In 1969, a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik wrote an essay called “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” It predicted the demise of the Soviet system, most likely in a conflict with China. Amalrik, as it turned out, was wrong about a war with China, but he was only off about the end of the USSR by a few years. No one took Amalrik very seriously at the time; I was assigned his book, like most young graduate students in Soviet affairs, primarily to critique it. Today, people with almost no memory of the period accept the Soviet collapse as just another inevitable historical moment.
But did it have to happen? Could the Soviet Union have won the Cold War? Or at the least, could the Soviet Union have survived until today, and remained a viable competitor to the United States while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, or the centennial of the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 2022?
Counterfactual history, the game of “what if,” is an intellectually hazardous exercise. No one can really explain what didn’t actually happen. And in any case, why bother? Maybe the Persians could have beaten the ancient Greeks; maybe Columbus could have taken a wrong turn and been lost at sea; maybe the first atomic bomb could have been a dud and convinced everyone to go back to the drawing board. But the Persians did lose, Columbus did make it across the Atlantic, and the Trinity test did light the sky with nuclear fire. It would take a lifetime to imagine the alternatives, none of which are real.
The reason we even think about these alternate possibilities, however, is to prevent us from making the mistake of believing in inevitability. The inability to see alternatives leads to lazy strategic thinking, which is why so many programs—including the department I once chaired at the Naval War College, Strategy and Policy—use counterfactual history. Otherwise, we risk failures of strategic imagination. I will never forget, for example, the military student I had many years ago who insisted that the American victory in the War of Independence was inevitable. What would it even look like, he sputtered, if North America had stayed British?
There was a long silence in the room until one of his classmates quietly suggested the alternative with two words: “Like Canada?”
Especially for many of my younger students, the victory of the American-led coalition of democracies now seems like a natural end to a struggle that really wasn’t all that dangerous, and whose outcome was foreordained. But to the people who fought the Cold War, there were many days where it all seemed to be a lot more tenuous. There were many moments where this planetary conflict— as I called it in a 2003 book, the fight to “win the world” —with the Soviet Union seemed a near-run thing. With that in mind, let’s consider five historical periods where different choices could have led, if not to global victory, at least to survival and a fighting chance for the since-departed Land of the Soviets.
1938: Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists
Was Stalinism an inevitable outcome of the Soviet experiment? This is one that historians of the Soviet period have long loved to argue about , and it won't be settled here. But it is undeniable that Stalin's purges of the Soviet military and the Communist Party struck down some of the best and brightest from the generation of the Revolution. Shortly after leading Bolshevik Sergei Kirov was gunned down (on Stalin’s secret orders) in Leningrad in 1934, Stalin initiated a cyclone of murder and repression that exterminated mostly imaginary enemies in the Party and the military.
To replace all this slaughtered talent, Stalin promoted younger people with little experience (but whose loyalty was now beyond question) into positions of great authority. Western Sovietologists used to call these people "The Class of '38," because they leapfrogged into senior jobs when the purges ended in 1938 to replace the men who'd been shot. This resulted in bizarre personnel situations; in the military, for example, Stalin wiped out so many officers that the military academies had to be graduated early when the Nazis attacked in 1941. Young twenty-somethings who might have been lieutenants were suddenly given senior commands as majors, colonels, even generals.
In the Party, the young civilians who were brought to the fore not only lacked expertise, they lacked courage and initiative. They had, really, only one important skill: they knew how to survive in Stalinist Russia. Their sense of self-preservation would serve them well in the daily grind of Soviet life, but they had no vision and no ability to deal with crises. Stalin, like the ancient Greek solons, cut down the tallest stalks of wheat in his field, and all that was left was the kind of mediocrity that led to Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and a host of lesser, deservedly forgotten incompetents.