Never in recorded history has a major empire disintegrated as fast as the Soviet Union.
The Roman Empire withered away over centuries. The British Empire evaporated in two decades. In contrast, the world's first communist state collapsed in about a year and will go out of business altogether at the year's end. The red flag flying over the Kremlin will be substituted with the tricolor of Russia, once the outlawed symbol of czardom.
In 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew a weak and disorganized government in Russia, they inherited a country that, until World War I, had registered one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Good harvests and improvements in agriculture not only fed the Russian empire but also produced a favorable foreign trade balance.
After 74 years of communist mismanagement, the various parts of the former Soviet Union are not only unable to feed their people but also experiencing negative economic growth. Thus the new Commonwealth of Independent States (or whatever the Soviet successor government will be called) will face extraordinarily difficult times ahead. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to overcome the fatalistic sentiment of doom and gloom that is paralyzing so many people in Moscow and elsewhere. Utterly demoralized and disillusioned, they do not believe that any changes for the better are possible.
That, of course, is hogwash. Things may be bad but they could easily be far worse. It is quite amazing, in fact, that the splintering of the Soviet Union so far has happened without any major bloodshed. And while potential for violence and civil unrest is real, particularly in urban centers battling with food problems, Soviet diet has been so basic and sparse that shortages do not have the impact they would have in societies with higher expectations.
The call by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev yesterday for the Supreme Soviet to hold a final session to "announce a transfer of power to the new inter-state structure" was more than a realistic capitulation. It was one of the last contributions of a man of peace who let the genie of reformist ideas out of the bottle, quickly lost control over the course of events and is now being shoved aside.
It is of relatively little interest to America how the former Soviet republics share future power. What is supremely important, however, is that the 27,000 Soviet nuclear warheads, along with production and research facilities, remain under tight central control so that they will not become wild cards in internal power poker or will not be sold or transferred to foreign countries. In that respect, Secretary of State James A. Baker's mission this week has been a well-timed effort in which the United States is not only taking care of its own interests but is helping former Soviet republics shape their common responsibilities.