The Fall Of The Soviet Union: Whys And Wherefores
Tom Lovell
Professor of History, Tomball College
presented to
The Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society
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The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 some 70 years after its grimly riveting and highly expectant Marxist-Leninist beginning ranks alongside World War I as the two most singularly pivotal events of the Twentieth Century. In a sense, both are conjoined, with the War providing the decisive finishing blow to what remained of both the totteringly indecisive Romanov dynasty and centuries of turgid, slow-to-change Russian autocracy. Lenin and Trotsky's ability in October 1917 to "pick the Revolution up off the street," if not guaranteed, certainly was facilitated by the disaster on the Eastern Front.

Contained between the Great War, which rather than "ending all wars" ironically triggered a crescendo of successors, and the House of Usher -- like disintegration of the Soviet system and empire, lies an historical framework, a chessboard if you will, of moves and countermoves whereupon geo-political reality is played out for at least three generations.

As a child during World War II the kids in the neighborhood vied for who among us would play the heroic Russian soldiers in our seemingly endless games of "war." The "dirty and cruel Nazis" routinely were on the receiving end of dubious "Molotov cocktails" made from Coke or Dr. Pepper bottles filled with water and plugged at the top by available strips of torn undershirt. In winter the Germans usually got pelted, while the "yellow Jap bastards" took it on the chin in the warmer months when hordes of invisible banzai charges, launched across the Sears parking lot opposite my house, easily were deflected by counterattacks led by us Wheeler Street "marines."

A child's remembrances can be difficult to resurrect but I recall with unusual clarity listening to a radio in a neighbor's living room, maybe in late 1945, listening to an animated announcer -- perhaps the arch-conservative Fulton Lewis, Jr. -- testily protest the growing perfidy of one of my childhood heroes, the twinkle-eyed, black-mustached Joseph Stalin. I wasn't quite sure what the "marshal" in front of his name stood for. Come of think of it, I also remember that Chiang Kai-shek, another trusted war ally, went by the fancy title, "generalismo," and to this day I'm not entirely clear as to that term's origin.

But what really struck me as an eight-year-old was that the Russians, the gutsy good guys of a host of WW II Hollywood propaganda movies, overnight had become our number one enemy. That radio broadcast then was my earliest introduction to the Cold War. The following year my favorite WWI hero, Winston Churchill, sealed for me the propriety of the term with his justly acclaimed "Iron Curtain" speech delivered at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Snippets of the oratory were put on Twentieth Century Fox's Movietone newsreel that played at our local movie house. I can still see Churchill peering down his nose and over his eyeglasses, jowls at half-mast, hands clasping what amounted to the lapels of his ornate graduation gown, stammering out as only he could, something about "Stetin in the Baltic and Trieste in the Adriatic."

One reason the Churchillian metaphor stuck fast in my mind was because Hollywood's Russian-born Jewish movie makers, always more patriotic and chauvinistically American than Uncle Sam, turned now 180 and began making anti-Russian, anti-Communist films, the first of which naturally was "The Iron Curtain," a crackerjack spy thriller based on the defection of a Russian embassy code clerk in Canada; a few years later the McCarthy days were upon us and so was "Big Jim McClain," a tendentious potboiler featuring John Wayne hunting Commies in Hawaii, of all places.

Memories of the Cold War scroll by: radio updates strongly suggesting that Truman might send our tanks down the highway to a Stalin-blockaded Berlin; newsboys shouting "Extra!" and headlines in the afternoon Houston Chronicle proclaiming in three-inch type that "REDS HAVE A-BOMB." Newsreels showing that same Generalissimo disembarking for Formosa; Alger Hiss looking so regal and so innocent; Julius Rosenberg looking so Jewish and so guilty; Joe McCarthy looking and acting like a bully and Edward R. Murrow -- who in another life I planned to come back as -- raking the Senator over the coals; General MacArthur's magnificent, emotionally-charged speech to a Congress fed up with our inability to win in Korea; Hungarians moving to Houston in 1957; yellow-colored sirens screeching out from seemingly every post office and federal building in the land each Friday noon, gearing up in case of a real live Russian attack.

Hitching rides in front of Bergstrom Air Force base outside Austin with acres of camouflaged B-52s as a prairie backdrop. The SAC logo of lightening bolts tightly clutched in a knight's mailed fist and the proud motto "Peace is our Profession!" Taking Russian in 1957 because football players at the University of Texas spread the word that the profs were easy, only to have Sputnik force the University to require a toughening of the Slavonic language program, and thus forcing me to double up in the summer in order to graduate before the expected arrival of a more rigorous regimen taught by real Russians.

And, of course, the fear, helplessness, and combative bravado brought out by the Cuban Missile Crisis, when one didn't know if a nuclear Armageddon was in the offing or, as was more likely, a highly charged contest of bluff. And how it interrupted a love affair that had all the earmarks of being made in heaven.

The Kennedy killing, the Vietnam War, a stint in Afghanistan as a Peace Corps Volunteer where I met Russians on a regular basis up close and for the first time, all of this and more prepared me to believe that the Cold War and the ongoing presence of the Soviet Union, not to mention Communist China, was a reality check for my time, a fact of life that had to be met head on without evasion and certainly not through the rose-colored glasses of a new American Left, the existence of which proved one of the greatest blows to my sense of political prescience.

I accepted the arms race in those years without blinking and was prepared to believe nothing less than that "these people (the Communists) were man-eating cannibals, out to eat us up," to quote a great "Amen brother!" line uttered by Gregory Peck in one of the last rather well-done anti-Communist movies, "Night People." In the eyes of the growing host of revisionist American historians, such a person as I have described, was by every definition an unreconstructed, unredeemable "cold warrion." And a "cold warrion" I remained until the Evil Empire seemingly without the merest hint or notice went "poof" and was no more.

This essay seeks to determine how that seemingly redoubtable and indefatigable foe so aptly limned out for me in Churchill's Churchillian prose of March 1946 could prove by March (August, December?) 1991 to be so vulnerable and so clearly the real "paper tiger" of the Cold War.

The case can be made that the sources available to answer the above question begin with historians who offer systemic reasons for the Fall; the argument here being that the communist qua totalitarian system was flawed from the beginning, therefore it was only a matter of time before its contradictions caught up with it. George Kennan's 1946 Long Telegram and subsequent highly celebrated "Mr. X" essay staked out this ground early on, albeit his original prediction foretold that a sixteen-year timeline probably would suffice for this self-immolation to manifest itself rather than the forty-plus years that in fact transpired from the date of his predictions to 1989-91 and what the historian Martin Malia has dubbed the "Great Collapse."

Of the many books recently to appear on this topic, none is as harshly condemnatory of Western scholarship in this matter as Professor Mali's "The Soviet Tragedy" (1994). In prose sprinkled here and there with invective and rueful recollections, Western intellectuals, particularly those who engaged in what Mali condemns as flawed social science, i.e., the Sovietologists, are roundly condemned for contributing to the prolonged Soviet tenure in power.

Their guilt lies, he avers, in the fact that they failed to face up to the totality represented by Soviet Communism. This lapse in judgment amounted to an exercise in deceptive labeling. The tendency to use social science euphemisms like "authoritarianism, " "pluralism," and "developmental dictatorship," when applied to the soviet system, he argues, in fact played into the hands of the Soviet leadership and even was adopted by the latter to justify its legitimacy. Employing the words of Solzhenitsyn, Mali charges these scholars with living "according to the lie."

Khruschev's de-Stalinization period was thus viewed as the beginning of the end of the "totalitarian" model, and model soon to be replaced by a theory of modernizing economic development worthy of emulation in the expanding Third World. In other words, the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods were interpreted by the likes of Stephen Cohen and Jerry Hough as "democratizing" phases softened by a "democratization" coming from below.

Mali places American historiography squarely in the dock for much of this, particularly when it went so far as to assume that the original 1917 October Revolution reflected an original proletarian uprising "generated by class 'polarization' between workers and capitalists," not, as he would have it, "a minority coup d'etat made possible by the 'accident' of the First World War."

Mali charges the "revisionists" not only stuck to the old chestnut that Stalinism represented an aberration departure from the more kind-hearted tenets of Leninism but that a second generation of similarly-minded scholars have even claimed that early Stalinism had "democratic" qualities and that the massive industrial growth associated with the draconian Five Year Plans, in effect, lifted substantial boats within the society. But most damning, in Mali's eyes, was the revisionists' assessment that the politics of the mature Soviet Union was characterized by a kind of interest-group liberalism that existed widely in other "developed societies."

All of this reflects Mali's deeply held conviction that the fall of the Soviet system was predetermined by the very fact that its founding socialist premise was a chimera. In his words, the Bolsheviks had created a "unique system" held together by the totalitarian troika of party, plan (its command economy), and the police, or brute force and terror.

This "Sovietism" (his word) remained essentially intact from October 1917 right up to the 1991 collapse. Its uniqueness, moreover, is best proved by the extraordinary totality of the disintegration: the ideology, the political structure, and the economy, crumbled as if one, followed hard upon by its total repudiation, not only by the intelligentsia which for years had been nibbling away at its raison de'etre, but a majority of the public as well.

All of this, Mali argues, is an example of Hegel's notion of the "cunning of history," or, in modern parlance, history's unveiling of unintended consequences: Columbus starts out for China and discovers America; the Bolsheviks set sail for socialism and end up with Sovietism.

So the Soviet Union, a failed utopia, never became a developed or modern nation; instead, it was a hybrid form of despotism all its own that never obtained adequate and fair scrutiny in the West. Why? Because of the sanctified position socialism enjoyed among the Western intellectual elite.

The paradox is that at no other time in history has such a monumental failure been held up as such an irresistible success. And the reason this was so was because what was at stake in the Soviet experiment was nothing short of "universal socialism;" and no stone could be left unturned in order to find the philosopher's stone divining its success. But in the final analysis it turned out to be nothing more than an ideology and a failed one at that. "Soviet Man" then was the equivalent of a "Potemkin Village" or, better yet, a "Stakhanov" miner whose legendary productivity was a sham; in sort, "the man who never was!"

Perhaps it should not surprise that this notion of a flawed founding and, by implication, wretched founders, is echoed by recent Russian historians, many, for the first time, encouraged not only to think independently but to publish the fruits gleaned from access to hitherto secret archives and files. General Dmitri Volkogonov, a former official Soviet military historian and author of an unlikely warts-and-all biography of Stalin, said, in an interview with David Remnick that appeared in the latter's Pulitzer Prize winning "Lenin's Tomb" (1994) that "the roots of [the] catastrophe lay in the ideology itself, in Leninism." Bolshevism, claimed the General, "gave rise to the totalitarian state." To Volkogonov, the recent concerted move by the reformers against the Soviet leadership was a "mutiny" represented by groping through "an intellectual and spiritual fog."

To Walter Laqueur, a leading neo-conservative historian, the "collapse" was the result of a multitude of weaknesses that eventuated not so much in a revolution in 1991 as a "disintegration" of the spirit. As to the "flawed beginning" argument made so passionately by Mali, Laqueur demurs by insisting that the quest to remake human nature set forth in Lenin's ideology fails in adequately explaining why such institutional stupidity reigned over a stretch of seventy years.

To Laqueur, the nature of the totalitarian state, not the flawed ideology, was to blame for the persistence of the Soviet hammerlock on power. Until 1991 no totalitarian state had collapsed of its own volition without being defeated militarily. As with Volkogonov above, Laqueur found a host of recent Russian scholars ready to embrace this theory of totalitarianism in order to better understand the failure of the heavy-handed Soviet system that they so long had been compelled to endure.

For persistent clarity and insight into the multitudinous factors pointing toward Mali's "Great Collapse," no one beats Laqueur's list of winners; an economy in free fall whose slowdown began as early as the Sixties; an almost total absence of consumer goods of any consistent quantity or quality; defense spending higher than anticipated; a series of ecological disasters and disaster areas; a rise in alcoholism to 37 percent for working class males by the late 1970s; and most glaringly, the legacy of cronyism and Mafia-like satraps, particularly in the Soviet republics, either established or allowed during the Brezhnev period. As a result of the latter, anything could be obtained if one had the money, from a university position to a job as a party apparachik. And the police and judiciary were the most corrupt of all.

There was also the increasingly ubiquitous presence of abject poverty; peasants on run-down collective farms, old age pensioners, single women, low-paid occupational workers -- including teachers -- frequently reduced to a penury that proved the lie of the failed utopia.

The accumulation of journalistic accounts gathered inside the Soviet Union as far back as the Brezhnev era -- one thinks of the work of Hedrick Smith and Robert Kaiser -- added to the recent reportage of Remnick and David Satter, ("Age of Delirium," [1996]) is replete with countless interviews of bitterly cynical peasants; opportunistic underground economic operatives; desperately disgruntled half-drunk miners; victims of Chernobyl; dissident inmates of punitively designed psychiatric hospitals; "wannabe" emigrees caught at the border trying to escape; the glazed-eyed, doggedly passive occupants of endless queues; and a seemingly nonstop list of Jewish refesenik intellectuals pouring out agonizing tale after tale of family persecution and betrayal under Stalin and Brezhnev and censorship and artistic oppression down to the present. Such overwhelming anecdotal evidence of pathos and failure begs the question of why it took so long for the population to emerge from under the rubble? Particularly after the Stalinist Terror had abated rather early on!

Laqueur's answer to this fundamental question is that the people had become so inured to their predicament that they simply accepted it as a wretched mean, a condition they gradually had acclimatized themselves to. Indeed, when change and reform first began to be talked up the initial reaction from the rank-and-file Soviet citizen was suspicion and a fearful uncertainty.

And then there was the pesky nationality problem. But, according to Laqueur, with the exception of the Baltic republics, which had long-standing and well-grounded complaints pertaining to their deracinated inclusion into the Soviet Union, and the egregious economic exploitation of the Central Asian lands, most of the republics were no worse off than they had been under the czar.

No, Laqueur clearly holds that the basic cause of the collapse falls more within the framework of a "spiritual" or "moral" crisis brought on by the accumulated effect of all the above. This, by the way, pretty much sums up the conclusion reached by Remnick and Satter, which if not boldly stated, certainly is implied by virtue of the weight of the evidence gleaned from their mountain of interviews.

In short, these were a people, including even some within the Communist Party, who had reached the end of their moral tether. Hardly any inhabitants accepted all of the old ideology, but only a few rejected it all; for it wasn't anti-communism, according to Laqueur, that confirmed their pervasive pessimism, but all-purpose indifference. Thus Laqueur's "disintegration" views as opposed to the more dramatic notion of a revolution.

The explanation of the "sudden" nature of the collapse would have to be sought elsewhere. There must have been a "crisis, " Laqueur opined, but it simply was not to be "quantified."

One indicator that has been tabulated, if not quantified, to everyone's satisfaction is that of the Soviet economy. It is know, for example, that in the 60s and 70s Soviet productivity in steel and coal caught up with and even surpassed that of the United States. But declines already had commenced in labor productivity and the quality of machine tools, while advances in science and technology increasingly proved illusory.

Nevertheless, economic reports drawn by Western experts basically found that the Soviet situation, while somewhat gloomy, was still redeemable. These half-way optimistic measurements were even seized upon by the Soviet leadership to buttress their own traditionally overly optimistic assessment. Consumer goods, meanwhile, increased in number during these years but the distribution system was so broken down that milk rarely got delivered before souring and, though Soviets produced more shoes than anyone else in the world, customers were forced to stand in line time and again to buy several pairs because the sizes were so askew that it was necessary to acquire many pairs to make a fit. Housing meanwhile was atrocious with couples required to wait years before qualifying for a small apartment; the wait for cars also dragged on interminable, and after one finally arrived, it was not unusual for it almost immediately to experience mechanical problems.

Defense costs, furthermore, were eating up an inordinate portion of Soviet expenditures. Because of the difficulty in measuring the Soviet GNP it was not always clear what percentage was being spent to this end. Experts now claim the West routinely underestimated the numbers. It is now believed that in years just prior to 1991 as much as 30 percent of the economy went toward the defense sector putting an enormous burden on the average citizen in terms of delayed consumer satisfaction. Then there were the costs incurred by shoring up overseas adventures such as those in Africa, not to mention the drain of the war in Afghanistan and the expense involved in maintaining Castro's lifeline.

But all of this is preliminary to asking and attempting to answer what clearly has become the hottest and most ideologically-fraught issue pertaining to the close of the Cold War, namely the extent to which America's acceleration of the arms race impacted the Soviet Union so as to hasten her fall from power.