1988: The China Syndrome
China does everything better, right?
When protesters assembled in Tienanmen Square in 1989, China's old Reds called it "counter-revolution," and sent in the tanks. Meanwhile, they made it clear that economic liberalization could continue everywhere else, thus offering the Chinese people a deal: stick with us and get rich, or oppose us and get shot. Couldn't Mikhail Gorbachev have tried the same thing?
Well, in a way, he did. Unfortunately, "in a way" pretty much describes how Gorbachev did everything during his brief stint as Soviet leader. He tried a little repression, and a little liberalization, a little of this and a little of that. Western admirers hate to admit this, but the basic problem is that Mikhail Gorbachev didn't know what he was doing. Mentored by the men who were left after Stalin—have I mentioned the Class of '38 yet?—he was and is, to his very bones, a product of the Soviet system.
In fairness, by 1985, it may have been too late for Gorbachev and for the USSR. And Gorbachev had a unique problem that the Chinese did not: an Eastern European alliance system chafing under socialist oppression and mismanagement. But it is at least notionally possible that after the Soviet Communist Party plenum meeting of early 1987, or later during the 19th Party Conference in 1988, Gorbachev might have laid down the law: I will use force, and I will use the market, and you people out there can take your pick of which one I use more.
The problem for Gorbachev was that some of his worst enemies in the Soviet regime were also the guys in the military and the cops who'd have to get out there and start shooting people if he gave the order. Clearly, they were willing to do it, as they showed by killing demonstrators in the Baltics and in Georgia, incidents over which Gorbachev now claims he had no control. (Well, who was running the place then, Mikhail Sergeevich?) Whether they were willing to do it for Gorbachev is another matter.
The China temptation, both in terms of force and finances, was debated in Moscow throughout the late Soviet period, but the Kremlin didn't know how to make it work, perhaps because it was unworkable. It required letting people in the Soviet republics make their own market choices, while enforcing strict loyalty to a Party in which Soviet citizens years earlier had lost their faith. In the end, Gorbachev fell victim to the high-minded rhetoric of his Bolshevik predecessors: they vowed that their federation was a voluntary association of states, a claim that could only stand so long as it was never tested.
When it came time either to open the Soviet economy, or to clamp down on Soviet dissent, Gorbachev did neither and instead invented a new office for himself as “President of the USSR,” as though a title alone could stop the centrifugal forces he himself had set in motion. That might explain why, when he ran for president of the new Russian Federation back in the 1990s, he got a whopping 386,000 votes out of the millions cast. He might be popular in the West, but the Russians know a feckless Soviet bureaucrat when they see one. It was the West’s good luck that he was on duty as the Soviet project ground to a halt.
In the end, I admit to my own bias here: I think the Soviet Union fell because the Soviet idea was as insanely unworkable as the Nazi, Imperial Japanese, Napoleonic and other dreams of imperial conquest. (U.S. policy played a role, too, especially in determining whether the USSR collapsed inward or exploded outward.) The Soviet Union, as former Soviet officer and later Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov once put it, was hatched by a bunch of vicious but ineffectual intellectuals who had no idea how to govern a country. Soon, they turned on each other and eventually, the revolution ate its own children.
I don't believe that Trotsky, or Kirov or Bukharin could have saved the Soviet Union, because the USSR was based on a lie at its very foundation. We can all be glad that history, and maybe a dash of divine providence, obviated any of the alternate paths here. But we had best think about them, because we once again face enemies overseas dedicated to the destruction of our ideas and values. They are not as dangerous as the old Soviet Union, but they are just as committed to our destruction. Fortunately for us, we've faced worse—and prevailed.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter:@TheWarRoom_Tom.
This article first appeared in 2014;
Image: A man holds a Soviet flag on the embankment after the Victory Day Parade in Sevastopol, Crimea June 24, 2020. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak