When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he understood that the authoritarian repressive state and overly centralized planning system were responsible for the mulitplying economic and social problems afflicting the country. He believed that the solution lay in the trilogy of glasnost (openness), democratization, and economic reform, which he argued would bring out the full potential of socialism to liberate human beings.
However, navigating such a major transformation was bound to be very difficult. Instead of the reform of socialism, that process ushered in a rapid transition to a retrograde form of capitalism and the dismantling of the Soviet state.
The Soviet state did not “collapse” or “disintegrate.” It was taken apart by former high level Communist Party official Boris Yeltsin, whose drive for state power required separating Russia, where his power base was located, from the Soviet Union. Despite 76.4% support for retaining the union state in a March 1991 referendum held in 9 of the 15 Soviet republics representing 93% of the Soviet population, Yeltsin enlisted the Communist Party leaders of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian republics in dismantling the USSR in December 1991.
Yeltsin’s base of support was a powerful coalition of groups that favored a transition to capitalism, not the reform of socialism. That coalition included a majority of the high level party and state officials, who saw an opportunity for personal enrichment from a move to capitalism. Multiple public opinion surveys showed that a majority of Soviet citizens opposed capitalism, but they were unable to stop the process.
The much lamented reversal of democratic reform in post-Soviet Russia under Putin actually began in the eight years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. The adoption of the “shock therapy” rapid privatization and marketization, promoted by advisors from the US, the IMF, and the World Bank, destroyed Russia’s industrialized economy. Russia became dependent on the export of fossil fuels and metals, which were seized by a class of oligarchs, while the majority were impoverished and lost their social rights. Democracy and individual rights cannot survive in a country with an oligarchic capitalism and extreme inequality.