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K-State Today

October 24, 2011

Breaking up hard to do: Soviet scholar says Russia struggling in some areas 20 years after fall of Soviet Union

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

While some former Soviet countries are thriving since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Russia is still a work in progress, according to a Kansas State University expert on the country.

"A chunk of the former Soviet bloc is now part of the mainstream West, including the Baltics, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic," said David Stone, Pickett Professor of military history and director of the university's Institute for Military History and 20th Century Studies. "But most of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, is certainly deep influx. Democratic governments are weak and not stable -- they are more authoritarian. Russia's recent stage-managed announcement of the handover of the Russian presidency from Dmitri Medvedev back to Vladimir Putin shows that."

Stone, who is the author of books on Soviet history and foreign policy, said that in some ways Russia is much like it was 100 years ago.

"It was part of the West then and now, but also not," he said. "It fits in easily in some things, but is not quite a fit in others. For example, culturally and technologically it's become part of the West, but its government is authoritarian as it was under the tsar's leadership."

One big change since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago has been the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

"While tensions remain between the U.S. and Russia, they are different today than they were during the Cold War. They are over fairly concrete issues rather than the ideological divide between the U.S. and communism," Stone said.

The factors that led to the official breakup of the Soviet Union in late December 1991 were many and complicated -- and some are still ongoing today, Stone said.

One of the biggest issues was the economic inefficiencies of its system. The Soviet Union's centrally-planned economy couldn't keep up with the West, which had become clear by 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Soviet Union, announced economic reforms, Stone said.

"The Soviet Union saw itself as a superpower, but it couldn't afford to be one. It was relatively poor, but the government had global ambitions that its economy couldn't sustain," Stone said. "Gorbachev's rise to power also was a factor. He was willing to make radical experiments with the economy. These unusual experiments went terribly wrong and blew up in his face. But his radical ideas were a failed effort to fix the system, not an effort to destroy it."

Stone said the Russian economy has returned to what it was before communism, with a dependence on the extraction of natural resources, including oil, natural gas and crude minerals.

"Russia continues to have ongoing problems with achieving a modern, postindustrial economy," Stone said. "It still relies heavily on the extraction of natural resources, property rights aren't stable and the country hasn't achieved Western norms of transparency and rule of law."

But some parts of Russia are better off today, Stone said. "Moscow and St. Petersburg are boomtowns. Young people, especially those with education, have good prospects for better lives," he said. "Another positive has been the number of Soviet college students studying in the U.S. today.

"Rural Russia is dying, though. The elderly are especially having a terrible time adjusting to the economy," Stone said.

Russia's political future also is uncertain. Stone said the recent announcement by Medvedev and Putin that Medvedev will not run for re-election clears the way for Putin, the country's prime minister, to return as Russia's president.

"But reformist elements in Russia's government and population, who wish to see economic liberalization and greater transparency and rule of law, find this development deeply discouraging," he said.

For Stone personally, the fall of the Soviet Union has produced mixed blessings. Although it has become much easier to do research on the former superpower, he said the field of Russian studies as a whole has suffered from the breakup.

"The end of the Cold War is a wonderful thing for humanity. But before the Soviet Union fell, there were far more resources available to study the country, specifically for national security reasons; not as much funding is available today," he said. "Although I wouldn't have been able to do my dissertation if communism had not fallen, there are fewer resources today to study the nation and learn the Russian language."

Stone's dissertation was on creation of the Soviet military industry. His first book, "Hammer and Rifle: The Militarization of the Soviet Union, 1926-1933," was a selection of the History Book Club. It also was named the winner of the 2001 inaugural Best First Book prize of the Historical Society and was co-winner of the 2001 Shulman Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. He also published "A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya" and was editor of the recently released volume "The Soviet Union at War 1941-1945." Named one of America's top young historians by the History News Network, Stone is the author of more than 20 articles and book chapters on Russian/Soviet military history and foreign policy.