The Last Empire

Sunday, January 30, 2000

All empires have come to an end sooner or later, usually as the result of long decay culminating in military defeat. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire took at least two centuries; even after its collapse, its successor state in the East, Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. The tsarist empire lasted for more than four and a half centuries; its agony, accompanied by a succession of military debacles and the emergence of an aggressive revolutionary movement, spanned half a century. But the Soviet Union disintegrated at the seeming peak of its world influence, without a shot being fired, almost instantaneously.

No wonder, therefore, that the causes of this occurrence have intrigued many minds, the more so that hardly anyone had foreseen it; the consensus of expert opinion held that the Soviet Union was here to stay, a stable regime capable of coping with any challenge. This perception provided the theoretical underpinning of the policy of détente; like it or not, we were told, we must accommodate ourselves as best we could to the existence of the USSR and its bloc.

Before proceeding to discuss the various explanations of the Soviet collapse, a few words need to be said about the problem of historical "causes." Probably no issue is harder for the historian to deal with because causes are disparate: they may be incidental, they may be substantive, or they may be long term; in any case, in each humans play a progressively diminishing role.

Surveying the secondary literature on the fall of the Soviet Union, one finds each author focusing on a particular cause as decisive for the outcome: some stress incidental factors, others substantive ones, and others yet systemic ones, embedded in the nature of the Soviet regime. As we will see below, a variety of causes contributed to the eventual collapse. Ultimately, though, the Soviet Union collapsed because it was inherently weak, unstable, and fatally susceptible to shocks—both internal and external—that a healthy regime is able to withstand.


Among the incidental factors, three stand out: Afghanistan, Chernobyl, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

One observer argues that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a major cause of the union’s collapse because it undermined public support for aggressive foreign policies, inhibiting Moscow from resorting to military force to crush the so-called counterrevolution in Poland, which facilitated the unraveling of its East European empire.

The explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in April 1986 undermined the authority of the government not so much because it revealed the inadequate safety of Soviet reactors but because the government, even though committed to glasnost, lied about it. It took Pravda ten days to report the disaster, and then it did so only because it could no longer prevaricate—the disaster had become widely known from foreign broadcasts. That delay cost many lives because it slowed down evacuation efforts and thus brought discredit on the government.

The intervention in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl incident are excellent examples of incidental causes—the kind that can trigger a chain of catastrophic events but only if the body politic is already unwell. Both could most likely have been checked had the Soviet Union been as sound as the majority of experts claimed it was. After all, the far more costly and contentious U.S. intervention in Vietnam did not bring down the U.S. government or even inflict lasting damage on it.

A third example of an incidental cause is the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. Chosen to head the party and the state after a succession of decrepit leaders, he was expected to infuse fresh blood into an anemic regime without changing its essential features. But Gorbachev turned out to be a weak, vacillating politician, unable to decide between progress and stability. In the end, against his own wishes, he eviscerated the system that still had some life left in it.


When we turn to the next more-profound level of causation, we confront factors that, although not immune to manipulation, were more difficult to cope with because they were either embedded in the system or lay outside the rulers’ control. Resolving them, where possible, could only have been accomplished by tampering with the system, which carried obvious risks. Among these, three stand out: economic stagnation, the aspirations of the national minorities, and intellectual dissent.

That the Soviet economy in the 1980s was in deep trouble was a matter of common knowledge. The CIA forecast virtually zero growth, and even within the Soviet Union voices were heard calling for major changes in the way the economy was run. A heavy and unanticipated blow was the sudden drop in the price of petroleum, the country’s leading export commodity and the prime earner of hard currency; the decline in earnings from this source forced Moscow to resort to heavy borrowing abroad. Attempts to liberalize and rationalize the way the economy operated encountered staunch resistance from the bureaucracy, whose livelihood depended on its perquisites. The bureaucracy’s defiance, passive and active, impelled Gorbachev to seek popular support by introducing representative institutions. This effectively destroyed the party’s monopoly on political power—the essential feature of the regime instituted by Lenin—and soon brought the whole edifice down.

The Soviet Union disintegrated at the seeming peak of its world influence, without a shot being fired, almost instantaneously.

Forged during and immediately after the civil war, the Soviet Union was an empire in the fullest sense of the word, even if, in contrast to European empires whose colonies lay overseas, its territory was contiguous to the metropolis. After World War II the USSR expanded to include most of Eastern Europe. In contrast to Western empires, which subjected exclusively non-Europeans to colonial rule, the Russian empire also subjugated European nations. In an age when all other empires had been broken up, either voluntarily or by force, the Russian empire could not last; history was not likely to make it a unique exception to the worldwide process of decolonization.

But the Soviet authorities preferred to ignore this reality, pretending that they were not an empire but another "melting pot" in which diverse ethnic groups dissolved their ethnic identity in a common "Soviet" nationality. Of course, this was fiction; unlike the United States, whose population consisted overwhelmingly of immigrants, the Soviet Union’s inhabitants occupied their historic homelands. Letting go of the empire was exceedingly difficult for the Russians because their nation-state had grown up concurrently with the empire to the point where the two had become indistinguishable. Furthermore, they had traditionally compensated for their poverty and backwardness with the proud awareness that they had the largest state in the world.

So they did nothing and things soon got out of hand. The instant the politicians of the non-Russian republics sensed the center wobbling, they began to clamor for national rights. Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia declared their independence in March 1991; Latvia, in May; Russia, Uzbekistan, and Moldova, in June. Ukraine, the largest and most populous of the non-Russian republics, and Belorussia declared themselves sovereign states in July 1991, a decision that was ratified on December 1 by more than 90 percent of Ukraine’s population. In a desperate attempt to preserve the union, Gorbachev drafted a new constitutional charter that would have maintained the substance of the old imperial arrangement while making some formal concessions to the subject nations, but he was overtaken by events. The formal dissolution of the USSR took place in December 1991 as a result of an agreement among the heads of state of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine. Thus in the literal sense the collapse of the Soviet Union was directly caused by the nationalities.

Mikhail Gorbachev turned out to be a weak, vacillating politician..

But then where in the hierarchy of causes are we to place intellectual dissent? Lenin well understood the need for securing full control of the media; the very first act of the dictatorship that he set up on October 26, 1917, asserted a monopoly of the Communist Party on the press. His government was as yet too weak to enforce this measure, a throwback to the reign of Nicholas I, but within a few years communist control of the printed word was complete. My impression, gained on many trips to the USSR from 1957 onward, was that the Soviet authorities did not much care what their subjects thought; their concern was exclusively with what they said. They strove to create a spurious unanimity of opinion in order to convey the sense that dissent from the official line was an aberration, which had the effect of driving independent thought inward, creating a condition akin to intellectual schizophrenia. The regime never came close to enforcing unanimity of opinion, but it was eminently successful in eliminating any public expressions of dissent from the officially sanctioned "line."

Immediately after Stalin’s death, when his successors began to loosen the bonds of censorship, information about the country and the world at large began to seep in, first in a trickle, then in a stream, and finally in a torrent. Why they relaxed the censorship is not clear, but it must be assumed they thought they could do so without endangering their authority. For a while this was true. But unexpectedly in the 1960s independent dissident voices emerged that confronted the regime head on. In the 1970s, following the signing of the Helsinki accords, in which the USSR committed itself to tolerating a certain amount of freedom in exchange for foreign guarantees of its European empire, these voices became bolder. Amplified by foreign broadcasts that, despite intense jamming, managed to get through, those dissident voices broke the spell. With each passing year, fewer Soviet citizens were afraid to speak out. By the late 1980s, censorship had broken down altogether and a remarkably diffuse range of opinion burst into the open. Here then we have three more causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse, each contributing its share, although it would be futile to try to determine which carried greater weight.

Last but not least among these factors must be mentioned the policy of containment pursued by the United States jointly with its allies from 1947 until the Soviet regime’s end. It was only partly successful. With the conquest of China by the Communists in 1949, the communist empire broke out of its Soviet enclave. Subsequently, pro-Soviet regimes, subsidized and propped up by Moscow, sprang up in other parts of Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America. Still, the determination of the Western powers, especially the United States, to thwart this expansion cost Moscow dearly. The large sums spent on financing proxy regimes made a serious dent in the Soviet budget, strained as it already was, while the break with China cast doubts on the claims of communist unity and the unstoppable advance of the communist cause.


On reflection, however, the decisive catalyst—the cause of causes, the one that ensured that the Soviet regime would fall sooner or later, whether slowly and gradually or suddenly, no matter what it did and no matter what was done to it—appears to have been the utopian nature of its objectives.

When we use the adjective utopian we mean something that "is too good to be true," in the words of the dictionary, something "impossibly ideal." But, as a matter of fact, virtually all utopias depict an environment of dreary coercion in which the citizens live under unrelenting control and face dire punishment for disobedience.

Why utopias are coercive presents no mystery. Their common striving is to dissolve individual human beings in the community in order to achieve perfect equality. Experience indicates that it is impossible to attain such a condition except by coercion and even then for a limited time only. The problem with utopian schemes is that they presume to determine what people should want rather than respond to what they actually do want. And since, beyond basic survival of themselves and their families, people’s wants vary enormously, force must be applied to have them want the same. This is why utopian communities have always failed and why such communities imposed from above, rather than formed voluntarily, are even more liable to failure.

The Soviet authorities did not much care what their subjects thought—their concern was exclusively with what they said. They strove to create an artificial unanimity of opinion in order to convey the sense that dissent from the official line was an aberration.

The experiment at utopia launched in Russia in October 1917 was the grandest, most audacious attempt in human history completely to refashion society and individuals, to create a "new man," and in the process to subvert virtually the entire heritage of human history. The question arises: Why was this attempt made and why, of all places, in Russia?

Liberal thought placed its reliance on legislation and instruction, that is, on nonviolent means of transforming human personalities and behavior. Socialism was prone to rely on violence because it assumed that the decisive factor in history was property relations and that no permanent changes could be effected without the abolition of private property in the means of production. This required coercion since the owners would not willingly give up their belongings. In the West, where the traditions of legality and property were strong, socialism over time tended to lose its revolutionary character and turn into evolutionary social-democracy.

It was different in Russia and other non-Western countries where these traditions were missing or weakly developed. In Russia socialism acquired at once a coercive character, blending with the legacy of autocratic rule and hostility to property. No European socialist would have defined the "proletarian dictatorship" as did Lenin to mean "nothing else than power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion." There were no bounds to the Bolsheviks’ ambition because there was no culture of moderation in Russia and no society able to resist effectively their plans to remake the country from top to bottom.

Lenin was aware that the violence that he intended to apply to fundamentally alter human nature had its limits. In a secret communication to the Politburo written in March 1922 in which he ordered mass executions of Orthodox clergymen, he noted:

One wise writer [Machiavelli] on matters of statecraft rightly said that if it is necessary to resort to certain brutalities, they must be carried out in the most energetic fashion and in the briefest possible time because the masses will not tolerate the prolonged application of brutality.

Unfortunately for him and his successors, the application of brutality—in other words, terror—never succeeded in creating the new man or the new society that was its avowed aim. Terror, therefore, became a regular component of the government apparatus, creating a condition of permanent tension between state and society.

In their pursuit of utopia, the Communists violated everything we know from anthropology that human beings, even in the most primitive circumstances, desire and practice. They virtually outlawed religion, property, and free speech, which are common to all societies, regardless of their level of civilization. Any regime that deliberately sets out to repress these institutions is inherently unstable and therefore prone to be fatally affected by adverse developments, whether of an incidental or substantive nature, developments that normal societies readily absorb.