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10-08-2015, 22:13


The Soviet Union had emerged from World War II as one of the world’s two superpowers. Its armies had played an instrumental role in the final defeat of the powerful German war machine and had installed pliant Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. No force of comparable strength had occupied the plains of western Russia since the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During the next four decades, the Soviet Union appeared to be secure in its power. Its military and economic performance during the first postwar decade was sufficiently impressive to produce an atmosphere of incipient panic in Washington. By the mid-1980s, however, fears that the Soviet Union would surpass the United States as an economic power had long since dissipated, and the Soviet system appeared to be mired in a state of near paralysis. Economic growth had slowed to a snail’s pace, corruption had reached epidemic levels, and leadership had passed to a generation of elderly party bureaucrats who appeared incapable of addressing the burgeoning problems that affected Soviet society. What had happened to tarnish the dream that had inspired Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks to believe they could create a Marxist paradise? Some analysts argue that the ambitious defense policies adopted by the Reagan administration forced Moscow into an arms race it could not afford and thus ultimately led to a collapse of the Soviet economy. Others suggest that Soviet problems were more deeply rooted and would have led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union even without outside stimulation. Both arguments have some validity, but the latter is surely closer to the mark. For years, if not decades, leaders in the Kremlin had disguised or ignored the massive inefficiencies of the Soviet system. It seems clear in retrospect that the Soviet command economy proved better at managing the early stages of the Industrial Revolution than at moving on to the next stage of an advanced technological society and that the Leninist concept of democratic centralism failed to provide the quality of leadership and political courage needed to cope with the challenges of nation building. By the 1980s, behind the powerful shield of the Red Army, the system had become an empty shell. In the years immediately preceding his ascent to power in the Politburo, the perceptive Mikhail Gorbachev had recognized the crucial importance of instituting radical reforms. At the time, he hoped that by doing so, he could save the socialist system. By then, however, it was too late. In the classic formulation of dictatorial regimes the world over, the most dangerous period is when leaders adopt reform measures to prevent collapse.