Gods 'R' Us

Why did the erstwhile Soviet Union and Soviet socialism expire? This question has been answered exhaustively by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, and many others. Von Mises predicted the eventual inevitable demise of communism in the 1920s. There is no need to rehash these explanations.

However, one question remains: Why did the USSR break up when it did, in 1991? Why not during the 1960s or, perhaps, in 2001? After all, while the fall of communism is inevitable, it could still endure for a while.

Here is a joke from the beginning of the 1990s: The year is 2020 or thereabouts. In heaven, President Reagan asks a newly arrived politician about his old political acquaintances. How's Margaret Thatcher doing? Dead. Gorbachev? Also dead. Helmut Kohl? Dead as well. How about Fidel Castro? Well, he is still in power but the CIA say they'll definitely get him next year!

While fundamental causes of the fall of communism are well understood, there is less consensus on the immediate causes of the Soviet collapse. Here is an incomplete summary of hypotheses:

  • War in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, it played a certain role, but could hardly be all that significant. Although over 15,000 Soviet troops died, little true news from Afghanistan reached the Soviet populace. There were no terrorist attacks in Soviet cities. The overall effect of the war was limited. In comparison, the wars in Chechnya have been much bloodier, better publicized, and marked by bloody terrorist attacks. Yet the new, weaker Russia has managed to live through them intact (at least so far).

  • American military buildup under President Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative. True, initially it gave the Soviet government quite a scare, but the SDI proved to be an idea far before its time. After a while, Soviet analysts figured out that much of the American high tech weaponry could be inexpensively thwarted by "asymmetric responses." While many Americans have claimed that Perestroika was caused by the American military buildup, many in both Russia and America vehemently disagree. I am not an expert on this issue; it might have played a more major role than I think, but most likely was not decisive.

  • The democratic Solidarity movement in Poland, the dissidents, Pope John Paul II, etc. These are all valid reasons, albeit minor. The totalitarian Soviet state was quite effective at insulating its citizens from democratic propaganda.

So, if the reasons above are all valid, but not decisive, what did bury the USSR?

Here are my favorites. They each reflect bad decisions made by the Soviet government and the communist party and collectively known as Perestroika (restructuring).

  • The semi-prohibition of alcohol in summer of 1985. Designed to fight widespread alcoholism, it became an unmitigated disaster in many different ways. Here is how Wikipedia characterizes it:

    The reform did not have any significant effect on the alcoholism in the country, but economically it was a serious blow to the state budget (a loss of approximately 100 billion rubles according to Alexander Yakovlev) after alcohol production migrated to black market economy. Alcohol reform was one of the initial triggers that caused a chain of events that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep economical crisis in the newly formed CIS six years later

This is fine description, but what did it mean in reality?

First, there was an immediate surge in inflation. Since all prices were fixed, Russian inflation really meant widespread shortages and two to three-hour lines for staples and other goods. Infuriating stuff.

Second, there was an immediate and tremendous shortage of sugar; enterprising and thirsty people used sugar to make homemade alcohol, a kind of Russian moonshine. Sugar was very important for Russian women — they used it to make prodigious amounts of preserves and jams to guarantee supplies for the long winter. Women were unhappy. Incidentally, sugar confection and other sweets disappeared soon thereafter, also good for making moonshine.

Third, it became very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to buy vodka. Russian men were very, very angry and, suddenly, sober! In desperation, some resorted to drinking any liquids containing alcohol like perfumes and eau-de-colognes.

In summary: The semi-prohibition of alcohol in Russia caused inflation, shortages, black market activities, angry women, and angry, sober men. The communist party was in big trouble!

  • Glasnost or openness. Gorbachev believed that lack of transparency was hurting the Soviet economy and society. So he allowed limited discussion of previously taboo topics, such as Stalin's atrocities. While transparency truly helps if you have a market economy, transparency and openness are incompatible with communism, which is based on lies. Something had to give.

  • Permission of some private enterprise in the form of Individual Labor Activity (1987) and Cooperatives (1988). This was done primarily to fight inflation and shortages by providing more consumer goods to the people. It worked to a limited extent. However, unintended consequences were immense. I will not bore you with details; suffice it to say that the combination of the predominant state economy and some market economy created unbelievable opportunities for the enterprising and well-connected to strike it rich overnight. Shrewd people exploited these opportunities and became instant millionaires (think Mikhail Khodarkovsky).

New wealth also caused more inflation and increased the disparity between rich and poor. These disparities were very traumatic to the population accustomed to economic equality.

In summary, free enterprise was like a cancer eating away at the planned economy.

  • Permission of semi-free travel first to socialist countries and then to the West (1987–1988). This had both psychological and economic consequences. Psychologically, the Soviet people got a chance to compare their life with life abroad and found their life wanting. They were exposed to new ideas. Economically, free travel spawned active private international trade, which exploited price disparities, creating more private wealth. Obviously, people who do well economically have no reason to love socialism.

A question arises: why did they (the Politbureau) do all those things? Did they do it on purpose or were they just amazingly ignorant? Take the anti-alcohol campaign. Marx and Lenin themselves would have cautioned against it. After all, these theorists believed in the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory: Human beings are completely shaped by their environment. Marx believed all human vices were "birthmarks" of capitalism. Consequently, Marx proposed that in order to create a "new man," children should be taken away from parents and raised by government ideologues. Marx and Lenin did not believe in teaching new tricks to old dogs; hence the mass extermination of non-proletarians — bourgeoisie, educated people, prosperous peasants (kulaks), etc. Duke Vladimir of Kiev said that drinking was the joy of Russia; it was a thousand years ago. In either arrogance or naïveté, Gorbachev and his Politbureau buddies decided they could snuff out a thousands-year old habit in a few years!

Why did they do it? After WWII, Soviet communism was increasingly becoming a religion. General secretaries probably felt they were gods, or at least godlike. Gods R Us. Consider the following (I am not trying to be sacrilegious here and am aghast at these terrible practices):

  • There is a Soviet communist trinity — Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

  • Marx is the god father. He authored the classic theory of capitalism (Das Kapital) and the Communist Manifesto. If you don't believe me, consider Lenin's own words "… the teaching of Marx is omnipotent, because it is true" (учение Маркса всесильно, потому что оно верно). For the believers, God is omnipotent; for communists — Karl Marx.

  • Lenin is god the son. He extended Marxism and "explained away" its botched predictions. He turned Marxism into Marxism-Leninism (do you see a parallel with the Bible?). "Lenin is always alive, Lenin is always with you,… Lenin is in you and me" went a Soviet song. In other words, Lenin died and yet lives on. Young children were made to recite the following pledge: "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!"

  • There were (and some still remain) Marxist-Leninist temples all over the former USSR. The main temple is the Mausoleum on the Red Square — the heart of Russia. Communist believers and curiosity seekers still flock there to see Lenin's mummy. Then there were "museums of Marxism-Leninism" in every city in Russia etc. Children, in particular, were continuously inculcated with communist propaganda.

  • While in life Lenin was not a choir boy (he had a mistress and believed by many to have died of syphilis), he was turned into a virtual saint, a paragon of perfection. From the age of four or five, all children had to learn about Grandpa Lenin; how kind he was, and how he liked little kids, cats, and dogs.

  • The Secretary General of the communist party was a communist Peter — the vicar of Lenin on earth. Although not a god himself, he possessed unlimited power. He could make rivers turn and run back or change the souls of men at his whim.

  • OK, it's tough to argue that Engels is a good analogue of the Holy Ghost, but other than that Soviet communism is indeed a religion, not science. For more discussion look here and here.

The difference between Lenin and people such as Brezhnev and Gorbachev was their educational background. Lenin was a well-educated man who could read several European languages. He was well-read in philosophy, economics, and political theory. Later Soviet communist rulers were a product of a system where deception and self-deception were the rule. We cannot know for sure, but it is not unlikely that as godlike figures General Secretaries truly believed that they were above the laws of nature and God.

So what finally killed the USSR? It was the fall of the Soviet communist religion! Until 1988, the communist trinity was off-limits. Vicars (general secretaries) could be criticized, but not the communist troika. Afterwards, Marx and even Lenin himself became fair game. Due to the results of the disastrous government policies listed above, people were angry and frustrated. Increasingly, they blamed the communist party in general, not just a concrete minister or apparatchik. The communists could not deliver economically. The communist trinity was proven to be made up of false gods. Socialism had no reason to exist any longer. Without socialism, only the threat of force was holding Ukrainians, Estonians, Georgians, Lithuanians, and others together. But with socialism gone, there was no real will to use it. Again, here is Wikipedia:

…the August Coup — an attempted coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev by conservative members of the Communist Party, referred to as “Hardliners” by the Western media. After the coup collapsed, Yeltsin came out as a hero while Gorbachev’s power was effectively ended. The balance of power tipped significantly towards the republics. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania immediately asserted their independence, while the other 12 republics continued discussing new, increasingly looser, models of the Union. On December 8, 1991 Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed Belavezha Accords which declared the Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States — CIS, in its place.

On December 25, 1991 Gorbachev resigned and declared his office extinct. The great communist empire was no more — "not with a bang but a whimper."

July 14, 2006