In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Like the proverbial sorcerer’s apprentice who unleashed an enchantment he cannot control, the (last, as it turned out) Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev had begun a series reforms in 1986 that ultimately resulted in the dismantling of the Soviet state. In 1989, the communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc crumbled as it became clear that the USSR would not intervene militarily to prop them up as it had in the past. Nationalist independence movements exploded across the USSR and, finally, the entire system fell apart to be replaced by sovereign nations. In 1991, Russia itself reemerged as a distinct country in the process rather than just the most powerful part of a larger union.
In 1992, following the Soviet collapse, the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama published a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. Put briefly, The End of History’s central argument is that humanity was entering into a new stage in which the essential political and economic questions of the past had been resolved. Henceforth, market capitalism and liberal democracy would be conjoined in a symbiotic relationship. Human rights would be guaranteed by the political system that also provided the legal framework for a prosperous capitalist economy. All of the alternatives had already been tried and had failed, after all, from the old order of monarchy and nobility to modern fascism and, as of 1991, Soviet communism. Thus, former dictatorships would (if they had not already) join the fold of American-style democracy and capitalism soon enough.
As it turned out, Fukuyama’s predictions were true for some of the former members of the Eastern Bloc: East and West Germany were reunited, and the countries of Eastern Europe in general, from Romania to newly-independent and separate Slovakia and the Czech Republic, elected democratic governments and sought to join the capitalist western economies. So, too, did Russia initially, although almost immediately its economy foundered in the face of the “shock therapy” led by western advisors: the rapid imposition of a market economy and the dismantling of the social safety net that had been the one meaningful benefit of the former Soviet system for ordinary citizens.
In the long run, however, countries all over the globe in the post-Soviet era were as likely to embrace an economic and political system unanticipated by Fukuyama in 1992: authoritarian capitalism. To the surprise of many at the time, there is nothing about market economics that requires a democratic government. So long as an authoritarian state was willing to oversee the legal framework, and occasional economic interventions, necessary for capitalism to function, a capitalist economy could thrive despite the absence of civil and political rights. This pattern was (and remains) true even of those states that remain nominally “communist,” the People’s Republic of China most importantly. Likewise, starting with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, Russia would soon adopt the model of authoritarian capitalism, with a single political party controlling the state and exercising enormous influence, if not outright control, of the press.
Meanwhile, in the countries of central and western Europe in which battles over economics and politics had finally been resolved in favor of the democracy/capitalism hybrid in the postwar era, social and cultural problems developed by the 1970s that remain largely unresolved in the present.
Thumbnail: Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. (CC BY 2.0; Michael Foran via Wikipedia)