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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 375-406

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Decolonization, Democratization, and Communist Reform: The Soviet Collapse in Comparative Perspective

Robert Strayer
SUNY College at Brockport

The collapse of the Soviet experiment, and of the country that embodied it, has surely been among the most dramatic and consequential events of the postwar world, and indeed of the twentieth century. But how might this event, and the processes leading to it, be placed most effectively in a world historical context? How should world historians, as opposed to Russian or Soviet historians, treat the passing of the Soviet Union into history?

One response might be to focus on the external roots of the Soviet collapse. The negative comparison with an economically flourishing capitalist world; the delegitimizing impact of an increasingly dominant ethno-nationalist discourse on a multinational polity; the pressure of Western containment policies and Cold War expenditures; the declining price of oil on the world market in the 1980s; the corrosive consequences of the Afghan debacle; the stimulus of a successful Chinese reform program; the demonstration effect of the 1989 Eastern European revolutions--all of this and more testify to the "embeddedness" of the Soviet Union in a network of international linkages, many of which exacerbated the declining domestic sources of Soviet cohesion and vitality.

Alternatively, world historians might highlight the global outcomes or the global significance of the Soviet collapse. It marked the disappearance of the world's largest state, one that had been central to Eurasian political life for four centuries or more, and it occasioned new instability in many places along the borderlands of the former Soviet [End Page 375] Union. It signaled the apparent end of the great global rift, generated by the rise of communism, that had shaped so much of twentieth-century world history. It was part of a larger abandonment of Marxism as a serious guide to political and economic life, and thus signified at least the temporary closure of a 150-year ideological debate about capitalism and socialism as distinct and rival systems. 1

But a third approach to framing the Soviet collapse in a world historical context--and the one pursued here--is comparative. Three perspectives on that event provide the basis for such comparison. First, we may consider the demise of the Soviet Union as an "end of empire" story and compare it to other imperial disintegrations of the twentieth century. Second, we might regard the final years of the Soviet Union as a democratization narrative, marking a dramatic political change away from what remained of the Stalinist political system, and warranting comparison with the democratization of other highly authoritarian regimes in southern Europe, Latin America, Africa, East Asia, and elsewhere during the final quarter of the twentieth century. And third, we might recount the Soviet collapse as a communist reform process gone awry, comparing it to an analogous and apparently more successful process in China. Juxtaposing the Soviet collapse to other disintegrating empires, other transitions to democracy, and other reforming communist regimes enables us to situate that event--though only suggestively--in a set of larger twentieth-century contexts while highlighting some of its distinctive features.

The most deeply rooted and historically grounded context in which we might situate the Soviet collapse involves that grand meta-narrative of world history--the fall of empires. The disintegration of the Soviet Union provides further grist for the mills of those who seek pattern and regularity in the 4000-year history of imperial rise and fall. 2 Here, however, we focus on the more limited period of the twentieth century, which has been so hostile to the imperial ideal. In particular, we confront the collapse during World War I of the land-based Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires, and the "decolonization" after World War II of Europe's overseas empires. The collapse of the Soviet [End Page 376] Union joins these "end of empire" narratives in one fundamental respect: all of them were conditioned, if not entirely caused, by the growth of that uniquely modern solvent of empire...


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