Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why the Soviet Union cracked up

I have just sent a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal commenting on a book review in today's (January 12) edition. I signed it as a professor emeritus both of political science and computer science since the latter might be relevant to my expertise on this subject.

Here is my letter:

To the editor:

As a long-time student of the Soviet Union I question Edward Lucas’ claim that Gorbachev’s “failure … to deal with the dictator’s [Stalin’s] legacy made the state inherently unstable.”

Gorbachev was striving mightily to deal with what was left of Stalin’s legacy and the stagnation more characteristic of the Brezhnev era, and he is an unfortunate example of the cynical generalization that no good deed goes unpunished.

The most likely explanation for the crackup of the Soviet Union was the computer revolution that had been happening in the west and that had barely touched the Soviet Union when Gorbachev came in. I can imagine Gorbachev’s experts explaining to him that unless the country put computers to widespread use it would become an increasing economic backwater in the world economy. I can also imagine other experts warning him that computerization would destroy the government’s ability to maintain its monopoly on the means of communication.

Remember that this was a country employing 80,000 people in its censorship agency, Glavlit, that nothing could be printed without that agency’s permission, and that people had to have a license from the police to have a typewriter. (Typewriters, to say nothing of copy machines, were considered dangerous weapons.) Dissidents were reduced to typing up forbidden manuscripts with several carbon copies and circulating them to people who might in turn type up more copies.

As Gorbachev’s experts undoubtedly understood, computerization would allow easy dissemination of dissident ideas on floppy disks, even before the internet (which hadn’t happened yet) came in. But I believe Gorbachev decided that the economy absolutely had to have computers, and that his principal successful reform, glasnost (openness, freedom of speech and press) was an effort to get some political credit for what was going to happen anyway when computers came in.

It was free speech that destroyed the “unbreakable union” (as the Soviet national anthem put it). As soon as speech was free, dissidents began demanding that the non-Russian union republics secede from the U.S.S.R. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, for example, in 1989 I saw people openly circulating petitions for Estonian independence. The force of nationalism triumphed and the country came apart at the seams.

The Soviet Union fell, not because of Gorbachev’s failure to deal with Stalin’s legacy, but because of his success in doing so.

Paul deLespinasse, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science

Adrian College

Adrian, Michigan 49221

Now living in Corvallis, Oregon. Details on letterhead, above.

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