But much can be said for Reagan's Evil Empire speech, not to mention the decision to employ Pershing missiles in Europe, as attention-getting wakeup calls to the Soviet leadership. Edwin Meese, attorney general and close confident of Ronald Reagan, argues in his Reagan-era memoir that the Russian leadership, before and after the arrival of Gorby'achev, became convinced that Reagan's pedal-to-the-metal arms' buildup, particularly is proclaimed interest in the Strategic Defense Initiative or, as proclaimed by foes in the press and Congress, "Star Wars," would lead to further disruption in the Soviet economy. In order to keep up and build their own or a similar project economic bankruptcy might well ensue.
Peter Schweizer, a Hoover Institute Fellow, has devoted an entire book, to demonstrating how decisive Reagan's anti-Communist strategy was in bringing down the "Evil Empire." While much of the book amounts to a celebration of William Casey's ability to strike a blow at the enemy via his fabled access to Reagan and his CIA leadership prerogatives (constant trips throughout the world on a secret black-painted CIA airliner are highlighted), it nevertheless develops a credible scenario, if not for the single-handed toppling of the Soviet Union, at least for providing a push sufficient to help tumble it into history's much remarked upon dustbin.
To Schweizer, Casey, always with Reagan's imprimatur to back him up, is able to work wonders, in some cases simply through his banking and big business contact. He is able, for example, to quash low-interest loans to the Soviets; to clamp down on the export of Western technology the Russians are employing to maintain their crumpling industrial base; to make it tougher for the Russians to complete a huge natural gas pipeline that would, if ever properly completed, provide them with much-needed Western hard currency;; and finally through astute jawboning and clever parceling out of quid pro quos in the form of military intelligence and high-tech weaponry to strategic allies, especially the Saudis, the United States is able to convince the latter to substantially increase oil production and thus in one blow enhance the American economy by reducing oil prices while concurrently devastating the Soviet Union's major source of income, namely their export of petroleum.
This American-induced drop in oil prices also makes it more difficult for purchasers of Soviet arms such as Iraq, Iran, and Libya to continue their brisk acquisition of high-tech Soviet weaponry, thus leading to a further diminishment of Soviet income. Furthermore, large planned industrial projects such as a Renault car factory, two British chemical plants, and the purchase of Japanese and U.S. machinery are forced to be scrapped for lack of hard currency.
But it's the specter of SDI that apparently had become a major fixation in the minds of both the Soviet strategic defense hierarchy as well as Gorbyachev himself. Not only do Reagan defenders point this out, but much of the evidence stems from reports provided by the Russian leaders themselves. From wiley old Andrei Gromyko to highly-ranked Soviet army officers to KGB officials, the assumption early on was that it was Reagan's intent to wreck the Soviet economy on the shoals of the arms race.
And to Gorbyachev it was becoming increasingly clear that in order to reform the Soviet economy it first would be necessary to reduce substantially the enormous expenditure going to their military-industrial complex. In fact, the impromptu Iceland Summit in 1986 in large measure centered on Gorbyachev's attempt to convince Reagan of the importance of scrapping SDI.
One theory is that following Khrushchev's embarrassment over the pullout of missiles from Cuba, the Soviet's full-speed-ahead military buildup provoked the West into a competition that was unwinnable for the Soviet side. Laqueur quotes Valentin Falin, former Soviet ambassador to Germany, who, in speaking apropos of the arms race, said that "Detente would never have resulted in the tearing down of the Iron Curtain."
In the controversy that has raged nonstop over the weight the arms race bears on the collapse, Laqueur remains on the sideline offering that while it may or may not have been decisive, it surely was one of the causes of what he labels the "crisis" that led to the eventual "downfall." But he relishes pointing out the embarrassing petard the revisionists now find themselves hoisted upon in this matter; after all, it was they who proclaimed longly and loudly that the arms race was an "unmitigated disaster" which impacted Soviet policy only in ways detrimental to the West. They clearly now have something to answer for.
The other big theory which seeks to account for the fall of the Soviet Union deals primarily with what one might call a "toppling from within" brought on by the rush to reform. In other words, once Gorbyachev pried loose the gate to reform he discovered, to his dismay, that he inadvertently had opened a floodgate.
Michael Mandelbaum, in a piece in Foreign Affairs, nails down this interpretation as succinctly as anyone: when Gorbyachev set off on the road to Glasnost he opened public access to the past and present and without knowing it, greased the skids for the "Great Collapse." Thinking he would clear the way for needed economic reforms by requiring access to meaningful statistical information, and desirous of rectifying the more egregious crimes of Stalin and Brezhnev by freeing thousands of dissidents, he, in fact, wrought more than he bargained for.
Hitherto the mass of Soviet people, in order to cope with the police state and its duplicitous house of mirrors, had withdrawn into themselves, leaving the public arena to the party and government apparatchiks. But, according to Mandelbaum, once Borcyachev authorized "democratization" or free and fair elections in order to undermine his party opponents, the newly empowered electorate voted to reject party and Gorbyachev alike. The longheld view of the party that the people were loyal spear carriers for the regime, appreciative of the victory over Germany in WW II and the supposed nominal advancement in living standards that followed, proved a totally flawed assumption. Elections in 1989 and 1990 indicated that in Russia the electorate was anti-Communist and pro-Boris Yeltsin, the latter a figure emerging in the eyes of the public as a trustworthy maverick. Meanwhile in the non-Russian republics, the newly enfranchised voters, who, like their brethren in Russia, possessed for the first time a real choice of candidates, proved to be loyal to the no-longer nascent nationalism Glasnost had caused to awaken.
No one builds the case for viewing Glasnost (in Russian, "opening" or "public airing of problems") as the overpowering cause of the fall of the Soviet state better than does Scott Shane, yet another of the crew of top-flight American journalists who were on the scene and whose witness to this key moment in history proved wisely informed. Shane, like Smith and Kaiser before him, and his more recent contemporaries Remnick and Satter, is an Ivy League-trained scholar cum reporter, in Shane's case for the Baltimore Sun, who speaks and reads the Russian language with uncommon fluency for an American. And like his reportorial kinsmen, he occasionally slips his objective moorings the better to authenticate his liberal bona fides, but, this notwithstanding, the work of these men is characterized by a clear-eyed ability to go beneath the surface and come up with weighty analyses.
Shane, in his book Dismantling Utopia (1994), dismisses Gorbyachev's charismatic personality and the intriguing power plays of Soviet politics as catalytic factors in the downfall of the regime in favor of the role played by the newly-proffered availability of "information." "Information," Shane boldly asserts, "slew the totalitarian giant."
Simply put, Shane's argument is that for seventy years the Soviet leadership held a monopoly on information and in so doing, acquired and maintained power. This resulted in "blindfolding the regime" to a phony reality of its own making. Gorbyachev saw this fraudulent picture as one of the major reasons the economy was substandard and hoped by slowly and judiciously releasing information to jump start productivity while at the same time plowing under the encrusted bureaucracy he viewed rightly as one of the major impediments to economic growth.
Shane brilliantly compares the age-old censorship that existed under the Czar with the system of information-control established by the Bolshevik regime. For one thing, the astounding increase in literacy achieved by the Communist system paradoxically compelled the Reds to clamp down the information lid. After all, so many readers were now potential consumers of the printed word and thus in jeopardy of being swayed the wrong way, all the more reason to eliminate free press and speech.
Secondly, since the Reds came to power by means of a coup facilitated in part by anti-Czarist and anti-Kerensky handbills and newspapers, who give potential opponents the means to overthrow one's hard-earned handiwork. And thirdly, because of the need to disseminate the Soviet's "messianic ideology," the state was bound to pursue such an end unimpeded by contrasting ideologies. Intellectuals, furthermore, would be enlisted as Stalin so aptly put it, as "the engineers of human souls."
Shane is best when portraying how the Communist-controlled economy confounded the role "pricing" plays in determining what works and doesn't in the real world. It was the freeing up of prices that Gorbyachev, with the help of clear-eyed economic advisors, foresaw as the key to improving the Soviet economy. But with the implementation of competitive pricing it was clear the public, as well as the arteriosclerotic system of collective farms and command-driven industries, hadn't a clue how to react: they had no sense of what a competitive system required. Shane quotes an eighty-year-old Orthodox priest's reaction to it all: "There's no hope, because there's no faith. People don't believe in God. They don't believe in the Communist party. They've forgotten how to work."
Richly ironic is the role the KGB played in unleashing the early "perestroika" or "restructuring" campaign in the late 80s that subsequently led to Glasnost and collapse. The "security state" alone by virtue of its bureaucracy of data gathers and informers had a rather accurate picture of the sorry state the country was in and thus understood better than anyone the need for reform. With this in view "perestroika," as originally envisioned both by Gorbachev and the KGB was in implementation, if not design, vague. The general idea was to strive for technological modernization, greater discipline, and an end to corruption; and the hope was that such a campaign would vindicate Soviet ideology, not denigrate it. But the program's opacity proved its undoing.
For when ordinary people found more out about the outside world and their own history, they increasingly ignored "perestroika" and commenced openly to turn against the regime in favor of the growing feeling that at long last they might be able to obtain a "normal country," a country without shortages and where people could read, say, and write what they wanted without fear. This notion became even more dramatic in the republics where old nationalistic yearnings surfaced and rapidly gained popular currency.
To Shane this dissipation of "fear" was crucial in bringing down the regime. When long held dissidents returned from the camps and told their stories; when the works of pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were allowed to freely circulate; when in 1987 the movie "Repentance," an incredibly deft allegory condemning the evils of a mythical Georgia dictator -- widely interpreted by audiences to be Stalin -- was shown throughout the country; and when all these things happened without arrests and recriminations then indeed the people were ready to believe a "new country" could very well be in the offing.
Particularly compelling was the recounting of the millions of slain innocents. An estimated 75 million people in the Soviet Union had relatives either killed or imprisoned at the hand of state terror with the executed alone approaching 35 million. Both Remnick and Satter tell grisly stories of the exhuming of a series of KGB burial pits discovered by a handful of determined souls morally stricken by the need to reclaim the past. Moreover, in the Baltic states and Ukraine the Glasnost-driven revelations of the tainted fruit of the Nazis-Soviet pact and the "terror famine" respectively played into the hands of the growing independence movements afoot in those regions.
It comes as no surprise that the press and television in particular played central roles in the Glasnost spectacle. What is revealing is the zest with which Soviet newspaper and magazine editors and television producers fled from the confines of the party line to the realm of objectivity in reporting news and openness in offering commentary. Equally worth noting is the public's rush to read and watch what these truth seekers and tellers had to say.
Gorbyachev, who properly was heralded for his photogenic personality, had for a time wooed successfully goodly chunks of the Soviet citizenry, not to mention a growing assemblage of Western leaders and CNN views from around the globe. His skill in this realm, however, caused him to overreach and he was forced to pay a price.
This is seen in the General Secretary's decision to allow TV coverage of the first Congress of People's Deputies where a handful of critics were granted the opportunity to take a crack at the excesses of the party and the KGB. And while few Soviet citizens possessed a car, almost every house and apartment from Moldavia to Sakhalin sprouted a TV antenna. The impact on the public of such exposure was palpable and spawned the demand for even more openness, a demand met with a flood of anything-goes TV news and talk shows which became overnight hits. Eventually TV personalities would be among those elected to the new parliament. And rock and roll was waiting in the wings, an early indicator of the rapid alienation of Soviet youth from the what had gone before.
Gorbyachev even granted permission for polling of the population. The All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion compiled results between 1989 and 1991 seeking answers to sweeping ideological questions such as "does the Community Party deserve your trust" and the public's reaction to the violent Soviet invasion of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in January 1991.
It's Shane's opinion that all of this accumulated from 1987 to 1991 in a withering away of what he calls the "Soviet illusion" and that the "word picture had been wrecked not by tanks and bombs but by facts and opinions, by the release of information bottled up for decades."
It should be clear by now that this paper does not attempt to connect the dots of significant political and economic events from Gorbyachev's rise to leadership in 1985 to the aborted coup of August 1991; nor do I seek to bring closure by addressing the Yeltsin era. But some "dots" were unquestionably major. Gorbyachev's design to hold free elections in March 1989, the first since 1917, comes to mind, as does permitting Sukharov permission to speak at the May 1989 meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies. Allowing Poland and East Germany to break free in 1989 certainly warrants consideration along with the decision to repeal Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, thus allowing non-Communist parties permission to compete for power ranks high indeed. Zbignew Breszinski on PBS, for example, claimed this decision occasioned the end of Bolschevism and the beginning of a form of neo-Menshivism or democratic socialism. The aborted invasion of Vilnius mentioned above no doubt will have its votaries among future historians. After all, it severely tarred Gorbyachev's image as peacemaker. And there are those who will see Yeltsin's role in determinedly pushing Russian nationalism, a role that reached its apogee with his leap atop the tank during the coup attempt, as decisively important as any. The list seemingly is endless. Take your pick!
With a nod to Thomas Carlyle's view that "great men" command history, one cannot escape Gorbyachev's presence in all this. The fact that he still is lionized by the liberal left, at least in the West, does not go unnoticed. He pops up now at this world peace conference and that ecological fest, his financial future assured as speaking fees will carry him far into the next century. But it will not be forgotten that not only did he live and die via his public image (the Russians soured on him at a remarkably early date) but that he sincerely believed in the soundness of socialism, believing that all that was needed to set the system right was to lift the heavy hand of the nomenklutura and toadying apparatchiks. Success, he thought, would follow. He was proved wrong. At heart he was a Marxist-Leninist and evidence suggests he remains one to this day.