The Death of the Soviet Union: How a Great Power Falls Apart

All countries end. Every society has its own rock bottom, obscured by darkness until impact is imminentBut in working systematically through the potential causes of the worst outcome imaginable, one might get smarter about the difficult, power-altering choices that need to be made now—those that will make politics more responsive to social change and one’s country more worthy of its time on the historical stage. The powerful aren’t accustomed to thinking this way. 

By  for Foreign Affairs

On November 11, 1980, a car filled with writers was making its way along a rain-slick highway to a conference in Madrid. The subject of the meeting was the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, and in the vehicle were some of the movement’s longsuffering activists: Vladimir Borisov and Viktor Fainberg, both of whom had endured horrific abuse in a Leningrad psychiatric hospital; the Tatar artist Gyuzel Makudinova, who had spent years in internal exile in Siberia; and her husband, the writer Andrei Amalrik, who had escaped to Western Europe after periods of arrest, rearrest, and confinement. 

Amalrik was at the wheel. Around 40 miles from the Spanish capital, the car swerved out of its lane and collided with an oncoming truck. Everyone survived except Amalrik, his throat pierced by a piece of metal, probably from the steering column. At the time of his death at the age of 42, Amalrik was certainly not the best-known Soviet dissident. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had published The Gulag Archipelago, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and immigrated to the United States. Andrei Sakharov had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was forced to accept in absentia because the Soviet government denied him an exit visa. But in the pantheon of the investigated, the imprisoned, and the exiled, Amalrik occupied a special place. 

Starting in the mid-1960s, a series of high-profile prosecutions of writers, historians, and other intellectuals under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had galvanized the country’s dissidents. To many observers in the West, this nascent democratic movement seemed to offer path toward deescalating the Cold War. In the summer of 1968, just weeks before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, The New York Times set aside three pages for an essay by Sakharov on “progress, peaceful coexistence, and intellectual freedom. In the era of nuclear weapons, Sakharov said, the West and the Soviet Union had no choice but to cooperate to ensure the survival of humankind. The two systems were already witnessing a “convergence,” as he put it. They would have to learn to live together, leveling out national distinctions and taking steptoward planetwide governance.

The piece was a persecuted dissenter’s struggle to diagnose early Brezhnev-era malaise, but Amalrik ended up identifying a more general political syndrome: the process through which a great power succumbs to self-delusion. By the 1960s, the Soviet government had hammered into existence a country that citizens under Lenin or Stalin would have thought impossible. Consumer goods, single-family apartments, a space program, international sports heroes, a globe-spanning airline—the successes of Soviet society were on full display. Yet more than any other thinker at the time, Amalrik grasped the fact that countries decay only in retrospect. Powerful states, as well as their inhabitants, tend to be congenital conservatives when it comes to their own futures. The “comfort cult,” as he called it—the tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe “that ‘Reason will prevail’ and that ‘Everything will be all right’”—is seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing, and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this.

Amalrik also provided a kind of blueprint for analytic alienation. It is actually possible, he suggested, to think your way through the end of days. The method is to practice living with the most unlikely outcome you can fathom and then to work backward, systematically and carefully, from the what-if to the here’s-why. The point isn’t to pick one’s evidence to fit a particular conclusion. It is rather to jolt oneself out of the assumption of linear change—to consider, for a moment, how some future historian might recast implausible concerns as inevitable ones.

Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalrik’s work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crises—the faltering of the institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes. His prophecy was time delimited, ending in 1984, but it isn’t hard to hear its ghostly echo today. To know how great powers end, one could do worse than study the last one that actually did. 

A COUNTRY ON THE PRECIPICE

Amalrik began his essay by setting out some of his qualifications for the task. As a history student, he had researched Kievan Rus, the medieval principality that gave rise to modern-day Russia and Ukraine, and suffered for some of his findings. He had been expelled from Moscow State University for suggesting that it was Norse traders and colonizers, not Slavs, who were the real founders of Russian statehood—a claim now widely accepted by historians but that at the time ran counter to official Soviet history writing. As an intellectual and friend of writers and journalists, he had been closely associated with the democratic movement in the Soviet Union and knew its major players. For people in the West, he said, he was what a talking fish would represent to an ichthyologist: a miraculous communicator of the secrets of an alien world.

It was a great mistake, Amalrik continued, to believe that one could make political predictions about a country by surveying its main ideological currents. People might cleave themselves into rival camps or be sorted into them by outside experts: hardline leftists, nationalists, liberals, and the like. But these groups are always amorphous. Their constituents display little real agreement among themselves about what constitutes orthodox belief or a coherent political program. 

A better way to think about political cleavages was to observe which portions of society are most threatened by change and which ones seek to hasten it—and then to imagine how states might manage the differences between the two. Bureaucrats and politicians want to keep their jobs. Workers want a better standard of living. Intellectuals question old verities of national identity. These divides can create a survival problem for the institutions of state power. “Self-preservation is clearly the dominant drive,” Amalrik wrote. “The only thing [the government] wants is for everything to go on as before: authorities to be recognized, the intelligentsia to keep quiet, no rocking of the system by dangerous and unfamiliar reforms.” But what happens in times of rapid disruption, when economic transition, social evolution, and generational shifts make it impossible for things to go on as before? Repression is always an option, but smart rulers will use their power selectivelyprosecuting a writer, say, or dismissing a senior official who has fallen afoul of the leadership. Even more enlightened authorities might ensure self-preservation “through gradual changes and piecemeal reforms, as well as by replacing the old bureaucratic elite with a more intelligent and reasonable group.” 

Governments are good at recognizing the faults in other places and times but terrible judges of the injustices built into their own foundations.

But one should be skeptical about the degree to which leaders who trumpet reform are in fact committed to enacting it. Governments are good at recognizing the faults in other places and times, but they are terrible judges of the injustices built into their own foundations. This was especially the case for great powers such as the Soviet Union, Amalrik believed. If a country could sail the seas unrivaled and put humans into outer space, it had little incentive to look inward at what was rotten at the core. “The regime considers itself the acme of perfection and therefore has no wish to change its ways either of its own free will or, still less, by making concessions to anyone or anything.” Meanwhile, the old tools of repression (all-out Stalinism in the Soviet case) had been given up as backward and inhuman and were now too rusty to be functional. Society was becoming more complicated, more riven with difference, more demanding of the state but less convinced that the state could deliver. What was left was a political system far weaker than anyone—even those committed to its renewal—was able to recognize.

Of course, no one ever thinks their society is on the precipice. When he talked to his comrades, Amalrik reported that they just wanted things to calm down a bit, without really knowing how that might be achieved. Citizens tended to take their government as a given, as if there were no real alternative to the institutions and processes they had always known. Public discontent, where it existed, was most often directed not against the government as such but merely against certain of its faults. “Everybody is angered by the great inequalities in wealth, the low wages, the austere housing conditions, [and] the lack of essential consumer goods,” Amalrik wrote. So long as people believed that, by and large, things were getting better, they were content to hold fast to the ideology of reformism and the hope of gradual, positive change.

Up to this point in his argument, Amalrik was following an analytic line that would have been familiar to Sakharov and other dissidents. Stability and internal reform were always in tension. But he then made a leap by asking a simple question: Where is the breaking point? How long can a political system seek to remake itself before triggering one of two reactions—a devastating backlash from those most threatened by change or a realization by the change makers that their goals can no longer be realized within the institutions and ideologies of the present order? Here, Amalrik warned, great powers’ proclivity for self-delusion and self-isolation puts them at a particular disadvantage. They set themselves apart from the world, learning little from the accumulated stock of human experience. They imagine themselves immune to the ills affecting other places and systems. This same predisposition might trickle down through society. The various social strata could come to feel isolated from their regime and separated from one another. “This isolation has created for all—from the bureaucratic elite to the lowest social levels—an almost surrealistic picture of the world and of their place in it,” Amalrik concluded. “Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable.” 

Amalrik with his wife, artist Gyuzel Makudinova, at a press conference in the Netherlands, 1976
Amalrik with his wife, artist Gyuzel Makudinova, at a press conference in the Netherlands, 1976
Dutch National Archives / Wikimedia Commons

There was no reason to believe such a reckoning would threaten only a particular set of elites. Given the right circumstances, the country as a whole could be its ultimate casualty. In his own society, Amalrik identified four drivers of this process. One was the “moral weariness” engendered by an expansionist, interventionist foreign policy and the neverending warfare that ensued. Another was the economic hardship that a prolonged military conflict—in Amalrik’s imagination, a coming Soviet-Chinese war—would produce. A third was the fact that the government would grow increasingly intolerant of public expressions of discontent and violently suppress “sporadic eruptions of popular dissatisfaction, or local riots.” These crackdowns were likely to be especially brutal, he argued, when the suppressors—police or internal security troops—were “of a nationality other than that of the population that is rioting,” which would in turn “sharpen enmities among the nationalities.”

It was a fourth tendency, however, that would spell the real end of the Soviet Union: the calculation, by some significant portion of the political elite, that it could best guarantee its own future by jettisoning its relationship to the national capital. Amalrik supposed that this might occur among Soviet ethnic minorities“first in the Baltic area, the Caucasus and the Ukraine, then in Central Asia and along the Volga”a sequence that turned out to be exactly correct. His more general point was that in times of severe crisis, institutional elites face a decision point. Do they cling to the system that gives them power or recast themselves as visionaries who understand that the ship is sinking? Especially if the regime is seen to be “losing control over the country and even contact with reality,” canny leaders on the periphery have an incentive to preserve themselves and, in the process, simply ignore the directives of the higher-ups. In such an unstable moment, Amalrik said, some sort of major defeat—for example, “a serious eruption of popular discontent in the capital, such as strikes or an armed clash”—would be enough “to topple the regime.” In the Soviet Union, he concluded, this “will occur sometime between 1980 and 1985.”

ALL COUNTRIES END

Amalrik missed the precise date of his country’s disintegration by seven years. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to liberalize and democratize the state unleashed a set of forces that caused the Soviet Union to disappear, piecewise, over the course of 1991. At the end of that year, Gorbachev stepped down as president of a country that had faded away beneath him. Still, in the annals of political prognoses of world-historical events, Amalrik’s accuracy probably deserves a prize. He was certainly right about the big picture. In the Soviet case, reform was ultimately incompatible with the continuation of the state itself.

Amalrik was dead by the time Western academics and policy experts began to write their own late-century big histories: Paul Kennedy’s warning of the perils of imperial overstretch, Francis Fukuyama’s millenarian paean to liberal democracy, and Samuel Huntington’s neo-racist clash of civilizations. But in the early 1990s, Amalrik’s work finally came into its own. He turned out to be especially insightful on what would emerge after the Soviet demise: a congeries of independent countries, a new quasi commonwealth dominated by Russia, the entry of the Baltic republics into “a Pan-European federation,” and, in Central Asia, a renewed version of the old system, combining bits of Soviet-style ritual with local despotism. American conservatives came to cite him as a kind of Cassandra of the steppe. While globalists and antinuclear campaigners were stroking Sakharov and feeding their own fantasies of coexistence with a tyrannical empire, the argument went, they should have heeded Amalrik. Doing so might have forced an earlier confrontation with the teetering Soviet state—“Mr. Brezhnev, tear down this wall!”—and hastened the collapse of communism.

In the Soviet case, reform was ultimately incompatible with the continuation of the state itself.

There was also much that Amalrik got wrong. He misjudged the likelihood of a Soviet-Chinese war, which was one of the pillars of his analysis (although one might say the Soviet-Afghan conflict was a good stand-in: a drawn-out, exhausting war, prosecuted by decrepit leaders, which drained the Soviet government of resources and legitimacy). He overstated the violence associated with the Soviet collapse. It was far more peaceful than anyone might have expected, especially given the panoply of border disputes, clashing nationalisms, and elite rivalries churning through the world’s largest country. Within three decades, one of its successors, Russia, had even reconstituted itself as a great power with the ability to do something the Soviets never managed: to understand and exploit the principal social divisions of its rivals, from the United States to the United Kingdom, with significant political and strategic effect. Amalrik also failed to foresee the possibility of East-West convergence of a different kind: toward capitalist oligarchies that were surveillance obsessed, deeply unequal, selectively observant of human rights, dependent on global supply chains, and structurally vulnerable to both markets and microbes. He might have been surprised to learn that this was the form that Sakharov’s “peaceful coexistence” eventually took, at least for a while.

“Soviet rockets have reached Venus,” Amalrik wrote toward the end of his 1970 essay, “while in the village where I live potatoes are still dug by hand.” His country had invested in catching up to its rivals. It had worked hard to compete as a global superpower. But fundamental things had gone unattended. Its citizens were stuck at different way stations along the path of economic development, poorly understood by one another and by their rulers. In such a situation, a future of gradual democratization and fruitful cooperation with the West was a chimera, Amalrik felt. Faced with a series of external shocks and internal crises, and pursued by more dynamic and adaptable competitors abroad, his country had far less life in it than anyone at the time could see.

All countries end. Every society has its own rock bottom, obscured by darkness until impact is imminentAlready in the sixth century, Amalrik wrote, goats were grazing in the Roman Forum. As a theorist of his own condition, he was in many ways a fatalist. He believed that the Soviet Union lacked the nimbleness to engage in system-shaking reform and still survive, and he was correct. But his broader contribution was to show the citizens of other, differently structured countries how to worry well. He offered a technique for suspending one’s deepest political mythologies and posing questions that might seem, here and now, to lie at the frontier of crankery.

This method won’t reveal the secret of political immortality. (Remember those goats in the Forum.) But in working systematically through the potential causes of the worst outcome imaginable, one might get smarter about the difficult, power-altering choices that need to be made now—those that will make politics more responsive to social change and one’s country more worthy of its time on the historical stage. The powerful aren’t accustomed to thinking this way. But in the lesser places, among the dissidents and the displaced, people have had to be skilled in the art of self-inquiry. How much longer should we stay? What do we put in the suitcase? Here or there, how can I be of use? In life, as in politics, the antidote to hopelessness isn’t hope. It’s planning.

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