The day the Soviet Union died

The 25th an­niver­sary of the fall of the Soviet Em­pire must not pass with­out re­flec­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Lee Ed­wards

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.

A 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 Marx­is­mLenin­ism 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 in­tra-party 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 façade 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.”


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