Staunton, December 14 – Prophets, it is sometimes said, are ignored twice, first when they make their predictions and then when their predictions turn out to be true. But also ignored quite often are the arguments their opponents continue to employ, even and perhaps especially when the problems the prophets identified remain in place.
Those reflections are prompted by the republication today by the Tolkovatel portal of two articles from “Rodina” in October 1989 -- Zbigniew Brzezinski’s essay on why he saw the Soviet Union heading toward disintegration and the response of the editors of that Soviet journal about why they were sure he was wrong (ttolk.ru/?p=25602).
Two things about this exchange are striking: On the one hand, as the Russian portal notes, “everything that Brzezinski predicted in 1989 about the fate of the USSR has come to pass. Eastern Europe and the Baltics have become part of a unified Europe,” while many in Russia are infected by “’great Russian nationalism’” and want to restore the empire.
And on the other, the arguments the Soviet editors advanced against Brezezinski then precisely mirror the arguments that Russian writers and many in the West now make against those who suggest that the demise of the Russian empire is not over and that the latest outburst of Russian chauvinism is in fact accelerating that process.
“The real problem for the future of the Soviet Union,” Brzezinski wrote, “consists not in how long Gorbachev will remain in power and even not in whether his attempts to enliven the Soviet economy and state will be successful.” Instead, it is whether the system can liberalize or, in attempting to prevent liberalization, put the country on the path to disintegration.
Gorbachev, the American analyst argued, clearly understood that for the system to survive, political changes are even more important than economic ones; but “at the same time and perhaps unconsciously, he made the first steps which quite possibly will lead to the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
Unfortunately for the first and last Soviet president, Brzezinski continued, “both Russian history and Soviet reality are in a conspiracy against the success of perestroika … Old habits and inertia are creating enormous obstacles on the path of change.” Most Soviet citizens are skeptical about reform and concerned less about perestroika than about their monthly salaries.
“But the greatest weakness of perestroika, its Achilles’ heel is the problem of the non-Russian peoples within the Soviet Union.” If the USSR decentralizes, they will be the beneficiaries and Moscow and the Great Russians will be the losers. Indeed, Brzezinski said in 1989 the whole country could come apart.
The desire to escape from Moscow’s rule has spread from the Baltics to the Caucasus to Central Asia and to Ukraine and even Belarus. And “Ukraine,” Brzezinski wrote 26 years ago, “with its large population and rich natural resources could represent the most serious threat to the survival of the USSR.”
“Growing national conflicts are generating fear among the dominant national group of the USSR – the Great Russians – and this by itself interferences with the carrying out of needed reforms.” Indeed, Brzezinski says, “these conflicts increase the probability that the real problem for Soviet communism is not constructive evolution but deep decline.”
In fact, the American analyst argued at the time, “the success of perestroika and glasnost are less probable than four alternatives: a slow decline marked by protests, the renewal of stagnation, the seizure of power by the KGB and force structures, or the complete overthrow of the communist system.
The “most probable” of these is “a lengthy and indeterminate crisis which will grow into a new period of stagnation that will deepen still further the general crisis of Soviet and world communism,” Brzezinski says. And in trying to arrest that, Gorbachev has taken steps that only intensify demands in the periphery for “the end of the Moscow empire.”
But the real irony of glasnost and perestroika, Brzezinski wrote, is that they are “stimulating nationalism among the [ethnic] Russians” who also suffer from Moscow’s rule but who cannot do without it if they are to retain the empire. And that only adds to “the agony” of the system and presages its approaching end.
The response of the editors, entitled “Does Brzezinski Leave Us a Chance?” is if anything even more instructive in today’s environment. The author – and the article is cast as the statement of an individual rather than a collective “we” – argued that Brzezinski’s position reflected a combination of inertia, a radical inversion of his past views, and a failure to understand how the state centered on Moscow was developing.
For several decades “before the beginning of perestroika,” the article said, Western analysts including Brzezinski had argued that “a totalitarian regime could not be modernized from above in a peaceful way because this would mean that the leaders of such a regime would be consciously denying essential aspects of their system.”
By 1989, the response continued, Brzezinski appears to have accepted that change is possible but that it will be very difficult and drawn out. But most important, it said, the American analyst explained that by pointing to factors, including paternalism and traditional factors that have faced all societies seeking to modernize.
And the “Rodina” writer insists that “if we destroy the diktat of agencies and the imperialism of ministries, about which the Balts have spoken so much since the beginning of perestroika and carry out a de-statification of the economy … then we will make possible the establishment of a civil society separate from the state within the framework of [the USSR].”
But the response to Brzezinski in 1989 focused primarily on the possibility that the USSR might break up. “the USSR lives and functions in an all-world context,” the article said. It is part of “a definite balance of forces and a certain stability which corresponds to the geopolitical interests of the main participants of the world political process.”
Any serious shift would be “undesirable” for all, the “Rodina” writer said. And thus it is not surprising that “all countries after World War II repeatedly confirmed the inviolability of existing borders in Europe.” Moreover, he said, “not one of the republics is in a position to find its place in Europe after leaving the USSR” and “the collapse of ‘the empire’ would entail not only unpredictable consequences for the future of Europe but the beginning of global destabilization.”
Therefore, the respondent to Brzezinski’s argument said, “the world community would prefer that the processes taking place in our country would give a positive result in the framework of existing borders.” It has seen what the fragmentation of Yugoslavia has led to; the fragmentation of the USSR would be far more serious.