Dispatches from Sochi: What if . . . the Soviet Union had not collapsed?

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The vice president of Carnegie Corporation's International Program reports from the 13th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Sochi, Russia.

Dealing with Russia—considering today's political and politicized environment in the U.S.—is like getting a nasty sunburn. I decided to face the sun directly and accept the invitation (my fifth) to the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club at Sochi, hosted every year by a Russian think tank and funded by the state. The Valdai meetings bring together a group of about a hundred experts on Russia and "public intellectuals" from around the world to discuss global issues and meet with the Russian leadership, including President Putin. This year's theme is "The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow."

Notes from the 13th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Sochi, Russia:

A Russian speaker stressed that no one in the Soviet Union anticipated the collapse. The outcome was not inevitable, but rather the result of a combination of decisions made by the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev.

A Chinese speaker offered that had the Soviet Union remained intact, the world would have been much more stable. An international arena defined by continued bipolarity would have prevented the eruption of the conflicts that followed the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and which dominate the world today.

An American speaker reminded the audience that, by and large, the U.S. was not supportive of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He went on to assert that, nevertheless, the collapse was inevitable, due to rebellious populations in the Baltics and the Caucasus. Had the Soviets responded to that unrest with force, they would have been isolated from global markets, a restriction that would have led to a collapse of the economy and ultimately to the collapse of the state. He concluded that even if it was Gorbachev's actions which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, due to certain structural impediments of the Soviet economy, those very steps could not have been avoided.

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The bottom line is that there is a difference in Russian and U.S. perspectives as represented on the panel. The Russian view (as well as the Chinese) is that the collapse of the Soviet Union could have been prevented, while the U.S. view is that the collapse was inevitable.

Although there was disagreement regarding the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the panelists agreed that the possibility of the further disruption of Russia cannot be excluded. In response, a Russian speaker emphasized the need to invest in education, development of a common identity, and representative government.