In November 1982, I visited Saudi Arabia on a business trip. We were
offering our services in setting up a Landsat receiving station and
processing center. One evening I was watching the news in my hotel room
in Riyadh. The first 10 or 15 minutes were devoted to the comings and
goings of King Fahd. The King going to the airport in Riyadh, saying
goodbye to his well-wishers, arriving in Dhahran, the ceremonies and
festivities surrounding his arrival, including some kind of a ritual
sabre dance with the King participating. Then the news reader dismissively
turned to "other news": "It was announced today that
the president of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev has died."
news was greeted with a mixture of hope and fear in the West. Anytime
there was a change in the Soviet leadership, there was the hope that
a "softer" form of communism would prevail and would lead
to reduced tensions between the two superpowers. - In 1982, there were
roughly 50,000 nuclear warheads in the world. The U.S. at that time
still had about 6000
nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. Although Strategic Arms Limitation
Talks (SALT) had had some success, the geopolitical situation was far
from stable. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev had invaded Afghanistan
just three years earlier.
Brezhnev's successor was former KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who had been
implicated in the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956,
and whose most recent assignment had been as watchdog for ideological
affairs within the party secretariat. Not the most promising of credentials!
On the other hand, his conservative background might give him a certain
freedom of action (just as Nixon was able to improve relations with
China in a way that Humphrey could never have done, had he won the 1968
presidential election). Andropov started an energetic domestic campaign
against corruption and lack of discipline, firing a large number of
underperforming Brezhnev appointees. He began to publicize some facts
about the inefficiency of the economy, previously considered state secrets.
In Cold War politics he made no headway with his proposals to reduce
the number of missiles in Europe. President Reagan branded the Soviet
Union "the Evil Empire" and launched the "Star Wars"
initiative in March 1983. Andropov was unable to extricate himself from
the mess in Afghanistan, and the downing of a Korean civilian airliner
occurred on his watch. - Of course, during his brief tenure, he was
severely handicapped by his health problems. He died in February 1984.
Andropov's successor was 73-year Konstantin Chernenko, a throwback
to the Brezhnev era. Chernenko had worked closely with Brezhnev for
30 years. His age and his poor health were signs that he was intended
as a temporary solution while the Party made up its mind about its future
direction. Chernenko died on March 10, 1985 without leaving much of
an imprint. (His death recalls the bon mot attributed to Dorothy
Parker upon the death of President Calvin Coolidge: "How can
Gorbachev was elected Party Secretary the following day. Clearly, the
senior party leaders had come to realize that Soviet society needed
an overhaul, and that younger and more dynamic leadership was called
for. Foreign Secretary Andrei Gromyko had done his best to convince
any doubters in the Politburo: "This man has a nice smile, but
he has got iron teeth." It was generally assumed that Gorbachev
would lead the Soviet Union for the next 20 years or so.
Glasnost and an end to the Cold War
Of course, Gorbachev did not materialize out of thin air. He had been
appointed Party Secretary of Agriculture in 1978 - not the usual path
to success in the Soviet Union, but he had made a name for himself as
a reformer of collective farming. He was raised to the Politburo in
1979/80 and enjoyed the support of Andropov and Chernenko. He was already
a familiar and visible figure in the Soviet Union, and he had made several
trips to the West, making a good impression on Mrs. Thatcher and other
grandmother, who at 91 was a keen observer of international politics,
and who had lived in fear of Russians all her life, was swept off her
feet by Gorbachev. So was I, along with many people in the West. Gorbachev
was saying all the right things: domestic economic and political reform,
openness - what came to be known as Perestroika and Glasnost
- and an end to the Cold War. It all seemed too good to be true, but
gradually it became clear that he meant what he said. At heart, he appeared
to be a left-wing Social Democrat, favoring free elections and a multi-party
system, while advocating strict limits on private ownership.
The lowering of international tensions, and the promise of a better
standard of living, made Gorbachev quite popular within the Soviet Union
during his first few years in power. He made a point of encouraging
open debate and of defending his policies in public. But domestic support
soon began to erode, when his reforms actually led to worsening economic
conditions: higher prices, longer queues, and a deterioration in the
standard of living. No doubt, part of the problem was a lack of enthusiasm
for reforms among the entrenched bureaucracy. But this was not much
of an excuse when rationing of some basic food products had to be implemented
for the first time since 1947.
In addition to his economic difficulties, there was another important
factor that attracted less attention in the West: the ethnic diversity
within the Soviet Union. Incredibly, even in Sweden the people of the
Baltic republics were frequently referred to as "Russians"
during the Cold War. - Significantly, I think, during WW2 many Soviet
citizens initially greeted the German army as liberators. Blinded by
his racist ideology, Hitler failed to exploit this. Many Ukrainians
had suffered terribly under communism during the 1930s. Hundreds of
thousands of Soviet citizens were recruited by the German Army in supporting
roles. They were not
considered reliable by the Nazi leaders and were not allowed to
form ethnically homogeneous battle units until right at the end of the
war. - The reign of terror ended with Stalin, but undoubtedly widespread
resentment of Russian domination persisted among ethnic minorities throughout
fall of the Berlin Wall
Thursday November 9, 1989, I was in Rome for a business meeting with
Telespazio. When the meeting ended, it was too late to return to Stockholm
that same day, but I caught a plane to Hamburg in the evening. After
spending the night in Hamburg, I would be able to reach Stockholm on
Friday morning, where I still had some unfinished business in my office
to deal with before the weekend.
was in the taxi cab to my hotel in Hamburg that I heard the surprising
news on the radio: East Germany had opened its borders, effective immediately!
Later in the night there were incredible scenes on TV, showing kisses
and tears of happiness as a hundred thousand people flooded across the
border from East Berlin, many of whom had been cut off from friends
and relatives in the West for decades. - Next morning, when I travelled
to the airport, it became abundantly clear that the whole thing had
not just been a hallucination. Overnight, the puttering, smoking East
German "Trabbi" (Trabant) cars had invaded the streets of
of the Berlin Wall took everyone by surprise, including the East
German government, although dramatic changes were already underway in
East Germany. The triggering events were the opening of Hungary's borders,
the demonstrations in Leipzig in September-October, and the 40th anniversary
of the German Democratic Republic.
In the summer of 1989, Hungary had opened its borders to Austria. This
had made it possible for thousands of East Germans to escape to the
West. Hundreds more had fled to the German embassies in Eastern Europe.
- In Leipzig, the relatively low-key Monday afternoon demonstrations
outside the Nikolai church during September had escalated into mass
meetings of tens of thousands of demonstrators in October, shouting
"We are the people". - When Gorbachev arrived in Berlin
on October 5th to participate in the celebration of the 40th anniversary
of the German Democratic Republic, he admonished party chief Honecker:
"Life punishes those, who arrive too late."
Lacking the support of Gorbachev, the East German leadership decided
against using violence to solve their problems. This led to Honecker's
resignation on October 18th "for health reasons" and replacement
by Egon Krenz, a relative moderate. But the demonstrations continued
to escalate. Hundreds of thousands participated in Leipzig, and on November
4th half a million demonstrators gathered in East Berlin.
One has to admire the courage of the early demonstrators. The Tiananmen
Square massacre had occurred just recently, in June. A female relative
of mine who participated in the demonstrations, told me that there had
been insistent rumors that the hospitals were on high alert, and were
urgently seeking blood donors. This may or may not have been a deliberate
attempt by the authorities to discourage demonstrations.
After November 9, events unfolded rapidly. Krenz was forced to resign
in December, together with the entire leadership. Gorbachev declared
the question of reunification to be an internal German matter. The first
free elections in East Germany took place in March 1990 and resulted
in a massive majority for those parties that favored reunification.
(Some West Germans lamented: The worst part is that the right-wing
press turned out to be right, after all!)
Gorbachev and Kohl, July 1990
Monetary union was agreed in May and implemented as of July 1. (Huge
numbers of trucks were carrying West German banknotes into East Germany
- what a missed opportunity for bank robbers!) During the summer of
1990, the so-called 4
+ 2 talks were held and led to the grudging approval of German reunification
by the WW2 victors, something that would have seemed unthinkable a year
before. Undoubtedly, their acceptance came easier because of widespread
popular sympathy following the touching scenes when the Wall was opened.
- The key concession by Gorbachev was his acceptance that Germany would
be allowed to make its own decision on the matter of NATO membership
Still, even the Social Democrats in West Germany were questioning the
wisdom of rapid unification. The German chancellor Kohl is said to have
explained the urgency of reaching an agreement: "Hay should
be harvested while the sun is shining." The treaty between
East and West Germany was ratified in September, and on October 3rd,
1990 the German Democratic Republic was dissolved, and the Federal Republic
of Germany acquired five new states ("Länder"). All of
this in just under 11 months after my stopover in Hamburg!
Just after the New Year's holiday in January 1991, I
took advantage of an offer to make a weekend trip to Berlin. I had visited
West Berlin by car a couple of years earlier for the first time since
1944, but this was my chance to see East Berlin before it was transformed
after the fall of the Wall. The direct flight to Berlin was sold out,
so I flew to Hamburg and took a train from there. This, by the way,
is how I met my future wife - at a hamburger bar near the railway station!
"He went to take in a hamburger but was taken in by a Hamburger",
as my brother Rolf so aptly observed in his speech at our wedding.
During the earlier visit I had made sure to rigorously
respect the speed limit of 100 km/h on the transit freeway. I had read
that the ticketing of West Germans was a major source of foreign currency
for the East German government! - On the outskirts of Berlin, there
were Soviet barracks with large signs in Russian: "Tank soldier
('Tankista' or something like that), hit with the first round!"
Easier said than done...
Two details from my 1991 trip to East Berlin have stuck in my mind.
Although it was mid-winter, harvest combines had simply been left out
on the fields on the collective farms, left to rust in the rain and
snow. It seemed that nobody had bothered to bring them back to the sheds
at the end of the harvesting season to keep them dry. And in East Berlin,
just a few blocks from the main streets, apartment houses were incredibly
dilapidated. It seemed that there had been no upkeep for decades. Even
if the authorities did nothing, why on earth didn't the people in those
apartment blocks get together to help themselves? In many cases, all
that was needed was a bucket of paint, or a shovel and some gravel to
fix a pothole on the sidewalk. Walking along those streets, I felt completely
disgusted, not only with the decrepit neighborhood but also with myself
for feeling smug and superior about living in an affluent society. But
how could our own communists and left-wing intellectuals claim that
the German Democratic Republic was an example of a country that had
done well under difficult circumstances? Had they been blind during
Failure of Gorbachev's policies
would be wrong to assume that Gorbachev just did not care about the
breakup of the Warsaw Pact. His vision was that the member countries
would undergo the same process of reform as the Soviet Union itself,
leading to democratically elected governments, and obviating the need
for a Soviet military presence. The importance of military alliances
would decrease with the end of the Cold War, but economic cooperation
among the East bloc countries would remain intact.
It did not quite work out that way. The fall of the Wall opened the
floodgates to fundamental political change in all of the Eastern bloc
countries. "Die Geister die ich rief, werd' ich nicht mehr los"
(Goethe). The communist parties were transformed into social democratic
ones and/or were reduced to mere onlookers. And the weakness of the
Soviet economy greatly limited Gorbachev's ability to influence events.
We all feared that the old-guard communists would strike back at Gorbachev
after the Soviet Union began to lose its grip on Eastern Europe, and
even more when some of the republics of the USSR started to demand independence.
- The day after the Berlin Wall came down, the Swedish Foreign Minister
claimed that "Esthonia is not occupied". A charitable
interpretation is that he was just trying to avoid pouring gasoline
on the flames. I remember being quite concerned about the various calls
for independence. It seemed to me that Gorbachev was in the midst of
performing an extremely delicate balancing act, and that any attempt
to push him to move even faster was very likely to trigger a dangerous
backlash. - The situation was reminiscent of a critical phase in the
negotiations on Norwegian independence in 1905, when - according to
legend - the celebrated chauvinist Norwegian writer Björnson sent
a telegram to the Norwegian Prime Minister Michelsen: "Now the
time has come to stand together!" whereupon Michelsen replied:
"Now the time has come to shut up!"
What I did not fully realize at the time, was that domestically Gorbachev
was under intense pressure to push economic reforms even faster. Glasnost
had unearthed all the repressed frustration with old-style communism
that had been building up during the Brezhnev era. If the Party was
unable to deliver, people were ready to turn elsewhere. By 1991, most
Russians were disillusioned with Gorbachev. He had brought an end to
the Cold War, but he had also brought on a deep economic crisis, and
he had "lost" Eastern Europe. Their hopes were now gradually
transferred to Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin had become popular as the Moscow Party Secretary in 1986-87.
He was fired by Gorbachev in 1987 after complaining about the slow pace
of reform. Gorbachev's democratization of election procedures opened
the way for his political comeback. Yeltsin headed the "government"
of the Russian republic in 1990, quit the Communist Party, and had the
Congress of the Russian republic declare its sovereignty within the
Union. In the summer of 1991, he was elected President of the Russian
republic. - Yeltsin had no interest in preserving the Union. His power
base was the Russian republic. By getting rid of the Union, he would
be getting rid of his former boss.
Remarkably, the political conservatives, and among them in particular
the military leadership, had not been able to mount any strong resistance
to Gorbachev during the liberation of Eastern Europe. One minor incident
served to illustrate their impotence. In 1987, a young West German pilot
managed to land his single-engine airplane just outside the Kremlin
after flying across the Soviet Union without being challenged! This
gave Gorbachev the opportunity to get rid of several political opponents
in the military. As late as 1990, he actually seemed to be consolidating
his power in Congress. Late in 1990, his Foreign Secretary Shevarnadze
resigned in protest over the slow pace of economic reform, warning of
the dangers of 'dictatorship'.
What finally moved parts of the military leadership to take action
in August 1991 was the imminent danger of breakup of the Union. Gorbachev
was placed under house arrest in the Crimea. But their coup d'état
was poorly planned and executed. They held a news conference where they
seemed weak and tentative, when they should have projected strength
This gave the karismatic Yeltsin the opportunity of his lifetime. He
climbed on top of a tank and made a strong plea to the military to turn
their back on the conspirators. With public opinion solidly behind him,
he was able to take control without a single shot being fired. Gorbachev
was brought back to Moscow, but the Union could no longer be saved.
collapse of the Soviet Union
After the coup attempt, Yeltsin enjoyed tremendous prestige in addition
to having a strong platform as the democratically elected President
of the Russian republic. During the next month, ten additional Soviet
republics declared themselves independent.
desperately attempted to modernize the Union itself. A new agreement
on economic cooperation was signed in October 1991, and a new Union
Treaty was being prepared, but it was too late. Ukrainian voters supported
independence in a referendum held on December 1st, and a week later
the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (White Russia) founded
the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable
and resigned on Christmas day. The Soviet Union ceased to exist as of
January 1, 1992. - This was not a mere formality, as it also entailed
the transfer of control of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons to the
President of Russia. (See "Further Reading"
below. /SZ. February 18, 2014. )
Gorbachev was to make a last ill-advised attempt to regain power by
running for President in Russia in 1996, when Yeltsin was facing great
difficulties. (In early opinion polls that year, Yeltsin's support had
dropped below 10 percent.) Gorbachev was eliminated in the first round,
suffering the indignity of having won just 0.5 percent of the votes!
- Yeltsin ultimately prevailed by defeating the Communist candidate
in the runoff election.
the collapse inevitable?
In the years and decades that preceded the end of the Soviet Union,
there were plenty of prophecies of impending doom, from Hitler's "We
have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come
tumbling down" to Reagan's "Freedom and democracy will leave
Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history". Almost all
of them can be dismissed as just expressions of wishful thinking without
any solid foundation. In emigrant groups, for instance, predicting the
downfall of the oppressors tends to become something of a ritual. And
even when somebody turns out to be right when predicting an improbable
event, that does not by itself constitute proof of any special predictive
power. There are enough fools making outrageous predictions that some
of them (some of us?) are bound to get it right from time to time.
So the real question is this: Why were so few professional historians
and political scientists able to foresee the course of events?
I seem to remember reading in New Scientist sometime in the
1970s about a sociologist who made very dire predictions about the future
of the USSR. This may have been French sociologist Emanuel Todd,
who in 1976 published "La chute finale" ("The final fall"),
in which, at the age of 25, he predicted the "decomposition of
the Soviet sphere". Todd's prediction was based on his own research
into sociological indicators that could be extracted from the official
population statistics: child mortality, suicide rates etc. Even when
the statistics were highly unreliable, it was possible to deduce trends
and patterns, pointing to an accelerating sclerosis in Soviet society.
Todd also found insights in more doubtful data, such as anecdotal evidence
about the weaknesses of central planning (a shipment of only right shoes...)
and preoccupations expressed in science fiction stories (which were
not usually subjected to censorship and therefore more illuminating
than other forms of literature). - Todd has more recently attracted
attention by predicting the decline of the United States, mostly based
on trade figures and military overextension.
Another successful prophet was Soviet historian and dissident Andrei
Amalrik, who in 1970 predicted that the Soviet Union would break
up sometime between 1980 and 1985, pointing in particular to the ethnic
rivalries and the shortcomings of the legal system. His work was discounted
in the West but was widely circulated among dissidents in the Soviet
I think that the difficulties facing the Soviet Union were well understood
in the West, perhaps with the exception of the ethnic dimension. Few
observers were impressed with its economic performance. The challenge
was rather to explain how it could stay competitive in military matters,
given the enormous inefficiencies of its economic system. - When I visited
Moscow and the Crimea in a cooperative space project in the mid-70s,
I was amazed to learn that paper copiers were forbidden, that some of
my Soviet colleagues did not have security clearance to read their own
scientific papers, and that trade journals were non-existent. How in
the world could anyone carry out technical development under such conditions?
The bottom line is that, while most Western observers realized that
the Soviet empire was based on coercion and the use of military force,
very few anticipated that its leadership would abstain from repression
and the use of force even when the very existence of the Union was at
stake. It seemed inconceivable that the Soviet system would appoint
and tolerate a leader with the courage and humane qualities of Mikhail
In 1989, the communist parties of Soviet Union and China took very
different paths. In China, discipline was strictly enforced through
repression, while far-reaching economic reforms were implemented. The
result has been remarkable economic growth combined with severely curtailed
civil rights. In the Soviet Union, political reforms outstripped economic
ones, resulting in a decade of economic hardship. Significantly, perhaps,
recent economic progress in Russia appears to have gone hand in hand
with a consolidation of power of the ruling leadership. It is anybody's
guess which direction these two great nations will take in the future.
Enigma of 1989 - The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe"
by Jacques Lévesque. This is an online book from the California
Digital Library published by the University of California. Lévesque
is a well-respected Canadian professor of political science. His book
makes for absorbing reading. Highly recommended!
of Soviet collapse (Wikipedia article).
happened to the Soviet superpower's nuclear arsenal? by Graham Allison.
Harvard University 2012. [Added February 2014.]