Second International Congress, “The Fall of the Soviet Empire”: Prospects for Transition to a Post-Soviet World.

The Inter-Continental Hotel, Geneva, Switzerland. August 13-17, 1985

Description of the Academic Conference by the Organizing Chairman, Professor Alexander Shtromas.

For the first time in the history of Western scholarship, a full four-day conference, at which over eighty papers were presented, concentrated exclusively on prospects for transformation to a post-Soviet world; for the first time, a large group of prominent scholars assembled to analyze the data established by their thorough research efforts with a view to exploring Russia’s alternative futures.

1985 Conference Predicts the Collapse of the Soviet Empire

This endeavor responded to the best traditions of creative empirical scholarship. Factual knowledge of the Soviet, or any other system, coupled with knowledge of its history, provides a reasonable basis for projecting possible behaviors of the system in different possible situations, as well as the possible impact of internal or external interventions. Such an endeavor is to be distinguished from unsubstantiable prophecies about the future, and also from the trivial, direct extrapolations of “scientific” forecasting.

It goes without saying that the organization of this conference was a formidable and, sometimes, daunting task. The participants of the academic program knew from their own experience how much opposition they had to surmount, and pressure to withstand, in order to be present at the Congress. Our thanks therefore go to the participants. Without their endurance and determination to put the scholarly value of this event above all other considerations, there would be no conference for us to chair.

Profound appreciation is due to the late Aleksis Rannit, a great poet, outstanding scholar, and a wonderful man, whose idea and dream this conference was and who, as Organizing Co-chairman, devoted his last days to making it a success.

We set for this conference an extremely ambitious task. Together with a multi-volume proceedings for publication, it laid a solid foundation stone for furthering the studies of the Soviet Union’s future and for eventually transforming these studies into a regular and institutionalized scholarly activity. We took the first, and the most difficult, step in this all-important direction.

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Two Major Themes

Thematically, the Second International Congress was divided into two major parts. The first part consisted of the First Plenary Session and Panels 1-6. They discussed the Soviet system and its ability to face up to the evolving general crisis which it is experiencing on an ever-increasing scale. The second part, consisted of the Second Plenary Session and Panels 7-12. They discussed possible critical situations which may provoke a systemic change in the Soviet Union, and the alternative system likely to emerge in the aftermath of such a change. Accordingly, one could give to each part of the conference its own brief subtitle, “The Coming Crisis” for the first part, and “The Alternative” for the second.

Both plenary sessions dealt with the Soviet system in general terms, whereas the panels explored its specific elements, such as the economy, ideology. law, multinationalism, etc.

Part I: The Coming Crisis
Panel 1: Economics and Demography

The problems of Soviet economy and economic management are central for the assessment of the stability and viability of the Soviet system. The fate of the regime largely depends on how successful it will be in coping with mounting economic as well as demographic and environmental challenges.

This panel scrutinized the current state of the Soviet economy and demography, focusing specifically on aspects such as the “second economy,” agricultural production, military needs, etc. which best exemplify the vulnerability of the Soviet economic system. The discussion centered on the measures needed to deal adequately with Soviet economic problems. Is there a “within-system” solution for these problems or are they, in the present framework, insoluble and poised to provoke, whether tackled or not, a systemic breakdown?

Panel 2: The Frictions Within the Soviet Elite

According to Plato, a polity is safe and stable as long as its elite is united, but as soon as the elite becomes divided and breaks up into conflicting factions, the polity run by that elite is doomed to failure. How united is the Soviet elite? What is the relationship between its different structural elements? How effective is the institution of nomenklatura in fulfilling its function of a device unifying the Soviet elite into a monolithic whole? These questions were discussed to establish how prone the Soviet Union is to a systemic change or, to a change of the elites.

Panel 3: Cultural and Ideological Dimensions of the Crisis

The Soviet Party-state claims that it accomplished a cultural revolution in which the “moral-political unity of the Soviet people” has been achieved and irreversibly consolidated. To what extent have the Soviet people accepted the communist ideology of the Soviet Party-state? This was the main question under the panel’s deliberations. It is a question of crucial importance since the whole legitimacy of the Soviet Party-state rests on the validity of that claim.

There were a variety of views on that subject, ranging from a qualified acceptance of the official Soviet claim about the monolithic unity of the Party and the people to its full rejection. While discussing these controversies, main attention was paid to a realistic assessment of the state of Soviet official ideology and culture and of the implications of the USSR’s authentic ideological-cultural situation for its stability.

Panel 4: Deviation and Dissent

This panel concentrated on the authentic social attitudes and orientations of individuals and certain social groups (e.g. the working class). The problems of Soviet delinquency, crime and corruption were discussed in terms of their sustaining and their destabilizing effects on the present regime. Special attention was paid to Soviet dissent. How widespread is it? How representative are the dissidents of the Soviet population? Could dissent develop into an outright political opposition, challenging the Soviet rulers?

Panel 5: The Imperial Factor

The Soviet Union is a multi-national state and, some would say, an empire in its own right. In addition, it rules over a number of formally sovereign states. The Soviets claim that, some difficulties notwithstanding, they have managed to solve the nationalism problem, achieving a state of harmony. The panel explored the validity of this claim and assessed multi-nationalism as a factor affecting the stability and viability of the Soviet Party-state.

Panel 6: The International Factor

The East-West confrontation determines the international environment in which the Soviet Union and its dependencies exist. How does this confrontation affect the Soviet Union? What risks
for its stability are involved? What policies should the West pursue with regard to Soviet stability? What are the wider implications of Sino-Soviet strife?

Panel 7: Economic and Demographic Alternatives

The work of this panel was devoted to the discussion of the possible alternative economic, demographic, and environmental policies. The potential for implementing such alternatives was assessed and the effect on the economy and society of the changes involved, evaluated.

Panel 8: Ideologies and Religions: Prospects for Pluralism in Russia

This panel attempted to discern the features of the real Russia now hidden under the mask of the Soviet communist state. What is the authentic ideological and cultural identity of the Russian nation? How would it express itself if an ideological tolerant state replaced the present Soviet communist one? Would the Russian society be able to evolve a pluralist pattern under a nationalist regime, and how discriminatory would such a regime be to the proponents of Western liberal ideas?

Panel 9: The Law: What Has To Be Abolished and What Can Be Retained

This panel’s main task was to establish the lasting value of the codes of Soviet law. The problems related to the use of Soviet law in the period of transition to a post-Soviet system, as well as to the reception of Soviet law by that system will be discussed in a general framework, and also in respect of each separate branch of Soviet law.

Panel 10: Russians and Non-Russians: Is a Consensus Possible?

The possible fate of Soviet multi-nationalism in the post-Soviet period was the subject of this panel’s examination. What use would the different nations of the USSR make of their right to self-determination? What are the prospects that they could use this right in the first place? The panel paid special attention to the problems of the relations between Russians and non-Russians. Relations between certain non-Russian nations of the USSR were considered. The areas of potential conflicts were reviewed and the possibility of resolution of these conflicts explored. The specific problems of accommodating Russia’s Jewish minority were a sepaate important area of the panel’s discussions.

Panel 11: Alternatives for Soviet Dependencies in Eastern Europe and Elsewhere

Political change in the Soviet Union has a profound impact on the present world order. In the first place, it will affect Soviet dependencies. This panel considered the implications of political change in the Soviet Union for other communist countries. The discussion was conducted on a region-to-region basis, although, in certain cases, it concentrated on separate countries. One country singled out for special discussion was Poland.

Panel 12: New Russia and the World

What would the post-Soviet world be like? How would the new Russia accommodate herself in the world order? How would the present pattern of East-West and Sino-Soviet relations change? The panel considered these questions with a view to evolving a vision of an alternative world order and determining whether it will be more stable and peaceful than the present one.

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