From History Today (hat tip: Ron Good):
Could the Soviet Union Have Survived?
We ask four historians whether the demise of one of the 20th century’s superpowers was as inevitable as it now seems.
Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-91) and author of Armageddon and Paranoia: the Nuclear Confrontation (Profile, 2017).
People still argue about the fall of the Roman Empire. They are not going to agree quickly on why the Soviet Union collapsed when it did. Some think it could have lasted for many years, others that the collapse was unforeseeable. Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident scientist, foresaw it decades before it happened.
Victory in war took the Soviet armies to the centre of Europe, where they stayed. The Soviet Union’s seductive ideology had already given it influence across the world. But after Stalin’s death in 1953 the ideology started looking threadbare, even at home. In Eastern Europe, inside the Soviet Union itself, the subject peoples were increasingly restless for freedom. Soviet scientists were the equal of any in the world, but their country was too poor to afford both guns and butter and their skills were directed towards matching the American military machine, rather than improving the people’s welfare. It worked for a while. But in 1983 the Soviet Chief of Staff admitted that ‘We will never be able to catch up with [the Americans] in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution’.
The Soviet leaders were not stupid. They knew something had to be done. In 1985, after three decrepit leaders died in succession, they picked Mikhail Gorbachev to run the country: young, experienced, competent and – they wrongly thought – orthodox. But Gorbachev believed that change was inescapable. He curbed the KGB, freed the press and introduced a kind of democracy. He was defeated by a conservative establishment, an intractable economy and an unsustainable imperial burden. It was the fatal moment, identified by the 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, when a decaying regime tries to reform – and disintegrates.
Russians call Gorbachev a traitor for failing to prevent the collapse by force. Foreigners dismiss him as an inadequate bungler. No one has suggested a convincing alternative scenario.
The other participants reference Gorbachev’s attempts to curb drinking on the job (“Did he understand who he was getting into a fight with?”), anti-Soviet demonstrations in the Kazakh SSR in 1986 (did you know about these? I didn’t!), and Glasnost, i.e. Gorbachev’s policy of press freedom, which undermined the “key to the survival of any dictatorship, [which] is strict control of the media, which shapes public opinion and promotes tacit acceptance of a regime.” I seem to remember Christopher Hitchens once offered a similar answer.