The day the Soviet Union died

On Christmas Day 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev picked up a pen to sign the document officially terminating the U.S.S.R. It had no ink. Mr. Gorbachev was obliged to borrow a pen from the CNN crew covering the event, a fitting end for the unelected president of a country headed for the ash heap of history.

Czech President Vaclav Havel called the fall of the Soviet Empire “an event on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman Empire.” We should not let this, its 25th anniversary, pass without remark or reflection.

As a visibly bewildered Mr. Gorbachev tried to explain why he had failed to save the Soviet Union, he spoke of a “totalitarian” system that prevented Soviet Russia from becoming “a prosperous and well-to-do country.” But he failed to acknowledge the role of Lenin, Stalin, and other Communist dictators in creating and sustaining that totalitarian system.

He referred to “the mad militarization” that had crippled “our economy, public attitudes and morals,” but accepted no blame for himself or the generals who had spent up to 40 percent of the Soviet budget on the military.

He pointed out that “an end has been put to the cold war” but admitted no role by any Western leader.

When Mr. Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Soviet Communist party in 1995, he took command of a very bad government attempting very radical reform. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Experience teaches us that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses the first steps toward reform.”

For his policies of glasnost and perestroika to work, Mr. Gorbachev had to replace old ways with new ways of thinking — something that requires diversity, debate, and freedom, concepts unknown in the Soviet Union. Mr. Gorbachev, self-confident and desperate at the same time, gambled that he could control the virus of freedom that he let loose.

He gambled that he could: improve the economy and satisfy Russian consumers’ desires through perestroika, reassure the military and the KGB he was not jeopardizing their role; persuade the nomenklatura to relax its grip on the machinery of the state; secure his own position as general secretary, and above all keep the Soviet Union Communist. The odds of winning on all counts were long indeed. But there were deeper reasons for Mr. Gorbachev’s inevitable failure.

the-day-the-soviet-union-diedA decade ago, in preparing a collection of essays, I asked several of America’s leading Sovietologists why a totalitarian system that seemed so strong, militarily and economically, gave up almost overnight.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, responded that Marxism-Leninism was “an alien doctrine” imposed by an imperial power culturally repugnant to the dominated people of Eastern and Central Europe. Disaffection, he noted, was strongest in the cluster of states with the deepest cultural ties with Western Europe — East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. In Poland, he added, two key factors strengthened anti-communism: the Solidarity trade union movement and the “mighty” Roman Catholic Church.

Harvard historian Richard Pipes, a staffer for President Reagan’s National Security Council, began by listing “incidental causes” like the invasion of Afghanistan, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and Gorbachev’s vacillating personality. On top of them were more profound causes: economic stagnation, the aspiration of national minorities (like the Ukrainians), and intellectual dissent (led by Andrei Sakharov). But the “decisive catalyst,” Pipes insisted, was the utopian and coercive nature of communism’s objectives.

Diplomat-turned-historian Robert Conquest developed the latter idea by pointing out that the millions of excess deaths wrought by Stalin’s regime created a demographic catastrophe. Many who survived lost years of their lives in labor camps, and the whole population was put into a “lasting state of extreme repression.” The lasting impact of the “great terror” was not limited to Soviet Russia.

After World War II, Communist parties all over Eastern and Central Europe were established “in force and fraud” and followed a Stalinist pattern of intraparty purges, public trials, and mass terror.

It has been said that German consciousness took centuries to recover from the Thirty Years’ War. It is with such a “massive and profound catastrophe,” Conquest said, that the impact of the Stalin period on Russia should be compared.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has been allowed to limit and even eliminate so many human rights — a free press, free speech, open elections, public assembly, an independent judiciary — is a direct effect of the Communist reign of terror that operated in Russia for decades.

Social philosopher Michael Novak offered two often unremarked reasons for the end of communism: atheism’s effect on the soul and on economic vitality. Communism set out to destroy the “human capital” on which a free economy and a policy are based, and in so doing sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

Soviet economics, the economist Andrzej Brzeski declared, was fatally flawed from the beginning. Replacing private property rights with state ownership gave rise to a huge class of functionaries committed only to preserving their domains and pleasing their political bosses. Only the sustained use of force, credible terror, and an artificially maintained sense of isolation, Brzeski said, “could keep the communis[t] system from collapsing.”

When Communists admitted, publicly as well as privately, that they no longer believed in communism, they destroyed the glue of ideology that had maintained their facade of power and authority. Communists also failed to deliver the goods to the people. They promised bread but produced food shortages and rationing — except for Party members. They promised peace but commandeered young Russian men into a series of conflicts and wars, culminating in the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam War” — Afghanistan.

Communist rulers could not stop the mass media from spreading the desire for freedom among the people. Far from being a fortress, the Soviet Union and its satellites were a Potemkin village easily penetrated by electronic messages of democracy and capitalism from the West.

There is a final point to be made about the importance of leadership. The American leader who effectively wrote finis to the Cold War was Ronald Reagan. He entered office with a clear set of ideas he had developed over a lifetime of study. He forced the Soviet Union to abandon its goal of world communism by challenging its legitimacy, regaining superiority in the arms race, and using human rights as a powerful psychological weapon.

Once the Cold War was over, Mr. Reagan had the self-confidence and grace to commend Gorbachev for admitting that “Communism was not working” and introducing “the beginnings of democracy, individual freedom, and free enterprise” into the Soviet system. But Gorbachev was never able to anticipate the inevitable outcome of the powerful forces he was unleashing.

By the time Mr. Reagan left office in January 1989, the Reagan Doctrine had achieved its goal of ending the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield. As the eminent Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote: Gorbachev, the last leader of the broken Soviet system, had acknowledged “the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism.”

Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought in the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Constitutional Government.

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