Sunday, March 3, 2019

“The End of History” and the Post-Soviet Tragedy

By Nathaniel Laxer 

When almost any discussion of the USSR occurs today it is clouded by the western framing of the Cold War. Generally it is only the flaws of the Soviet Union or the Stalin Era that are looked at. Due to this it is often taken for granted that the collapse should be seen as a great and positive defining moment of the modern world and a victory over tyranny.

As Francis Fukuyama so famously put it in 1992, it was “the end of history” -- liberal democracy won, the red flag was lowered and the Soviet Union was split into its constituent republics. But this is not the case at all. Whether it is the collapse of the healthcare and education systems of the Soviet era, the explosion in inequality -- rising to levels not seen since the time of the tsar -- the extension of authoritarianism in the political system or the massive leap backwards for women and racial minorities in society, Soviet collapse led to a cascade of almost delirium inducing horrendous effects in a very short time. This rapid, brutal and oligarchic capitalist driven dismantling of Soviet socialism, whatever its flaws, is arguably the single greatest socio-economic disaster of the late 20th century, with deep effects to this very day, 28 years later.

In the 1920s, when the Russian Civil War had just ended and the Soviet Union was truly born, literacy was sitting at around 20-30% on average, with some areas, primarily in central Asia, having literacy rates of as low as 1-5%. In 1959, literacy was 98.5% (In 1960 it was 97.5% in the United States). The USSR had a system of completely free education, including post-secondary, with half a million people having doctorates or post-doctorates by 1986. In the wake of Soviet collapse, many of these gains were lost. In every single former Soviet republic education was at least partially privatised, and public institutions had fees attached to them and were lower quality due to faculty leaving.

A perfect example is Kazakhstan where “There were 61 HEIs [Higher Educational Institutions] in the early 1990s in Kazakhstan, with more than 280,000 students. All HEIs were state owned. The number of HEIs has grown dramatically since 1993, when the Law on HE permitted the establishment of non-state HEIs. The number of private HEI increased to 123 in 2001. In contrast, the number of state HEIs decreased to 47, which included 28 universities, 13 academies and 6 institutes in 2000–2001” at the same time “spending on HE decreased dramatically from 0.3% of GDP in 1991 to 0.04% in 1992”.

Enrollment technically did go up, however the quality of this education was reduced substantially in order for it to be profitable. In Turkmenistan, bachelor's degrees were reduced to being only one year long, so while enrollment skyrocketed, the post-secondary education system was left a bankrupt farce, where students pay for an unsatisfactory and insufficient education.

A similar tragedy was the destruction of the Pioneers system. In the 1960s there were over 10,000 Pioneer camps, providing entirely free summer excursions for 10 million students annually. These programs were comparable to cadet or boy scout programs in North America -- although, unlike those programs, the Soviet Pioneers were completely open to girls. Pioneer programs included lots of exercise, nature excursions and learning experiences with some military and Marxist-Leninist aspects. It was an entirely free public program open to millions, irrespective of social background, providing positive childhood experiences for generations. It was also totally abandoned in the wake of Soviet collapse, with the program being completely liquidated in 1991. Some former Pioneer facilities were left to fall into ruin while others were converted to brothels and casinos. The pioneer programs were so well liked and remembered, that Vladimir Putin’s government has made attempts to create its own youth organization, primarily as an attempt to capitalize on nostalgia.

While education went into decline, the extensive Soviet healthcare system was obliterated with disastrous and long lasting societal effects for millions. In 1920, life expectancy in many regions of the country was as low as 20 years for men and 26 for women. Much of this was due to widespread food shortages and a total lack of healthcare infrastructure that completely spiraled out of control with the devastation of the imperialist First World War and the Russian Civil War. However, despite these catastrophes and the almost apocalyptic damage caused by World War II -- which killed at least 22 million Soviet citizens -- by 1964 life expectancy had risen to 65 years for males and 74 years for females. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it fell.

This can be particularly seen in Russia, where the rapid collapse of the healthcare system, paired with a general collapse in quality of life, led to life expectancy falling by 4 years for men by 1999. This was due to multiple factors, a large one being the disintegration of mental health. Suicide rates increased by 60% in Russia, 80% in Lithuania, and 95% in Latvia from 1989 to 1999. The Russian death rate from accidents, most of which involved alcohol, rose 83% from 1991 to 1999. Another large factor, and one that persisted long after the initial collapse, was the rise in HIV/AIDS. In 2006 1.3 million people in Russia and Ukraine were infected with the pathogen, overwhelmingly affecting poorer communities and marginalized groups.

The collapse also saw the rise again of infectious diseases that had been largely eradicated in the USSR by the government mandated vaccination programs. Just one example was the dramatic resurgence of diphtheria which led to over 140,000 people falling ill and 4,000 deaths by 1998.

In Russia today, 17,500 communities have no healthcare infrastructure at all and there have been numerous incidents of violence from patients toward doctors. There is also a crisis due to a lack of medication, with over 300,000 Russians dying as a result of this in the last decade. This contemptible situation has only gotten worse with time, as the Russian government announced in 2016 it would cut healthcare spending by 33%, putting it’s healthcare system at the lowest of the 55 developed nations in the world. Due to this horrific state of the healthcare system, many Russians, especially in rural communities, have turned to ‘faith healers’, usually with absolutely no actual medical training. There were 800,000 occult and faith healers operating in the country, compared with 640,000 registered doctors in 2015.

This total collapse of the healthcare system is best summarized by Omar Noman, a senior official at the United Nations Development Programme, who, in 1999 said “the transition to market economies [in the region] is the biggest … killer we have seen in the 20th century, if you take out famines and wars”. The collapse of the Soviet Union essentially resulted in the collapse of civil society, particularly in Russia, with healthcare being left to rot.

Another common justification for celebrating the end of the Soviet Union is that the country was allegedly an economic disaster and that the restoration of capitalism would bring economic prosperity. However the reality of the economy after collapse suggests the opposite of this narrative. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, in the late 1980s, the number of people living in poverty stood at 10% of the population, primarily in rural regions. (In Canada today it stands at 13.7% nationwide). By 1993, the poverty rate in Russia stood at 30%.

The reality of the economic position of many citizens is best shown by the statistic that while in 1988 only 4% of the population of the Soviet Union had incomes equivalent to $4 a day or less, that figure climbed to 32% by 1994. This is particularly shocking due to how it has persisted to this day, not only in Russia, but in all regions of the former Soviet Union. Georgia in 2016 had 1 in 7 families going below a “subsistence minimum” income. In Latvia as of 2017, 23.3% of the population lives in poverty. Estonia in the same year had a poverty rate of 22.6% -- 2 points up from the year before -- and had a population of 44,000 living in absolute poverty (4% of the country), meaning that they are homeless and without a consistent source of food, water or any other basic needs. In Russia, as of 2017, 16% of the population live below the “subsistence minimum” set by the government, a number many argue is far too low as it sets the bar at only 10,000 rubles a month (170 Canadian Dollars). In Central Asia the problem was most severe, with over 40% of all people (as high as 80% in Tajikistan) living in poverty as of 2006.

While facts like these speak for themselves, it is crucial to understand why this occurred. To see that one need look no further than the economic reforms restoring capitalism undertaken by the post-Soviet regimes. Most notoriously, Boris Yeltsin's reforms in the early 1990s in Russia.

In 1992, Yeltsin, in coordination with economists from the International Monetary Fund, developed a scheme to rapidly privatize almost all of the Soviet planned economic infrastructure. This resulted in a rapid sell off of natural resource firms and other state owned enterprises at outrageously low prices. This enabled massive foreign investment with a $44 billion annual inflow by 1997 of foreign capital and absurdly high interest rates of up to 77% in 1995 driven by the wholesale cutting of labour and other regulations. A side effect of this was that in 1996, only 30% of full-time workers were actually paid on time. Another side effect of this privatization was that, due to massive organizational problems caused by the rapid transition of the entire economy, 40% of all food in Russia had to be imported, when before the country had very few food imports.

This all comes together in one statistic, that by the end of 1997 the Russian GDP had shrunk by a staggering 50%. The economy collapsed after the fall of the USSR, and was then cut up and sold in chunks to oligarchs in what amount to firesales with the majority of the firms sold in the privatizations being sold to the same small groups of people. This left Russia's state apparatus economically crippled and was devastating for a large section of the population.

We see now why the problem of poverty plagues the post-soviet reality, and it was mirrored across the entire region, directly facilitated by international financial actors like the IMF. In the Central Asian republics, during the Soviet socialist era, a carefully constructed system of structured trade with the rest of the Soviet Union had kept the GDP artificially high. This was fine in a planned economy and benefited the region greatly. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, rather than making a slow transition from this carefully constructed system, the IMF assisted in the rapid privatization of the economy and resources.

In Kazakhstan for example, the majority of the countries natural resources were sold to a group of businessmen most of whom were also political allies of the president. Banking restrictions in the region were removed, resulting in interest rates completely dependent on the whims of the market. The result of this decimation of the economic planning of the Soviet Era, was a dramatic decline of the GDP, with the GDP of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan shrinking by 60%, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by 30% and Uzbekistan (the country that took the most time transitioning it’s economy) by 20% by 1998.

Just as the promise of economic prosperity from a Soviet collapse and the end of socialism was false, the promise of democracy was also bankrupt.

It is often stated that the collapse of the USSR signaled the beginning of a new era of democracy, that it liberated millions from the cold, rigid, "totalitarianism" they had allegedly lived under previously. Supposedly the people of the USSR welcomed this with open arms. The reality of what actually happened following the downfall of the USSR could not be further from this total, though widely accepted, fantasy.

First, the collapse of the USSR was unpopular with the vast majority of its citizens and in the majority of the Union’s republics. This is showcased in March of 1991, when a nation-wide referendum was held on whether or not to preserve the political union of the USSR. With 80% participation, 76% of the population across the USSR voted for it to stay together, with up to 96% voting in favor in the various Central Asian republics. (The Baltic nations -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- and also Armenia and Georgia, voted for dissolution). As we all know this democratically expressed will of the Soviet people was not honoured.

After the end of the union the discontent of the people was reflected in the Russian constitutional crisis of 1993. Spurred by the economic devastation of the country, large groups of primarily communist supporters attempted to occupy the capital in opposition to Yeltsin's entirely unconstitutional attempt to dissolve the democratically elected parliament. In the ensuing street fighting -- during which the Congress of People's Deputies was fired on by tanks -- hundreds of people were killed or wounded in massacres ordered by Russia's new “democratic" president.
The tank attack on the democratic parliament, 1993

Even in legislative terms, support for communism remained after the collapse with the Communist Party winning the 1995 parliamentary elections in Russia, despite the events of 1993. A similar result occurred in 1998 in Ukraine, with the Communists winning the largest number of seats in parliament. (The KPU was later banned in 2015 by the new, pro-western "democratic" government there). This enduring popularity of communism was strong enough that in the 1996 Russian presidential election, fearing a Communist victory, the United States sent advisers and inordinate monetary support to the Yeltsin campaign. Yeltsin enormously overspent on campaign finance limits and, in combination with widespread vote rigging, a slim 54% "victory" resulted from what was a transparently undemocratic process.

In all of the Central Asian republics there have been no legitimate elections held in the wake of collapse, the same was the case in Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Belarus, one legitimate election was held in 1994, electing Alexander Lukashenko, who, after his victory, rapidly consolidated power and has held power ever since. So in review, in the countries that wanted to remain in the Soviet Union, when elections were held, Communists often had victorious or what would have been victorious results that had to be suppressed, or, alternately, no elections were held at all.

In Russia, the limited version of liberal democracy that had been created rapidly disintegrated into a farce. Only 35% of the population described Russia as a “democracy” in 1996, 18% in 1999, 34% in 2003 and 28% in 2008. A side effect of this, is that the worst years of economic crisis in the country, are also seen as the most "democratic". Due to this, many Russians do not have a positive view of democracy, and, while the vast majority of the country is perfectly aware they do not live in a democracy, the Russian president since 2000, Vladimir Putin, has had immense approval ratings with 70% of rural and 62.5% of urban Russians expressing a positive opinion of Putin in 2018. These are numbers common throughout his rule.

New monument to Nazi collaborator Bandera in Ukraine  
Ukraine has seen similar authoritarianism with only 5 of the 12 elections held since the USSR being considered ‘free and fair’ by international observers. The recent massive growth of fascistic sympathies in the government of Ukraine -- with the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament in 2018 calling Adolf Hitler the “greatest democratic leader of all time” -- is being largely ignored in the west given that it backed the overthrow of the democratically elected government in 2014.

The only areas of the former USSR that have built stable liberal democracies are the Baltic States, which have all had free and fair elections since 1991. In all other areas, the unpopular collapse of the Soviet Union ended in authoritarianism without any of the social and economic gains made under socialism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also led to the proliferation and spread of incredibly insidious social pathologies with a resurgence of racism, ethno-nationalism and a deterioration of the status of women.

The Soviet Union was comprised of dozens of different ethnic groups and openly and explicitly embraced the idea of a post-national society with the organizing of racist, ethno-nationalist and fascist political organizations being totally banned, a rule which was strictly enforced. However, in the wake of the Soviet collapse this ban disappeared and the results are clear. In November 2015, nationalists held various marches in Russia which culminated in a demonstration of around 30,000 participants in Moscow organised by the All-Russian People's Front (ONF), a fascist political organization. In the same year, the ultra-nationalist group BORN (Military Organization of Russian Nationalists) was found to have 20,000 members, who are training in gyms and forests throughout the country.

These gangs of fascists have not only been allowed to organize, but this has often led to violence with 97 murdered victims of hate attacks in Russia in 2008 alone, and hate attacks estimated to have increased by 20% each successive year. However, it is not only groups of racists in the streets, it is also institutional racism shown by examples like how people of non-Slavic appearance in Moscow are almost 22 times more likely to be stopped by police for document checks. The brutal prolonged war in Chechnya -- with it’s tens of thousands of casualties and the successive terrorist bombings by Islamist militants -- also spurred nationalist political demagoguery and the scapegoating of racial minorities in Russia.

15 Republics - One Soviet Homeland:  Soviet Poster
These issues are not at all confined to Russia alone. In the Caucasus, a whole series of ethno-nationalist conflicts broke out following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Georgia, the ethnic enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have fought prolonged, entirely ethnically based, conflicts, killing thousands. The same is true of the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. With the Azerbaijan controlled enclave having been claimed by Armenia due to it’s ethnically Armenian population, the conflict killed thousands over the 1990s, and has even led to violence as recently as 2017. The rise of far-right Ukrainian nationalism with the celebration of World War II Nazi collaborators as heroes and roving gangs of racist militias is another obvious example.

All of these inter-group conflicts would have been completely impossible under the USSR, and were
unheard of for decades in the region before collapse. What all of these factors showcase, is that with the collapse of the economy and the presence of intense authoritarianism, the populations of the former Soviet Union have often been organized politically along ethno-nationalist lines that the USSR actively sought to channel into a collectivist project.

A whole other effect of Soviet collapse can be seen in the rollbacks of women’s rights and economic advances. While Soviet progress in this area was deeply flawed and full of contradictions -- with claims of women having attained full equality after the revolution being demonstrably untrue -- the USSR did make progress that was very real. The USSR was the first country with legalised abortion and maternity leave, childcare was free and widely available, there were organized campaigns to include women in the workplace and education with high percentages of women attending post-secondary education, and women were able to make strides in scientific, academic and medical careers (as some examples) that were ahead of the west.

However, in the wake of Soviet collapse, women’s rights in many areas, in particular Central Asia, have been driven far backward. An opaque example of this is the practice of bride kidnapping --completely banned and harshly punished during the Soviet era -- being seen again now in nations like Kazakhstan. It has become commonplace with 23.8% of Kazakh marriages stemming from bride kidnapping in 2010.

Another example is in economic position. Whereas in the USSR, women had a closer economic status towards men -- albeit still unequal -- after collapse, this progress has been set back terribly, particularly in specific regions of the former USSR. As Iranian sociologist Valentine Moghadam puts it:
From a gender perspective, the market reforms that have been adopted in Central Asia and the Caucasus, prescribed and underwritten by the international financial institutions, and endorsed by neoliberal thinkers and policy makers in Western countries have been deeply flawed. The social costs of the transition have been far higher than expected, and the burden borne by women has been especially onerous. 
The huge growth in poverty has disproportionately affected women. This has driven many women to try very desperate means to attempt to achieve a better life. Along with the rise in prostitution and sex-trafficking another horrendous example of the consequences of this is the practice of "Mail-Order Brides", where women will essentially be sold as a bride to someone in a more developed country. A European Union report found this practice being widespread across the former Soviet Union, with the a total of 120,000 being sold this way in 2005 alone.

Whether it is the destruction of healthcare, the intense and murderous economic restructuring and inequality, the continued presence of authoritarianism for tens of millions or the huge setbacks of decades of progress for women and racial minorities, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not at all as it is presented as or seen in the west. It led instead to the rise of powerful oligarchs, demagogues and fascists and to an emboldened western imperialism and unwarranted triumphalism. Despite its flaws, the collapse of the Soviet Union was arguably the largest socio-economic tragedy of the late 20th century, the scars of which still remain today.

See also: In the shadow of October -- Reflecting on the USSR and Soviet power

See also: The Meaning of October on its Centenary

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