EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the Jan 27, 1989, issue of National Review.
AN ELDERLY WOMAN in a peasant scarf lights a candle and kneels piously at the altar in the Vilnius Cathedral-recently restored to the Catholic Church after decades of serving as a Museum of Atheism. A food queue several dozen strong stands pliantly in the dawn cold in front of a shabby state monopoly store in Moscow. Deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Republic spectacularly declare for genuine autonomy, defying the line from Moscow. In Yerevan, soldiers enforcing the state of emergency keep themselves warm around a fire next to a snow-shrouded tank.
Such scenes of Soviet life on our television screens–poignant signs of, respectively, the ideological, economic, and constitutional failure of the Soviet system–do not even surprise us any more. Thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, the most gullible of our fellow-travelers now admit that the rot has penetrated deep into the fabric of Soviet life.
If the Soviet regime represents the future, then nobody wants to live in it. By the Soviets’ own admission the dream of a new Soviet man-secular, hard-working, and internationalist (though speaking Russian as the lingua franca of the empire)-has vanished. Instead of a Stakhanovite Homo sovieticus, the breach in the official facade has revealed down-trodden individual Ukrainians, Estonians, and Kazakhs, resentful equally of Communism and of the Russian chauvinists who enforce it.
But most strikingly, the socialist illusion that a planned economy would prove superior to the modern market system has finally collapsed. For those who have long been skeptical about the Soviet Union, the most gratifying aspect of the current Soviet self-flagellation on this head is that in criticizing the Soviet performance and recommending perestroika, Soviet economists and even Party officials do not use Marxist categories at all. Instead they talk of economic incentives, sound accounting, healthy currency, and the virtues of individual initiative (where else do we hear this?). In short, they are rediscovering common sense.
Fifty years after Stalin announced that the Soviet Union had entered socialism and nine years after the date by which Khrushchev promised that the Soviet Union would reach “full Communism,” the Soviet Union turns out to be in deep crisis and in need of a radical “restructuring.” Let us note, for future reference, that in 1988 President Gorbachev promised an individual apartment for every Soviet family by the year 2000. May this pious hope stand as the measure of Soviet failure.
Since the sickness of its economy is probably at the root of most other Soviet ailments, the question arises: Can it be cured? Can perestroika succeed? Whatever the theoretical arguments about Gorbachev’s chances of success, the fact is that serious restructuring has not even begun.
Glasnost there is aplenty, but perestroika, according to a recent Soviet joke, is like the taiga, the Siberian pine forest: very noisy high up, where the wind soughs in the crowns, but very quiet down below, where people walk. And the chances for fundamental reform are slim, for, as Leo Labedz has observed, in a curious perversion of history, Marxist categories apply more to the Soviet Union in its age of decline than they do to modern free-market societies. Adopting the Soviet jargon, one might say that the core of the Soviet political superstructure-the leading role of the Party-has become a fetter on the country’s productive forces.
What constrains the Soviet economy from performing better is not this or that accounting procedure, nor even the economy’s unwieldy organizational structure-some Japanese concerns are bigger than whole Soviet ministries. The long-term impediment is the negative selection of personnel at all levels of authority-based on loyalty to the nomenklatura, not talent or efficiency. Gorbachev himself has admitted as much by criticizing those who resist him. Negative selection of personnel-whereby Party cells in each organizational unit have the power of appointment and dismissal for all posts-is the primary cause of the Soviet disease. It also happens to be the sine qua non of the system.
Whatever the proposals for reform, the nomenklatura remains the ruling class, and this is hardly surprising. What Gorbachev is about is saving that class from the consequences of its misdeeds, not persuading it to commit group suicide.
Even without the burden of the costly Afghan war, the excessive military spending, and disruptions such as Chernobyl and the Armenian earthquake, the Soviet economy is likely to continue to slide, to grow at a slower and slower rate decade by decade. Even doctored Soviet statistics acknowledge the trend. The growth rates may be bumped up by injections of Western capital, but without fundamental reform this will only delay the day of reckoning. Yugoslavia above all-where the brew of economic failure and national recriminations is similar to that of the Soviet Union-but also Poland, Hungary, and Rumania show what happens in the long term when a Communist regime borrows its way out of imminent crisis. Enforcing a Protestant work ethic under the rule of the nomenklatura is proving impossible all over the Communist world. The Soviet circle cannot be squared.
CONTINUING the Marxist thought experiment we may assume that the fundamental contradiction in the makeup of the Soviet system cannot fail to eventually translate economic strains into political ones. This is happening already, before our very eyes. Though for different reasons, the Estonians, Armenians, and Azerbaidzhanis are on the march. The most striking fact about the eruptions of defiance in those republics was that not only the populace but the institutions of the Soviet state themselves defied Moscow’s directives. In each case the center lost its grip on events, at least temporarily. Might this happen again soon on a larger scale?
At the conclusion of a year in which the Soviet Army has all but withdrawn from a poor country it had intended to subdue, defeated by men who by Soviet doctrine are feudal savages, it is appropriate to ask: Is the time now? Is the most bloodthirsty regime in the history of mankind finally about to disintegrate? Are we approaching 1905, the dress rehearsal for revolution, or already 1917, the real thing?
Alas, the 1917 scenario is about as likely to come true as the promise an Afghan commander gave me in his mountain camp last year: “When we’ve defeated the Soviets here, we will fight on. First we will liberate Samarkand and Bukhara, and then march on Moscow. You think I’m joking? You will see, my men will follow me to Moscow. We will come and liberate you in Poland too.” Like the above, this is just a fantasy about the evil empire, understandable only in a man drunk with victory.
There are internal strains in the Soviet society but, as James Sherr has observed, “Order in the USSR will remain a function of whether the regime is respected, not whether it is liked.” The resentments among the USSR’s nationalities will probably grow, but they promise to explode only in the most European regions of the country, not in the Muslim borderlands.
Consider just this strain in the wishfully apocalyptic view of the future of the Soviet Union. The Muslims are supposed to be a deadly threat to the unity of the empire on account of their birth rate; if the present trends continue, in a couple of decades the Russian share of the population will drop below half and the Muslim share will grow to about a fifth. Muslim soldiers will eventually have to be given positions of authority-and we know what happens to empires that depend for defense on their conquered races.
But to construe the “Muslim resurgence” as a mortal danger to the Soviet Union is to forget that most of the “Muslims” referred to are not fanatics pining for martyrdom, but third-generation Soviet citizens. Soviet Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs cannot even read the Koran (Arabic script is not taught), have no mosques to pray in, and hardly know their own history. A great proportion-the majority, according to some estimates-are secular. Some Central Asian units were withdrawn from Afghanistan at the start of the war because of their uncertain loyalty, but what is less known is that, throughout the war, up to a third of the occupying force in Afghanistan consisted of fellow “Muslim” soldiers. Yet we know of no instance of a mutiny by Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.
The fact of the matter is that, as empires go, the Russian one contains an unusually high proportion of the master race. Romans, Incas, Mongols, Arabs were all small minorities in their empires, to say nothing of the hundred thousand Englishmen who ruled over hundreds of millions of Indians. In addition to their numerical strength, the Russians enjoy a superior, central territorial position within the empire from which they can conveniently send expeditionary forces to quell rebellions in the borderlands. Last but not least, the vendetta between Armenia and Azerbaidzhan should dispel any hopes that Soviet nationalities might be able to cooperate in resisting Moscow; even Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, so close geographically and culturally, have failed to act in concert. In the time-honored fashion, the Kremlin will use Central Asian troops to shoot at the Balts and Ukrainians, and vice versa. If a serious rebellion does erupt in Estonia and is put down, take a good look at the soldiers’ faces-I’ll bet they’ll be swarthy.
As with everything else in the Soviet Union, behind the facade of official reality there lurks a “real reality,” which is the true causal framework. The most perfunctory look at the top ranks of the nomenklatura suffices to show that n most posts that matter-be it in the army, the state, the KGB, or the Party-it is the Russians who rule. Behind the facade of Marxist-Leninist ideology the real reality of Great Russian nationalism is emerging as the actual glue holding together the imperial edifice. For a while the two strands have been indistinguishably intertwined. But the smaller the appeal of Marxism, and the clearer the national character of the forces pulling the Soviet Union apart, the more obvious the Russian-imperialist nature of the edifice will be. The conflicts in the Soviet Union today are not over the old ideology; disputes over the meaning of socialism are mere shadow-boxing. The real conflicts are and will be over which language shall be used in courts, in schools, and on official documents in the various republics, over who shall pass laws for them, over how many Russians should be allowed in or deported, or where the republic’s boundaries should lie. After all the early promises of overcoming the alienation of man, of delivering universal prosperity, justice, and brotherhood-and the awesome betrayal of those promises in the nightmare of the Gulag-the Soviet Union proves to be just the last oldfashioned multinational empire.
The Soviet empire will not come down in a big thrilling crash. The previous time a Russian regime fell, it was only after three years of a bloody world war, a circumstance not likely to recur or, if repeated, to leave this issue very topical. To be sure, the Soviet Union is an invalid, the sick man of Eurasia, to coin a phrase, but instead of a heart attack, it will perish of a painful, long-drawn-out illness. It will die of AIDS or, more accurately, of leprosy, in which bits of the victim’s body progressively fall away -except that in the case of this patient the severed members are likely to return to pink health. Timothy Garton Ash has called this process of imperial decline “Ottomanization,” a dialectical cycle of attempted reform and reversal, of liberalization and crackdown, of peace offensives and belligerence.
The current rush to provide untied credits to the Soviet regime proves that we have not even asked ourselves seriously how best to manage the decline of the Soviet empire, let alone agreed how to do so prudently and in concert. This question-how to ease the Russians as painlessly as possible out of their empire-will be the greatest intellectual and political challenge for conservatives in the tail end of our century. A sick man with a gun is still a man with a gun. We must find a prescription so that this old sclerotic passes away quietly and does not get an opportunity to pull the trigger. We must not fall into the conservative trap of believing that if only the Soviet Union would transform itself into traditional “Russia” everything would be well-Russia being a long-established entity capable of abiding by the international rules. By the milder standards of its time czarist Russia was also a tyranny and a prison of nations. We would be forsaking our values if we betrayed the subject nations of Eastern Europe simply because the idiom of domination changed. The attempts to suppress Eastern Europeans’ national aspirations have already caused two world wars. Their future is on the agenda again now.