Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

The mystery of Soviet communism is why it came to such an unexpected end. For such an all-embracing system to die, almost everyone expected that it would have to be killed. Instead, it collapsed, as if a house had fallen in on itself. Its old ruling bureaucracies have largely escaped unscathed and have even benefited from the new opportunities to wheel and deal. Paradoxically, the life of Soviet communism seems to be much less a problem than its death.

The question why arises again and again. In a recent Foreign Affairs, Seweryn Bialer, an old Soviet hand, referring to Gorbachev’s emergence as the dominant Soviet figure in March 1985, asks: “Six and a half years later the Soviet Union and Soviet communism were dead. What happened in those years that finally led to disintegration rather than salvation through grand reform? What happened to Mikhail Gorbachev?”1 The same question was asked by Michael Mandelbaum in another issue of Foreign Affairs: “How did it happen that a mighty imperial state, troubled but stable only a few years before, had come to the brink of collapse in 1991? Who and what were responsible?”2 The editor of a collection of articles on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the journal World Politics, from Princeton University, asks: “The political surprises that emerged in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s have, accordingly, compelled us to ask not simply why events unfolded as they did but why our predictive theories left us unprepared.”3 The editor of another collection of articles in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, remarks that “few had dared to believe in the possibility of so total a collapse of communist regimes.”4

Why so few, if any? And, whether foreseen or not, why did it occur in this way?


The articles in World Politics afford some insight into why political and social scientists have not been able to contribute much to our understanding of the collapse.

One political scientist appeals to Max Weber’s theories of power, charismatic salvationism, and routinization. After trying vainly to enlist these Weberisms in the cause of explaining the Soviet collapse, he concludes that “Weber’s theories are only moderately useful for anticipating the decline of communism and such recent developments as Gorbachev’s reforms or the democratization of communist regimes.”5

“Modernization theory” is another disappointment. According to it, we are told, communism was, among other things, “nothing but a comprehensive design and an ideological mask for policies of development.” Unfortunately, modernization was a “linear” theory, intended to explain why the Communist regimes were going forward to “political modernization,” “political development,” or “nation-building.” This theory had no place for regimes that went backward to the point of collapse.6 Another political scientist in the same collection points out that the “modernization” theorizers went wrong because “relative and absolute stagnation and deprivation, not the unfettering of development, are very much behind the demise of communism.”7

Another approach is the “comparative.” It seeks to solve the Soviet mystery by looking at the way non-Communist authoritarian regimes, such as those in Spain and Latin America, made transitions to “democratization.” One similarity is said to emerge from a study of more than a dozen cases of transition in Latin America and Southern Europe, which also began with “a period of glasnost-like liberalization.”8 The analogy seems to suggest that we could learn something about the fate of the Gorbachev regime from past experiences in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and elsewhere. In the end, however, this comparative approach is frustrating, because it points both ways. “In the early days of reform, when many Western observers questioned the stability of Gorbachev’s political position, the literature on regime transitions could have helped point to sources of strength,” we are told. But we are also told in the next sentence: “Likewise, at a point when some began to speak of the irreversibility of reform, a comparative perspective might have provided greater caution.”9

Professor Timur Kuran of the University of Southern California made an effort to find prophets of the collapse, without much success.10 He came up with only one candidate, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? by Andrei Amalrik, written in 1969 and published in the United States in 1970. Unfortunately, Amalrik expected the Soviet crisis to come as a result of a war with China between 1975 and 1980, not as a result of an internal breakdown. Amalrik was a visionary whose guesses were not always farfetched. He was sure of the reunification of Germany and the rise of non-Russian nationalism. Much of what he had to say about the obstacles to Soviet reform can still be read with profit. Nevertheless, his scenario of the Soviet collapse is not very helpful today and makes him a dubious prophet.11

The only poll cited by Professor Kuran on expectations of collapse was taken in Germany. Four months after the downfall of East German communism, the Allensbach Institute asked a broad sample of East Germans: “A year ago did you expect such a peaceful revolution?” Only 5 percent answered “yes”; 18 percent “yes, but not so fast”; 76 percent, total surprise. If the question had been asked a year before the downfall, the negative answers would undoubtedly have been much larger.12


Faced with these sparse results, Professor Kuran felt obliged to propose a reason for the failure to anticipate the collapse. He maintains that the East European Revolution was not inevitable, but that “what was inevitable is that we would be astounded if and when it arrived.” In effect, if we had been able to foresee the collapse, there would be something wrong with us. He presents a theory which claims to explain why “major revolutions come as a surprise and why, even so, they are quite easily explained after the fact.” After elaborating a “model,” with A, A’, B, B’, C, C’, and D, D’, we get this all-purpose explanation:

The theory depicts the individual as both powerless and potentially very powerful. The individual is powerless because a revolution requires the mobilization of large numbers, but he is also potentially very powerful because under the right circumstances he may set off a chain reaction that generates the necessary mobilization. Not that the individual can know precisely when his own choice can make a difference. Although he may sense that his chances of sparking a wildfire are unusually great, he can never be certain about the consequences of his own opposition. What is certain is that the incumbent regime will remain in place unless someone takes the lead in moving the opposition.13

What is also certain is that such a theory permits us to predict anything and its opposite or nothing at all, even as the individual may be totally powerless and potentially very powerful. One way of getting around the problem of the collapse’s predictability is by making it unpredictable.

Another political scientist in World Politics is also impressed by the inability of our extant theories to cope with “swift change.” He advises caution “before embracing normal social science expectations about the impermanent legacy of social movements that surface at exceptional times in exceptionally problematic social contexts.”14 If “normal” social science expectations cannot cope with “abnormal” times, they fail us when we need them most. “Normal” theoretical expectations tell us about what we already know, not about what we need to know.

These examples give some idea of the problem of political scientists with the Soviet collapse. Somehow the reality falls through the interstices of the theories. Usually, there are so many independent variables to fill in that we know just about as much without the theory as with it. Professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick of Georgetown University, the former US representative to the UN, has an explanation:

Political scientists have written multivolume studies on how and why regimes change, studies that examine historical cases and make generalizations. But none of these cases and generalizations can help us in explaining the collapse of Communist regimes all over Eastern Europe, because nothing like this has ever happened before—not in the history of empires, not in the modern period, certainly not among Communist states.15

It might pay political scientists to ask why their generalizations fail when they are confronted with something new—as if generalizations were not supposed to explain the new as well as the old.


The war of the Sovietologists takes us much closer to the real issues. Roughly, they have divided into two camps—the optimists and the pessimists. For a time, the optimists were riding high, and they have the most to explain.

At the head of the class of optimists is Jerry F. Hough, James B. Duke Professor of Political Science and Public Studies, director of the Center on East-West Trade, Investment, and Communications at Duke University, and an associated staff member at The Brookings Institution. He has been studying the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for the past thirty-five years. He publishes indefatigably and appears on television. He has never been reluctant to criticize those who disagree with him. Though there are others like him, he is a representative figure and shows why the optimistic school of Soviet studies has collapsed into a crisis all its own.

As long ago as 1977, Hough gave expression to his characteristic viewpoint. He maintained that the role of the Communist Party was not what it was commonly thought to be—a power structure governing every aspect of Soviet society. He contended that the Party interfered only when ministries and other organizations took their conflicts to it “for resolution.” He gave it the benign function of merely arbitrating disputes brought to it by other agencies. This view led him to make the remarkable assertion that the Soviet Union was a “pluralistic society” very much like any other. “It is perhaps the difference between saying that the bottle is 55 percent full or that it is 55 percent empty; the difference in tone is greater than the difference in substance.” This was written in the heyday of the now discredited, stagnating Brezhnev period, which Hough celebrated for its greater individual freedom, more egalitarianism, and dispersion of power.16


In 1982, Hough was still high on Brezhnev. He noted approvingly that Brezhnev had been talking about the need for economic reform and credited Brezhnev with the right intentions.17

But in 1986, with the advent of Gorbachev, Hough greeted the new leader with the same approbation that he had reserved for Brezhnev:

Many Americans have the comfortable feeling that the Soviet Union is in an irreversible decline. Would that it be so. The selection of the young Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary and the unprecedented urgency of his demands for economic reforms suggests, however, that the Soviet leadership is determined to reverse the decline.18

One year later, Hough was ready to pass judgment on Gorbachev’s achievement. He gave assurances that, by the first half of 1987, domestic economic reforms were firmly in place. He was also sure that “the back of the conservative opposition has been broken,” as if an attempted conservative coup was out of the question. Above all, he saw the salvation of, not the danger to, the Soviet Union for the rest of the century in its multinational character, because it would restrain the pressure of Russian intellectuals “for real pluralism and elections.”19

By 1988, Hough was still sure that the conservative opposition had been “decisively and conclusively defeated” and saw the threat to Gorbachev from the opposite direction—the intelligentsia. He recognized, however, that there had been little reform in the first year and a half. By now, his enthusiasm for Gorbachev was overflowing. Gorbachev, he asserted, was as strong in the spring of 1987 as Stalin had been in 1927–1928, when Stalin had taken off to become all-powerful. Hough praised Gorbachev’s skill in handling “the varieties of nationalism in the multi-ethnic Soviet state.” When Gorbachev’s appointment of an ethnic Russian to head the Party organization in Kazakhstan in December 1986 resulted in riots, he gave Gorbachev credit for having deliberately made the appointment so that he “cooled the passions of the radicals of all nationalities” and controlled “the pressures for more rapid change.” Everything was going according to plan:

It seems wildly optimistic to think that the Soviet system will shatter under pressure over the next five to ten years…. Whatever the ultimate success of his reforms, it seems certain that he will have enough partial successes to maintain political stability at least well into the 1990s.20

As we get closer to the present, Hough was particularly prolific. His optimism never deserted him. As events soon demonstrated, he also never got things quite right.

Gorbachev could do no wrong. If there was any “sense of anxiety about perestroika,” he admonished in 1989, “the trouble may be in us, not in Gorbachev.”21 The real story in 1990 was the “further consolidation of Gorbachev’s political position.” By that fall, Gorbachev enjoyed “virtually absolute power.” Gorbachev “has maneuvered the situation to precisely where he wanted it.” He was sure to remain in power “at least until 1995.”22

Nevertheless, Gorbachev had enemies. They threatened him chiefly from the left, not the right. The only serious opposition, Hough reported in 1990, came from the left, from the “radicals.” The main menace was Boris Yeltsin. Hough warned ominously: “The Yeltsin radicals are trying to create an exaggerated sense of Gorbachev’s weakness—and of his irrelevance—in order to persuade US foreign policymakers to support them instead of Gorbachev.” Moscow radicals and their American supporters “grossly exaggerate the severity of the Soviet Union’s problems.” To support Yeltsin against Gorbachev “is not just a mistake but madness.”23

Hough recognized that there was “a sense of economic malaise” in 1990. But there was no reason to worry, because Gorbachev himself had encouraged it. He was the mastermind who pulled all the strings. He also encouraged that “unrest in the republics—especially the smaller ones—go to an extreme” in order “to let off steam in the non-Russian areas.” Again, not to worry, because there was no evidence “that the republics are in a position to demand more than limited sovereignty.” Hough was “certain” about another thing—“the Soviet Union will not be like 1989 in Central Europe.” 24

Hough even gave Gorbachev credit for bringing about “chaos” in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev is said to have “clearly had a sense that a certain amount of chaos was inevitable, and even desirable.”25 Or in another version:

Gorbachev has acted as if he needed to develop conditions of controlled chaos, in which people feel that the status quo is intolerable and that Gorbachev’s proposals are the only alternative. 26

How chaos could be controlled if it was truly chaotic, he did not explain.

Perhaps the most penetrating insight into Hough’s position may be gained from his view of the Soviet Communist Party.

In institutional terms, the Central Committee was and is the functional equivalent of the Republican National Committee, while the Politburo is the equivalent of the Republican executive committee….

Great Britain’s Conservative Party may provide a better analogy. The party’s formal leadership does not give policy direction to Margaret Thatcher; it is the prime minister and her cabinet, not the formal chairman, who are the real leaders of the Conservative Party. Unlike their American congressional counterparts, however, the Conservative members of parliament must observe tight party discipline in their voting in the legislature. This is essentially the situation in which the Soviet Communist Party now finds itself.27

Having established to his satisfaction that the Soviet Communist Party operated in the same way as the Republican Party in the United States or the Conservative Party in Great Britain—a throwback to his 1977 aperçu that the only difference between the Soviet Union and other pluralistic societies was whether the bottle was 55 percent full or empty—Hough went on to give assurances that the Communist Party was “positioning itself to be the social-democratic opposition to the radicals.” The Party’s “conservatism” was not a reflection of “the bureaucratic interests of a retrograde organization.” On the contrary, the Party officials had learned in the past two years to appeal “to the populist attitudes of their constituents.” In fact, “from Gorbachev’s point of view, the problem with the party apparatus is that it is becoming too responsive to the public mood.”28

So confident was Hough about Gorbachev’s achievement that he wrote in 1989: “The next generation will look back on 1989–1990 not as a period of turmoil so much as the years of a great breakthrough.” Another of his peculiar auguries recalled Amalrik’s old prophecy of a war between Russia and China—in Hough’s version, that “as Russians look toward the 21st century, the great potential danger comes from Asia,” and particularly China.29

While expounding his own creed, Hough has been rough on the more pessimistic Sovietologists—Seweryn Bialer, Martin Malia, and others. He took Bialer to task for having written in 1990 that “Gorbachev has lost control over events in all spheres of Soviet life…. It seems increasingly probable that a point of no return is being reached and that the world is witnessing the passing of the Soviet order.”30 He was even more upset by Martin Malia’s words, also in 1990, that

It is manifest that the Soviet Union…is no longer a super-power…. In the past six months the Soviet Union has gone the way of Central Europe during six weeks last year…. Mr. Gorbachev [is left] somewhat in the position of the Empress Dowager of China amid rival local warlords.31

Sovietology à la Hough is in need of thorough self-examination. He was wrong about Brezhnev’s progressiveness; the conclusive defeat of the “conservative opposition” as early as 1988; the underestimation of all “varieties of nationalism”; the immoderate glorification of Gorbachev, the intemperate denigration of Yeltsin; the Gorbachev-manipulated “chaos”; the nature of the Soviet Communist Party; the “great breakthrough” of 1989–1990; Gorbachev’s survival in power until at least 1995; and more. His influence has been pervasive in academic circles and public life. It is one reason why the Soviet Communist collapse has been such a mystery.


To answer the question why Soviet communism collapsed, it is necessary to look in the right place.

The collapse was a specific event that occurred during the Gorbachev regime. It was, to be sure, the culmination of seven decades of Soviet rule and misrule. A Sovietological analysis of the collapse generally takes the form of a catalog of Soviet disorders—the imbalance between military and civilian production, the corruption and stultification of the bureaucracy, the “nationalities question,” and the like. Yet no one expected that the time had come for a collapse. Something must have held the Soviet system together, whatever its fault lines, if there were not in fact any danger of a collapse before Gorbachev.

Seweryn Bialer presents just such a catalog, only to remind us that, before March 1985, when Gorbachev emerged as the Soviet leader, “the Soviet Union seemed a very weary yet immensely powerful country. It was decaying economically, but politically it still appeared to be stable.”32 This is a fair statement of how the Soviet Union was generally regarded. It implies that the pre-Gorbachev era might have gone on for quite a while, if it had been permitted to muddle through as in the past.

Gorbachev himself undoubtedly felt that he had come to reform a system that had aches and pains but was in no danger of falling apart. The idea was to invigorate, not supplant, it. In his latest apologia, Gorbachev writes: “We did not realize immediately, of course, how far we had to go and what profound changes were needed.”33 Gorbachev moved forward by stages, not only because it was tactically adroit to do so but because he thought the system could be changed from within.

The question thus arises: How did Gorbachev tamper with the system in such a way that he totally unhinged it? The answer must begin with the most familiar aspect of Communist rule—the Party. It is a truism that this system was held together by the total control of the Communist Party. The Communists did not invent the institution of the Party; in their own words, they invented a “party of a new type” that was the only institution which controlled all the levers of power. Whatever ups and downs the Party had from Lenin to Stalin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev, it alone kept the centrifugal forces of this immense, mosaic country from breaking apart.

Gorbachev’s reforms were initially inspired by a past crisis in Soviet history. In 1921, Lenin was faced with an economic breakdown, brought on by the excesses of “War Communism.” To save the Communist regime, which he recognized was “on the brink of a precipice,” he put through a reform program, the “New Economic Policy” (NEP). It sought to get the peasants to produce more by permitting them to sell most of their harvest in a free market, to revive the production of goods by allowing a private sector in services and light industry, and by encouraging a limited amount of joint enterprises between the Soviet state and foreign enterprises. The reform worked and a threatened famine was avoided.

But here the analogy with Gorbachev’s reform program ends. In 1921, opposition parties still managed to hold on to a precarious existence. The Left Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks had long criticized War Communism and now stood to gain from Lenin’s abrupt change of line. In March 1921, he proposed at the same time as he introduced the NEP the outlawing of all opposition in and out of the Party. The monolithic Party-state was officially born. In effect, Lenin had combined a policy of limited economic experimentation with a full totalitarian political order. In this way, he strengthened the Party even as he temporarily changed its course.34

Even today, Gorbachev cannot shake off the thought that pre-Stalinist Leninism was the way to the promised land.

The thought does not leave me that, had it not been for Stalin’s Thermidor in the mid 1920s, which betrayed and trampled on the ideas of the Great Revolution—a revolution that was genuinely popular and for the people—it might still have been possible to direct the country along the path of democratic progress, revival and economic prosperity, to correct the mistakes and injustices committed in the course of the civil war, and to heal the spiritual wounds.35

But Gorbachev could not follow Lenin’s example. Gorbachev also wanted economic reform, but he had to go the other way politically in order to get it. The discrepancy helps to explain the tortuous, even contradictory, moves made by Gorbachev. His dilemma was that he could not, as Lenin did, find a way to break the economic decline without weakening the Party. He could not part with the Leninist tradition of saving the Party by making tactical adjustments, and he could not make tactical adjustments without endangering the Party.

Gorbachev’s latest book is remarkably revealing on this point. He explains:

From the very beginning of the crisis brought about by the radical transformation of our society, I tried not to allow an explosive resolution of the contradictions to take place. I wanted to gain time by making tactical moves, so as to allow the democratic process to acquire sufficient stability to ease out the old ways and to strengthen people’s attachment to the new values. In short, I wanted to bring the country to a stage where any such attempt to seize power would be doomed to failure. My principal objective was, despite all the difficulties, to continue along the course of reform and, however painful it might be, to keep the process moving on political and constitutional lines.36

This is another way of saying that he started out by thinking that he could manage reforms with the cadres and within the traditions of the old Party. He soon found that even his tentative reforms were anathema to those “who at best advocated post-Stalinism” or as he also calls them, “neo-Stalinists.” In order to maintain the unity of the Party, he admittedly adopted a policy of “manoeuvre and compromise.”37 In effect, the residual Leninism of Party loyalty enabled the neo-Stalinists to hold on and dig in.

Gorbachev had spent all of his mature life in the Party, which he had joined at the age of twenty-one. Before coming to power in 1985, he had invested thirty-three years climbing up the bureaucratic ladder. When he set out to reform the Party and the social system which it embodied, he came to fulfill their mission, not to destroy them. Hough was right to describe Gorbachev’s program as “political liberalization within a strong one-party system, with economic reform that remains within a socialist framework.”38 The great historical question which Gorbachev took upon himself to answer was whether political liberalization was compatible with a one-party system, and economic reform with what passed for socialism in the Soviet Union.

Yet Gorbachev came to recognize that he had to loosen the dead hand of the Party in order to move forward. His first move was to try to substitute the state machinery for the Party apparatus. It was not enough, because the Party permeated the state as it did all other institutions in the country.39 Late in the day, Gorbachev authorized increasingly drastic inroads on the Party’s authority, but they only served to hasten the unraveling, because the new political institutions were made parallel to the Party set-up and had shallow roots in the political culture.

Gorbachev’s most ambitious political reform in 1989 was a curious hybrid. It took the form of a Congress of People’s Deputies, with 2,250 popularly elected members, which chose a Supreme Soviet, with 542 members, to meet twice a year. But the arrangement called for about one third of the deputies to come from Party-controlled organizations, giving the Party and its fellow travelers a veto power over legislation.40 This built-in deformation in favor of the Party has hamstrung Yeltsin in recent months. Moreover, until the abortive coup in August 1991, the old Party structure, with its Politburo, Central Committee, Congress, and all the rest remained in place. Gorbachev was head of both components of this strange “dual-power” system that was guaranteed to upset the Party loyalists and confuse the untried legislators.

In 1989, rumblings of Party discontent began to come out openly. Two of Gorbachev’s leading collaborators made known their forebodings. “Things are moving toward a situation,” said Nikolai Ryzhkov, chairman of the Council of Ministers, in July, “in which the Party is being relegated to a position of secondary importance in public life.”41 At the same time, Yegor Ligachev, the Party’s second secretary, only one rung below Gorbachev, saw fit to warn: “A multiparty system would mean the breakup of the Soviet federation. This is clear, because the the Communist Party is the only real political force uniting all the peoples of the country into a single Union of republics.”42

Gorbachev tried to have it both ways:

I think that political reforms should be carried out in a way that would lead to a tie-in: the role of the party as the vanguard of society should grow and, at the same time, so should the role and authority of the soviets; the two should be closely connected.43

This tie-in conception of Party-state relations was doomed. Gorbachev himself now recognizes that, at the very time he was making this statement, at the Nineteenth Party Congress in June 1988, the neo-Stalinists made clear that it was necessary to turn back to the old ways and that it marked the beginning of the collapse of the Party and the state.44 His half-measures produced a demoralized old Party and a disjointed new state structure. The neo-Stalinists remained so entrenched that he says the coup could have succeeded a year or two earlier.45 He created the conditions which made it possible and he also created the conditions which made it fail.

Only after the failed coup of August 1991 did Gorbachev lose all hope of reforming the Party. As significant as anything else about the coup was the fact that it was carried out by his hand-picked Party henchmen in the government, armed forces, and KGB. Seweryn Bialer has a sardonic explanation for Gorbachev’s choice of officials responsible for the coup:

Gorbachev’s selection of these men was part of a deliberate policy on his behalf, a move to balance the old guard. In selecting them genuine loyalty, talent or vigor, let alone commitment to perestroika, were not Gorbachev’s criteria. Rather, the dangerous and ironic criteria used were the extent of the threat posed to him and to his centrist policy, and the extent to which each would be able to mobilize his own apparatus against Gorbachev himself.46

This policy of “balance” served Gorbachev well—until it proved to be his undoing. For he carried on his balancing act by distancing himself from all groups and tendencies, playing off one against the other, convincing each in turn that he stood between it and elimination by the other. Finally he was isolated, as events and his own chosen colleagues turned against him. This man of contradictions had become, in his last phase, too much a democrat to be a Communist and too much a Communist to be a democrat. There is something of the tragic hero in him, a victim of his success as well as of his failure.

The collapse was not an unmixed blessing. It saved an untold number of lives that would have been lost if the Communist regime had been violently overthrown. But in a more traditional revolution, a movement or party would have been tested under fire for a longer period and would have had time to work out a political and economic program. Above all, it would not be saddled with a legislature from the ancien régime, as the Yeltsin administration is today. In effect, Yeltsin and his colleagues had power thrust on them by the 1991 coup before they really knew what they wanted to do with it.

In the end, Gorbachev came to regret that he had delayed for too long

in abolishing the Party’s monopoly of power and the structure of the Party bureaucracy, which have in many respects been handed down from the old regime, and the unjustified indulgence with regard to people who did not accept perestroika but preserved loyalty to Stalinism and everything connected with it or who at best advocated post-Stalinism.47

The key to the nature of the collapse of Soviet communism is in this meaculpa. Gorbachev’s structural reforms divided and demoralized the Party, so that it could no longer function as the only political bonding which held the centrifugal forces within the country from flying apart. But he delayed for so long in “abolishing the Party’s monopoly of power”—and then only because the remaining Party absolutists forced him to act against his ingrained Party loyalty—that he has left a confused legacy of Communists without a Party and a state weighed down with remnants of the Stalin-Brezhnev-Gorbachev past.

This Issue

June 11, 1992