How the Soviet Union Thought Itself to Death

A man from West Berlin uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Glasnost, meant to save the USSR, wound up being its death blow.

May-June 2017

Yet the historian of the future might well see the present situation of enmity between the two great outliers of Western civilization after the Cold War as a strange interlude. Viewed from the perspective of the last three centuries, Russia and America might be thought to have had a certain geopolitical community of fate, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed. They were on the same page in the American Revolution, in the American Civil War, in World War I and II. Those who brought about the fall of the Soviet Union could not imagine that they were doing anything less than ending the Cold War. Even now, Putin’s Russia reaches out to the world as a conservative stabilizing Metternichean power in the hope that national interests will arrive at a sensible international harmony. One might also think that embracing Realpolitik would call up, not just hostility to Western “hegemonism” but the spirits of prior openings to the West, the Franco-Russian alliance, the Franco-Soviet alliance, Rapallo, the Grand Alliance, and even the time in the sixties when Charles de Gaulle spoke of the Europeanization of the USSR.

Glasnost was moving in the direction of an enlightened intellectual and spiritual consensus around the actual democratic and socially progressive practice of the great powers. In this lens, America and Russia might be seen as evolving in their radically different ways toward a kind of democratic alternance. The United States might one day discover that its ambition to lead the world to freedom is best served, not by extremist economic and political ideology, but by an alternance in its own politics between a nationalist and realist right and a liberal or social-democratic left. Russia might one day discover that an alternance of its own will give it the most influence on the world, one between a strong state tradition and a social-democratic domestic model.

In the age of the Internet, we are experiencing a new age of Enlightenment, in which no state can dictate what the world will think. Great states have their media voice on every great question. Things like advanced technology and central banking, never before widely reported or understood, are openly discussed before a world audience. Every great state intervenes in the ongoing debate. It becomes less easy to dismiss as disinformation (“fake news”) whatever another state reveals or contends. In order to speak effectively to an increasingly sophisticated world, propaganda has to go beyond mere national assertion. As the states give their own views, they also reveal their own values, but what they say about others inevitably causes them also to think about how it applies to them, as those who attempted to de-ideologize international relations found out in the Gorbachev era. Perhaps, as we are all forced to get to know each other better and talk more about each other, we will like each other less. Or, instead, we might evolve some sort of larger, more enlightened twenty-first-century global-intellectual encounter.

Anthony D’Agostino is the author of Soviet Succession Struggles: From Lenin to Gorbachev (Allen and Unwin, 1988), Gorbachev’s Revolution, 1985–1991 (Macmillan, 1998), The Russian Revolution, 1917–1945 (Praeger, 2012), and The Rise of Global Powers: International Politics in the Era of the World Wars (Cambridge, 2012).

Image: A man from West Berlin uses a hammer and chisel to chip off a piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain