This week I continue my conversation with former KGB Lt. Col. Victor Kalashnikov, who was kind enough to outline the untold story of the Soviet Union's collapse. Kalashnikov was a KGB analyst who worked in Austria during the events of 1989-1991. The fall of the Soviet Union, he says, was an event that has been widely misrepresented and misunderstood. "We are going to mark the 20th anniversary of that event this year," he noted. "I happened to be a witness, and I will comment, from memory, what I experienced; how the authorities acted, and how they reacted. There is a widespread opinion that economic problems were the main cause of the USSR breakdown, that economic problems led to Gorbachev's reforms. My counter-arguments are: (1) the USSR was a society run by people with particular interests and motives; (2) these people were perfectly happy with the economic arrangement of the Soviet Union."
Kalashnikov pointed to the southern Russian city of Tagonrog, where his uncle Alexei was the head of the city's KGB. "I have visited him and his family various times in the sixties and seventies," said Kalashnikov. "My uncle, who was a KGB general, occupied the best flat in this nice southern city. He had two Volga cars, and one from the KGB with a driver, for traveling. I remember at the time how people brought huge quantities of delicacies into my uncle's flat. He had a huge villa on the Black Sea shore. Moreoever, he together with his Party colleagues, had an airplane at their disposal, an old lend lease plane, so they could fly to Moscow for shopping. They also made European tours through the Mediterranean. Summarizing all that, my uncle had no economic problem in the old Soviet Union. Most sections of the Soviet nomenklatura [ruling class], lived an upper middle class average existence. Today many of them live much higher, of course. But in the 1980s they were not motivated to change anything radically at all. That is my point."
While the ruling elite lived comfortably, the people of the Soviet Union lived miserably. According to Kalashnikov, "Marina and myself made very expensive trips through the USSR as researchers, together with other researchers and students from our university. In 1980 or 81 we visited the Urals. Let me tell you, frankly, I visited hundreds of industrial enterprises and farms, city governments and hotels, and villages, and there was practically no food in the stores because everything was distributed through a sophisticated system by the population. The shelves in the stores were empty. There was one type of canned beans, a few staples, and nothing else. Now, in summer time, the water was hardly drinkable at all. The smell was horrible. The living condition of the vast majority of people was absolutely miserable. The nomenklatura lived well, but up to 90 percent of the people lived in squalor. The housing for normal citizens was desperate to catastrophic. Yes, indeed, the Russian people were facing very severe problems, it is true. But so what? The economic situation of the people had no impact on the stability of the regime. Was there any danger of a revolt? Absolutely not. After Stalin's terror, the rulers knew how to block dissent, how to put people in jail. They had the gulag [prison camp system]. There was, of course, no labor movement. It was absolutely quiet, and this was normal. There was a sort of joke told at the time: 'What is the Polish Solidarity [union]? When there is no food in Sverdlovsk they go on strike in Gdansk.' The situation was absolutely horrible in Russia, but they strike in Poland. This is the Russian sarcastic form of humor. To evaluate this development in point of view of general economic problems, if you look at social groups, we easily may discover that there was no political or social unrest from the population. In the Urals, for example, everything was okay. Gorbachev could have governed in the same way for another 20 years. So why did everything change? I do not believe the economic problems were the major cause of the Gorbachev changes."
Kalashnikov makes an excellent point. Furthermore, we know from the writings of Soviet Bloc defectors (like Jan Sejna and Anatoliy Golitsyn) that a change in the Communist system was contemplated long before the 1980s. This change was envisioned as part of a long-range strategy. The immediate occasion for reverting to this strategy, according to Kalashnikov, was Ronald Reagan. "Not only him personally," explained Kalashnikov, "but his administration, his policy, his strategy and that of NATO. In the early and mid 80s I was in the Analytic Department of the KGB, and there was concern about military-political pressure from the West, from the Americans especially. There was competition in space, the oceans and in the military area. To assess all this properly, you have to look at events in the early 70s. What I mean is, of course, the war in Vietnam. Moscow drew a simple conclusion from that war. The conclusion of the Soviet General Staff was that the Americans could be defeated on the battlefield without recourse to nuclear arms. For that we only needed a Third World country, armed and trained by ourselves, and a good proletarian party with a strong leader. To gain such countries, the Soviet Union embarked on a worldwide expansion under the policy of détente [or разрядка]. The Soviets intervened in Africa, taking over Angola and Mozambique, and they involved themselves in Nicaragua. There was a successful global offensive, with some setbacks. This occurred at a time of general American weakness, due to the support we had from leftists and pacifists. I had access to General Staff reports from 1984, with operational military assessments. These included the effects of mass demonstrations on American military and rocket bases. The Soviets continued in this way until something changed quite unexpectedly for us."
As Kalashnikov explained, President Ronald Reagan had begun putting military pressure on the Soviet Union during his first term. Reagan proposed the construction of anti-ballistic missile defenses for America (the Strategic Defense Initiative). He oversaw an increase in the size of the U.S. Army and Navy. There were qualitative and technological improvements to American forces as well. Were the Americans bluffing? Was the period of U.S. weakness at an end? Then, in 1986, Arab terrorists struck a discotheque in Germany. "This was carried out by Libyans with help from the East German Stasi," said Kalashnikov. "Three people were killed, including American servicemen, and 200 wounded. Some days after that, American aircraft bombed Libya. It was a massive military response, which was serious. My superiors evaluated the situation carefully, and I was at several meetings. Just one attack on a disco, and the Americans sent in bombers. There would be no joking with Ronald Reagan or his people. This episode showed that the Soviet strategy of applying pressure on the West had reached its limit. We must now think things over. My bosses were upset and concerned about the American behavior. It was one of those crucial events, along with other indications of growing will on the Western side to contain the Soviet offensive, and to launch strategic counter-attacks wherever possible, with no serious compromises."
Since the Soviet Union had begun pushing into Africa, into Afghanistan, and into Central America, the American's felt obliged to firm up their defenses. From the Soviet strategic vantage-point, there was nothing further to be gotten from direct expansion. A reversion to another strategic model, long held in reserve, was to begin. The new strategy would employ diplomacy. "It's about the idea of launching the common European house," said Kalashnikov, "allowing the Germans to unify so that they would ask the Americans to go home, and they would pay off Moscow and transfer technologies to the USSR, etc. I know that the German unification was a scheme to produce a favorable outcome for the Kremlin, because pro-Soviet forces would come to power in Germany, mainly from the Left. We were confident of this. The main goal was to drive the Americans from Europe. If we succeeded, in that case, with destabilizing NATO, we would have more options from our fellow Europeans. In the first stage of this so-called German-Soviet condominium, the fate of Czechoslovakia and Poland was unimportant because the framework was ours. We were working with the Germans directly. It was all in the spirit of the Rapallo Treaty , or the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The slogan was, 'The Americans out, the Soviets in, the Germans up.' What happened next, however, was not expected. The unification of Germany was carried out very rapidly, in a few months. Nobody expected this. In the course of 1990 the Soviet armed forces, which were intended to occupy Western Europe, found themselves sitting on NATO territory. There was no option for keeping this force in Germany. So the Russians were placed in an impossible situation. The Soviet forces had to leave. The process of that massive retreat had a huge impact on the Soviet Union. The Soviet machine was a massive military industrial monster. So the withdrawal of Soviet armies from Europe meant that the system was largely destabilized. It meant that a ripple effect was felt throughout the Urals [i.e., military industry]. The entire enforcement apparatus went out of balance. The situation dictated an abrupt change of domestic policy. In August 91 conservative forces supposedly took over in a coup. Gorbachev arranged this himself because he felt cheated in Europe. At the same time they engaged Saddam Hussein to occupy Kuwait, and Saddam started to threaten Saudi Arabia. Bush senior was clever enough not to engage too deep in Iraq at that time, while Moscow became an indispensible partner for the West in the United Nations Security Council. Later, the 9/11 catastrophe was necessary to lure America's military might into Afghanistan and Iraq. That made Washington even more dependent on Moscow, and that is the strategic situation of today. What happened in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR, was due to the escalation of a political crisis in Ukraine. This was a huge and important part of the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainians continued to offer resistance, leading to serious discontent and opposition. And I know from Ukrainian KGB people that they worried all the time that something was going on; and if they lost control, there would be serious trouble for Moscow itself. That's why the Ukrainian KGB was even more cruel and stubborn than it was in Russia. In our conversations, when they came to Lubyanka to various meetings, we expressed our criticism of their harshness, and their various scandals. They would reply, 'You have no idea how dangerous and difficult the situation is in Ukraine.' So when the Soviet military and Soviet forces suffered the shock of withdrawal from Europe, the activists in Ukraine organized a revolt. The Ukrainians were ready for armed resistance. They also had units within the Soviet armed forces. We were warned of this, that it was serious and reality-based. The leadership in Kiev kept calling Moscow for help, for any kind of support. But Moscow was unable to help, because it was engaged with Germany and NATO. So it was absolutely impossible to mobilize units to suppress the Ukrainian resistance. That was the real problem. As Ukraine got its independence, the national democrats came to power there, and the Soviet Union was done. This was clear to everyone. Without Ukraine, the USSR was a fiction. The political influence of Ukraine spread in all directions. It spread to Russia, infected the Russian democrats. Ukraine became a major stumbling block for the Soviet elite."
But all was not lost for the KGB or the Communist elite. Decades earlier, Soviet planners had looked ahead to a time when a reform of the Soviet system would be necessary. In a book published in 1984, KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn wrote about a secret Soviet plan to do away with Communist Party dominance. This, he said, would be a deception. The Communist Party would still exist underneath the surface. It would merely go underground, or break into various new parties that would control the Russian political process according to a script. In facing the crisis, Kalashnikov noted the Kremlin's agility: "Moscow managed to regroup itself, to recuperate, by launching Islamist forces. In this way they kept Soviet legitimacy. This is extremely important to understand. In diplomatic terms, the Russian Federation is the Soviet Union of today. It has all the prerequisites, with the Security Council, central structures, etc. And it retains the status of nuclear superpower. Back in 1991 we were told, 'Listen comrade, it is a defeat for us. But it is a temporary setback.' The Soviet Union never accepted defeat in the Cold War, not for a minute. There was not even a temporary break in the policy from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin. We have been reorganizing and will be back on track. You may remember the removal of the Dzerzhinsky monument from in front of KGB headquarters. Now let me describe the reaction in our ranks, in our residencies. When we saw what happened in Moscow, there was a general sigh of relief. We knew that someone had masterfully distracted the crowd in front of our headquarters to that poor Dzerzhinsky monument, so our premises remained untouched. That was a huge difference from what happened in East Berlin. We immediately realized that the leaders and organizers of that crowd were KGB assets, our agents. The fall of Dzerzhinsky's statue was arranged by the KGB. It was ultimately a fake event."
And what was the attitude of the KGB's top leadership at the time? "In October of 91 I went to Moscow to meet with Gen. Victor Ivanenko, who was the person commanding the security of the KGB. He wanted to see me to discuss the situation of the money of the Communist Party and KGB. Austria, where I worked for the KGB, was central to the international business of the Soviet Communist Party. In Austria we had several banks under our control, and the general directors were KGB officers; that is, in capitalist Austria. The Russian presence in Austria was overwhelming. My point in telling about my visit with Gen. Ivanenko was that the KGB elite showed no nervousness or bad feelings about what happened. They were just rearranging their business according to a new situation. In Vienna itself, the Communist Party boss changed his suit and became a capitalist."
The turn to capitalism in Russia was not an honest turn to freedom. The privatization of the Soviet Union merely signified the transfer of state property into the hands of the nomenklatura. According to Kalashnikov, "In plain words, they started a process of transferring national wealth, factories, resources, etc., for nothing, into the hands of the Soviet elite, and trusted persons. In Russia, the nomenklatura took everything for themselves. They were not preoccupied with limiting themselves with laws, norms, or institutions of any kind."
This was the formula for controlled capitalism in Russia. In this manner, explained Kalashnikov, the Russian Communists used the process of "privatization" to make themselves into a business class that could make deals with the West. "The Russians," he said, "needed to gain legal status for their companies in the West. So again, the Russians are putting the West in a dire strategic position, because of al Qaeda, because of a new dependence on Russian gas and oil, because sections of the Western business community are collaborating with Russia in commercial ventures; and this will allow Moscow to expand its military-political endeavors across the globe. Russia today has resources it could only dream of during the Cold War. They need not spy on British Petroleum, since they are helping British Petroleum. The same is true of the Western media, finance, etc., etc. The field of intelligence has changed, and different tactics are being used. So the nature of spying has changed. It is not less than before, but even more intense."
This is how a new threat emerges from the old threat. To quote KGB Major Anatoliy Golitsyn, it is a case of "new lies for old."