The Uses and Disadvantages of Soviet History for Life

It is hard to comprehend the scarcity and existential dread that was humanity's constant companion during the Cold War.


Reason's December special issue marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This story is part of our exploration of the global legacy of that evil empire, and our effort to be certain that the dire consequences of communism are not forgotten.

"Welp, this is all wrong now." The collapse of the Soviet Union is marked for me by a single flickering recollection from sixth-grade homeroom. My classroom had one of those world maps that pulls down like a roller shade, and in the winter of 1991 my teacher seemed vaguely put out that it would now have to be replaced.

In retrospect, I realized his weariness was less about geopolitics and more about the difficulty of requisitioning new teaching aids in the public school system. But at the time it felt appropriately anticlimactic.

I was not raised on duck-and-cover nuclear drills, nor was I terribly aware of the Cold War in my daily life, despite growing up inside the D.C. Beltway. The final days of the Soviet Union were well underway before I had enough brain cells to process the real implications. Red Dawn, with its anti-communist guerrilla kids in letter jackets, was already a kitschy period piece when I saw it for the first time. I was vaguely aware that the Doomsday Clock was at a few minutes to midnight, but as far as I knew it always had been.

And then, suddenly, the end wasn't near. Instead of the end times, I spent my formative teen years at the end of history. For the most part, my political and economic sensibilities were formed after the collapse of Soviet communism and before 9/11. The conflict of global superpowers had ended and nothing had yet taken its place. Each year in September, elder pundits fret that the Kids These Days are forgetting the day the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the war on terror is a mere blip—albeit a deadly and expensive one—compared to the other mostly metaphorical war of our recent past.

The temptation is to jam the relevant teachings down the throats of a new, amnesiac generation, on the theory that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. That temptation is greatly amplified by an uptick in disdain for capitalism and globalization among Generation Z. But as Friedrich Nietzsche noted, it is counterproductive to fill young brains with "knowledge, taken in excess without hunger, even contrary to need."

"Historical education is wholesome and promising for the future," he explained in "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," only in the service of a "powerful new life-giving influence." Learning about the legacy of communism in school is unlikely to do the trick; I certainly never felt powerful new life-giving influence in a history classroom or while reading a textbook. And it's hard to imagine that today's young people nodding over their iPads are faring much better as the events in question grow increasingly distant.

Yet it also won't do for us to be like goldfish swimming in circles in a bowl, surprised to encounter a plastic castle on each turn. Instead of retreading the well-worn tracks of the simplest narrative of the Cold War or rehearsing a litany of facts and figures, this issue of Reason contains stories about the moment of collapse 30 years ago and the aftermath of that global struggle.

While the causes of the dissolution of the Soviet empire will always be debated, the failure of economic central planning and the huge amount of energy devoted to concealing that emergent fact are the most salient for our present political battles.

Russian émigré Cathy Young describes her lifelong fact-checking mission to remind the American left that the Soviet Union was a dark, deprived place to grow up in the 1970s (page 8). Matt Welch shares a memoir from his time as a newspaper editor in Prague in the early 1990s, where he observed the generative chaos of the end of communist control (page 62).

Emerging markets scholar Jarett Decker asks tough questions about the role of American market theorists in the disastrous post-Soviet economic evolution of Russia (page 24). Liz Wolfe describes how one man's rare experience of American plenty shaped a propagandistic fantasy of Russian cuisine that was both inauthentic and unobtainable (page 59). Jesse Walker interrogates whether markets can ever really be held at bay, and the ways both open and sub rosa "red markets" sustained communist authoritarians for longer than they deserved (page 50). Stephanie Slade writes about the unlikely bedfellows—President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and a network of labor unions—who helped bring down communism in Poland (page 54).

And throughout this issue, readers will find updates about the post-Soviet republics. These are not meant to be encyclopedic but rather to serve as a sampler of the long-tail consequences of Soviet communism in its many forms. The countries' different fates are instructive and sometimes baffling for anyone looking for easy takeaways.

It's a terrible thing to feel like a latecomer to history. I'll confess to some envy over the sense of possibility and radical openness that boomers and early Gen Xers experienced 30 years ago.

In 1991, as it turns out, the Doomsday Clock was the most optimistic about humanity that it has ever been. At the close of that momentous year, the clock showed 17 minutes to midnight. Conceived by former Manhattan Project participants and others who founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, the clock originally was devoted primarily to monitoring the threat of global nuclear annihilation. The Bulletin, like Reason, was a mimeographed collection of essays that evolved into a magazine. It remains one of the most interesting publications you've never read.

After that burst of optimism in 1991, the clock keepers leaned into non-nuclear threats, incorporating concerns about climate and biological annihilation as well. In 2021, the Doomsday Clock sits at 100 seconds to midnight.

It is hard now, in the relative material comfort of the current apocalypse, to comprehend the constant grinding scarcity and existential dread that was humanity's constant companion during the Cold War. And the current manifestations of communism benefit hugely from the material surplus generated by globalization, though perhaps in a way that is ultimately illusory and as unsustainable for them as the Soviet version turned out to be.

The question of whether things are really more dire for humanity than they were in, say, the late 1960s is difficult to answer. Do the hands of the clock capture real threats or just reflect a perverse kind of apocalypse satiation? It may well be that all times are, in fact, the interesting times that the apocryphal Chinese curse wishes upon us.

Nietzsche wondered if the only way to produce vigorous modern people was for them to be like the goldfish or perhaps a cow, living vigorously in the present, untroubled by the greatness or failures of their predecessors.

Only in retrospect does it feel like a blessing to have come of age during the brief end of history. At the time, it was frustrating. The sense that everything important had already been done made many of us cynical and lazy. We believed the great battles were over and that our business was simply to tidy things up and amuse ourselves.

But the sense of living through constant apocalypses is no less enervating. TikTok teens fluently tick off the list of disasters they have survived as explanations for their own disaffection, fatigue, anxiety, and paralysis.

When the chess grandmaster and activist Garry Kasparov sat down with Reason to talk about his unique experience as a Soviet hero and dissident (page 38), he worried about the effects of public amnesia. "Communism and socialism," he says, have "become popular because people don't recall what happened….Younger audiences, I think many of them, they couldn't even tell apart the Cold War and the Trojan War. It's just something that belonged to ancient history." With his words and the other stories in this issue, Reason hopes to revive and reanimate the dark history of communism and its aftermath in a way that is useful for life.