Russian Communist party supporters march in support of Stalin (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

December 30, 2022   7 mins

Even if you care nothing for ballet, the very name of the Bolshoi Theatre carries a romance and glamour unmatched by any other theatre in the world. The company was founded under Catherine the Great, and first held performances in a private home before its famous white neoclassical building was opened in 1825. But it was under the Soviet Union that its international prestige reached its greatest height, as it became a touring advertisement for the virtues of the Communist system. When the Bolshoi first visited London in 1956, the excitement was such that people began queuing three days before the ticket office even opened. Three years later, when the company visited New York, touts were reportedly selling tickets for $1,200 in today’s money. Not even the Wolverhampton Grand can compete with that.

At the time, the Bolshoi’s relationship with the Soviet authorities made perfect sense. The two had been intertwined from the very first moments of the state’s existence, for it was in the main hall of the Bolshoi Theatre, on 30th December 1922, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was unveiled to the world. Most people find this slightly surprising, because we assume that the Soviet Union must have been proclaimed immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, it only came into existence after a horrendous civil war that killed an estimated 10 million people, in which the deep national and ethnic tensions inside the old Russian Empire had been laid bare for all to see.

Even for people as ruthless and fanatical as Lenin and Stalin, putting this fragmented mosaic back together was no easy undertaking. It took weeks of negotiations before the 2,000 delegates at the theatre agreed a new treaty, and not everybody was happy with the outcome. Stalin — ironically, a Georgian — wanted to see the other republics absorbed into a Greater Russia. Lenin — ironically, a Russian — insisted that their new state should respect the national autonomy of the Ukrainians, the Belarusians and the Transcaucasians. For the time being, it was Lenin who got his way, and the republics were even given the right of secession. At the time, nobody seriously imagined they would ever get to exercise it. But as one well-known Russian history enthusiast recently remarked, the Bolsheviks had “planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb”. That history buff’s name, of course, was Vladimir Putin.

A century after its foundation and more than three decades after its collapse, the Soviet Union still casts a baleful shadow. In some ways it was the defining state of the 20th century. A beacon to Marxists and a bogeyman to everybody else, it became Hitler’s ideological arch-enemy, then his blood-soaked partner and finally his blood-soaked victim, before its troops bludgeoned their way into Berlin and brought his regime crashing down. Meanwhile, its admirers included some of the cleverest people on the planet, such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, whose pilgrimages to Moscow ought to have demolished forever the idea that literary types have the slightest atom of political wisdom. The high-minded British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb even hailed it as a “new civilisation”, a land of milk and honey, with fair shares for all and not the slightest hint of a genocidal famine.

For most people, though, the Soviet Union remained the supreme antagonist, the Great Satan of the Western cosmos. Winston Churchill might have been rude about Indians, but he was dead right about the Soviet Union. It was, he told a crowd in Edinburgh in 1924, “one of the worst tyrannies that has ever existed in the world. It accords no political rights. It rules by terror. It punishes political opinions. It suppresses free speech. It tolerates no newspapers but its own. It persecutes Christianity with a zeal and a cunning never equalled since the times of the Roman Emperors.” And throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union remained a kind of moral barometer, an object lesson in fanatical utopianism and a terrible warning about what happens when you hand power to people who dream big and implausible dreams about a better world. Addressing an evangelical conference in March 1983, Ronald Reagan infamously called it an “evil empire”, run by people who “preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth”. His critics accused him of dangerous exaggeration. But you don’t have to read too deeply in Soviet history — the shootings, the famines, the Terror; the paranoid conspiracies, the psychiatric wards, the suffocating, all-consuming fear and conformity — to think that Reagan was on to something.

Tasteless though it might be to admit it, however, there was also something oddly reassuring about the Soviet Union. The longer it endured, and the more obvious its failings became, the more it emphasised the virtues of the capitalist model. When the Western democracies ran into trouble in the mid-Seventies — crippled, then as now, by surging energy prices, high inflation and a pervasive sense of political breakdown — their voters could console themselves that at least they weren’t living in Leningrad. And when the Olympics were held in Moscow in 1980 — an event that made the World Cup in Qatar look like a celebration of freedom and human rights — many Western visitors were astonished at how drab and dreary everything was.

Outraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had ordered the Americans to stay away, arguing that the games would only be a propaganda coup for the Kremlin. But he was wrong. As the British embassy reported to London, the atmosphere was “singularly joyless. The continuous rain has not helped. Nor has the fact that Moscow is still half-empty.” The police had blocked major routes into the city, while foreign visitors were easily outnumbered by men in uniform. Plain-clothes policemen were everywhere: to get into their hotel for dinner, journalists had to spend at least half an hour filling in forms. To cap it all, the embassy reported, “the oppressive feeling of the city is increased by the virtual absence of children”, since thousands of families had been deported to the countryside for the duration. So much, then, for the Webbs’ new civilisation.

If you had told people then, in the summer of 1980, that the Soviet Union would be gone in just 11 years, I doubt many would have believed you. As late as March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the USSR seemed an unshakeable fixture of the international landscape. But we all know what happened next. Vladimir Putin called its demise a “genuine tragedy” and “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Very few people outside Russia, I imagine, would agree with that verdict. Even so, we’re still struggling with the consequences today.

For me, reflecting on the collapse of the USSR amid the headlines about the carnage in Ukraine, the most striking thing is simply that we think about it so little. The disintegration of a trans-continental union into 15 different nation-states, the destruction of the Marxist fantasy of an egalitarian paradise, the implosion of the centuries-old Russian dream of a vast empire from the shores of the Baltic to the mountains of Central Asia — this was a gigantic geopolitical turning point, more transformative, more seismic than the collapse of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern Empires at the end of the First World War.

Yet it’s telling that in the West, the man who presided over this extraordinary collapse, Mikhail Gorbachev, is remembered as a kind of martyr, even a saint. The second line of the Guardian’s obituary when he died in August, for example, tells us that “almost singlehandedly he brought an end to 40 years of east-west confrontation in Europe and liberated the world from the danger of nuclear conflagration”. All this is true, and the obituary also observes, quite rightly, that Gorbachev was a man of impressive dignity and decency, whose reluctance to use violence (with a few well-known exceptions, such as in Lithuania) made for a stark contrast with his more ruthless predecessors.

And yet, if you changed the names — if Gorbachev had been a Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman Emperor, the master of some sprawling medieval kingdom or the dominant statesman in some modern Western power — it’s hard to imagine the historical verdict being so tolerant. His defenders insist that without his reforms, the Soviet Union would have died anyway. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. Either way, the fact is that in just six years, Gorbachev contrived to bring about the last thing he would have wanted when he took over in 1985 — the total collapse not just of his predecessors’ ideological vision, but of the entire Soviet state itself. It’s not surprising that we in the West thanked him for it. But is it any wonder that so few Russians remember him fondly?

This autumn, while the news was full of Ukrainians celebrating the liberation of Kherson, I watched Adam Curtis’s series Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone, an utterly addictive montage of BBC footage from the last years of the Soviet Union and the chaotic Nineties, Russia’s Weimar decade. It captures, better than any book I’ve ever read, the anguish and bewilderment of millions of ordinary people as their assumptions completely fell apart, and as the shops emptied of goods, the cupboards were stripped bare of food, criminals roamed the streets and shiny-suited entrepreneurs looted the industries and utilities on which they had long relied. It’s also a reminder that while we in the West were whipping ourselves into a frenzy about Monica Lewinsky and the chart battle between Blur and Oasis, tens of thousands of people were dying, every year, in the ruins of the Soviet empire. Perhaps 100,000 in the first Chechen war, another 50,000 in the second, another 100,000 or so in Tajikistan
 and all this long before the Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Crimea or eastern Ukraine.

Would the world have been better off if the Soviet Union had never fallen? That almost certainly seems a monstrous thing to say, not least because it probably would have meant condemning countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia to three more decades of imperial bondage. Perhaps there’s a parallel universe, though, in which a more conservative figure like Yegor Ligachev became General Secretary instead of Gorbachev in 1985, and a stagnant, sclerotic USSR stumbled miserably through the next decade before reviving on the back of higher gas and oil prices in the early 21st century. Or perhaps there’s another universe in which Gorbachev proceeded much more slowly and cautiously with his reforms, allowing the Baltic states to secede but persuading the other republics to accept a much looser federation, more Leninist than Stalinist.

Or perhaps things in both those universes would have ended even more horribly than in our own. Perhaps, as the defenders of Gorbachev and Yeltsin argue, the inevitable economic meltdown would have been even worse. Perhaps even more people would have died, and there would have been more crime, more chaos and more conflict. Or perhaps they’re wrong, and the world we have is the worst of all possible worlds.

The truth, of course, is that we’ll never know for sure, and anybody who claims that he does know is a fool. History is messy, and there’s no shame in admitting it. And if somebody tells you that it’s easy — that they know which direction it’s heading in, and they’ve found the secret formula by which human affairs are governed — then you need merely point to those people gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre on 30th December 1922. They knew for sure, because they were certain that history was on their side. We all know what happened next.

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982