The peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago, on December 26, 1991, astonished nearly everyone in the democratic West. Up until the collapse of its empire, the Soviet Union appeared to have an inexhaustible reservoir of influence and power. Ronald Reagan might have believed—as he predicted in a 1982 speech before the British Parliament—that Marxism-Leninism would be discarded on the “ash heap of history.” But almost no one agreed with him. Even Richard Pipes, a Reagan advisor and a leading Russia historian, called the Soviet Union’s demise “unexpected.”
The resurgence of Russian belligerence, whatever its causes and objectives, makes it vital to remember how profoundly mistaken the majority of Western intelligentsia was about Soviet communism—and why.
Consider a sampling of opinion throughout the 1980s. Columbia University’s Seweryn Bialer insisted that “the Soviet Union is not now nor will be during the next decade in the throes of a true system crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.” MIT economist Lester Thurow called it “a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable.” Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith predicted smooth sailing ahead for the Soviet economy: “The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”
After Reagan’s Westminster speech, historian Robert Byrnes collected essays from thirty-five experts on the Soviet Union—all from the American academy—in a book entitled After Brezhnev. Their conclusion? The Cold War was here to stay. “The Soviet Union is going to remain a stable state, with a very stable, conservative, immobile government… We don't see any collapse or weakening of the Soviet system.”
The experts focused on external and materialistic signs of strength: small but steady growth in Soviet GDP and incomes, vast military expenditures, a seemingly stable empire, and a 5-million-strong military to patrol it. At a deep cultural level, however, the moral rot of Soviet society was taking its toll.
The decline was clear to those who took seriously the longings for political and religious freedom: the voices of Soviet dissidents and democratic resistance leaders in Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II not only legitimized these voices during his historic 1979 trip to Poland, but also helped to catalyze them. As he told a crowd of over a million people in Warsaw’s Victory Square:
Man is incapable of understanding himself fully without Christ. He cannot understand who he is, nor what his true dignity is, nor what his vocation is, nor what his final end is…Therefore, Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.Here is the dimension often missing in statecraft—missing, that is, among many of our political, governmental, and academic specialists. It is the power of religious belief to champion human rights, to defend the individual against the State, and to supply the courage to transform political societies.
Atheistic communism revealed itself as an assault on human nature. “It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history,” Reagan told his British audience, “by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.” Like Reagan, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher understood the spiritual dynamic. During her 1988 trip to Poland, Thatcher urged Poland's communist leadership to allow democratic reforms so that Poland and other Eastern European countries could “share fully in Europe’s culture, Europe’s freedom, and Europe’s justice—treasures which sprang from Christendom.” Western support for Poland’s Solidarity Movement, Reagan and Thatcher said, aimed to tap into the “spiritual energies” of those living under communist rule. This notion was the cornerstone of the Reagan administration’s 1983 national security strategy toward Eastern Europe “to loosen Moscow’s hold on the region while promoting the cause of human rights in individual East European countries.”
Secular-minded analysts tend to ignore the role of religion in international affairs. The CIA—which in 1979 failed to discern the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran—shared in the myopia about the Soviet Union’s weakness. As late as the summer of 1988, the CIA excluded the possibility of any significant changes in the satellite states of the Soviet Empire:
There is no reason to doubt [Gorbachev’s] willingness to intervene to preserve Communist Party rule and decisive Soviet influence in the region. For Gorbachev, as for his predecessors, the importance of Eastern Europe can hardly be exaggerated. It serves as a buffer zone, military and ideological, between the USSR and the West, a base for projecting Soviet power and influence throughout Europe and a conduit for Western trade and technology. It is a key external pillar of the Soviet system itself…There is no reason to doubt ultimate Soviet willingness to employ armed force to maintain Party rule and preserve the Soviet position in the region…The Berlin Wall will stay.It is no coincidence that Poland created the first crack in the Iron Curtain. It was Poland that gave birth to Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Eastern Bloc. Backed by the Vatican, Solidarity attracted millions of members, transforming itself into a spiritual and political revolution. In June 1989, when Poland’s communist leadership agreed to hold free elections, Solidarity candidates won 99 out of 100 seats in the legislature. “I blame the church,” complained an embittered General Wojciech Jaruzelski. “They are the main culprits.” The fire was lit: before the end of the year, virtually the entire Eastern Bloc—including Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany—had broken away from the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall came down.
The desire for freedom soon overwhelmed the Soviet Union itself. By March 1990, the Baltic states declared their independence from Moscow. Boris Yeltsin, a democratic reformer, was elected president of Russia and quit the Communist Party. Kremlin hardliners tried to cling to power in a failed coup, but their totalitarian cause was hopelessly discredited throughout the empire. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary on Christmas Day in1991. The next day, the Supreme Soviet declared the end of the Soviet Union. The Soviet flag, which had flown over the Kremlin for seventy years, was mothballed.
Today’s revisionists claim all of this was inevitable: nothing the West did during the Cold War to challenge the Soviets made a difference. As Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, once boasted: “The doves in the great debate of the past 40 years were right all along.” The reality, however, is that the doves were desperately wrong; they were naïve about the perverse nature of communism and indifferent to the human desire for freedom. None of the revisionists, in fact, predicted the sudden meltdown of the Soviet Union. Just the opposite. They belittled the West’s efforts to support Solidarity. They rejected Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and denounced his policies to exploit its moral and spiritual bankruptcy.
In this sense, Mikhail Gorbachev possessed greater insight into the fatal weaknesses of Soviet communism than many of his Western admirers. Gorbachev realized that the best and brightest of Soviet society had abandoned communism because “it does not respect the man, [it] oppresses him spiritually and politically.” During his remarkable address on Christmas Day announcing his resignation, Gorbachev explained: “This society has acquired freedom. It has been freed politically and spiritually, and this is the most important achievement that we have yet fully come to grips with.”
This achievement, the liberation of half a continent from Soviet totalitarianism, defied the purveyors of doubt and defeatism. It was made possible because the forces of freedom, buoyed by Western leadership, did not shrink back at the moment of crisis. Today, Russia and the West may be heading toward a new crisis—another contest between freedom and authoritarianism. If the West is to prevail, it must learn to draw strength again from the deepest wells of its democratic faith.