USSR: The Crumbling of an Empire


As I write, Soviet troops are poised on the border of Poland, and the world once more is holding its collective breath. Will it be another Hungary, another Czechoslovakia, another Afghanistan? Whatever the Kremlin leaders decide, they have trapped themselves in a no-win situation.

If they fail to invade, they will have given their consent to the de facto overthrow of Marxist-Leninism in a vital component of their empire. Besides its symbolic value as a confession of ideological bankruptcy, such a move would entail direct, practical risks. Not only would it encourage the workers of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, et al. to go and do likewise, it would also destroy a vital link in the Warsaw Pact's logistics system. (The USSR's 19 divisions in East Germany are crucially dependent on supply lines through Poland.)

If the Soviets do invade, however, they will pay a heavy price. Once more they will have had to resort to naked force to maintain their hold on the inhabitants of a workers' paradise. The threat of protracted resistance is very real—not just from Polish workers but from the Polish army as well. By invading, the Kremlin will cut off any possibility of Western banks rolling over the $12 billion in loans to Poland coming due this year. They will also demolish the lingering prospects of SALT talks, their $12-billion gas pipeline from Siberia to West Germany, and further Western grain bailouts.

In his stunningly prophetic book Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, Andrei Amalrik 12 years ago predicted a US-China rapprochement, revolt by Eastern European satellites, and internal decay in the Soviet Union, fueled by nationalistic rivalries and the failures of central planning. What keeps the lid on, he wrote, is the gradual improvement in Soviet living standards. Nevertheless, he warned, "a sharp slowdown, a halt or even a reversal in the improvement in the standard of living would arouse such explosions of anger, mixed with violence, as were never before thought possible."

Such a reversal is now occurring (and not just in Poland). As the chilling article "Russian Disorders" by George Feifer (Harper's, February) makes eloquently clear, the Soviet economy is falling to pieces. "The centralized planning Russians used to regard as the solution to major economic problems is now considered a condemnation to economic absurdity." Huge shortages and surpluses, food and toilet-paper rationing, soaring prices, bloated bureaucracies, diversion of 18 percent of GNP to the military—these are a few of the obvious symptoms.

More ominous is the demoralization brought on by people's disillusionment with a system that has promised them material and spiritual progress—but has given them fraud, manipulation, and deceit as a way of life, simply to get enough to eat in an economy that cannot deliver the goods.

Twelve years ago this malaise and cynicism were the concerns of Amalrik's intellectual strata. Today, as Feifer demonstrates, they are the concerns of the demoralized working class. Alcoholism has become the national pastime—one-third of all consumer spending in food stores is for alcohol. And the result has begun showing up in statistics: alone among modern nations, life expectancy in the Soviet Union is declining, infant mortality is increasing. The country is slowly committing suicide.

What should be clear from all this is that the increasingly popular view of the Soviet Union as an all-powerful behemoth is simply not true. "In the last analysis the main source of Soviet strength is Western incomprehension of the great and growing internal tensions which threaten the fabric of the Soviet system," says Leszek Kolakowski, the ex-communist philosopher who was expelled from Poland in 1968. "If the Soviet leaders suspected for one moment that the Western world knew what they know about their system, their worries about the staying power of the Soviet Empire would increase immeasurably" (Encounter, January).

What does all this imply for US foreign policy? To begin with, while there is no question that US defenses must in some respects be strengthened, there is hardly call for the near-panic expressed in some quarters on the right. The Soviets are not 10 feet tall.

The salient fact is that the Soviet empire is increasingly vulnerable to disintegration. The aim of US policy should be to hasten the process, if possible—without triggering either a nuclear war or a situation in which the Kremlin can fall back on whipping up patriotism to preserve its control. The latter prospect should make for caution about directly threatening moves—covert arms shipments to potential rebels, for instance. But encouraging the liberalization of policies in China (while avoiding military aid) would serve very well to keep the pressure on the Soviets.

And there is wide scope for other sorts of pressure. On the one hand, since it is economic issues that have made real to Soviet workers the manifest failures of socialism, there's a good case for not bailing out the commissars. At the same time, increasing the amount of information available about life in the West would increase the likelihood of Soviet citizens demanding reforms.

More fundamentally, the moral case for capitalism needs to be articulated in the West and communicated to the East. No one can read Feifer's brilliant piece without seeing that socialism's moral bankruptcy has become obvious even to the Soviet workers. "More and more now regard [socialism] as poison to social relationships as well as individual consciences. 'Everyone knows that to get ahead in the country, it is almost required that you be a liar or a cheater—often a swine,'" one of Feifer's Russian friends told him. Yet again and again he found that "with their old ideals and hopes shattered, most people have none to replace them."

Here is the opportunity of our lifetime. "One cause around which we might be able to build something like an ideology is liberty," a cautious Kolakowski tells his interviewer. Indeed. Some of us are already trying.