The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia's march to democracy

The most consequential event of the second half of the 20th century took place 15 years ago at a secluded hunting lodge in the Belovezh Forest near Minsk. On December 8 1991, heads of three of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, led by Russia's Boris Yeltsin, met there to sign documents abolishing that 74-year-old state.For most western commentators the Soviet breakup was an unambiguously positive turning point in Russian and world history. As it quickly became the defining moment in a new American triumphalist narrative, the hope that Mikhail Gorbachev's pro-Soviet democratic and market reforms of 1985-91 would succeed was forgotten. Soviet history was now presented as "Russia's seven decades as a rigid and ruthless police state". American academics reacted similarly, most reverting to pre-Gorbachev axioms that the system had always been unreformable and doomed. The opposing view that there had been other possibilities in Soviet history, "roads not taken", was dismissed as a "dubious", if not disloyal, notion. Gorbachev's reforms, despite having so remarkably dismantled the Communist party dictatorship, had been "a chimera", and the Soviet Union therefore died from a "lack of alternatives".

Most specialists no longer asked, even in the light of the human tragedies that followed in the 1990s, if a reforming Soviet Union might have been the best hope for the post-communist future of Russia. Nor have mainstream commentators asked if its survival would have been better for world affairs. On the contrary, they concluded that everything Soviet had to be discarded by "the razing of the entire edifice of political and economic relations". Such certitudes are now, of course, the only politically correct ones in US (and most European) policy, media and academic circles.

A large majority of Russians, on the other hand, as they have regularly made clear in opinion surveys, regret the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for "communism" but because they lost a secure way of life. They do not share the nearly unanimous western view that the Soviet Union's "collapse" was "inevitable" because of inherent fatal defects. They believe instead, and for good reason, that three "subjective" factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in "privatising" the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it. Most Russians, including even the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a "tragedy".

In addition, a growing number of Russian intellectuals have come to believe that something essential was lost - a historic opportunity to democratise and modernise Russia by methods more gradualist, consensual and less traumatic, and thus more fruitful and less costly, than those adopted after 1991.

One common post-Soviet myth, promoted by Yeltsin's supporters, is that the dissolution was "peaceful". In reality, ethnic civil wars erupted in central Asia and Transcaucasia, killing hundreds of thousands and brutally displacing even more, a process still under way.

It is hard to imagine a political act more extreme than abolishing what was still, for all its crises, a nuclear superpower state of 286 million citizens. And yet Yeltsin did it, as even his sympathisers acknowledged, in a way that was "neither legitimate nor democratic".

Having ended the Soviet state in a way that lacked legal or popular legitimacy - in a referendum nine months before, 76% had voted to preserve the union - the Yeltsin ruling group soon became fearful of real democracy. And indeed Yeltsin's armed overthrow of the Russian parliament soon followed.

The economic dimensions of Belovezh were no less portentous. Dissolving the union without any preparatory stages shattered a highly integrated economy and was a major cause of the collapse of production across the former Soviet territories, which fell by almost half in the 1990s. That in turn contributed to mass poverty and its attendant social pathologies, which are still, in the words of a respected Moscow economist, the "main fact" of Russian life today.

And, as a one-time Yeltsin supporter wrote later, "almost everything that happened in Russia after 1991 was determined to a significant extent by the divvying-up of the property of the former USSR". Soviet elites took much of the state's enormous wealth with no regard for fair procedures or public opinion. To enrich themselves, they wanted the most valuable state property distributed from above, without the participation of legislatures. They achieved that, first by themselves, through "spontaneous nomenklatura privatisation", and after 1991, through Kremlin decrees issued by Yeltsin.

Fearful for their dubiously acquired assets and even for their lives, the new property holders were as determined as Yeltsin to limit or reverse the parliamentary electoral democracy initiated by Gorbachev. In its place they strove to create a political system devoted to and corrupted by their wealth, at best a "managed" democracy. Hence their choice of Vladimir Putin, a vigorous man from the security services, to replace the enfeebled President Yeltsin in 1999. And uncertain how long they could actually retain their immense property, they were more interested in stripping its assets than investing in it. The result was an 80% decline in investment in Russia's economy by the end of the 1990s - and the nation's demodernisation. Given such a record, it is scarcely surprising that Putin's attempt to reassert state control over Russia's oil and gas industries is so popular.

So why did so many western commentators hail the breakup of the Soviet Union as a "breakthrough" to democracy? Their reaction was based mainly on anti-communist ideology and hopeful myths.

Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union with the backing of the nomenklatura elites - pursuing the "smell of property like a beast after prey", as Yeltsin's chief minister put it - and an avowedly pro-democracy wing of the intelligentsia. Traditional enemies in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet system, they colluded in 1991 largely because the intelligentsia's radical market ideas seemed to justify nomenklatura privatisation.

But the most influential pro-Yeltsin intellectuals were neither coincidental fellow travellers nor real democrats. Since the late 1980s they had insisted that free-market economics and large-scale private property would have to be imposed on Russian society by an "iron hand" regime using "anti-democratic measures". Like the property-seeking elites, they saw Russia's newly elected legislatures as an obstacle. Admirers of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, they said of Yeltsin: "Let him be a dictator!" Not surprisingly, they cheered (along with the US government and mainstream media) when he used tanks to destroy Russia's popularly elected parliament in 1993.

Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991, and none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable. But even if democratic and market aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, political coups, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. It should have been clear which would prevail.

Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University and the author of Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia. This is an edited version of an article in the current issue of The Nation.