Politics & Policy

A Lowering of Arms

Few in the West expected the Soviet Union to collapse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of excerpts from The Case for Democracy by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer. They are taken from the book’s introduction.

Our world has changed so much over the last fifteen years that it may be difficult for today’s reader to get a sense of the degree of skepticism there once was in the West over the possibility of a democratic transformation inside the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, when some were actually arguing that the Soviet Union could be challenged, confronted, and broken, the possibility was dismissed out of hand. The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., expressing the sentiments of nearly all of the Sovietologists, intellectuals, and opinion makers of the time, said that “those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink are wishful thinkers who are only kidding themselves.”

An even better measure of the skepticism of the era was the absolute shock that greeted the collapse of the USSR. The most prescient politicians, the most learned academics, the most perceptive journalists did not foresee that hundreds of millions of people could be liberated from decades of totalitarian rule in just a few months. In April 1989, just seven months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Senator J. William Fulbright, who had served for 15 years as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, co-authored an article dismissing the views of those in the “evil empire school” who believed that Gorbachev’s reforms were “no more than the final, feeble, foredoomed effort to hold off the historically inevitable collapse of a wicked system based on an evil philosophy.”2 Instead, Fulbright offered insight into how the “détente school,” in which he included himself, understood the changes that were then taking place behind the Iron Curtain:

We suspect that the reforms being carried out in the Soviet Union and Hungary may be evidence not of the terminal enfeeblement of Marxism but of a hitherto unsuspected resiliency and adaptability, of something akin to Roosevelt’s New Deal, which revived and rejuvenated an apparently moribund capitalism in the years of Great Depression.

If scholars and leaders in the West could be so blind to what was happening only months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, imagine what the thinking was in 1975. Back then, the suggestion that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable, much less imminent, would have been regarded as absurd by everyone.

Well, almost everyone.

In 1969, a Soviet dissident named Andrei Amalrik wrote Will The Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, in which he predicted the collapse of the USSR. Amalrik, to whom I would later have the privilege to teach English, explained that any state forced to devote so much of its energies to physically and psychologically controlling millions of its own subjects could not survive indefinitely. The unforgettable image he left the reader with was that of a soldier who must always point a gun at his enemy. His arms begin to tire until their weight becomes unbearable. Exhausted, he lowers his weapon and his prisoner escapes.

While many in the West hailed Amalrik’s courage–he was imprisoned for years and exiled for his observations–almost no one outside the Soviet Union took his ideas seriously. When he wrote his book, short-sighted democratic leaders were convinced the USSR would last forever, and according to many economic indicators, the Soviet Union appeared to be closing the gap on the U.S. Amalrik must have seemed downright delusional.

But inside the USSR, Amalrik’s book was not dismissed as the ranting of a lunatic. The leadership knew that Amalrik had exposed the Soviet regime’s soft underbelly. They understood their vulnerability to dissident ideas: Even the smallest spark of freedom could set their entire totalitarian world ablaze. That’s why dissidents were held in isolation, dissident books were confiscated, and every typewriter had to be registered with the authorities. The regime knew the volatile potential of free thought and speech, so they spared no effort at extinguishing the spark.

I was arrested in 1977 on charges of high treason as well as for “anti-Soviet” activities. After my own mock trial a year later, I was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. In 1984, my KGB jailers, swelling with pride, reminded me of Amalrik’s prediction: “You see, Amalrik is dead”–he had died in a car accident in France in 1980–”and the USSR is still standing!”

But Almarik’s prediction had not missed by much. Within a few months of that encounter in the Gulag, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Faced with an American administration ready to confront him and realizing that the Soviet regime no longer had the strength both to maintain control of its subjects and compete with the West, Gorbachev reluctantly implemented his “glasnost” reforms. This limited attempt at “openness” would usher in changes far beyond what Gorbachev intended. Just as Amalrik had predicted, the second the regime lowered its arms, the people it had terrorized for decades overwhelmed it.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, is author of the memoir Fear No Evil and currently serves as the Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs. Ron Dermer is a political consultant and former columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

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