Every revolution is a surprise. Still, the latest Russian Revolution must be counted among the greatest of surprises. In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin's control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. Neither, with one exception, did Soviet dissidents nor, judging by their memoirs, future revolutionaries themselves. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, none of his contemporaries anticipated a revolutionary crisis. Although there were disagreements over the size and depth of the Soviet system's problems, no one thought them to be life-threatening, at least not anytime soon.
Putin and Medvedev Through the Years
Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union's collapse may in part be attributed to a sort of historical revisionism -- call it anti-anti-communism -- that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime's stability and legitimacy. Yet others who could hardly be considered soft on communism were just as puzzled by its demise. One of the architects of the U.S. strategy in the Cold War, George Kennan, wrote that, in reviewing the entire "history of international affairs in the modern era," he found it "hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance … of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union." Richard Pipes, perhaps the leading American historian of Russia as well as an advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, called the revolution "unexpected." A collection of essays about the Soviet Union's demise in a special 1993 issue of the conservative National Interest magazine was titled "The Strange Death of Soviet Communism."
Were it easier to understand, this collective lapse in judgment could have been safely consigned to a mental file containing other oddities and caprices of the social sciences, and then forgotten. Yet even today, at a 20-year remove, the assumption that the Soviet Union would continue in its current state, or at most that it would eventually begin a long, drawn-out decline, seems just as rational a conclusion.
Indeed, the Soviet Union in 1985 possessed much of the same natural and human resources that it had 10 years before. Certainly, the standard of living was much lower than in most of Eastern Europe, let alone the West. Shortages, food rationing, long lines in stores, and acute poverty were endemic. But the Soviet Union had known far greater calamities and coped without sacrificing an iota of the state's grip on society and economy, much less surrendering it.
Nor did any key parameter of economic performance prior to 1985 point to a rapidly advancing disaster. From 1981 to 1985 the growth of the country's GDP, though slowing down compared with the 1960s and 1970s, averaged 1.9 percent a year. The same lackadaisical but hardly catastrophic pattern continued through 1989. Budget deficits, which since the French Revolution have been considered among the prominent portents of a coming revolutionary crisis, equaled less than 2 percent of GDP in 1985. Although growing rapidly, the gap remained under 9 percent through 1989 -- a size most economists would find quite manageable.
The sharp drop in oil prices, from $66 a barrel in 1980 to $20 a barrel in 1986 (in 2000 prices) certainly was a heavy blow to Soviet finances. Still, adjusted for inflation, oil was more expensive in the world markets in 1985 than in 1972, and only one-third lower than throughout the 1970s. And at the same time, Soviet incomes increased more than 2 percent in 1985, and inflation-adjusted wages continued to rise in the next five years through 1990 at an average of over 7 percent.
Yes, the stagnation was obvious and worrisome. But as Wesleyan University professor Peter Rutland has pointed out, "Chronic ailments, after all, are not necessarily fatal." Even the leading student of the revolution's economic causes, Anders Åslund, notes that from 1985 to 1987, the situation "was not at all dramatic."