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Why did the USSR collapse?

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Suddenly and Peacefully, Review of Michael Dobbs' Down With Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

The National Interest

1997 SPRING

Anders A slund


Five years have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, and an amazing amount of new information has surfaced. Gone is Churchill's "enigma wrapped in a mystery." Russia's media and many of its archives, along with its borders, have opened. It seems that virtually every Soviet leader involved in the collapse of the USSR has published memoirs--from Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to hardliners Yegor Ligachev and Valentin Pavlov. Among them, Gorbachev aides Anatoly Chernyayev, Valery Boldin, and Andrei Grachev have written the most substantial and informative accounts. As this generation of politicians was retired simultaneously, they have had a lot of time to think and write. Their versions can thus be compared to a large volume of published official materials.

In a masterly book about the collapse of Soviet communism, Michael Dobbs has made good and judicious use of all these Russian sources, as well as others in Polish, German, French, and English. In addition, he has had substantial access to unpublished Politburo minutes, and has interviewed most of the key actors of the regime's last years.

Dobbs is well qualified for the task. He worked in Moscow from 1988 to 1993 as the Washington Post's bureau chief. Before that he had been in Poland during the Solidarity period in 1980-81, and in various other communist countries from time to time. His scope extends not only to Russia but to the array of countries under the blanket of Soviet communism. This is probably the best researched book on the demise of the Soviet Empire to date. And as well as the research, Dobbs has an eminent sense of what is most credible--which is to say that, unlike so many Sovietologists, he has no old axes to grind. It is a relief not to be fed stories about what Soviet communism, after all, accomplished.

Structured chronologically, the book tells its dramatic story in a direct and lively way. But it also offers us a substantial explanation of why Soviet communism collapsed. In light of today's knowledge about the systemic defects of the Soviet Empire, it is difficult to understand how the communist system was ever considered viable. Stating the seemingly self-evident, Dobbs attributes the fall to inefficiency: "In the long run the collapse of Soviet communism was inevitable for the simple reason that it was too top-heavy a structure to bear its own weight." But the author properly reminds us that "there was nothing inevitable about the timing of the collapse or the manner in which it occurred. . . . By seeking to reinvigorate the Communist system, Gorbachev succeeded in destroying it."

What Gorbachev faced in his efforts toward modernization and reform was an entrenched system utterly incapable of reshaping itself without drastic consequences. Although Soviet communism provided a stability that many found attractive, its weakness lay in its inflexibility, its omnipresence in daily life, and its inability to reform. The Party's dogmas were cut in stone. Centralization was extreme, and so was isolation from the outside world. The dictatorship had stifled all aspects of civil society, allowing for only a very limited private sphere. Both economically and politically the system had ossified.

Despite these weaknesses, few predicted that its downfall would come so swiftly. The most prophetic work was Andrei Amalrik's monograph, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (Harper & Row, 1970) which appeared during the early period of Brezhnevian stagnation. To have missed the date of collapse by only seven years is impressive. Amalrik saw that the petrification and rigidity of the system, and in particular the selection of leaders on the basis of obedience rather than a willingness to innovate, would eventually lead it to internal decay and a decreased ability to compete with its rivals.

In hindsight, the surprise is not that the communist system collapsed, but that it lasted for so long. The main explanation for this is that the USSR possessed abundant natural resources--though by compensating for gross inefficiency and making it possible to delay reform, in the long run these resources turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. Another reason was that as long as Soviet citizens were cut off from the rest of the world, they did not know how badly off they were in comparison to others. With his broad perspective of the communist world, Dobbs rejects Russian particularism as an explanation for the system's staying power. Today, the former members of the Soviet bloc constitute no less than twenty-eight countries, and their commonalities can hardly be explained by the peculiarities of any one of them, not even of the largest and most powerful.

But why did Soviet communism collapse when it did? Dobbs offers a sophisticated multi-causal argument, without singling out any one reason as dominant. As Leszek Kolakowski argued in the late 1970s, the crisis of an empire usually starts on the fringes. The ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 was the perfect illustration of poor Soviet decision making--a few old, ill-informed men making a fateful move on the basis of ancient prejudices. When the Soviet Union finally withdrew from that mess, it was in effect repudiating the Brezhnev Doctrine and accepting that socialism was reversible.

Another component of the collapse of the Soviet Empire was the economic crisis that became apparent in 1979, as Soviet output stagnated. The immediate cause was the USSR's shortage of cheap raw materials, notably oil, but the underlying reason was that the centralized economy became ever more incapable of adjusting to the rise of technology and its application in the world market. With the regime's devastating censorship, the moribund economy simply refused to adjust to the information revolution. As Dobbs rightly says, "By the fall of 1979 the Soviet Union had become a sclerotic giant. Its bureaucratic arteries had shriveled and hardened." Yet in the United States, this economic crisis was played down as the CIA continued to argue that Soviet output was rising steadily, even if not quite as much as planned.

By this time, most of the main components that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Empire were already present and active in Poland. The rise of Solidarity in 1980 stemmed from a revival of religious and nationalist sentiment, as well as popular unrest over the crisis of economic decline. The most insightful experts on the Soviet bloc started looking for similar tendencies in the USSR itself. Dobbs rightly pinpoints Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president's national security adviser at the time, as one of the people who really understood the larger implications of the Polish uprising for Soviet communism. He also highlights the role of Pope John Paul II in mobilizing Polish resistance.

President Ronald Reagan stands out in Dobbs' account as the grand visionary of the demise of Soviet communism. Reagan's speeches in 1982-83 on "the evil empire" and the approaching victory of capitalism over communism were truly prophetic. The Soviet Union was entering its death throes, and the way both to control and speed up the process was not by compromise but through firmness and an increased show of strength. The Strategic Defense Initiative became a key challenge to the USSR, and the Soviet leaders quickly realized their impotence in the face of it. Dobbs gives credit to the director of the CIA at the time, William Casey, while I would point to Richard Pipes as the key Soviet strategist in the Reagan White House. Pipes' article "Can the Soviet Union Reform?" (Foreign Affairs, Fall 1984) anticipated the Gorbachev policies to come.

Having scared the Soviet leaders into reform and serious arms control endeavors, Reagan demonstrated an additional and less expected strength. He was also prepared to enter into far-reaching disarmament agreements with Gorbachev. As a contrast to this wise combination of strength and conciliation, it is worth recalling the vociferous U.S. and European "peace" demonstrations in 1983 and 1984, which urged the United States to pursue arms control negotiations with the Andropov and Chernenko regimes that the Soviets themselves were clearly not taking seriously.

Before assuming leadership, Gorbachev made a programmatic speech, declaring that the USSR had to strengthen its economy in order to enter the next millennium as a mighty power. Gorbachev was counseled by the best and brightest of Soviet economists, but one problem was that the communist regime had forbidden them to learn economics. Gorbachev's economic policies reflected this gap in knowledge. At the outset of his term he agreed to raise military spending sharply for political and strategic reasons, and in doing so he badly strained the budget. Then, by embarking on a Stalinist anti-alcohol campaign, he unwittingly devastated public finances by removing an important source of tax revenue. These measures were followed by an equally ill-advised campaign against "unearned income" or the "black market", and the overall slogan was ironically entitled "economic acceleration." As a result of these initiatives, the budget deficit mushroomed. Meanwhile, prices remained state-controlled and increasing shortages devastated the economy. So regardless of his good intentions, Gorbachev's economic policies were truly disastrous. Their enduring positive effect was wholly unintentional: they destroyed the command economy.

One of Gorbachev's greatest achievements was that he introduced glasnost, or public openness. In its ambiguity, it was a typical Gorbachevian concept. Initially, many in the West saw it as a charade, but at the First Congress of People's Deputies, convened in May 1989, freedom of speech was effectively established. Gorbachev needed glasnost to check his officials, but the revelations that flowed from it left the communist system so exposed that it soon lost all legitimacy.

According to one view, Gorbachev's troubles stemmed from the fact that he introduced glasnost before reforming the economy; it is maintained that he should have followed the Chinese or East Asian path of giving priority to economic reform. Dobbs nicely debunks this myth of Gorbachev's error of judgment by emphasizing how dogmatic the Soviet communist leadership remained. While Chinese leaders were prepared to push far-reaching market economic reforms, Soviet leaders were not. In the USSR, democratization was a necessary precondition for the introduction of market reforms, for no other force could control the communist apparatchiki. Gorbachev understood that, but he did not realize that any efforts toward democratization would necessarily lead to full democracy. Cowardly, in early 1990 he stopped short of allowing a democratic ballot for his own presidential post, and I would nominate this as the moment when Gorbachev's fall became inevitable. Unlike Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, says Dobbs, "was the first Soviet politician to understand that power could come from the people rather than from the party."

Gorbachev's weakest understanding, undoubtedly, was in the crucial area of nationalities policies. Incredibly, he seems to have believed Soviet propaganda that the USSR's nationality problems had been solved. He appeared unable to understand that certain nations really want independence. By rejecting full democracy at the federal level, he inadvertently raised the legitimacy of national movements in the republics that sought democracy. The point of no return came with the Ukrainian referendum on independence held on December 1, 1991, in which almost 90 percent of the Ukrainians voted for independence. We can be grateful that Yeltsin acted so fast to forestall the evolution of a Yugoslav-style civil war in the former Soviet Union.

He le ne Carre re d'Encausse had long daringly predicted that the nationality issue would break the Soviet Union. However, her analysis had focused on high population growth in Central Asia, whereas the key problems turned out to be Ukraine and the small and demographically declining nations of the Baltics. In the end, national awareness, the existence of civil society, and the desire for democracy mattered more than population statistics.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all in the last years was that the many prophesies that a speedy collapse would mean war turned out to be wrong. The end came suddenly and peacefully. Dobbs offers a key explanation that is often ignored: enterprising, well-connected individuals were preoccupied with making money, and "the greater the economic chaos and confusion, the greater the opportunities for personal enrichment." Many officials realized that they could transform their power into wealth, and that capitalism would bring even greater privileges and opportunities to get rich for the well-positioned. "There was a fin de re gime atmosphere in the spring of 1991, and bureaucrats were lining up to jump ship before it was too late. . . . Why drive a Volga when you could be driving a Mercedes?" The concern today is that these old communists managed to extract large resources from the weak state, leading to vast income differentials.

Quite a few dogs did not bark. After the Polish uprising in 1980, much attention was focused on religion and the workers' movements. Yet in the collapse of the USSR, religion played a remarkably insignificant role. Similarly, only the coal miners' actions were of some relevance in Russia and Ukraine. While environmental issues played a political role early on, they soon lost most political significance.

Dobbs concludes his tale at the end of 1991. Those were the years of heroes with fundamental principles and long perspectives, notably Pope John Paul II, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, and Va clav Havel. Boris Yeltsin and Ronald Reagan also figure as heroes, while Dobbs' picture of Gorbachev is complex and balanced. His initial successes were due to a supreme ability to compromise, but the crisis his actions created ultimately required hard choices, which he then largely refused to make. Ironically, Gorbachev succeeded in destroying communism because he wanted to reform it.
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