The Soviet Paradox

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Soviet Union has suffered seriously from problems associated with economic stagnation. This has occurred at a time of growing demands and expectations by the Soviet people. A weakening economy and a discontented populace undermine the Soviet Union’s capacity to perform as a superpower, and they pose a potential threat to the continuing existence of the Soviet system in its present form. It was predictable, therefore, that the new Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev would make rapid modernization one of the top priorities of his regime. Indeed, it may be a bigger concern than national defense, for ultimately the economy will determine whether the Soviet Union can afford its defense and foreign policy.

Much of the media coverage of the Soviet Union has suggested a mood of self-criticism, especially regarding the failings of the economy. Ranking officials openly concede that factories produce goods that nobody wants. The Soviet press has been providing vivid examples of waste and inefficiency. Across the country, consumers waiting in line for goods and services daily waste millions of hours. About twenty million people are said to work in the so-called “second economy,” which may constitute approximately 10 percent of the total economy. Most of this second economy involves the trading of services—often using stolen state-owned parts—and black-market operations. The economy has reached a point where the black market constitutes a kind of safety valve, or lubricant, to keep it going.

The system shows many incongruities that have resulted from priorities set earlier. For example, manufacturers do not seem able to make an automatic washing machine, yet the Soviet Union produces weapons systems, such as nuclear-powered submarines, that are as good or better than those made in the United States. Gorbachev is pressing forward with a series of reforms. Will they be sufficient, however, to accomplish the goal of modernization? Seweryn Bialer, the distinguished Sovietologist at Columbia University, provides answers to this and to many other questions an interested student of the Soviet Union might have. The Soviets face predicaments and dilemmas from which they cannot extricate themselves unless they adopt sweeping reforms. Required are changes of the system, rather than changes in the system. Bialer speaks of essential structural-institutional reforms, not merely policy reforms and organizational-administrative reforms. Central control and central planning are not likely to be compromised, however, despite their standing in the way of growth and progress.

As Bialer articulates it, the Soviet paradox results from the fact that economic revitalization requires the devolution of power, yet the leadership of the Communist Party seeks further centralization and concentration of power. An equally important aspect of the paradox arises from the fact that military growth has chiefly caused the internal problems, and the continued diversion of resources makes their resolution more difficult, yet the leadership places a higher priority on military growth than on either the economy or the society.

Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, after nearly thirty years of iron rule as the “Red Tsar,” left a void that was hard to fill. Nikita Khrushchev made a valiant effort to move the Soviet Union away from Stalinism and to come at least partially to terms with that past, but this did not happen, and the Soviet Union has had to live in the shadow of its Stalinist years. Bialer speaks of Stalin’s ghost still haunting the Soviet Union. Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign and his modest administrative reforms were considered dangerous by many of his colleagues. The elites in the various bureaucracies had developed huge vested interests in the preservation of the basic features of the system. The preservation of the Party’s monopoly of power—the very essence of the Soviet system—has always been an overriding concern. Thus, not too much has changed: The system that is currently observable remains quite faithful to the nationalist and imperialist traditions from which it developed.

Leonid Brezhnev brought a return to order and stability. He also presided over a period during which stealing, corruption, and profiteering became a way of life, when the second economy swelled to more than 10 percent of the total economy. A stable oligarchy emerged during the Brezhnev era. The unprecedented stability and relatively respectable economic performance led to complacency, thus enhancing the prospects for subsequent instability and trouble. Bialer views this era as a time of lost opportunities. Problems might have been tackled before they reached major proportions; instead, conditions were allowed to deteriorate. Toward the end of the Brezhnev period, a deep pessimism permeated Soviet society. Nevertheless, the regime continued to be broadly accepted. As Bialer points out, the Soviet citizen assesses his standard of living by measuring it against that of his parents and his own past. The improvements provided by the regime proved adequate to meet the modest expectations at that time. Bialer observes that the leadership could also count on a certain affinity with the masses, for culturally and intellectually...

(The entire section is 2146 words.)