The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire
by David Pryce-Jones
Holt. 456 pp. $30.00
The Soviet empire did die a “strange death.” As challenges to Moscow’s hegemony rolled across Eastern Europe in 1989, many observers anticipated that the Kremlin would unleash a terrible wave of repression. “In the light of Marxism-Leninism and past Soviet practice,” writes David Pryce-Jones, a foreign correspondent for many years for the Daily Telegraph of London and the author of several widely praised books on international affairs, “nothing else was to be expected.” But in the end the USSR went quietly into the night. The great riddle Pryce-Jones attempts to solve here is: why?
One promising place to look for an answer is the recollections of participants. The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire offers precisely that: it is based on interviews with an impressively wide range of Soviet and East European political figures, including old-line apparatchiks, dissidents, reform Communists, independent-minded scholars, and military officers. These interviewees prove for the most part to be shrewd analysts, although they also frequently contradict one another, and the scent of self-interest is detectable in what they say. Nevertheless, Pryce-Jones succeeds in weaving together their words with his own probing analysis; the resulting composite portrait consistently deepens our understanding of one of the greatest and least bloody revolutions of modern times.
One theme that surfaces throughout this book is the loss of faith and fervor among Soviet and East European Communist-party elites. By the late 1980’s, with the exception of a relatively small handful of aging party functionaries, even high-ranking Communists appear to have lost the commitment and will required to perpetuate their dictatorial form of rule. Some, particularly in Eastern Europe, were subverted by “nomenklatura capitalism,” a form of activity which allowed party officials and their relatives to dabble in the underground economy and adopt its mores. Others gradually succumbed to the flow of information carried by an ever more diverse set of channels from the West, and began to see the contradictions and absurdities of “real existing socialism” for what they were.
Whatever the source of disaffection and disillusionment, few of the high-level officials interviewed by Pryce-Jones have good words for the system that bestowed upon them so much power and privilege when they dwelled at its top. Some are downright bitter. Aleksandr Tsipko, a Communist theoretician who went on to become one of the most trenchant critics of the Soviet regime, today wonders aloud whether
history just performed an experiment on us, freezing our brains, thoughts, and feelings, compelling us to wander about the world asleep, committing a mass of idiocies, murdering one another, doing no end of atrocious things.
Others we encounter here, while not so ferociously self-lacerating, describe the Communist system in its final years as a hollow and decrepit shell.
Despite the growing sense of unease so apparent among Communists in the mid-1980’s, no one in a position of leadership in Eastern Europe or the USSR comprehended that a sweeping crisis was about to descend and brush the Marxian order away. This applies even to the most vulnerable of them, Poland’s General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who from the birth of Solidarity in 1980 had to contend with the organized resistance of the very proletariat in whose name he ruled. Despite this, Jaruzelski seems to have felt himself secure, believing he had neutralized dissident movements through the skillful application of police measures on a nationwide scale.
Ironically, the figure who more than anyone else helped obscure the perilous weaknesses of the Communist world from his East European satraps was Mikhail Gorbachev. It is fitting that the last General Secretary of the USSR occupies a central role in the necropsy Pryce-Jones has carried out.
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he was regarded in the East (and in many quarters of the West) as a man who might succeed in accomplishing a task at which his predecessors had failed: reinvigorating the Soviet state. Many younger Soviet and East European party members certainly believed this to be the case; appalled by the dogmatism of old-line leaders like East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov, they attempted to hitch themselves to Gorbachev’s career.
But over the next five years these reform Communists, together with the rest of the world, discovered the folly of their misplaced confidence: the idea that Gorbachev could salvage Communism was an illusion. For one thing, he was not the man for the job. Even his closest supporters describe him in Pryce-Jones’s book as vain, irresolute, and astonishingly inept for someone conditioned by the hard school of Soviet politics. Yet if Gorbachev had been a more gifted politician, he would have failed all the same. What “modernizing” Communism really required was uncooking an omelet and then reassembling the broken eggs—not a task for anyone.
Certainly the final years of Soviet history illustrate both Gorbachev’s personal limitations and the formidable nature of the undertaking. In the economic realm, Gorbachev’s initial impulses were, as Pryce-Jones’s account reminds us, straight out of the time-tested-and-failed central-planning handbook: an attempt to shift resources from consumption to investment, an anti-alcohol campaign, a demand for labor discipline, and, with the slogan “acceleration,” a call for harder, faster work. When these steps failed to spark the faltering economy, Gorbachev resorted to a series of ad-hoc measures, none of them part of a coherent plan for reform, none lasting long enough to judge its effects. Gorbachev’s single and wholly unintended accomplishment in the economic arena was to destabilize the highly complex command economy without constructing a functioning market in its place.
Nor was the Soviet economy the single flaw in the social system Gorbachev was attempting to repair. There was the sensitive matter of what to do about the USSR’s non-Slavic peoples, whose attachments to the empire, always tenuous, were coming under additional strain. Previous Soviet rulers had maintained social peace in the republics, especially those to the south, by tolerating widespread corruption among local elites. But as is made clear in The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire, Gorbachev, harboring considerable contempt for his semi-Asiatic subjects, attempted to end their rampant criminality once and for all. His strong-arm actions to accomplish this had only one result: upsetting the delicate equilibrium between the Soviet/Russian center and the various non-Russian groups on the empire’s edge. By December 26, 1991, Gorbachev’s last day in office, matters came to something of an unexpected head with the dissolution of the theoretically inseparable fraternity of Soviet socialist peoples.
Finally, there was Gorbachev’s attempt to reform the ossified Communist political system itself. The primary instrument employed in this operation was glasnost. Gorbachev’s encouragement of openness throughout society, and especially in the press, began in a very limited and tentative way; as is well-documented in Pryce-Jones’s book, it was never conceived as anything more than a means of creating a constituency in the intellectual class that would back further cautious reform.
But even as glasnost failed to achieve that goal, it took on a brilliant career of its own, shattering one taboo after another and injecting genuine life into Soviet politics. Glasnost succeeded, in short, in undermining all of Communism’s pretenses and claims—again, as Pryce-Jones shows, very far from what Gorbachev had in mind. To his own peril, he discovered late in the day that rationing freedom is a more difficult enterprise than rationing meat.
If any single point emerges with clarity from the many fascinating tributaries and streams explored in The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire, it is the deep irony that attended the career of Mikhail Gorbachev. He was certainly right to recognize that the USSR had reached a dead end, and that change could not be postponed. But he proceeded to weaken precisely those elements which his critics, including the old-time apparatchiks in the East European satellites, correctly understood were the essential keys to Communist rule: namely, coercion and centralization. The East German regime thus had logic on its side when in 1988 it banned public mention of perestroika, Gorbachev’s primary designation for his structural reform. For had not the East Germans assiduously labored for years to foster the image of Communism as an infallible system? Was this not the immovable rock on which their own branch of the church had been built? Once Gorbachev permitted people to speak frankly and freely, the foundation was dislodged and in short order the entire structure came tumbling down.