Illustration Ragni Svensson.

Reviews Not with a bang but with a whimper. The Soviet era in world history

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 52-54, Vol 4:2010
Published on on januari 11, 2011

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Two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, Archie Brown, dean of British Soviet experts, has presented his final account of the history of an ideology in The Rise and Fall of Communism. He asserts that the rise of the Soviet state and its emergence in the international arena imbued two metaphorical concepts in international politics with particular meaning: the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Each of the two metaphors depends upon the other.

Originally, an “iron curtain” was a fire curtain meant to protect the audience if the candles and torches that lit the theater stage should happen to set it afire. According to Brown, the metaphor was first used to designate the line between Bolshevik Russia and the West in 1920 by Ethel Snowden, whom Brown presents only as the wife of a future British Labour Minister (even though it was hardly that position that made her statement politically interesting). A well-known Christian Socialist, Snowdon campaigned for women’s suffrage and temperance, and was a peace activist during the First World War. She used the Iron Curtain metaphor in her travelogue, Through Bolshevik Russia, which Brown does not bother to mention. Critical of the Soviets, the book did not endear her to her fellow members of the Independent Labour Party.1 This minor incident is a clear example of how controversial it was throughout the Soviet era to express critical opinions about the first proletarian state.

Swedish readers otherwise became acquainted with the Iron Curtain metaphor through Kremlinologist and lieutenant Per Emil Brusewitz’s account of his motorcycle trip from Petrograd to Tbilisi in 1923 in Bakom Rysslands järnridå [Behind the Iron Curtain of Russia]. The metaphor first came into general use to describe the conflict between the communist Soviet Union and the Western democracies thanks to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, hometown of US President Harry Truman. Churchill declared that Europe was divided into two blocs separated by an iron curtain, from Stettin on the Baltic Sea to Trieste on the Adriatic. The curtain was moved to Lübeck when Germany was divided into West and East, and the German city of Stettin became the Polish city of Szczecin. The metaphor became even more powerful when on the 13th of August, 1961, the East German regime built a wall along the border between East and West Berlin, which became symbolic of what its proponents called the socialist society.

Brown posits that the Iron Curtain was effective. It prevented the ideological struggle between the East and West from culminating in a veritable hot war — a war in the usual sense of the word. Brown says the precise date the Cold War began cannot be established. He turns the Cold War into an epochal concept that gave a name to the period of 1945—1991 in international politics. The division of Europe was the single most significant manifestation of the concept. Brown presents the Soviet Union as chiefly responsible for the continued division of Europe rooted in the Bolshevik takeover of power in Russia in 1917: “The Soviet imposition of Communist regimes on the countries of east-central Europe, with no regard for the wishes of their peoples, was the cause of the division of Europe — and that was the most important manifestation of what became known as the Cold War” (p. 178).

What Brown calls “communist systems” were kept alive by the Cold War. Without clearly expressing the thought, he seems to assign the same meaning to the Cold War concept as the Soviets had done: a manifestation of the Western struggle against the Soviet Union. Brown suggests that the omnipresent threat from an outside enemy was used to justify an extremely authoritarian and intermittently totalitarian government. He adds that since dissident opinions were painted as treason against the socialist fatherland and because there was an outside threat, the powers that be could justify censorship and restrictions on the freedom to travel abroad. His general conclusion is that communist systems cannot survive close contacts with more prosperous democratic countries or international détente.

Official Soviet terminology treated the Cold War as the Western world’s economic and ideological war against socialism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. The peace-loving Soviet Union was not waging any war. The communist state was guided by the doctrine of “peaceful coexistence” (mirnoe sosusjtjestvovanie). However, the doctrine that had become official policy under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule (1953—1964) maintained the thesis of the necessity and inevitability of the socialist world revolution. The Iron Curtain was needed to protect the worker’s paradise from revanchist West Germans in particular and Western capitalists in general, but Soviet military power was employed only in the name of proletarian internationalism to prevent established socialist states like Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), and the recently converted Afghanistan (1979), from abandoning socialism and leaving the Soviet camp by slipping under the Iron Curtain. States allied with the United States were not subjected to Soviet military intervention.

Both the Suez and Hungary crises of 1956 were overcome under the banner of peaceful coexistence. The United States forced France and the United Kingdom to abandon their claims to global political power, and saved friend of the Soviet Union Egypt from collapse, while the Soviet Union was left unmolested to quash the Hungarian revolution. Thereafter, the Soviet Union opened its doors to influences from the democratic world. Western social sciences were introduced and an academic exchange program with the United States began. Alexander Yakovlev was one of the first Soviet exchange students. Born in 1923, Yakovlev was badly wounded and disabled in World War II, rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, became a member of the Central Committee, attended Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech on February 23, 1956, and studied history at Columbia University in New York from 1958 to 1959. He was the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Canada for 10 years from 1973 to 1983. In 1985, he was one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest advisors. In 1987 he became a member of the governing Politburo.

Yakovlev’s advancement gave a person intimately familiar with the workings of the mass media and their impact on political life and social development in the democratic states of the United States and Canada critical influence over developments in the Soviet Union. As interpreted by Yakovlev, glasnost now encompassed the concept of freedom of speech in the sense that it had in the democratic West.

Brown devotes the requisite attention to Yakovlev’s efforts to pull down the Iron Curtain. He notes that Yakovlev was sent to Canada as the Soviet ambassador under Brezhnev but does not suggest that it was precisely this breach in the Iron Curtain opened by Khrushchev, when he let people like Yakovlev get to know the West from the inside, that ultimately caused it to rust and crumble from the Soviet side. Loren Graham, American historian of ideas and a Soviet expert, was a classmate of Yakovlev’s during his year at Columbia and stayed in touch with him until his death in 2005. In his memoirs, Graham pithily sums up Yakovlev and his contribution: “He helped change history.”2

Brown’s thesis is that hardliners in the Soviet leadership, including the military, profited from the tensions of the Cold War. Brown points out that isolation prevented communist societies from evolving into viable alternatives to the West and, thus, from gaining legitimacy among the non-Russian peoples inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Until Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary in 1985, the Soviet leadership gave their allies in the Eastern Bloc the impression that there really was a military threat from the West.  Chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, perceived US President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as a military mobilization of the kind whose outcome is war. He described the rise of Solidarity in Poland as part and parcel of the strategy underlying SDI, and cited as an argument Soviet Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov’s book The Brain of the Army from the interwar period in which Shaposhnikov posited that large-scale mobilization is an immediate preparation for military attack.3 Brown does not delve into this purely military line of argument, although he does mention the internal ideological antagonisms toward Gorbachev’s reform policies.

The Cold War threat scenario and relative isolation of the Soviet Union were meant to prevent, and did for decades, the serpent of democracy from slithering into the Soviet paradise, where the citizenry lived in happy ignorance of the rest of the world. The Cold War was an Elysian era for Russia. But when Columbia University allowed Alexander Yakovlev to taste the fruit of knowledge, the fall was made ready. Thirty years later, Gorbachev ate of the delectable apple, and Paradise was lost when the Berlin Wall was breached in November 1989. The people of the communist states were forced to face the world.

Loren Graham has noted that it took a couple of decades, including the sojourn as Soviet ambassador in Ottawa, before Yakovlev understood his mission. While he was certainly impressed by the political freedom and flourishing market economies in the two North American societies, and although he was already known by 1972 for his criticism of Russian nationalism and chauvinism, Yakovlev still took umbrage at the anti-Soviet tone of North American Sovietology. For this reason, in his capacity as a Soviet expert on the United States, he wrote scathingly critical books about that country. He explained why:

[B]eing an impulsive man, when I read newspapers and books criticizing my country, well, this hurt me deeply. For example, I know that I am crippled. But when people every day tell me, “You are crippled, you are crippled”, I get furious. And then I answer back: “You are crippled! You yourself are the fool!”4

Most people, including politicians and intellectuals, are emotional beings who, for good or ill, identify with the state in which they were born and reared. It was not the American Kremlinologists’ critical analyses of the Soviet Union that made Yakovlev a communist apostate, but rather his personal analysis of why the United States and Canada were better societies than the Soviet. Under the banner of the new buzzwords glasnost and perestroika, Yakovlev carried the fruit of knowledge to the Soviet paradise. His contribution was made possible by a number of well-meaning but misdirected attempts at reform on the part of God — that is to say, the Party.

During the Brezhnev epoch (1964—1982), Yuri Andropov was Director of the Russian Committee for State Security. He updated the KGB’s repertoire in two ways. Firstly, Andropov introduced political psychiatry as a means of dealing with open opposition. Domestic social critics who took an anti-regime stance were given diagnoses like “suffering from reformist delusions” or “insidious schizophrenia” and locked up in mental hospitals. The most famous examples were geneticist Zhores Medvedev and General Piotr Goncharenko.

Secondly, Andropov put sociology at the service of the KGB. Social policy was to be based on survey studies of the population’s attitudes and analyses in the form of time/budget studies of its behavior. To this was added faith in the national computer system for central control of the planned economy.5 All of this was distilled in the phrase “the scientific/technical revolution”, which under its Russian acronym NTR was the word of the day in the Party’s platform documents of the time, but Brown makes no mention of this. He is a good historical storyteller and scholarly analyst, but essentially neglects to look at the communist system from a sociological perspective. In so doing, he overlooks this key dimension in its desperate fight for its existence: faith in the big computer as savior. For that matter, the death struggle was very real and far from merely abstract. The leaders, those meant to point the way, were dropping like flies.

Leonid Brezhnev was in dire physical and emotional condition when he was led up to Lenin’s mausoleum on the anniversary of the Revolution on November 7, 1982, in the bitter cold. He died just a couple of days later. Andropov was already terminally ill when appointed Brezhnev’s successor and died in February 1984. During his brief time in power, he was able to put “scientific government” into practice only in the area of alcohol policy. Citizens were forbidden to come drunk to work and to run around town during working hours in the always arduous and time-consuming hunt for consumer goods. Sobriety and attendance checks were implemented in workplaces. But a cheap vodka of decent quality — popularly known as Andropovka — was available for use during non-working hours.

Andropov was followed by an interregnum of just over a year under the likewise terminally ill Konstantin Chernenko. Once Chernenko had drawn his last emphysemic breath, Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985. He took up — but profoundly modified — Andropov’s line. Political psychiatry was abolished and dissenters were accepted in their roles as social critics. Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, peace activist, and champion of human rights, could leave his enforced exile in the closed city of Gorky, return to Moscow, and appear before the public with his criticism and suggestions for reform. This was part of the policy called glasnost. Using people like Sakharov as examples, Brown manages to show that politics in the single-party communist dictatorship become manifest in entirely different forms than under democracy. He makes Sakharov into one of the most important politicians in the story of the Soviet Union’s path toward the fall.

When people like Yakovlev, Sakharov and other like-minded individuals were given influence in the name of glasnost over developments in the unintended phase-out of the Soviet Union, faith in the big central computer was definitively abandoned in favor of the law of supply and demand. The planned economy would be succeeded by the (illusory) socialist market economy. This was the central import of the policy called perestroika. The third novel element was called “new thinking”, the content of which was not only that peaceful coexistence must be succeeded by global cooperation. A contributing factor behind the launch of the new doctrine was the understanding that environmental problems did not respect national borders, and made it necessary for the socialist and capitalist camps to merge into a new, higher fellowship of the noosphere.

The theory of the noosphere that Gorbachev made his own, and laid as the ideological foundation of his plan for an international “Green Cross” for the conservation of the natural environment, as a prerequisite for continued human life, had been devised by Soviet mineralogist and geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, building on the philosophical theory of the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin. According to this theory, human existence was built on processes in three levels: the geosphere or matter, the biosphere or physical life, and the noosphere or the sphere of human thought and reason. In a 1990 speech, Gorbachev proclaimed that under his leadership humanity had entered the noosphere — the age of reason.

Like virtually all social scientists and historians who have written about the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, Brown also overlooks this aspect of the story. The explanation is simple. As social researchers and as ordinary people, we can only see what we can name. One might say that it takes a certain liveliness of imagination to be able to discern a French priest as the source of inspiration behind the policies of the last Soviet leader. One cannot blame Brown for having missed this fact.

Obviously, Gorbachev and his colleagues supposed that the entry into the age of the noosphere would take place under the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with the General Secretary himself in the vanguard. Gorbachev held what cannot be called other than a naïve belief in the Soviet Union. He seems to have believed that all the various peoples of the multinational empire both loved each other and the state as such.

However, several centrifugal movements were the outcome of encouraging people to express themselves freely and organize grass roots social movements, to take responsibility for the quality of the goods they produced and ensure they found consumers for those goods, along with the opening toward the capitalist world.

Brown explains how various peoples — with the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians leading the way — began to demand political autonomy; how republics began, following Estonia’s example, to draft plans for market economic reforms in their own territories; and how so many people under the banner of freedom of information found that the capitalist Western world worked better than the Soviet Union. The movements on the three levels of politics, economics, and ideology were intertwined. The entire social system became dynamic. The stagnated “actually existing socialism” became an “actually existing cybernetic system”. Finally, the solution to the Soviet problems seemed to some actors to be to leave the Soviet Union. Loyalty was already a thing of the past and voice gave way to exit. In early 1988, popular fronts for perestroika arose in the three Baltic Soviet Republics. Before the year was out, they had become popular fronts for sovereignty.

The upheaval under Gorbachev was an event of the same magnitude as the Protestant Reformation in Christianity. This dimension of late Soviet history has also eluded Brown probably because it seems to a sober western European scholar of communism as absurd as the talk about the noosphere. However, Alexander Yakovlev himself formulated this thesis in a speech at the University of California at Berkeley on February 22, 1993:

This posture was also based on the assumption that perestroika is not only to solve the problems of the economy, political system, or foreign policy, but also it was assumed that perestroika could function as a sort of socialist Protestantism, without which perestroika would not have historical prospects. We assumed that perestroika not only needed this sort of reformation but as a matter of fact it started this reformation and it was a stimulus to its development. Next, perestroika’s central goal was democracy. It was precisely a central goal, not a tactical one. It was seen as a strategic task, which stemmed from the understanding that it is precisely the lack of a democratic beginning that is the source of all the difficulties, all the troubles, and all the problems that we have in the country. Even the introduction of the market economy was considered not a goal in itself but as a kind of guarantee for the establishment of democracy.6

Brown provides a fine and detailed description of the rise and fall of communism but does not avail himself of the Hegelian rhetorical device of referring to the vagaries of history to explain the fall. For this reason, I will complete Brown’s account with an ironic twist of the arguments. Mikhail Gorbachev’s operation was successful, but the patient died. The Soviet era in world history ended, not with a bang but a whimper. ≈


  1. (accessed 2010-10-02).
  2. Loren R. Graham, Moscow Stories, Bloomington, Ind. 2006, p. 236.
  3. Michael Ploetz, Wie die Sowjetunion den Kalten Krieg verlor: Von der Nachrüstung zum Mauerfall, Berlin & Munich 2000, pp. 104—119.
  4. Graham, pp 228—229.
  5. Yuri M. Gorsky, Sistemno-informacionnyj analiz processov upravlenija [System-information analysis of processes of governing], Novosibirsk 1988.
  6. Alexander N. Yakovlev, “The Future of Democracy in Russia: The Lessons of Perestroika and the Question of the Communist Party”, in the Sanford S. Ekberg Lecture in International Studies, February 22, 1993 (accessed 2010-04-27 ).

Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, London: Vintage Books 2010, (First edition 2009), 752 pages