From the regime's point of view, the political circumstances were even less troublesome. After 20 years of relentless suppression of political opposition, virtually all the prominent dissidents had been imprisoned, exiled (as Andrei Sakharov had been since 1980), forced to emigrate, or had died in camps and jails.
There did not seem to be any other signs of a pre-revolutionary crisis either, including the other traditionally assigned cause of state failure -- external pressure. On the contrary, the previous decade was correctly judged to amount "to the realization of all major Soviet military and diplomatic desiderata," as American historian and diplomat Stephen Sestanovich has written. Of course, Afghanistan increasingly looked like a long war, but for a 5-million-strong Soviet military force the losses there were negligible. Indeed, though the enormous financial burden of maintaining an empire was to become a major issue in the post-1987 debates, the cost of the Afghan war itself was hardly crushing: Estimated at $4 billion to $5 billion in 1985, it was an insignificant portion of the Soviet GDP.
Nor was America the catalyzing force. The "Reagan Doctrine" of resisting and, if possible, reversing the Soviet Union's advances in the Third World did put considerable pressure on the perimeter of the empire, in places like Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia. Yet Soviet difficulties there, too, were far from fatal.
As a precursor to a potentially very costly competition, Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative indeed was crucial -- but it was far from heralding a military defeat, given that the Kremlin knew very well that effective deployment of space-based defenses was decades away. Similarly, though the 1980 peaceful anti-communist uprising of the Polish workers had been a very disturbing development for Soviet leaders, underscoring the precariousness of their European empire, by 1985 Solidarity looked exhausted. The Soviet Union seemed to have adjusted to undertaking bloody "pacifications" in Eastern Europe every 12 years -- Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1980 -- without much regard for the world's opinion.
This, in other words, was a Soviet Union at the height of its global power and influence, both in its own view and in the view of the rest of the world. "We tend to forget," historian Adam Ulam would note later, "that in 1985, no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR."
Certainly, there were plenty of structural reasons -- economic, political, social -- why the Soviet Union should have collapsed as it did, yet they fail to explain fully how it happened when it happened. How, that is, between 1985 and 1989, in the absence of sharply worsening economic, political, demographic, and other structural conditions, did the state and its economic system suddenly begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women to become doomed?