Only seven months ago, at an international gathering of scientists, a distinguished West German editor gave a rosy speech describing Europe as he wished it to be in the year 2000—a Europe with relaxed and manifold contacts between its two halves. Someone pointed out to him that he had failed to mention the Berlin Wall. The reason for his omission, he replied, was that if East Germany destroyed it, West Germany might have to build a new one to keep the East Germans out.
The speed of events in the past three months has been such that the unexpected has become the norm. In a few weeks, Communist rule in the Soviet-controlled countries of Eastern Europe has collapsed peacefully, German unity has suddenly become a central international issue. A race has started between the breathless escape of East Germans from their cage and the slow and complex process of West European integration—indeed between what De Gaulle used to call “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals” and the smaller Western Europe of the Twelve. If a revolution is a historical earthquake whose occurrence comes as a surprise and whose upheavals and aftershocks cannot be forecast, it is a revolution that we are witnessing.
Why were officials and academics incapable of predicting it? Insofar as the revolution began with and could not have unfolded without Gorbachev, the culprit is the theory that dominated Western thinking about the Soviet Union: the theory of totalitarianism, which assumed that the state had succeeded in controlling or neutralizing civil society, and that in order to understand what has been happening in the USSR, “Kremlinology”—the study of who was who, where, up or down, in the Kremlin—would suffice. The main, and not very popular, competing theory described an authoritarian, bureaucratic system in which organized interests were well integrated.
What these notions missed, apart from the dynamism and political skill of Gorbachev himself, was the degree and variety of discontents in Soviet society, and above all what might be called the Gorbachev generation: the growing conviction among people in their forties and fifties, occupying important positions in the Soviet system, that the prevailing system was increasingly inefficient, dangerous for Soviet power, and contrary to the interests of the Soviet people. The ability to compare it to foreign systems, thanks to travel abroad and to the many contacts with foreigners, that the era of détente had made possible, has had a major part in shaping this consensus. It is always easier to notice a consensus, and to analyze the reason for its growth, after it has been created than during its incubation—as was the case, for example, with the consensus concerning containment that developed among the American elite between 1945 and 1947.
What made the new Soviet situation so easy to miss in this instance was the phenomenon of double bookkeeping characteristic of authoritarian regimes: the same people would be the loyal servants of Brezhnev’s “stagnation” in their public lives and increasingly …