, by Serhii Plokhy. It uses declassified direct sources to cover the coups, meetings, and people that ushered out the USSR over five months in 1991. For covering the terrible human toll I’m told that Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich is good, but I haven’t read that yet.