November 13, 2009


The revolution that the USSR didn’t see coming: The evil empire of Communism collapsed under the weight of its own folly: a review of Revolution 1989
By Victor Sebestyen (Jack Carrigan, 6 November 2009, Catholic Herald)

Sebestyen divides his book into three sections: the Cold War, the Thaw and Revolution. He begins by describing how the post-war Yalta conference affected the six countries unwillingly positioned within the Russian sphere of influence. What characterised the Soviet Empire was Byzantine bureaucracy, the dead weight of central planning and consequent economic stagnation. Corruption was rife, helped by the system of patronage and sycophancy known as nomenklatura. Spies, secret police and surveillance helped to keep the citizenry from fleeing the socialist paradise forced on them.

The six satellites had very different cultures, languages and traditions. The Soviet system, wedded to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and run by hard-line, hated, local placemen, was indifferent to these differences. Sebestyen provides fascinating details to show how Communism was enforced by these cynical apparatchiks. East Germany was effectively run by the Stasi (secret police). Their files ran to 125 miles of shelf space, each mile containing 17 million sheets of paper. In Poland, such was the rigidity of the Soviet market that there were no hairpins available throughout the Seventies. Theft in the workplace was common. A well-worn east European joke was: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

In the section on "the Thaw", the author details the various elements that came into play during the Seventies onwards. There were new personalities on the world stage, in particular Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Each wanted an end to the Cold War. Reagan stated this explicitly; the Pope, visiting Poland after his election, declared: "I have come to talk about the dignity of man"; Margaret Thatcher, meeting Gorbachev for the first time, announced: "We can do business together." Gorbachev was the greatest mystery of all. The first Communist leader who could "walk, talk and think on his own", he believed, in a massive miscalculation of human nature, that the satellite countries, if allowed to govern themselves, would choose to join a "socialist commonwealth".

When he realised he was wrong it was too late to turn the clock back; in any case, he was instinctively a man of compromise, flexibility and imagination, with no stomach for violence and a wish to be popular - not obvious characteristics of his predecessors.

Behind the personalities Sebestyen emphasises a more profound feature: "The USSR had lost its will to run an empire." The satellites, propped up by subsidies, were a constant drain on its own resources; the age of sending in the tanks, as in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, was over. There was also the long, botched war in Afghanistan, where 100,000 troops were deployed and which the Russians knew they could not win.

The Soviet leader Yuri Andropov had remarked at the beginning, with some understatement: "The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates and nearly all the rural population is illiterate. This is not a revolutionary situation." recognizing how little Gorbachev understood what he was doing. He also thought that if dissent was allowed in the USSR proper the critique would be limited to Stalin. When it turned out the dissidents were just waiting to tear down the entire Revolution from its birth it was similarly too late.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2009 5:36 AM
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