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  • Explaining and Interpreting the End of Soviet Rule
  • Jane R. Zavisca (bio)

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a world-historical event. Understanding rare events is notoriously difficult. What is it a case of? With what should it be compared? How can it be explained? My approach to these questions is grounded in my disciplinary background in sociology and my interest in the cultural mechanisms that drive systemic change. A cultural approach, rooted in the logic of process-tracing, helps both to define the object of interest—what exactly ended, if indeed it is over—and to understand what happened to it.

The title of this article reflects the choices I made in cutting into the enormous literature on this subject. First, I follow Stephen Cohen’s lead in using the term “end” rather than “collapse” to define the historical process of interest. Collapse, he maintains, implies “inherently terminal causes… . If we ask instead how and why the Union was abolished, dissolved, disbanded, or simply ended, the formulation leaves open the possibility that contingencies or subjective factors may have been the primary cause and therefore that a different outcome was possible.”1 Imagining different possible outcomes is at the core of counterfactual reasoning, a method that enables us to explain rare events by analyzing sequences of events within cases and identifying mechanisms that make causal arguments theoretically plausible.2 The term “end” rather than “collapse” also opens the possibility of a prolonged process, brought about by human agency rather than a natural cataclysm.3 [End Page 925]

Second, I conceptualize the object that ended in terms of Soviet “rule.” Much of the literature demarcates the end with the disintegration of formal institutions such as the Communist Party or the polity of the USSR. Typically the Soviet Union is described as a party-state, a system, or a regime. That system, according to Cohen and other political scientists, consisted of official ideology, authoritarian political rule, economic monopoly, and a multinational federation. However, the Soviet Union was more than a state or an economy. It encompassed a set of taken-for-granted discourses and practices that constituted a style of life and signified legitimate authority that had moved beyond ideology to become common sense, or what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls doxa. In a doxic social system, dominant groups possess “symbolic power”: that is, the capacity to impose their definitions of the social world and to establish the legitimate rules (both formal and informal) that govern social relations.4

My exposition privileges cultural explanations of the process by which symbolic power, both among elites and masses, was lost. This is not to deny the importance of material conditions as triggers of cultural change. Culture, as the symbolic dimension of human existence, renders material conditions meaningful and provides templates for action, which in turn have material consequences. In other words, a focus on culture helps explain, in the words of Georgi Derluguian, another sociologist inspired by Bourdieu, “the causal connections and how one gets from historical point A to point B”: that is, “the social mechanisms involved in formulating and spreading competing discourses” and their institutionalization in material and geopolitical terms.5

Third, I seek to interpret as well as to explain the end of Soviet rule, by asking what Soviet power came to mean after the formal collapse of the Soviet Union. The first section of the article concentrates on scholarly explanations for the dissolution of Soviet rule. In the second section, I turn to emic explanations—beliefs about the end of the Soviet epoch among those who experienced it. My goal is not to evaluate the veracity of such claims but to understand their meanings in the post-Soviet context, as well as to treat them as evidence for the persistence of some elements of Soviet rule.

Explaining the End: Approaches to “Collapse”

Before turning to cultural approaches to explaining what ended, how, and why, I briefly describe alternative approaches, which concentrate on the [End Page 926] collapse of a state and/or a system.6 In the first decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, scholarship was dominated by Sovietologists, mostly political scientists and economists, who struggled to...


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