The Soviet Union: Lessons in Dissolution, Development & Discovery

The USSR should never be viewed through rose-tinted glasses. In the voyage for utopia, a sea of blood was crossed and a workers’ paradise was never actualised. Nevertheless, a recent poll shows that 57% of Russians would resurrect the old system. Tal Tyagi explores why this is the case and concludes that the Soviet experiment provides important lessons in international development.

Poll after poll provides similar results. In 2009 nearly 60% of Russians severely regretted the demise of the USSR. Even in the former satellites nostalgia is strikingly high. In 2010 a whopping 46% of Romanians said they favoured communism. According to a 2009 poll 57% defended the legacy of the former GDR. So strong are such attitudes that where communist parties are allowed to operate, this is reflected in voting behaviour. In Russia the second largest party is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. In the Czech Republic they are the third biggest party and in East Germany Die Linker, which is in part made up of former GDR government members, is the largest party.

This certainly contradicts our image of those trapped behind the iron curtain. While it may have been a hunger for food and for freedom that brought about the demands for a new order, the transition to the Western model was chaotic at best and at worse chimerical.

Amidst the turmoil of transition, previously non-existent unemployment and homelessness took hold. In many instances party bureaucrats who controlled the administrations of certain services became multi-millionaires over night. Citizens felt like they had been robbed. Fukuyama´s triumphalism that liberal democracies had swept away the socialist dictatorships was not quite evident in Russia. Far from a golden age of human rights and market miracles, it is widely regarded as an explosion of looting and corruption. Popular protests sparked by a rise in poverty were put down by force when Boris Yeltsin ordered the army to have them killed or arrested.

Manhhai / Creative Commons License

Manhhai / Creative Commons License

While the Soviet system was regarded by Western economists as a failure, since its collapse life expectancy has fallen by ten years and in some republics, GDP fell as much as 50%. Therefore, a re-evaluation of this model is in order.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers competed for hegemony. Nikita Khrushchev´s taunting of Western ambassadors with “We will bury you” seemed laughable and ludicrous. The strength of the American dream was not just reflected in its freedoms but in the fridges of the American people. While it was true that on average Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living, when comparing two models a multitude of factors have to be taken into account. A command economy in the temperate climate of Western Europe would almost certainly fair better than a market system in sub-Saharan Africa. This would not be a fair test.

Russia which suffers from frigid winters was largely still feudalistic even by 1917. Since the USSR´s inception it was surrounded by enemies, ravaged by Civil War and then devastated by WW2. These severe disadvantages cannot be deemphasised when comparing with the US.

The success of the ´American dream´ is as much a result of luck as it is of liberty. Established in 1776 and arising from civil war in 1865, the USA had far more time to establish. Her advantages were being made of coal, oil and uranium, much greater climatic variation and peaceful neighbours either side. In WW2 the US lost around 292,000 compared to the 27 million lost by the USSR.

Even when comparing West and East Germany, the major industrial and agricultural centres were located in the West which also received a large portion of Marshall Aid.

Economist Robert C. Allen argues that the success of the Soviet system can only be seen upon comparing it to the most under-developed regions of the world in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In spite of all its disadvantages and problems, the USSR was the second most developing economy in the twentieth century, just after Japan. The rapid industrialisation, mass literacy campaigns, universal healthcare and education along with its propensity to defeat the Nazi war machine, sparked the imagination of movements across the globe.

Ceri C/ / Creative Commons License

Ceri C/ / Creative Commons License


The Soviet claim to ´modernization within a generation´ led to several emulation attempts in the post-colonial world. While the US was widely perceived to be pursuing a project of neo-colonialism, the USSR was seen as the alternative. The Chinese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Saur revolution… Even those leaders, who were not explicitly communist, borrowed aspects.  India´s Nehru described the Soviet system as a “new civilisation, towards which the world would move” and Ghana´s Nkrumah would receive the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.   In the early 1950s the Soviet Union began a program of technical and economic aid to the underdeveloped nations. Soviet aid, over $6 billion by 1966, was generally low-interest loans, industrial equipment on credit with technical assistance, and long-term commodity purchase agreements.

Strikingly, even in the West, the Soviet model was taken as a serious challenger. In the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression, since the planned economy was not interlinked, the USSR was relatively unaffected. With full employment, rapid industrialization, dams and spectacular projects like the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station and the Moscow underground, the role of the state was given increased credibility in the eyes of policy makers. This was in part, what set the stage for the New Deal.

The foundations of what drives innovation were fundamentally challenged. Milton Friedman´s philosophy is that “the world runs on individuals pursuing their self interests” and that genius and discovery is the exclusive realm of entrepreneurs. However, Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, nuclear power transferable through a grid, laser eye surgery, the AK-47 and Tetris were just some of the achievements the system could boast without the profit motive.

Overall, the Soviet experiment should never be glorified but neither should the entire chapter be dismissed as just a blunder in human history. Shortages of consumer goods and a thriving black market were failures. However, its ability to transform a backward agrarian economy into a superpower, to double life expectancy and to pioneer the space race were not. In today´s Russia nobody misses the secret police or the shortages but they do miss the housing and healthcare. Therefore, surely something from the Soviet experiment can be salvaged?




The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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