Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Utterly Wrong

By David G. Young

Atlanta, August 21, 2001 --  

When the Soviet Union collapsed after the unsuccessful coup ten years ago this week, it was simultaneously a victory for freedom and a terrible tragedy for the millions of Soviet citizens who had been trained to live in the existing order.

The first post-Soviet decade has been disasterous for many people. We often hear stories depicting the difficulties of daily life in Russia and the other former Soviet states, and these invariably compare the countries' economic problems to America's Great Depression. Such comparisons massively understate the region's economic disaster, and fail to address the equally deep spiritual crisis that hit many people after the fall of the Soviets.

The crisis in Russia is unlike the American depression because the Soviet collapse was brought on by utterly rotten economic foundations. Virtually everything in the Soviet Union had been built since the 1917 communist revolution, and all was custom designed to support an eternal socialist future. Seventy four years of building was suddenly found to have been based upon flawed blueprints. The vast majority of industry was worthless, and huge liabilities -- from inefficient rusting factories wasting raw materials on unneeded goods to massive toxic waste dumps "temporarily" created to expedite the war against capitalism -- threatened to eclipse anything of positive value. America's Great Depression was a painful downturn in the existing economic order. Russia's crisis is the revelation that the entire 1991 economic order was utterly wrong.

The rapid economic decline of the country is heartbreaking. The once global superpower now has trouble winning a tiny domestic conflict in Chechenya, and has had to acquiesce to America's plans for a missile shield, begging the American president to jointly slash nuclear arsenals to a level Russia can afford. What was once an economic power second by some measures to only America and Japan, now ranks behind Brazil and South Korea. I noted the symbolism on a trip to Russia in 1997, that a neon sign for the South Korean electronics giant Samsung towers over Moscow's Red Square.

But the economic story is only half the picture. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came an end to the Soviet theology. This atheist state built up a dogma of socialist theory so huge that it became the state religion. People believed it. From the time they entered school, children were taught the legends of socialist heroes like Marx and Lenin, and socialist theory was thoroughly integrated into nonpolitical subjects like math and science. Instead of the Boy Scouts, the Soviets had Komsomol -- the communist youth. These institutions shaped ordinary people to believe in the state and its system. It may seem wrong, from a Western perspective, to believe in the ideals that created monsters like Stalin and Brezhnev. But most people aren't cut out to be dissidents -- they simply seek to get by in life, doing and believing as they are told. When the Soviet state collapsed, these people -- millions of them, lost their religion overnight.

I witnessed this in one believer the week after the 1991 coup. As an intern for columnists Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, I went with Evans to a lunch at the University Club in Washington. Joining us was a Washington-based columnist for the Soviet news agency Izvestia, and his father, Gorbachev's 70-something Washington press attach?.

As we spoke, the fateher's depression was obvious in his sullen face and slow responses. His son apologized for him, noting that the change was very difficult. As excited as I was about the liberation of Russia, I couldn't help but empathize with the old communist sitting across from me. He had grown up his entire life in the Soviet system. He mastered socialist theory, he followed the rules, and he successfully climbed the ladder to achieve his successful career. He had build his entire life on his belief in the Soviet system. And then, in his twilight years, everything he believed was exposed to be utterly wrong. I cannot imagine facing the horrific religious crisis I saw in his eyes.

This same tramatic loss of religion was undoubtedly shared by millions of other Soviets. This loss, combined with the ensuing decade of economic decline is ample reason for most Russians to not remember 1991 fondly. It will be up to future generations -- those not so personally scarred by the trauma of the Soviet collapse -- to objectively judge the merits of the second Russian revolution.