Sunday, 25 October 2015

USSR - An Alternate 90s

Capitalist USSR

My first forays into Youtube was simply to upload videos of trains (for the benefit of my brother, who happens to love trains), and this basically continued for a while until I discovered a channel called The Alternate History Hub. Okay, to be honest with you, I had watched some videos, usually some of the older movies and the BBC Shakespeare episodes that were available (and I did try a couple of cat videos, but to be honest with you I really don't like watching videos of cats being cats, because cats being cats are so much better in real life, and as for trains and trams, well I basically uploaded them as opposed to watching videos of them, well, usually). Anyway, it was through the Alternate History Hub that I really began to discover some of the many, short, wonders that Youtube had to offer (and in fact I ended up spending an hour today watching some of these short clips).

Alternate History
While I prefer the term Counter-factual history, wikipedia seems to think that it differs from alternate history in that it tends to refer to a much more thoroughly researched form conducted by academics. However, Alternate History is also described in the same article as a genre of fiction. As such what the Alternate History Hub produces, and what I am writing here is not so much fiction, but an analysis of what 'might have happened if ...' so it is more counter-factual history than the former.

I do find counter-factual history interesting, probably because I love history, and consider myself a amateur historian (despite the fact that I do have a university degree), however the few books that I have read on the topic I have found quite boring. Not so much the product of the Alternate History Hub though, but then again they make videos, and their videos can be quite entertaining. 

The thing about counter-factual history is not so much speculating on what might have happened, but rather using a counter-factual scenario to understand how the particular event had an impact upon the world that we know today. As such I believe counter-factual history actually plays an important role within the discipline. However, I don't want to say too much more on this topic but rather move on to the post itself.

What if the USSR did not collapse
The Alternate History Hub is always encouraging us to leave comments on their channel, however after I watched their video on the collapse of the USSR and their scenario on how things might have turned out differently I felt a blog post was more appropriate. Before I continue, I probably should let you watch the video first.

Reason for the collapse
The first thing that we must consider when looking at a counter-factual situation is understanding why the event occurred in the first place. Okay, there are a lot of speculations as to why the USSR collapsed, including Russia blowing all of their money on defeating Regan's mythical Star Wars program (though I have always argued that Russia had already solved that problem by building a shuttle fleet, and even then they could have easily avoided it by nuking America directly from space, of which they always had the capacity).

GorbachevAnyway, the collapse of the Soviet Union came down to two factors: Gorbachev's reforms and economic stagnation, both of which I will look at:
  1.  Gorbachev's reforms: The major reforms are Perestroika and Glastnost, both of which were social reforms. Perestroika gave greater autonomy to the Soviet Republics while Glastnost gave greater freedoms to the Russian people. These freedoms not only included the release of political prisoners, but also greater freedom of speech for the population and greater freedom of the press for the media. With both of these reforms in place, and the economic stagnation that the Soviet Union faced, the decline and fall was inevitable. 
  1. Economic Stagnation: While communism was great in theory, unfortunately it did not take into account human nature. The problem that the Soviet Union faced was that by giving everybody the basic necessities of life meant that there was no incentive to work. If a tractor on a farm failed to work there was no incentive to get it fixed because the state would give you a new one, and there was no incentive to even use that tractor because, well, you were going to get housed, clothed, and fed anyway. As such people simply did not work, or if they did, they didn't work hard, so you ended up getting food shortages, and the infamous breadlines.
Soviet Bread LinesSure, they had lost the war in Afghanistan, and they also had an economic crisis, but America had faced these two problems in the 60s and 70s as well. However, it was the introduction of Gorbachev's social reforms that spurred on the collapse of the empire, which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, what if the Soviet Union hadn't have collapsed? What would have prevented this collapse, and how would have the world turned out differently.

Well, I don't wish to repeat everything that The Alternate History Hub has said - in fact I am proposing a different scenario, however I will touch upon what they did explore simply because that could have been one of the possibilities. Basically, when Gorbachev began to flag his reforms, the Communist Hardliners knew that this was going to be a very, very bad idea, and quickly moved in to replace him. From that point they began to crack down even harsher on any form of dissent, and the result of that crackdown was explored in the video above.

Economic Reform
So, in my counter-factual scenario Gorbachev wasn't removed, nor did he implement Perestroika or Glastnost. However, let us consider what did happen in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Well, we all know that many of the communist states in Eastern Europe became independent, and the Russian borders retreated to where they are today. The capitalists quickly moved in and bought up all of the state run enterprises as bargain basement prices, and war erupted in Chechnya as they also attempted to break away. In the Balkans the former Yugoslav republic literally disintegrated into chaos resulting in a decade long war that ended with NATO intervention.

However, let us not forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union also had an impact upon the other side of the Eurasian continent: China. As communism was disintegrating in the West, China was facing its own problems with a population that was also becoming very agitated at their lack of freedom and the oppression of the communist state. This culminated in a mass student protest at Tianamin Square in Beijing, which was brutally crushed by the Communist Regime, and led to one of the iconic images of the 20th centuries: a lone man standing up to a column of tanks, who has since affectionately come to be known (at least in the West) as Tank Man.

In response to the collapse of their communist brothers in the West (though brother's makes it sound as if they were closer than they really were) China decided to enact their own reforms. However, they had learnt from Gorbachev's mistake, and did not go down the road of giving people greater freedom of speech, or loosening controls over the press, but rather they introduced economic reforms which resulted in them becoming the economic powerhouse that we known today.

The Counter-factual Scenario
Let us suggest that there were three possible scenarios that the Soviet Union faced in the mid-eighties: 1) the reforms that Gorbachev enacted that eventually led to the collapse; 2) a hard-line response as outlined by the Alternate History Hub and; 3) a decision to reform the Soviet Union economically. My proposition is that instead of going down the path of social reform Gorbachev and the politburo decided instead that they would reform the Soviet Union economically much in the same way that China enacted reforms heading into the 1990s.

Radio Free EuropeOne of the issues that the Soviet Union was facing during the Cold War was propaganda being broadcast from Western Europe, and while they might have had controls over the media with the Eastern Bloc, they had little control over what came in by the airwaves from the West. Western goods were also being smuggled into the Eastern Bloc where they were being sold on the Black Market. I remember once speaking to an East German who grew up in the Eighties and she would tell me how plastic bags, the ones that we simply can't seem to get rid off, were a highly sought after, and if you happened to own one then you would be highly envied by your peers. So while Gorbachev would not have necessarily changed these things immediately, they would have been in the radar.

We also need to consider what occurred during the early days of the communist revolution. Back in 1918-1919, Lenin has attempted to implement radical reforms to create a collectivist state, however it quickly came about that this simply was not going to work. Granted, Lenin has other problems at the time, such as the civil war, and that many of the factory workers had fled to the country due to famine and lack of work in the cities. Russian infrastructure had also been destroyed after years of war - first World War I, and then the Russian Civil War. It was clear that the original ideas were simply not going to work, so instead he introduced what he called 'State Capitalism' or 'The New Economic Policy'. This policy resulted in a mixed economy consisting of both state and private industry.

So, with these ideas in mind, let us then begin to explore out alternate scenario.

Agricultural Reforms
So, while the collective farms weren't necessarily dismantled, the politburo's first steps towards reforms went through the agricultural sector, which included paying the farmers based on the amount of goods the farms produced. By introducing this incentive within a couple of years output from the agricultural sectors increased dramatically. However there was still the problem of machinery because there were an awful lot of tractors sitting idle, and the farmers were claiming that to be able to produce crops they needed tractors. Gorbachev responded by suggesting that if they needed machinery then they had to purchase it, though the government would be willing to issue loans if the machinery needed to be repaired of replaced, which would be paid back from any income produced at a later date. At first the farming community requested new tractors, but a number of them realised that since they weren't being given the machinery, but rather taking out loans, they realised that they could get ahead by repairing the machinery that they already had, which over the next few years resulted in a number of the collective farms (payment was made on a profit sharing arrangement where the more industrious members of the community would be entitled to greater shares of the profits) becoming quite prosperous.

Soviet Farm

Mechanics would be paid based on the work that they did, and with machinery that was not repairable the government would buy it back off of the farmers. As for general maintenance around the farm, once again payment would be made based on work done as opposed to simply being a set wage, and payment would not come from the government but from the resources available in the collective (and if there were no resources then loans would be made available).

These reforms moved into the industrial sector as well, with factories being paid based upon their output, however that would be restricted based upon need. A factory simply could not expect to continue churning out tractors and expect the government to purchase them because the government wasn't doing the purchasing, the end user was. There was also a question of quality. If the factory wasn't producing quality goods then they would expect two things: they would have to rectify any faults due to production at their own cost, and the end user would end up looking elsewhere for better quality goods.

Tractor Factory

Mind you, this didn't did all happen in a vacuum, the Soviet government had sent people out into the west to visit governments and academics to discuss the best methods of economic reform. While in the west we were seeing the implementation of the theories that came of the Chicago School of Economics, the Russians were more interested in the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, so these academics, who were currently being sidelined by more fundamentalist capitalists, were approached to offer advice. Further, a number of left-of-centre economists were also approached to discuss their concepts.

Property Ownership and Banking
With these new reforms in place, the economy begins to chug back to life, and the shelves slowly begin to fill up again with produce. Money begins to move through the system, and the workers begin to find that they have something that they did not have before - disposable income. The problem is, other than the basic commodities, the workers don't actually have all that much to spend their money on, and there isn't a real banking infrastructure for the workers to store their money. During this time the government is moving through some further reforms, having brought a number of Western academics on board (some of them who had been quite keen due to a lack interest in their ideas out west).

The next stage, which begins in the late Eighties, is to create a system of private land ownership. Since the workers now have a disposable income, the government slowly begins to introduce policies regarding rent and home ownership. The occupants of mostly state housing are given the option of either paying rent to the newly formed housing commission, or to purchase the house through a system of loans. Many decide to take the second option. While many lived in small apartments, as the economy began to grow, the option to purchase larger dwellings became available.

Soviet Housing

The Soviet government also began to establish a banking sector, but like China of today, they didn't create a single bank, but rather four banks (the Soviet Agricultural Bank, the Soviet Merchantile Bank, the Workers Bank of Russia, and the Investment Bank of the Soviet Union) that would eventually end up competing with each other - as such the seeds of competition were being planted.

Along with that each of the republics, and regions, were also given the ability to establish their own banks as well. Once these banks had been established, the Soviet government then proceeds to sell its loan books and passes the authority to issue debt to the banks, who then eventually use their own capital. While the boards are still made up of government officials, the banks are also given independence.

It is at this stage that the Soviets also begin to engage the west economically and members of the Politburo begin to engage the United States and Western European governments to discuss opportunities for investment. The Russians, whose coffers are beginning to grow, seek opportunities to invest abroad, while discussing arrangements from Western companies to invest within Russia. However we are beginning to get a little ahead of ourselves here, so let us move onto the next topic - the Soviet Satellite states.

Reform Sweeps the Eastern Bloc
Many of the Eastern Bloc nations were pretty much ruled from Moscow, so the reforms enacted within Moscow also applied to many (but not all) of the countries in the Eastern Bloc. As the success of Gorbachev's economic policy became evident in the Soviet Union, similar reforms were enacted in the neighbouring countries. While these countries were much slower to grow economically than the other Soviet Republics, by the mid-nineties we begin to see economic turn-arounds here as well. Yugoslavia does not collapse as it did in our time-line, however it still remains one of the more backward areas of the block, as does Bulgaria. However in countries such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland, we begin to see a change in their circumstances. However Berlin and Germany still remain divided.

The revolt in Tianamien Square does not occur, since the Soviet Bloc did not collapse. There are still rumbles of discontent, however these are quickly crushed, and the decision to free up the economy in China does not occur, which results in China remaining pretty much a backward country. Without the collapse of communism, Sadam Hussein is still able to play both superpowers off against each other, however the economic reforms to lead to a thawing in relationships. Further, Sadam is not encouraged to invade Kuwait, and the Gulf War never happens. As a result Osama Bin Laden is not given the opportunity to build his rhetoric against the United States and Al-Quiada does not become the threat that it did.

First Gulf War

In the United States
Within the United States George Bush is still elected, and is still defeated on domestic issues, namely because the heated rhetoric of the 80s has died down by this time. However culturally the United States would be a much different place to those of us who grew up in the nineties would have remembered it. To us the bleakness and emptiness of a world where we had won the Cold War simply did not exist. It would still be simmering in the background. The Russians are still the enemies, and while the rhetoric of the Regan Era would not be as intense as it was, it is still in the background.

The rise of the left simply does not occur, as the enemy of the people is still external as opposed to being internal. Movies and television that focused on a government intruding into our lives simply would not exist, but rather the cold war era spy thrillers would still be very much the favourite. Sure, there would be stories where drug smugglers where the bad guys, as well as science fiction, but in many cases the us and them struggle would still be focused on external powers.

There would still be proxy wars being fought in Africa, however as the Soviet economy expanded, similar economic policies would be implemented in those countries, such as is occurring today with Chinese money flowing into places such as the Sudan. This would not begin to happen until much later. However countries such as Cuba, and Venezuala, would not be as isolated as they are today.

The Economic Miracle
In our time line we speak of the Chinese economic miracle, however in this alternate timeline the economic miracle occurred in Russia, and as Russia would have had at least a five to seven year start on China, the results of this miracle would become evident much earlier, say around 1995. By this time Russia has a fully functioning stock market, however it has yet to be opened to the entire world, and only those within the Soviet Union and satellite republics would be able to invest (though certain investment banks in the West would have privileged access). There is a functioning middle class, and the first few Russian billionaires are becoming evident. The Russian standard of living is beginning to grow, and the discontent, and food lines of the Early eighties, have all but disappeared.

However, there are still very heavy censorship laws. The media is still state owned, and the new class of millionaires tend to be card-carrying members of the communist party (much as is the case in China today). The average person on the street has more money, and more opportunity, than they did previously. However, unlike China, very few are allowed into the West to study, and it is only the children of the governing elite that are sent to the prestigious universities.

Moscow Skyline

As for resources, the Soviet Union is incredibly large, meaning that they don't actually need to hunt for resources internationally, at least not on the scale that China did in the 2000s. By 1997 the Soviet Union is seeking trading partners outside of Eastern Europe and begins to discuss trade with China. They also begin to focus on their allies in Africa and the Middle East to establish strong partnerships as well. In our time-line China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, however that occurred because the Soviet Union had collapsed. In this time-line there is no need, and as such globalisation does not grow as rapidly as it previously did.

Instead we end up having two competing economic blocs - the Soviet Bloc and the Western Bloc. By the year 2000 the struggle becomes less of a war of rhetoric and more of an economic war, and both blocs attempt to outdo each other. However trade does start becoming interconnected. Trade treaties between the two blocs begin to be signed, and investment opportunities begin to open up. However, since Russia does not need to seek huge amounts of resources outside of its borders, the mining boom never occurs in Australia. Further, 9-11 never happens, which means that the governments of Australia and America are focusing more on domestic issues, and while there is still rhetoric between the East and the West, it is not as strong as it was previously - with the rise of living standards in the Soviet Union, the cold-war rhetoric of the 1980s just no longer works.

For those of us in Australia, I would suggest that in this time-line the Coalition would never have been able to claim to be the better economic managers, and it is unlikely that John Howard would have been able to have remained in power as long as hid did. As for Tony Abbott, I suspect that he would have ended up being little more than a footnote in history.

With regards to China, as I had previously mentioned, the economic miracle would not necessarily have occurred. However that does not necessarily mean that China would have remained a backward nation, rather its development would have been much slower, and it would probably not have become the economic powerhouse that we know it today. Instead reforms would have been influenced by the reforms in the Soviet Union (which would have become the world's second largest economy, in conflict with the United States for the role of the first), and would have grown a lot slower. However, its economic development, no doubt, would have begun to accelerate at some point, probably around the 2010.

Stock BrokerThen there is the question of the Iraq War and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Well, without 9-11, or even the first Gulf War, the Iraq War no doubt would never have occurred. Okay, Sadam would have continued playing both sides off against each other, but he would probably still be in power today. The Global Financial Crisis may have occurred, but it would probably have taken a different form, since with the Evil Empire that was the Soviet Union still hovering in the background, Western Society would have been somewhat different. As for the Dot-Com crash, well, that would still have happened, and on that note I wish to finish off with the rise of the Internet.

The Rise of the Internet and the Space Race
Technology is a funny thing and there are a number of reasons why they advance, the most common being competition. It has been suggested that the reason Europe advanced the way it did was because of the intense competition between the nation states. Technology also increased dramatically during the cold war due to competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. If Russia had not begun putting stuff in orbit, the Americans would have had no reason to do the same. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no real need to continue the Space Race, and competition moved from being between nation states to being between companies.

The increase in technology in our time has pretty much been consumer driven. As companies try to outdo each other for a finite share of profit, they are encouraged to produce better, and more useful, gadgets for the consumer to buy. This no doubt would have continued in our alternate time line. The internet has been around since the 1960s, and had been growing since. In the eighties we were able to communicate with computers over long distances, however the technology was very, very primitive.

The rise of the internet in the 90s would have still occurred, particularly since the Cold War would have been simmering in the background. The Soviet Union would not have commercialised it as quickly as we did, namely because of the need to control the media. However it would have developed within government, military, and business circles due to the need to be able to compete with the West. Computers would have begun to appear in Russian homes by the early nineties, but these would have been more like the computers we used back in the Eighties. In many cases the uptake in this new technology would have been much slower.

 Like China today, the Soviets would have a very tight control over the internet - China has the Great Firewall, and quite possibly the Soviet Union would have what would colloquially be termed as the Berlin Firewall. Like China, the internet would slowly begin to appear in Russian homes by the end of the 1990s. This would give the Russians a bit more of a head start since they would learn from the Dot-Com crash. As with their previous experiments, they would begin with a very tight control over internet usage, and then slowly release commercial sites onto the market. In a way they would have their own version of They would also be monitoring the content of the internet closely, and shutting down websites that did not meet their criteria.

No doubt the space race would have continued, but after a short hiatus. Since the Russians needed to reform their economy, they would have had to put a short term hold in their space program, however once the economy successfully turned around, they would be back into it in full swing. The Russians already had an operational shuttle fleet, though during this time they would have simply been performing routine maintenance on the Mir, and also their satellites. By about 1995 you would have seen a renewed push into space, though the international space station would not have existed. Mir would have been retrofitted and unlikely to have been decommissioned.

Come 1998 we would begin to see a new push by the Russians for the moon, which would have spurned the Americans into action. Already on the back foot with regards to space technology, they would have had to play catch up in getting another space station into space. However they did have a shuttle fleet. The two space stations of the 1980s would have been retrofitted, and by the early 2000s there would be two operational space stations orbiting the Earth. The Russians, with a head start, would already have the foundations of a lunar colony, and by 2008 it would be fully functional. The West would also have a similar lunar colony as well. By about 2015 the two superpowers would now be looking further afield.

However, we would also begin to see skirmishes occurring in space, as both superpowers try to disrupt the other, and this would become quite clear by the mid-naughties. No doubt there would be an incident, beginning with a spacecraft being destroyed, and possibly even an attack against the rival's moonbase, that would suddenly bring the world to the brink of another war. The newspaper headlines would dominate this, and high level talks on the Security Council would begin in earnest. The result would be a new treaty that would establish sovereignty in space, however limited weaponisation would be allowed, purely for defence. The treaty would establish sovereignty for the blocs to their outer orbit, and any intrusion by a satellite, or spacecraft, would be considered a violation of this treaty. Tensions would still exist, and no doubt skirmishes would occur, but at this stage boundaries would have been set (and the moon effectively divided in two).

Finally, what about the technology that we enjoy today, such as smartphones, flat screen TVs, and Wi-fi internet? Well, they would still all be available, and we would still have all of the things that we enjoy these days, namely because the competition to push these ideas forward will still be around. Robots would probably be further developed, particularly since they would be very useful for space exploration. It is difficult to say where the Soviets would stand, however they, no doubt, would have their own version of the predator drone, and we would have construction robots operating in space and on the moon.

Construction Robot

Well, that was fun, and this scenario would make a great setting for a novel, or even a roleplaying game. As with all of my writings, the ideas here are all available for use by anybody and everybody (though I do not claim any right over any of the pictures, they are simply there to add some context, and colour, to this post). As with all of my posts, you are free too use it on two conditions:
  1. I am attributed as the source of the idea and;
  1. If you wish to use any of these ideas (not the pictures, as they are not mine) commercially, you contact me before hand so that we can nut out the agreement.
Hopefully I will get around to writing some more of these scenarios in the future, and already have a couple of ideas, however at this stage I will finish off here, and once again give credit to the Alternate History Hub for the work that they put into producing their other scenario.

Creative Commons License
USSR - An Alternate 90s by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.


  1. Alternative/Counterfactual History is always a fun exercise. I've always wondered how the world would have been different had cooler heads prevailed at the start of WWI.

    One thing I might see a bit differently than you is that I see the problem of Communism (I am not a fan in any way) not as a "subsistence is guaranteed," but that harder/smarter/innovative work isn't rewarded. Even here in the Western world, subsistance income isn't that hard to find. Even begging can prevent starvation in most cases. But who wants a subsistence level existence? In the Communist world, innovation would tend to be punished with greater expectations, not a higher standard of living, and that is (in my opinion) the reason for the stagnation.

  2. If you like Counter-Factual History you should check out the Alternate History Channel on Youtube. It's quite good.

    One of the flaws that I find in the capitalist world is that innovation only comes about through the pursuit of profit - if an innovation is going to make money then it is pursued, if not then it is discarded. Fortunately the government will fund (for now) some of these other areas where technological advancement may not have an immediately effect on our lives, but the eventual side effects will.