MARCH 2003

Diagnosing the Collapse of Communism

The debate over the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the related demise of Communism as a rival ideology to democracy, has been going on for more than ten years. Many distinguished journalists who were stationed in the former Soviet Union have written books in which they have shared their insights on this subject. These books make for fascinating reading; I have provided a list of some of the best of these at the end of this essay.

My first trip to Russia was in October 1990. I have been in and out of the country four-to-six times a year since then, but I never visited Russia when Brezhnev was in power. I can only imagine what it was like in the waning years of his rule. The journalists I mention above have helped outside observers like me to understand more deeply the context in which the remarkable events of 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991 occurred - years that lead to the end of a Superpower, an end that few predicted.

Despite my appreciation for these journalistic contributions, I also feel frustration that most Western journalists focus their attention on the political and economic arenas, sometimes on social factors, but rarely, if ever, on deeper moral and philosophical issues. Because many journalists are secular-minded and have little interest in spiritual matters, they simply ignore the religious forces at work in Russian society. If you turn to the index of the books listed at the conclusion of this essay, you will find very few references to Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion. The role of religious leaders in the underground movement in Russia is largely ignored and, while human rights activists are often highlighted, the moral and spiritual motivation behind their activism is rarely noted.

A Refreshing Exception

One of the most insightful diagnoses of the collapse of Communism, a book that provides an exception to the deficiency I have just observed, is David Satter's Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. Satter served as the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times of London and then later as the special correspondent for Soviet affairs of The Wall Street Journal. Since then he has been widely published in numerous magazines and journals.

Satter begins his book by stating his intention to provide a "collective chronicle of the last fifteen years of the Soviet Union, a period during which the Soviet system began to rot and finally collapsed." I immediately knew this book was going to be different from many of the others I had read when he stated this thesis in the Preface: ". . . the Soviet experiment in total domination still needs to be understood. The Soviet Union was the product of a purely modern form of megalomania, the notion that human affairs can be ordered without the help of transcendent rules. This book can be taken as a record of the consequences of the application of this notion, as well as a description of human experience under extreme social conditions. In the latter respect, it has special relevance for people in the United States. As their experiences demonstrate, Soviet people are not as far from us as we might hope."

The Causes for the Collapse

David Satter’s study of the last fifteen years of the Soviet Union focuses on how Soviet leaders attempted to destroy the moral center of an entire nation. Communist leaders created a hermetically sealed environment in which Marxism-Leninism was treated as a higher form of truth.

The Marxist revolutionaries were right – the Soviet Union was something new. “It was the first state in history to be based explicitly on atheism, and it compensated for the missing absolute by endowing itself with the attributes of God,” Satter writes. “The Soviet regime deferred to no one, treating its every act as the realization of its ideology’s ultimate truths.”

What this lead to was a masquerade. What became important was not what was true, but what could be made to appear to be true so as to conform to Soviet ideology. The system was, in effect, built on lies. Satter concludes: “The state can abolish God, but the result of the attempt to substitute itself for the missing absolute can only be the remaking of human nature under conditions in which consciousness is split and universal lying comes as close as anything can to destroying an entire people’s ‘moral center.’” It is this phenomenon that created an “age of delirium” in the Soviet Union.

Additional studies on the collapse of Communism by Western journalists serving in the USSR:

  • Fred Coleman, The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
  • Michael Dobbs, Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (New York: Knopf, 1997).
  • David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (New York: Random House, 1993).
  • Hedrick Smith, The New Russians (New York: Random House, 1990).
  • Jonathan Steele, Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).