The End of Soviet Utopia

September 08, 1991

"The Union is dead. Long live the Union," a Gorbachev adviser said last week after the framework of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was junked. The communist workers' paradise lasted 74 years, six times longer than Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Like other experiments in systematic control, oppression and cruelty, it foundered on its disregard for human nature and aspirations.

Time will tell what kind of a long-term arrangement will replacthe Soviet Union. For the present, its republics are grouped in loose political confederation or, further on the periphery, in an economic arrangement only vaguely defined.

As one of the century's greatest experiments, the old Soviet Union will long be an object of scrutiny. Karl Marx himself said it would fail because the 19th century Russian empire was too backward and primitive. But what of communism's failure in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, all comparatively advanced societies?

Now that Leningrad is becoming St. Petersburg again -- itoriginal name until World War I -- it is instructive to consider just what kind of a country the communists inherited in 1917.

Until World War I, Russia was among the world's fastest growing economies. Agricultural yields were breaking records, industrialization was exploding. The ruble was a stable currency. In the twilight of the czarist era, a French economist forecast that if the pace of growth since 1900 could be maintained until 1950, Russia would dominate Europe militarily, politically and economically.

The flip side of this optimistic picture was much squalor and misery brought about by rapid urbanization. They contributed to widespread political instability that in turn spawned anarchy and secessionist movements. In a desperate attempt to save the czardom, belated reforms were rushed. But they only confirmed Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis (about the French revolution) that for a bad government, the most dangerous time is when it begins to reform itself.

The events of the past months have often seemed like an eerie repeat of what happened in months that preceded the 1917 Bolshevik coup. The same animosities, the same squabbles. Like Lenin's plotters in 1917, those staging a coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev represented a small minority. Unlike the early Bolsheviks, however, they were too clumsy to succeed. Instead, they started a chain-reaction that produced the ultimate collapse of a discredited ideology and social system.

We shed no tears for communism or its functionaries. Rather, we place our hope in peoples too long suppressed who never lost their instinct for freedom. From the wreckage of the Soviet empire, they have an opportunity to build anew. There will be much privation, turmoil and falterings. There will be moments when a nervous world may even yearn for Kremlin-imposed stability. But what is to come is surely better than what has been.

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