The opinion of Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy is, unsurprisingly, quite positive.
Even the more authoritarian post-communist successor states are all far freer than their communist predecessors were. For example, all of them have vastly greater freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection for property rights, and freedom of internal and external mobility (nearly all communist governments forbade emigration for most of its citizens, and most also severely restricted internal movement). I am no fan of the quasi-authoritarian government of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, but it’s a lot less repressive than the USSR was by any conceivable measure. For example, my relatives living in Russia feel free to openly criticize the government and vote for opposition parties. Even under Gorbachev, public criticism of the government was severely circumscribed and opposition parties were banned until just before the regime fell.
On the economic front, after a difficult transition in the mid-1990s, there have been massive increases in incomes and standards of living. For example, per capita GDP in Eastern Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) rose from 33% of Western European levels in 1992 to 45% in 2008. Those countries that adopted free market policies most rapidly and completely (e.g. — Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic) had the highest growth rates and least painful transitions. These figures greatly understate the true amount of economic progress because much of the 1992 GDP consisted of military spending (at least 20% of Soviet GDP at the time) and shoddy communist products many of which did not meet any real consumer demand.
Finally, the fall of the USSR lifted the specter of global nuclear war arising from a confrontation between the two superpowers. Although US-Russian relations are sometimes tense today, there is no realistic chance that the two nations will go to war.
[. . .]
What about life expectancy? It is true that life expectancy in Russia and Eastern Europe fell in the early 1990s. But as this German Max Planck Institute study describes, life expectancy in those countries began falling in the mid-1960s, with a brief acceleration in the early 1990s, that was soon reversed. One can’t blame the fall of the USSR for a trend that long predated it. The same study also shows that life expectancy in Eastern Europe (and to a lesser extent Russia) began to rise again in the late 1990s, possibly because of increased economic growth and improvements in standards of living. Moreover, most of the fall in Russian life expectancy in the 1990s predated privatization of the economy and was probably caused by rising alcoholism (due in large part to falling vodka prices) rather than by economic shocks.
Many fewer proxy wars, too.
My biggest problem with Somin’s analysis is that the apocalyptic shock of the transition–felt particularly hardly and durably in already-peripheral areas of the Communist bloc, like Caucasus and Central Asia, but elsewhere, too–isn’t considered sufficiently. Yes, the mortality rates were deteriorating throughout, but there was certainly a deterioration.
In a best-case scenario, I suppose that you’d have seen Khrushchev manage some sort of controlled reintegration of the Soviet bloc with the wider world, perhaps a sort of convergence in the manner imagined by any number of people in the 1960s, before the west-east gaps in Europe became too big. Was that ever possible?
Go, read, discuss.