Putin and Xi Eye the Soviet Collapse

Sergey Radchenko

When commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in the months ahead, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will find it difficult to recapture the spirit exhibited in 2015 when they stood together in Red Square and then in Tiananmen to proclaim shared support for a world order they insisted was established through that victory and had not been overturned by the way the Cold War had ended. 1945 has significance as the crowning glory of the Soviet system now separable from its communist trappings and the steppingstone to the communist revolution in China, being venerated anew. However, its meaning cannot be disassociated from today’s narratives about what happened in 1991, two-thirds along the pathway to the present. 1991 was a watershed leading to Moscow and Beijing drawing closer together as they responded to the way a triumphant United States interpreted the end of the Cold War as overturning the order they regarded as ensuring their national status and identities. Yet it also carried the seeds of a divide over how to view the post-cold war era, including its signature event—the Soviet collapse.     

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union teetered on the brink. On March 11, 1990 Lithuania proclaimed independence. The Baltics had been stirring uneasily for months, as the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev struggled to contain the forces of centrifugal nationalism. Earlier that year, an ethnic riot in Baku left scores dead; the army had to intervene to stop the massacre. But these challenges were dwarfed by the rising specter of Russian nationalism. For a while, Gorbachev attempted to ride the tiger by coopting Russia, but he was dealt a fatal blow when the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies elected Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s new president. On June 12, 1990, Russia declared state sovereignty. A struggle for state resources ensued. The Soviet Union, already severely weakened by inconclusive economic reforms, now faced financial insolvency. Gorbachev paddled against the raging currents of history for a few more chaotic months, but the writing was already on the wall. In August 1991 he barely survived an attempted coup; by the end of the year he was gone from the political stage, and with him—the Soviet Union itself. This proved traumatic for Russian leaders but also for Chinese leaders.

The Soviet collapse did not come with a happy end. Although many commentators wrongheadedly marveled at the peaceful dissolution of the “Soviet empire,” the meltdown inaugurated a period of great uncertainty, ethnic strife, economic deprivation, poverty, and crime for many of the successor states, and in particular for Russia that had to rebuild itself upon the ruins of the defunct socialist project. Russia’s agony was closely scrutinized from across the border, in China. In 1989, when Gorbachev’s fate as yet appeared uncertain, China and the Soviet Union were travelling along different but parallel roads. The brutal suppression of the student demonstration in Tiananmen raised questions about the viability of China’s path to a prosperous future. At the time, Gorbachev’s choice seemed much wiser. But China’s relatively rapid bounce back from the low point of 1989 revived the prospects of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening just as Gorbachev’s demise pointed to the pitfalls of the road of political reform. Now, as Russia struggled to reinvent itself as a capitalist democracy, policymakers in Beijing studied the experience of Soviet reforms in order to steer clear of the “tracks of an overturned cart.”

Thirty years later, are Beijing and Moscow in agreement about the reasons for the Soviet collapse, and what it means for the present? This article reviews the state of the current political discourse in China and Russia on the reasons for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Unlike previous such studies, for instance by David Shambaugh, this article focuses in particular on the pronouncements of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Chinese chairman Xi Jinping.1 Of course, these two do not operate in a vacuum; their opinions are often a reflection of the broader scholarly and elite consensus, however skewed they may be by personal political preferences. Nevertheless, the availability of sources—scripted speeches, as well as off-the-cuff remarks—allows observers unprecedented insight into how the political leaders of the two countries understand these epochal events, and what conclusions they draw from them for policy. Their divergent outlooks have bearing on the broader differences in worldview and on the future of ties.

Vladimir Putin and the “geopolitical catastrophe” of Soviet collapse

Vladimir Putin has addressed the subject of Soviet collapse on numerous occasions. This is in part a consequence of his personal experience, although that experience does not yield itself to a straightforward interpretation. It is well known, for example, that the meltdown of the Soviet position in East Germany in 1989-90 had a profound impact on Putin who watched it at close range from his position as a KGB officer in Dresden. But in the final months of Soviet existence, he aligned himself with the “democratic” forces. Thus, he opposed the coup against Gorbachev, and after the Soviet Union collapsed, he went on to work for St. Petersburg city administration, mentored by its liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak. In other words, Putin owes his political rise to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, he made it known in unequivocal terms that he regards the Soviet collapse as the “worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

That famous remark was first made in Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly in April 2005, and it immediately attracted considerable negative commentary in the West, for it suggested that Putin was at heart an imperialist, or perhaps that he nurtured far-reaching irredentist ambitions. The term “geopolitics” has been widely misused, and Putin himself did not make it any clearer in the speech, for he mainly focused on the human aspects of disintegration: “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and countrymen ended up outside the Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”2 Just last year, Putin confirmed in an interview that the words “geopolitical catastrophe” referred to the “humanitarian” dimension of the Soviet collapse. “Listen, is this not a tragedy?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course, it is! What about the family ties? Or work? Or [free] movement [of people]? A disaster, you can’t call it anything else.”3 But this “humanitarian” angle of Putin’s remarks has failed to convince the president’s detractors, who have pointed out that Russia’s actual foreign policy behavior—from the 2008 war with Georgia to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, from Moscow’s projection of power to Central Asia to arm-twisting Belarus—are indicative of efforts to mitigate the effects of the “catastrophe” by rebuilding the USSR from whatever pieces may still be glued together.

Although the Chinese media have reported on Putin’s description of the Soviet collapse as a “geopolitical catastrophe,” Beijing has certainly not indicated any degree of sympathy with Russia on account of its loss. Until the very last years of the USSR’s existence, the Chinese leaders viewed it as a threat. The Soviet Union was a “hegemon” that encircled China with a web of hostile alliances. It was only in 1989 that Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping agreed in Beijing to “close the past and open the future,” normalizing a relationship that had been plagued by decades of tensions bordering on open war. Deng had derisively called the Soviet Union a “polar bear” that had to be held back through close Sino-American cooperation, including in the military field. Although the end of the Cold War put an end to this period of confrontation, to say that the Chinese leaders in any sense regretted the collapse of the USSR would be to entirely misconstrue the nature of their concern.

Separatism: Xi Jinping’s take

There was and is no regret in Beijing on the account of Soviet collapse but there is a sense of apprehension. It stems from the shared roots of China’s, and Russia’s, modernities. Although the Chinese leaders tirelessly trumpet the uniqueness of the Chinese development model—the so- called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—the disturbing reality is that modern China is structurally modelled on the Soviet Union. The autonomous regions with their titular nationalities—the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Hui, and the Zhuang—in some ways resemble Soviet republics. Some of these “small nationalities,” notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans, have a long history of resistance to Chinese rule. Xinjiang in particular has experienced unrest. Since 2009, when scores were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi, the central government has imposed ever more draconian restrictions on the Uighurs, attempting, through detention and “reeducation,” to “de-radicalize” the supposedly separatism-inclined populace.

One reason for this brutal treatment of ethnic minorities is that China may relive the Soviet experience. In one of his recent speeches that was leaked to The New York Times, Xi Jinping directly addressed that experience, noting how the fact that the Baltic republics were the most economically developed in the USSR did not prevent them from embracing their separatist agendas; indeed, they were the first to leave. Yugoslavia, Xi continued, was comparatively rich and yet it broke up in violent ethnic conflict. Xi Jinping’s reasoning has taken a new direction in comparison with the central government’s more conventional methods of tackling separatism. For many years, Beijing’s approach to centrifugal tendencies in places like Tibet and Xinjiang was to promote heavy investment and infrastructural projects. Investment in Xinjiang, for instance, increased by leaps and bounds in recent years: from 185 billion yuan in 2007 to 1 trillion yuan in 2017 (the last year for which detailed statistics are available).4 These investments offer the material basis for the Communist Party’s narrative of how the national minorities stand to benefit from Beijing’s developmental policies. “We say that development is the top priority and the basis for achieving lasting security, and that’s right,” Xi said in an internal speech. “It would be wrong to believe that with development every problem solves itself.”5 The Soviet experience, he believes, suggests otherwise.

Xi Jinping’s reading of the Soviet experience has led him to implement the most atrocious policies directed at the ethnic Uighurs, including their mass incarceration in special camps, where inmates are subjected to “reeducation” in the hope that they may be forced to abandon whatever “radical” views they may have, and learn to love the motherland. Beijing has vehemently rejected claims that it has forced up to a million people into concentration camps and has persisted with the program in the face of international, though mostly, Western condemnation.

Ironically, the Chinese have also had to defend their record of treatment of national minorities in neighboring Kazakhstan. The Chinese ambassador in Nur-Sultan Zhang Xiao has gained certain notoriety in recent months with his short-tempered outbursts to media questions about the camps. “This is all lies, this is disinformation, you understand?” he told a reporter of the Kazakh office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Azattyk), before dismissing him as an agent of the US State Department.6 The Xinjiang question is of particular relevance to Kazakhstan, not just because of its substantial Uighur minority but also because ethnic Kazakhs are among those being detained. In this instance, China’s nationalities policy has come into direct conflict with Beijing’s effort to promote a benevolent image of itself to its neighbors.

Kazakhstan is a particularly interesting locale for following events in Xinjiang. In 1962 the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic gave refuge to thousands of Uighurs fleeing across the border from China (which at the time served as a powerful reminder of the simmering discontent behind the propagandistic facade of inter-ethnic harmony). Of course, Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan was hardly a model for successful management of the nationalities question. Indeed, it was there that ethnic riots broke out in December 1986, which became an early sign of centrifugal tendencies in the USSR. The subsequent establishment of an independent, economically prosperous, albeit deeply autocratic Kazakhstan certainly serves as a powerful reminder to the Chinese elites and personally to Xi Jinping that there is nothing particularly immutable about Beijing’s control of its borderlands. Unfortunately, this reminder has prompted Xi to adopt policies that will surely deepen China’s problems in Xinjiang.

Separatism: Putin’s take

Putin has been careful to steer clear of any unfriendly insinuations in relation to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, having ostensibly determined that whatever was happening there, it was China’s internal affair. But he has made pronouncements about the ethnic problem in the USSR and he, too, like Xi Jinping, has attempted to draw policy conclusions from the Soviet experience. In an extensive discussion of the question on December 10, 2019, Putin criticized Soviet state-builders, in particular Vladimir Lenin, for “placing a landmine under Russia’s statehood, which had developed in the course of a millennium.”7 According to one of those present at the discussion, Putin’s face expressed “rage” as he recounted Lenin’s nationalities policies. “Who are the Russians?” he thundered. “There were practically no Russians until the 19th century.” The Russians, he said, were an agglomeration of tribes that were being gradually assimilated until Lenin, with his nationalities policies, came along to create “not so much a federation as a confederation.” “As a result of his decision,” Putin explained at his press conference on December 19, 2019, “ethnicities were tied to specific territories, and obtained the right of succeeding from the Soviet Union.”8

The key takeaway for Putin from Soviet collapse is that Russia must never again allow itself to be drawn into assigning territories to nationalities, for this can only lead, down the road, to further fragmentation and ultimate destruction of the “Russian people.” The challenge for him is that the modern-day Russia’s administrative set-up, unlike that of the Russian Empire, is a federation, which in theory should provide regions (including “ethnic” regions) with a degree of autonomy from the center. Indeed, the Russian Constitution provides for the existence of some twenty-two republics within Russia, most of which have ostensible titular nationalities, just like the Soviet Union of old. But unlike the Soviet Union, where republican autonomy was largely a fiction, the Russian Federation in the 1990s did yield considerable autonomy to its constituent republics, which raised the specter of further fragmentation (in particular, during the bloody and inconclusive wars in Chechnya).

As Putin consolidated power in Russia, he worked to claw back republican autonomy. This was done in part through administrative and extra-constitutional measures, like the creation in May 2000 of seven (later eight) federal districts, a parallel structure of power that allowed the Russian president a greater measure of control over the regions. Putin also waged a brutal war in Chechnya to bring it back under Moscow’s control. In recent comments on the subject, in an attempt to justify why, in 2004, he had made Chechnya’s notorious overlord Ramzan Karyrov a “Hero of Russia,” Putin noted philosophically that “Chechen people suffered from those who thought up the new Russia… Certain people utilized historical memories of injustice in order to implement their own ideas, to use this, to use the Chechen people to destroy our country—Russia.” “Thanks God,” he added, “that the Chechen people and other peoples of Russia had enough intelligence, common sense, and sense of self-preservation,… to put an end to this bloody story.”9

But—and Putin understands this—Russia’s cohesion is still uncertain. “Order” in a place like Chechnya depends heavily on two factors: first, tremendous economic investments (here, Russia has followed China’s strategy of attempting to buy loyalty through generosity), and, second, personal relationships at the top. What would happen to Kadyrov’s fiefdom should something happen to Kadyrov? Or what kind of a relationship will Kadyrov (or other republican bosses) develop with Putin’s successor, when he eventually dies? These questions cannot be answered with any clarity. Putin, while condemning his predecessors for engaging in nation-building projects, has himself actively engaged in a nation-building project, but his mythical Russia is at least as much a product of his imagination as any nation of the defunct USSR.

Perhaps with an eye to adorning his national idea with viable legal guarantees, Putin has toyed with making certain constitutional changes that would entrench Russian-ness in the increasingly diverse populace. This includes the recently introduced proposal to refer to the Russians as a “state-forming nation” [gosudarstvoobrazuiushchii narod], which would raise its status in comparison with Russia’s other ethnic groups.10 This proposal has already encountered muffled negative reaction, for instance from the Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin who declared that such an amendment could lead to “irreversible consequences.”11 The Mufti said that although he recognized that the Russians were Russia’s “titular nationality,” there were many other ethnicities living in Russia.12 This includes the Tatars, whose striving for greater autonomy has long been a matter of annoyance for Putin.

Another constitutional amendment that is currently being mulled (it is unclear whether it will be adopted, though Putin has expressed his general approval) is one that would prohibit Russia from ceding territory to any other state. This would have immediate consequences for Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan, while also making it unconstitutional to ever return Crimea to Ukraine. Fortunately, Russia and China have already resolved their long-running territorial disputes (which in key instances included Russia ceding territory to its neighbor).

While thus seeking to increase Russia’s national cohesion and forever solidify its borders against encroachment, Putin has also attempted to very gradually re-extend Russia’s control over parts of the former USSR. Only in one instance—with the 2014 annexation of Crimea—did he dare to act decisively by swallowing territories of neighboring states. In many other cases Putin has opted in favor of protracted, frozen conflicts by supporting Russian separatists (e.g. in Donbas), or other ethnic separatists (e.g. in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). There is a downside to this strategy, however: persistence of conflict between Russia, on the one hand, and Ukraine and Georgia on the other, means that as a result of Putin’s empire-rebuilding effort, these important actors have drifted farther from Russia than at any time in recent memory. Putin’s integrationist aspirations with regard to Ukraine, for example, have had to be shelved for the foreseeable future, as it is difficult to fight an undeclared war in a neighboring country while hoping that it will somehow embrace its long-lost roots and voluntarily choose to integrate with Russia.

Meanwhile, Putin has worked hard to bring about a degree of economic reintegration of the former Soviet space. The highlight of this effort was the emergence, in 2015, of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which linked Russia with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in a kind of USSR-light. The EEU, which includes a customs union, has become a vehicle for maintaining Russia’s hegemony in Central Asia, an area of considerable interest to Beijing. When in 2013 Xi Jinping launched what eventually evolved into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at linking China with external markets through behemoth infrastructural and energy projects, Moscow had reasons to worry. In an effort to smooth sharp corners, Putin and Xi agreed in May 2015 to “synergize” the two projects, a process characterized by general uncertainty among those directly involved as to what these synergies actually are. Meanwhile, Russia’s ostensible EEU clients have embraced Beijing on a bilateral basis, often as a counterbalance to overreliance on Moscow. One recent example of such maneuvering was the December 2019 agreement between Belarus and the China Development Bank, whereby Minsk obtained an untied credit worth some 3.5 billion yuan ($500 million dollars).13

Ideology: Xi Jinping’s take

In reviewing the lessons of Soviet collapse, Xi Jinping has repeatedly highlighted one particular problem that in his opinion played the most important role in this process: the loss of faith in the Soviet project. In late 2012 to early 2013, shortly after he had assumed his new title of the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping spoke about the Soviet Union on at least two (known) occasions. The first time was during his tour of Guangdong province in December 2012, when, in comments to party functionaries, he noted that despite its decades of growth, China still had to “profoundly remember the lesson of the Soviet collapse.” He went on to talk about “political corruption,” “thought heresy,” and “military insubordination” as reasons for the crash of the Soviet Communist Party.

“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he asked, “why did the Soviet Communist Party lose power?” He continued: “One important reason was that ideals and beliefs were shaken.” In the end, he added, Gorbachev just uttered a word, declaring the Soviet Communist Party defunct, “and the great party was gone just like that.” “In the end, there was not a man brave enough to resist, no one came out to contest [this decision].”14

Just a few weeks later, Xi repeated his take:
One important reason [for the Soviet collapse] was the struggle in the ideological sphere was extremely fierce; there was a complete denial of Soviet history, denial of Lenin, denial of Stalin, pursuit of historical Nihilism, confusion of thought. Local party organizations were almost without a role. The military was not under the Party’s oversight. In the end, the great Soviet Communist Party scattered like birds and beasts. The great Soviet socialist nation fell to pieces. This is the road of an overturned cart!15

These early remarks from Xi Jinping help explain the direction of his subsequent policies. There was at the time some uncertainty among China watchers whether Xi would become a Gorbachev-type reformer or, by contrast, whether his rise would herald a new tightening of the screws. Xi’s vow, in January 2013, to hunt both “tigers” and “flies” in his anti-corruption campaign, pointed to a brutal power struggle then underway; it did not take long before Xi Jinping dispatched his potential and real rivals. He also hurried to assume leadership of the party and the state’s Central Military Commissions, a sign that all power, especially the military power, was in his hands. By launching his campaign against “political corruption” while also asserting control over the military, Xi addressed two of the three problems that, in his opinion, brought down the Soviet Union. The third was “thought heresy.”

Addressing “thought heresy” became perhaps the strangest aspect of Xi’s effort to avoid “the road of an overturned cart.” True, even under Hu Jintao (who in retrospect appears to be much more open-minded than he did in office), China was an authoritarian state with extremely constrained space for personal freedoms. Hu, like Jiang Zemin before him, was not interested in political liberalization, keeping in mind both the drama of the Soviet collapse, and China’s own unhappy experience of political protest. But neither Hu nor Jiang made the kind of systematic effort to resuscitate party ideology as we have witnessed under Xi. The latter’s years in power have been characterized by an effort to impose political conformity across China, and in particular among the intellectuals who have come under pressure to embrace orthodox formulations, like the infamous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which, in March 2018, also entered the Chinese Constitution.

At the time of the last party congress, observers wondered whether Mao Zedong Thought would perhaps finally be laid to rest. It did not happen, suggesting that even as he is seeking to have himself written into history as one of the fathers of China’s modernity, Xi Jinping is unwilling to renounce the god-like figure of Mao Zedong. This is where his opposition to Soviet-style “historical Nihilism” comes into play. Xi understands that the figure of Mao is too closely bound up with the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party; that, in spite of China’s astronomical growth, the Party has generally failed to develop a narrative that could safely disconnect it from its tragic past. Absent a narrative, Xi fears, the party could just collapse like the Soviet Communist Party did thirty years ago. As Xi recently emphasized, recalling the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt him, “The Soviet Communist Party had 200 thousand members when it seized power; it had 2 million members when it defeated Hitler, and it had 20 million members when it relinquished power… For what reason? Because the ideals and beliefs were no longer there.”16

While thus emphasizing the continued importance of communist ideals (that make for such a bizarre contrast with the daily reality of Chinese capitalism), Xi has also overseen the emergence of his own personality cult that recalls Mao’s in pervasiveness and obscenity. Only with the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan has the Xi cult dimmed somewhat, a reflection, no doubt, of Chairman Xi’s unwillingness to shoulder the blame for the way the government has handled the epidemic. After all, great leaders do not make mistakes; anyone who thinks that they do suffers from thought confusion.

It’s the economy, stupid: Putin’s take

If Xi Jinping appears to believe that the USSR crashed because the Soviet elites lost their faith in Lenin and Stalin, Putin has a very different and, to be sure, a more accurate explanation. In part, this is just a function of different life experiences. Putin was not quite five months old when Stalin died; for him, the greats of Marxism-Leninism were never more than pictures on the wall. Xi Jinping, only a few months younger than Putin, experienced China in the grip of a revolution. For him Mao was a living person; Xi’s own father was Mao’s comrade (even if Mao purged him). Xi experienced the Cultural Revolution first-hand. For him, denying Mao would be like denying a part of himself. Putin, by contrast, emerged from his post in Dresden utterly disenchanted with communist ideals. There was a further reason for his disenchantment: Putin, like anyone who had experienced the wonders of Soviet socialism, knows that it failed because it could not compete with the West in the quality of life.

In recent comments on the subject, Putin took sides in a long-running debate among historians as to what triggered Soviet collapse. In Putin’s judgment—which is sure to disappoint scholars like Mark Beissinger who had long advocated the centrality of the nationalist contagion—nationalism (in particular Baltic nationalism) had “little to do” with the collapse of the USSR.17 Of course, this judgment of his is in direct contradiction with Putin’s insistence that it was Lenin’s nationalities policies that prepared the ground for the disintegration. But Putin was never known for a consistency of views. He does have a point, however, in blaming the “ineffective economic policy of the Soviet Union, which in fact led to a collapse in the social sphere and had long-term consequences in the political sphere.”

In this context, Putin has added his tuppence on whether China’s reform experience was ever of relevance to the USSR. “The People’s Republic of China,” he claims, “managed in the best possible way, in my opinion, to use the levers of central administration [for] the development of a market economy…. I won’t go into the details, connected to reciprocal accusations between the US and China about the exchange rate of the yuan and so on but these are instruments that are being effectively used. The Soviet Union did nothing like this, and the results of an ineffective economic policy impacted the political sphere.” The consequence of this failure to pursue a correct set of policies, Putin concluded, “was a lot worse than people thought and what they could suspect in their worst nightmares.”18

Conclusion

There is then a curious mismatch between Putin and Xi’s views of what could have saved the USSR. Where Xi perceives a loss of faith in party ideals, Putin sees a failure of macro-economic policy. Where Putin appeals to China’s experience of reform and opening, Xi trumpets defunct revolutionary ideals. This mismatch is understandable. Whatever Putin is, he certainly is not a Marxist-Leninist. He does not draw on the Soviet ideology for legitimacy. The Soviet ideology is dead, and it died years before the limping monstrosity of the Soviet state finally breathed its last. Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika precisely because he understood that the Soviet project had run aground. It had to be rescued with new ideas and new policies. These policies in the end simply did not deliver, leading to a deep economic crisis and financial insolvency that brought Gorbachev down and wrecked the Soviet state. Putin is broadly right: it was not the denial of socialism that undermined the USSR; it was instead the denial of economic realities by the Soviet leaders that brought their country to the brink of disaster by the mid-1980s. Gorbachev, with poorly thought-out policies, brought it over the edge.

Deng Xiaoping reportedly called Gorbachev an “idiot” for prioritizing politics over economics.19 Gorbachev, by contrast, believed that Deng’s emphasis on economic reform while ignoring calls for political change, would lead China down a blind alley. In 1989, with much of China aflame, with students camped out in the Tiananmen Square, Gorbachev seemed more “right.” “I do not want the Red Square to look like the Tiananmen Square,” the Soviet leader told his entourage on May 15, 1989, after he witnessed first-hand the unfolding revolutionary chaos of the Chinese capital.20 Deng’s decision to crack down on the demonstrators brought chaos to an abrupt end, but it left China a global pariah, shunned by all. Gorbachev’s USSR, though increasingly insolvent, at least projected an image of democratic hopefulness. But that hopefulness proved insufficient for saving the Soviet Union from its abrupt and bitter end.

China, in the meantime, recovered from its isolation and began its astonishing sprint to the ranks of an economic superpower. But great wealth and glory have not translated into a renewed sense of security. If the mighty USSR crashed so suddenly and unexpectedly despite all appearances and in defiance of most predictions, could not the same thing happen to China, which shares some of the Soviet DNA? Troubled by historical analogies but determined not to repeat the sad history of Soviet demise, Xi Jinping trudges on down that familiar road of repression, surveillance, and indoctrination, a road littered with overturned carts. 

Even though they disagree about the reasons for the Soviet collapse, Putin and Xi continue to draw on legitimizing discourse of revolutionary greatness that the Soviet Union represented. As we approach another anniversary of the end of the Second World War, that shared Sino-Russian identity may well be on display again in Moscow and Beijing. But it is difficult to disconnect the “greatness” of Soviet (and Chinese) victories in WWII from deep structural flaws of the Soviet experiment. Selective recycling of Soviet legacies—those deemed sufficiently successful at least—makes one wonder whether new identities for China and Russia can be patched together from scraps of a ditched project.

1. David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (Berkeley and Washington, DC: University of California Press and Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008).

2. Владимир Путин, “Послание Федеральному Собранию Российской Федерации,” April 25, 2005, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/22931.

3. “Путин разъяснил свои слова о ‘геополитической катастрофе’ в контексте распада СССР,” ТАСС, June 27, 2019,  https://tass.ru/politika/6603347

4. 中国统计年鉴 (2017 & 2007), http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/ndsj/2018/indexch.htm, http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/ndsj/2008/indexeh.htm

5. Austin Ramzy & Chris Buckley, “‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims,” The New York Times, November 16, 2019,  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html

6. Оркен Жоямерген, “Посол Китая назвал «дезинформацией» сообщения о задержании этнических казахов в Китае,” Радио Азаттык, November 27, 2019, https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30294972.html

7. “Заседание Совета по развитию гражданского общества и правам человека,” December 10, 2019,  http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62285.

8. “Большая пресс-конференция Владимира Путина,” December 12, 2019, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62366

9. “Заседание Совета по развитию гражданского общества и правам человека,” December 10, 2019,  http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62285

10. “В Кремле не видят причин для конфликта из-за понятия ‘государствообразующий народ,’” Коммерсант, March 4, 2020, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4276441

11. “Муфтий Татарстана выступил против поправки в Конституцию о народе,” РБК, March 3, 2020, https://www.rbc.ru/politics/03/03/2020/5e5e63ce9a79472d4d8e6447

12. “В Кремле не видят причин для конфликта из-за понятия «государствообразующий народ»,” Коммерсант, March 4, 2020, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4276441.

13. “Беларусь подписала с Банком развития Китая соглашение о кредите на 3,5 млрд юаней,” Белта, December 16, 2019, https://www.belta.by/economics/view/belarus-podpisala-s-bankom-razvitija-kitaja-soglashenie-o-kredite-na-35-mlrd-juanej-372991-2019/

14. 储百亮, “习近平警告中共记取前苏联教训,” 纽约时报, February 15, 2013,  https://cn.nytimes.com/world/20130215/c15xi/.

15. “习近平:历史不可虚无,” 中国日报, November 20, 2016,  https://china.chinadaily.com.cn/2016-10/20/content_27123201.htm

16. 习近平, “推进党的建设新的伟大工程要一以贯之,” 求是, No. 19, http://www.qstheory.cn/dukan/qs/2019-10/02/c_1125068596.htm.

17. See Mark R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

18. “Инвестиционный форум ‘Россия зовёт!’” November 20, 2019, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/62073.

19. Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 423.

20. Sergey Radchenko, Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 163.

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