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A Review of Chinese Scholarship on the Collapse of the Soviet Union


Zuo Fengrong, an expert in Soviet history, examines trends in Chinese scholarship on the USSR’s collapse across the past thirty years. Zuo argues that while this literature advanced over time with the availability of newly declassified archival sources, it has stagnated more recently. As a prognosis, Zuo encourages renewed attention to the failure of Soviet socialism and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s (CPSU) loss of power, in order to extract lessons for China.

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Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the causes and lessons of its collapse have become a key focus for Chinese scholars. In academic discussion, the collapse of the Soviet Union refers not only to its dissolution, but also to the loss of power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the failure of Soviet socialism. These three aspects are interconnected. The CPSU was the pillar of the union. Its loss of power led directly to the disintegration of the union and the political conversion from Soviet socialism. This paper reviews 30 years of Chinese scholarship on the collapse of the Soviet Union, tracing out and summarizing scholars’ achievements and views, with the aim of furthering the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.


I. The history and main achievements of research on the collapse of the Soviet Union


Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago, it has been a focus of Chinese scholars to study the causes of—and draw lessons from—the CPSU’s loss of power and the failure of Soviet socialism.


(1) Scholars studying the Soviet Union in the 1990s provided insights into its collapse.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 posed a new issue for Chinese scholars. Studying the causes and lessons of the union’s disintegration and the collapse of the CPSU became a task of national strategic importance and utmost relevance. As Chinese academia had attached great importance to the study of the history of the Soviet Union since the beginning of the reform and opening up, a number of books and articles on the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse were soon published, including Reflections on the Historical Roots of the Soviet Union’s Collapse (China Social Sciences Press, 1994), edited by Jiang Liu and Chen Zhihua; Studies on the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Social Sciences Academic Press, 1994), edited by Jiang Liu, Xu Kui and Shan Tianlun; From Lenin to Gorbachev: The Evolution of Soviet Socialist Theory (The Eastern Publishing Co., Ltd., 1992), edited by Liu Keming and Wu Renzhang; The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (Shanghai People’s Press, 1993), written by Zhou Shangwen et al.; A Political Biography of Stalin (1879-1953) (CCP Central Party School Press, 1997), edited by Jiang Changbin; and A Study of the Ethnic Issues of the Soviet Union (Social Sciences Academic Press, 1996), written by Zhao Changqing et al. These works study the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse from political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, and ethnic perspectives. The first two focus on problems caused by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, while the remaining four focus on deep-rooted structural problems that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In response to Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s 1996 call for thorough research into the deep-seated causes of the Soviet Union’s disintegration and the fundamental factors that played a leading role in its collapse, Wang Daohan organized several academic discussions in Shanghai on the topic, and the first symposium was held at East China Normal University in November 1997, with more than 40 Chinese scholars of Soviet history attending. The China Reform Forum also invited both Chinese and foreign experts to study those issues. In 2001, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party held a seminar as well, in which U.S. experts on the Soviet Union participated. Influential publications of this period included A New Inquiry into the Soviet Union’s Collapse by Leading Chinese Scholars (World Affairs Press, 1998), edited by Gong Dafei, and A Study of the Deeper Causes of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (China Social Sciences Press, 1999), edited by Lu Nanquan and Jiang Changbin. Regarded as encapsulations of Chinese scholarship on the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, these two books cover politics, economics, culture, diplomacy and ethnicity from past to present.


It is a consensus that a scientific review of the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse is of great significance to China. As Gong Dafei says, “As Chinese Marxists, we should take a serious, unbiased look at such a major historical issue with which we are inextricably linked historically, ideologically, and even emotionally. We should not blindly disregard it or refrain from discussing it.”1 During this period, the analysis of the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse was done in a comparatively objective manner, focusing not only on the mistakes in Gorbachev’s reforms but also on the influence of historical factors, with scholars acknowledging the complexity of the issue but arguing that institutional mechanisms and dogmatic theory played a crucial role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Scholars focused on institutional issues within the Soviet Union first and foremost, which they explored by studying the characteristics of Lenin’s New Economic Policy and the Stalinist model, the relationship between Stalin and Lenin, and the ways in which the CPSU exercised its power. Zheng Yifan’s book Swan Song: A Dialogue on Lenin’s Later Thought (Liaoning Education Press, 1996), a systematic study of Lenin’s ideas on socialist construction in his later years, is an excellent piece of scholarship. Jiang Changbin’s The Loneliness of History: A New Look at Early Stalin (1879–1924) (CCP Central Party School Press, 1994) is the first monograph on Stalin’s early activities published in China. Examining Stalin’s political activities and the Soviet socialism he built, A Political Biography of Stalin (1879-1953) reaches many different conclusions from those of previous studies. It argues that Stalin and Lenin differed significantly in many aspects, such as worldview, methodology, understanding of Marxism and the Russian Revolution, political behavior, implementation of theoretical principles, and the purpose of building socialism. It also analyzes the rationale behind and characteristics of Stalin’s theoretical system, as well as issues like the industrialization of the Soviet Union, agricultural collectivization, and the Great Purge. Zheng Yifan’s Essays On Bukharin (Central Compilation and Translation Press, 1997) is also helpful for understanding how the Stalinist system took shape. Xing Guangcheng’s 70 Years of High-Level Decision-Making in the Soviet Union (World Affairs Press, 1998) examines the process by which major decisions were made in the Soviet Union, revealing the problems that existed in its overcentralized political system.


(2) The study of the Soviet Union’s collapse bore new fruits around the 10th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.


With the declassification of Soviet archival materials and more in-depth research, a number of important works were published around the 10th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 2001. A History of the Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (People’s Press, 2002), edited by Lu Nanquan et al., is a representative example, which studies the successes and failures of the Soviet Union by examining the Soviet system. The Soviet system developed and became established during the Stalin era, and the CPSU failed to fundamentally reform it after that. Guided by the basic principles of Marxism and using detailed historical sources, the book objectively studies the 74-year history of the Soviet Union and traces the Soviet Union’s rise and fall with relative clarity and in a comprehensive manner, thus showing that the Soviet system had a fundamental and systemic impact on the country’s fortunes. Other works published during this period included Zhang Shengfa’s Stalin and the Cold War (China Social Sciences Press, 2000), Zuo Fengrong’s Fatal Mistakes: The Evolution and Impact of Soviet Foreign Strategy (World Affairs Press, 2001), Zhang Jianhua’s A Historical Study of the Soviet Union’s Ethnic Problems (Beijing Normal University Press, 2002), Wen Yi’s Looking Back on the Soviet Union (Shandong People’s Press, 2003) Ma Longshan’s A Cultural Perspective on the Soviet Union’s Collapse (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2005), Huang Lifu’s Soviet Social Classes and the Soviet Union’s Collapse (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2006), and Guo Chunsheng’s Sociopolitical Classes and the Soviet Union’s Collapse: A Study of Soviet Sociopolitical Classes from the 1960s to 1990s (Contemporary World Press, 2006). In 2005, Anhui University Press published the series Four Chinese Historians on the Soviet Union, which comprises Xu Tianxin’s The Ideal of an Equal and Strong State and the Soviet Practice, Yang Cuntang’s An Epoch-Making Experiment, Zheng Yifan’s Exploring the Sea of History, and Ye Shuzong’s A Study of Russian Socialism in Practice. In his preface, Zhu Tingguang notes, “It was the lessons of the Cultural Revolution that prompted our historians to seriously reflect on the shortcomings and problems of the Stalinist model. The mistakes were made by ourselves, but their roots were inseparable from the Stalinist model.”2 In addition, this period saw the publication of An Outline of the Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (China Social Sciences Press, 2004), edited by Chen Zhihua et al., Shen Chongwu’s Reflections on the Stalinist Model (Yunnan People’s Publishing House, 2004), Huang Weiding’s Ten Years after the Fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: A Reflection (Jiangxi University Press, 2004), Lu Nanquan’s A History of the Reform of the Soviet Economic System (from Lenin to Putin) (People’s Press, 2007), and Wu Enyuan’s A Discussion on the History of the Soviet Union (People’s Press, 2007). Lastly, the three-volume Rise and Collapse of a Great Power (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2009), a prominent work edited by Shen Zhihua, discusses 28 topics, such as politics, economics, culture, military, diplomacy, ethnicity and religion, on the basis of archival materials. Apart from books, the eight-episode documentary Preparing for Danger in Times of Safety: Historical Lessons from the Demise of the CPSU, jointly produced by China Founder Press and Jilin Publishing Group in 2006, also reached a broad audience.


(3) Remarkable achievements were made in the study of the Soviet Union’s collapse around the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.


The study of the Soviet Union’s disintegration was at its most active around 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, with a number of highly influential works published, whose most notable characteristic was the use of declassified Soviet archival materials. One example is the three-volume The Truth about the Soviet Union: Reflections on 101 Important Issues (Xinhua Publishing House, 2010), edited by Lu Nanquan et al. The work consists of essays written by 35 experts, who reflect on the causes and lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse from various perspectives, combining academic rigor with readability. A Study of the CPSU’s Mode of Ruling (Shanghai Century Publishing Group, 2010) by Zhou Shangwen et al. and The Mystery of the CPSU’s Demise: From Flaws in the Power Structure to Failures in the Personnel System by Li Yongzhong et al. are attempts by Chinese scholars to study the CPSU’s successes and failures and the Soviet Union’s dissolution through the lens of the Party’s mode of ruling. Han Kedi’s The United States and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union (Economy and Management Publishing House, 2011) shows with detailed information that the United States had maintained consistent policies towards the Soviet Union, whose collapse thus cannot be attributed to the U.S. strategy of “Peaceful Evolution.” Han concluded: “The main causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse lay internally. Internal problems gave the United States an opportunity to exploit various crises and exacerbate the tensions within the Soviet Union.”3 Such objective studies are useful for understanding the deep-seated causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse.


A major event in the field during this period was the publication of a nine-volume history of the Soviet Union edited by Zheng Yifan. In 2013, the People’s Press published five of the nine volumes: The Russian Revolution by Yao Hai, The New Economic Policy Era by Zheng Yifan, The Establishment of the Stalinist Model by Xu Tianxin, The Eighteen Years of Brezhnev by Ye Shuzong, and The Perestroika Period by Zuo Fengrong. The authors devoted over a decade’s effort to these volumes, which have greatly advanced the study of the Soviet Union’s collapse in China. The same year, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press published Wen Yi’s A General History of Russia (1917-1991), which draws on a large number of archival materials and presents the author’s unique views, shedding light on the historical evolution of the Soviet Union and the lessons that can be learned from its dissolution. Preparing for Danger in Times of Safety: Reflections Twenty Years after the CPSU’s Demise (Social Sciences Literature Press, 2011) edited by Li Shenming, was also influential during this period. In addition, Twenty Years Since the Fall of the Soviet Union and CPSU: Accounts from the Russians (Party Building Books Publishing House, 2013), a documentary by Li Shenming, blames the Soviet Union’s disintegration mainly on Khrushchev and Gorbachev. The causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse were the subject of much debate during this period. Essays in The Debate on the Collapse of the Soviet Union (China Social Sciences Press, 2013), a book edited by Chen Airu, present two different views on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. One view argues that it was the Gorbachev leadership’s betrayal of Marxist and communist ideals and beliefs—its attempt to replace the then existing socialist system with a “humane and democratic socialism”—that led the Soviet Union down the capitalist road and eventually to its collapse. Other scholars, however, argue that the root cause of the Soviet Union’s dissolution lay in the fundamental flaws of the Soviet socialist model, which failed to keep pace with the times and which stood at odds with the trend of human progress. As the CPSU was unable to reform the system, it was bound to be left behind by the people and the progress of history. Those who hold the first view are primarily scholars of Marxist theories, while those that study the Soviet Union tend to hold the second view.


This period can be seen as the turning point in the study of the Soviet Union’s collapse. On the one hand, scholars of Soviet history probed deeper into the history and dissolution of the Soviet Union, producing many studies based on archival materials. On the other hand, works by scholars of Marxist theories had a greater influence on Chinese society. They emphasize Gorbachev’s role in the Soviet Union’s dissolution, arguing that the ideological pluralism and historical nihilism he introduced eventually resulted in the demise of the Soviet Union.


(4) Research on the Soviet Union’s collapse has somewhat stagnated since 2014.


Since 2014, research on the Soviet Union’s collapse has become less active, with the manuscripts of the remaining four volumes of the nine-volume Soviet history yet to be submitted. Only a small number of academic works have been published so far. Examples include From the Soviet Union to Russia: A Study of the Issue of Regional Ethnic Autonomy (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2015), co-authored by Zuo Fengrong and Liu Xianzhong, which is a systematic and in-depth study of the Soviet Union’s disintegration from the perspective of ethnic issues; and Zhang Jianhua’s Mirror of Ideas: Intellectuals and the Political Changes of the Soviet Union, which helps us understand why Soviet socialism and the Soviet Union failed through an examination of changes in the fate of Soviet intellectuals from 1936 to 1991.


The year 2017 marked the centennial of the October Revolution. Shen Zhihua’s paper “The October Revolution and China’s Path of Development” (Exploration and Free Views, no. 12, 2017) argues that although the Chinese revolution and China’s development were inextricably linked with the October Revolution and the Soviet socialist model, the Chinese people eventually found and embarked on their own path, which has not only changed the millennia-old course of Chinese history, but has also added a unique chapter to world history. Monographs on the Soviet Union published in 2017 included Lu Nanquan’s A Study on the Transformation and Modernization of Russia (China Social Sciences Press), the second part of which discusses—with a focus on political and economic systems—the Soviet Union’s modernization, the reasons for its failure, and the consequences of the failure; and Li Yongquan’s A History of Political Parties in Russia: The Formation and Collapse of the Pyramid of Power (Social Sciences Academic Press). The first volume of Li’s work charts the birth, growth and success of the Bolshevik Party, as well as the formation of the CPSU’s pyramidal power structure. The second volume studies the collapse of the CPSU’s pyramid of power and comprehensively analyzes Gorbachev’s reforms, revealing its inherent contradictions and problems along with the necessary and contingent factors in the Soviet Union’s dissolution. 2018 saw the publication of Zheng Yifan’s three-volume Essays on the history of the Soviet Union (Shanghai People’s Press). The first volume, Revolution and Reform, mainly deals with the revolution before and the reforms after the Soviet Union’s founding; the second volume, The Great Transformation, deals with the Stalin era; and the third volume, Restructuring and Dissolution, discusses lessons drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book is not a new work, but a collection of previously published essays.


Despite the small number of works on Soviet history published during this period, some are particularly notable. Lessons from the Cold War (World Affairs Press, 2019), edited by Shen Zhihua, explains what can be learned from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, two case studies are noteworthy. One is Song Yongcheng’s A Study of Soviet Jews (1941–1953) (Commercial Press, 2021). Centered on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee from the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War in 1941 to the death of Stalin in 1953, the book discusses the contributions of Soviet Jews to the defeat of fascism and the anti-Semitic movement in the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War. The other is From Honeymoon to Confrontation: A Study on the Relationship between the Soviet Union and Israel in the Early Cold War (1948–1953) (Social Sciences Academic Press, 2022) by Xiao Yu and Jiang Yipeng, which studies Soviet-Israeli relations from the Soviet Union’s support for the establishment of the State of Israel to the severance of their diplomatic relations. Both works are based on rigorous research of declassified archival materials from Russia, Britain, the United States and Israel, from which they draw convincing conclusions.


Apart from books, a number of journal articles on Soviet history are worthy of attention. Shen Zhihua and Yu Weimin’s “How Stalin fell into the ‘Thucydides Trap’: The Course and Causes of the Post-war Shift from Cooperation to Confrontation Between the Soviet Union and the United States” (Russian Studies, no. 1, 2019) provides an in-depth analysis of the origin of the Cold War. Yu Weimin’s “How to Seek Consensus in Reform: A Brief Discussion of Three Views on Gorbachev’s Reform” (Exploration and Free Views, no. 1, 2019) summarizes and analyzes Chinese scholars’ perceptions of Gorbachev’s reforms. “German Experts and the Soviet Union’s Nuclear Program (1945-1956)” (Journal of Historical Science, no. 10, 2021), co-authored by Zhang Guangxiang and Wang Jinling, studies how the Soviet Union recruited from Germany and from prison camps 324 German experts—who would play a crucial role in the development of Soviet atomic and hydrogen bombs—by legal, economic and coercive means. Feng Shaolei’s “The Disintegration of the Soviet Union in the Longue Durée” (Russian Studies, no. 6, 2021) explores the Soviet Union’s disintegration by taking a long-term view of the history of civilization. Yu Weimin’s “Systems and Persons: The Logic behind the Process of the Soviet Union’s Disintegration” (Russian Studies, no. 1, 2022) analyzes the process of the Soviet Union’s collapse by examining both the Soviet system and the actions of Soviet leaders, arguing that structural reform and social transformation were a historical necessity, but that dissolution was not the only option.


In the field of Marxist theory, historical nihilism is regarded as one of the main factors in the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and many papers have been published on the relationship between the two. June 2019 saw the release of a five-part educational film aimed at members of the Chinese Communist Party, Historical Nihilism and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Party Building Books Publishing House), which was produced by the World Socialism Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The film reviews how historical nihilism and other erroneous intellectual trends undermined the CPSU and holds that the Soviet Union’s collapse was a result of Gorbachev’s policy of ideological pluralism and historical nihilism.


II. The main views of Chinese scholars on the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse


Chinese scholars who study the collapse of the Soviet Union are primarily composed of two groups: scholars of Soviet history, who focus on structural, institutional issues and who rely mainly on Russian-language materials; and scholars of Marxist theories, who focus on ideological issues in the CPSU and the role played by Gorbachev, evaluating Soviet reforms through the lens of Marxist theories. With differing starting points, the two groups accordingly highlight different factors in analyzing the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse.


(1) The root causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union


Most scholars of Soviet history examine the root causes of the dissolution of the Soviet Union from an institutional angle. In his preface to A New Inquiry into the Soviet Union’s Collapse by Leading Chinese Scholars, Gong Dafei writes, “The Soviet Union’s collapse and failure were certainly related to its leaders’ misjudgments and mistakes, but generally speaking, the responsibility cannot be assigned to any one leader. There were no foundations on which to build a Marxist, scientific socialism in the kind of society found in old Russia.”4 According to Xu Kui, former director of the Institute of Soviet and Eastern European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “If the Soviet Union’s collapse were attributed only to Gorbachev’s personal mistakes, it would become impossible to fully shed light on this historical event and draw profound lessons from it … The Soviet Union’s collapse resulted from a combination of subjective and objective factors under the specific conditions of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century.”5 As Gao Fang argues, “ It was not so much Gorbachev that killed the CPSU as the poison brewed by Stalin—namely, a system in which power was concentrated in a single individual and in which the bureaucracy became a privileged group. Stalin’s dogmatic errors, especially the totalitarian system he had built, left enormous problems that his successors found difficult to effectively root out.”6 Lu Nanquan and Jiang Changbin also stress that the root causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse lay not in individual leaders but in the system itself. We must “consider the direct, contemporary causes in relation to their historical roots and study the relationship between the collapse and such major issues as the Soviet Union’s economic development, ethnicity, the theoretical origins of ‘leftism,’ and the CPSU’s ideological line.”7 An important conclusion to be drawn here is that reform is essential for the development of socialism, which must not be built on the old Soviet model.


Among scholars of Marxist theories, the dominant view is that, since Khrushchev—and especially during the Gorbachev era—the Soviet Union had gradually followed a set of paths, principles, and policies that deviated from the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism and the path of scientific socialism, which led to the tragic fall of the CPSU and the Soviet Union. The root causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse, that is, were the CPSU’s betrayal of Marxism-Leninism and scientific socialism and the degeneration of the Soviet bureaucratic class, which turned its back on the people; foreign subversive forces took advantage of these factors to undermine the Soviet Union. The CPSU under Gorbachev’s leadership, in particular, initiated misguided reforms. The openness, democratization and new thinking advocated by Gorbachev, especially his “humane, democratic socialism,” betrayed scientific socialism and gave rise to historical nihilism, leading ultimately to the curtailment of reforms, the CPSU’s fall from power, and the Soviet Union’s disintegration. The lesson here for other socialist countries is that they must strengthen ideological work and stamp out corruption.


(2) Mistakes in the Soviet Union’s ethnic theories and policies and their role in its collapse


As the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the breakup of a multiethnic state, the CPSU’s theories and policies on ethnicity are naturally a focus for scholars. As Zhao Changqing and others argue in A Study of the Ethnic Issues of the Soviet Union, “The Soviet Union’s ethnic problems arose from a diversity of factors—subjective and objective, historical and contemporary, political and economic, social and cultural, ideological and practical, and domestic and external. The emergence and exacerbation of the Soviet Union’s ethnic problems, which eventually led to its disintegration, were the result of a combination of factors.”8 Wu Chuke, a professor at the Minzu University of China, also discusses the Soviet Union’s ethnic problems from historical and contemporary perspectives in his book The Ghost of Nationalism and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. He argues, however, that the CPSU’s surrender of leadership under Gorbachev and “peaceful evolution” were the root causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Writing about the origins and consequences of the Soviet Union’s ethnic problems, Pan Zhiping notes, “Stalin not only artificially ‘organized,’ ‘formed,’ and ‘established’ nationalities, but also artificially ‘organized,’ ‘formed,’ and ‘established’ nation-states, digging a grave for the Soviet Union at the same time as founding it. As scholars have pointed out, ‘The Soviet Union helped the ethnic groups of its constituent republics mature into nationalities, arousing their national consciousness and causing the gradual rise of local nationalism. Once the right conditions were present, it was inevitable that the semi-civilized ethnic minorities would cast off their teacher.’”9 Zuo Fengrong and Liu Xianzhong emphasize that the Soviet Union failed to build a nation-state, that ethnic Russians did not recognize the Soviet Union as their nation-state, and that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was directly related to its failure to properly handle ethnic relations. Nominally a federation of republics, the Soviet Union was in actuality a unitary state. On paper, the CPSU made much of the right to self-determination, but in practice it did not respect the rights of ethnic minorities or even the rights of Russians, the main ethnic group, and therefore all ethnic groups were dissatisfied with the union. In his reforms, Gorbachev did not handle ethnic issues well, neglecting them at first in the belief that the CPSU had already solved them. After the issues had come to light, his mishandling accelerated the disintegration of the union.


(3) Mistakes in the Soviet Union’s strategy for national development and their role in its collapse


In terms of national development, the Soviet Union long prioritized building a powerful nation in a bid to outdo capitalist countries, mismanaging the relationship between the state and the people. As has been studied in detail by scholars like Jiang Changbin, Lu Nanquan, and Shen Zhihua, the core of the Soviet Union’s development strategy was to “catch up with” and surpass capitalist countries in heavy industry and armaments, which led to the excessive militarization of the country’s economy and hindered the improvement of living standards. The writings of Jiang Changbin, Lu Nanquan, Shen Zhihua and other scholars have made further study of this topic. The Soviet Union’s arms race with the United States after the Second World War, in particular, became a severe drag on the people’s standard of living, which in turn caused general public dissatisfaction. Although the Soviet Union achieved parity with the United States in military terms, in terms of living standards it lagged not only far behind the United States, but also behind the rapidly emerging countries which would later come to be known as theFour Asian Tigers. As the Soviet economy stagnated in the 1970s, the shortage of consumer goods steadily worsened, and people had to spend more and more time waiting in line to buy the basic necessities of life. With the CPSU proving incapable of solving the problem, both the cadre and the masses naturally lost faith in socialism. Gorbachev’s goal in the early stages of his reform remained to build a powerful nation rather than bring prosperity to the people, and over time the populace lost confidence in the reform effort. In the wake of Gorbachev’s opening-up policy, more and more people visited Western countries and saw a rich profusion of goods in those capitalist economies, which shook their faith in socialism.


The Soviet Union also made strategic mistakes in its foreign policy, as it channeled its growing strength into expanding its international influence instead of improving the well-being of its people. After the 1970s, in particular, the Soviet Union considered itself stronger than the United States and began to engage in a struggle for hegemony, supporting revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America and invading Afghanistan in December 1979. The 10-year war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan not only resulted in terrible human and material losses, but also provoked widespread condemnation from the international community, seriously tarnishing the Soviet Union’s international image. Many studies have been published on this aspect.


The mistakes of the Soviet Union’s development strategy also lay in how it handled relations with capitalist countries. For a long time, the Soviet Union regarded the elimination of capitalism as its historic mission and tried to bring about a world revolution, which made it difficult to foster mutual trust with capitalist countries. Tensions with developed capitalist countries contributed to a great extent to the failure of the Soviet Union’s reforms. Reform without opening up meant running around in circles within the confines of the old system. Many of the aforementioned works have discussed this issue.


(4) The CPSU’s degeneration and the collapse of the Soviet Union


The party played a key role in the Soviet Union’s collapse. The CPSU’s leadership and cadre degenerated from “servants of the people” to “masters of the people.” “The CPSU was originally a revolutionary party of the Russian working class. After it seized state power and became the only ruling party of the country, however, it refused to reform itself and gradually declined into a party of the privileged class of the Soviet state bureaucracy, which was still deeply influenced by the tradition of czarist autocracy. It became, in other words, a political party of the modern state bureaucracy with Russian characteristics, despite still calling itself the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”10 The transformation of the CPSU began in the Stalin era. With power concentrated in his hands, Stalin tended to act arbitrarily and without regard to the socialist legal system, which strangled democracy and eroded the people’s rights as masters of the country. As Zheng Yifan and Ma Longshan have studied in detail, during the Great Purge, a large number of Soviet people of various ethnicities perished. Ye Shuzong and Guo Chunsheng show how the privileges of the CPSU cadre grew during the Brezhnev period and how the party came to represent the interests of the party apparatus rather than those of the people. The Brezhnev era, during which the CPSU’s degeneration was complete, was thus key to the collapse of the Soviet Union.


III. A brief assessment


In studies of the Soviet Union’s collapse over the past 30 years, Chinese scholars have adhered to the principles of dialectical materialism and historical materialism, armed themselves with historical facts—making full use of an abundance of sources, especially newly declassified archival materials—and continually pushed the boundaries of the field.


First, Chinese scholars have shown a relatively comprehensive understanding of the history of the Soviet Union. They do not deny Soviet achievements when discussing the causes and lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse. In the context of human history, Soviet socialism did not last long, and yet it had a tremendous impact on the world and fundamentally altered the course of human history in the twentieth century. Since there remain few socialist countries in the world today, it is natural to focus on why Soviet socialism failed and what can be learned from it. Chinese scholars of the Soviet Union have never, however, dismissed the achievements it made. They acknowledge that the Soviet Union blazed a new path of modernization for developing countries to follow and that it achieved industrialization in a short time. It played a leading and indispensable role in the war against fascism; it made considerable progress in solving ethnic issues and promoting the development of ethnic minority regions; and it contributed to the liberation of oppressed peoples around the world and to the end of colonialism. The brilliant achievements notwithstanding, the Soviet Union faced long-standing problems and tensions, and the CPSU’s failure to solve them eventually led to the dramatic collapse of the edifice that was Soviet socialism.


Second, in analyzing the causes and lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Chinese scholars have followed the scientific method of Marxism and studied the people and events of the Soviet Union in their historical contexts. Chinese scholars, especially historians of the Soviet Union, acknowledge that Gorbachev was directly responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse, but they do not attribute the collapse merely to the “betrayal” of a few leaders, as doing so does not solve any problem, nor does it answer the question why no one stepped up when the CPSU fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Scholars have tried to locate the causes in Soviet socioeconomic and political systems. Historians of the Soviet Union generally believe that, given the historical conditions, Soviet socialism was inherently deficient. Lenin envisioned seizing power first before  developing the productive forces to a level commensurate with a socialist system, but the Soviet Union ultimately failed in the latter task its history of over 70 years. The New Economic Policy, which was appropriate to the conditions of the Soviet Union at the time, lasted only a short time before being replaced by the Stalinist model. Relying too much on administrative power, the Soviet model was incapable of stimulating the enthusiasm and creativity of the people, and the economy grew at an increasingly slower pace while its efficiency dropped: the collapse of the Soviet Union was not an accident.


Finally, Chinese scholars have adhered to a people-centered principle in the study of the Soviet Union’s collapse. According to the basic principles of Marxism, the people are the makers of history and the real heroes. When studying the CPSU’s loss of power, the failure of Soviet socialism, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, scholars have adopted a people-centered approach, focusing on the Soviet people and looking at the Soviet Union’s problems through the people’s eyes. In theory, the CPSU and the people of the Soviet Union were supposed to be one and the same. The socialist system and union of nations established by the CPSU were supposed to represent and serve the people, but that was not the case in reality. The peace, land, bread and freedom that the Bolsheviks had promised to the people during the October Revolution did not materialize. Many measures taken by the CPSU, such as the Great Purge, agricultural collectivization, the excessive centralization of power, and the privileges of the cadre, infringed upon the interests of the people. The CPSU failed to fulfill Lenin’s promise of making the people the masters of their own country and society, and it failed to deliver peace and prosperity to the people. Scholars have shown that it was precisely the CPSU’s loss of popular support that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.


To ensure the vitality of socialism, it is of great importance to scientifically review the lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the past 30 years, Chinese scholars made great strides in understanding the Soviet Union’s demise, producing some world-leading studies, although the field has somewhat stagnated more recently. It is thus necessary to renew our effort to explore the deep-seated causes of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the failure of Soviet socialism, and the CPSU’s loss of power, from which we can draw valuable lessons.


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左凤荣 (Zuo Fengrong). "A Review of Chinese Scholarship on the Collapse of the Soviet Union [中国学界苏联剧变问题研究史回眸]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Issues of Contemporary World Socialism [当代世界社会主义问题], February 5, 2022

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