Will Putin’s Empire Outlast The Soviets?

In 1984, Laszlo Solymar (under a pseudonym) predicted the collapse of the USSR. Will today’s Russia suffer the same fate? 

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Mikhail Gorbachev (centre) is sworn in as President of the USSR, March 15, 1990. The Party Congress later that year was to be the last (photo: Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images)

From its very beginning there were many people who could not believe that the Soviet Union would last as long as it did. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises predicted the demise of the USSR in the first edition of his work on socialism published in 1922, the year the Soviet Union was born. He maintained there, and on every possible occasion afterwards until his death half a century later, that a planned economy was “planned chaos” that was bound to be inefficient. Another great Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek, did not think much of socialism either. In The Road to Serfdom, his most famous work on political science, published in 1944, he made it clear that for freedom to flourish, socialism had to perish.

In John Maynard Keynes’s book Essays on Persuasion there is an article about Russia written in 1925 shortly after he attended a conference in Leningrad. In it he maintained that “Russia will never matter seriously to the rest of us, unless it be as a moral force,” and continued: “If Communism achieves a certain success, it will achieve it, not as an improved economic technique, but as a religion.” He finished the essay with a comment that could be interpreted as not entirely pessimistic: “Out of the cruelty and stupidity of Old Russia nothing could ever emerge, but that beneath the cruelty and stupidity of New Russia some speck of the ideal may lie hid.”

There is no doubt that lots of people were expecting the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were dreamers among them like Andrei Amalrik, who based his prediction on his observations of Soviet society and the external threat from China. In his 1970 book he asked the question: Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984? His observations were good but his predictions precipitate. There were many other forecasts. In a Wikipedia article entitled “Predictions of the dissolution of the Soviet Union”, as many as 31 names are listed, although some of them are politicians who are in the habit of making off-the-cuff statements that might be regarded in the fullness of time as valid predictions.

To our mind the best prediction not included in the Wikipedia list wasmade by O.L. Smaryl (an anagram of L. Solymar, one of the present authors) in a 1984 article published in Survey, “New Technology and the Soviet Predicament”. Smaryl was no expert on Soviet economics. He was a natural scientist who often visited laboratories in the Soviet Union. By 1983 he could see how poorly equipped they were. He also saw how jealously the Soviet authorities guarded their monopoly of information.

In Kiev, for example, if a laboratory wanted to copy a Western scientific article they had to send it to some central office where the article was copied and sent back. Everybody knew that a computer could store information, hence it was a dangerous piece of equipment. Smaryl wrote:

A properly coded computer, aided and abetted by a printer, could appear to any KGB investigator as poised to print the collected works of V. I. Lenin, whereas as soon as the agent is out of sight it could churn out the latest news broadcast of the BBC or the last seven editions of a popular samizdat paper.

Brighter members of the Soviet establishment must have realised that in order to increase efficiency (military, economic, managerial and scientific) computers had to be introduced on a large scale. They did their best but under the circumstances that did not go far.

Having recognised that they had fallen behind in the military race, the Soviet leadership decided to reduce East-West tension. Glasnost and perestroika followed, which the leadership hoped would change Soviet reality. Their failure was predicted by Smaryl. The best theory to lean on was classical Marxist theory, with its concepts of “base” (relations of production) and “superstructure” (political institutions). According to Marx, when the two are no longer in harmony that society will perish. We should credit Gorbachev with the attempt to change both the base and the superstructure but those attempts failed. By the late 1980s, the Soviet system was beyond repair.

For those who prefer not to rely on Marxist theory to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, there could be a similar explanation based on the Soviet power structure. The two main components were the government (let’s include in this both the nominal government and the Communist Party) and the intelligence services. In the second half of the 1980s there was an increasing mismatch between the aims of the KGB and those of the General Secretary, culminating in the participation of Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, in the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991. Smaryl’s prediction for the second part of the ’80s was: “In international relations the Soviet Union will adopt increasingly softer stands. It will first withdraw its support from the various revolutionary movements and then, slowly and reluctantly, will relinquish its hold over Eastern Europe.” Smaryl concluded: “Economic efficiency will increase accompanied by a spread of pluralistic ideas and there, at the end of the tunnel, will loom the inevitability of free elections.” He was wrong about economic efficiency. The relaxation of strict political control under Gorbachev led to declining, not improving, efficiency, but in all other aspects Smaryl was right.

The merit of Smaryl’s paper is that it gives only one reason for the USSR’s collapse: the emergence of new technology. Everything else followed from there. To give only one reason is a technique often followed in the natural sciences. It has the merit of simplicity, and it focuses the reader’s attention on one thing.

For later scrutiny another advantage of providing only one reason is that it offers critics the means of disproving whatever the author claimed. Playing the role of a critic now, could one conclude that the Soviet Union was bound to perish? By the beginning of the 1980s the writing was on the wall although nobody could as yet decipher it. But had circumstances been different in the 1950s and ’60s, could the Soviet Union have survived?

To answer that question we need to recall how new technology was born. In the early 1950s there were already well-defined research projects aimed at integrated circuits, i.e. combining several components. They were sponsored by the three arms of the US military, each of which had its own pet project. Had any of those projects been at least moderately successful, research money would have flown in that direction and the microchip (which came from a different project) would never have been realised. As it happens, it was. In the course of 40 years the number of  integrated components in an area covering a human nail rose to 15 billion. The invention of such an extraordinary device combined with such a fantastic growth rate was unlikely indeed. It was a lucky historical accident — for the West.

Accepting for the moment that the invention and subsequent growth of the microchip was a historical accident, can we imagine other historical accidents which would have been favourable to the Soviet Union? Let’s consider one of them: assume that Soviet researchers in biology managed to produce a set of super-intelligent mice by injecting into an embryo’s brain a certain substance one week before birth. With no more than a moderate amount of further research they decided to start experiments with human beings. They had plenty of volunteers who would have regarded their patriotic duty to allow surgical interference with the embryos they carried. The experiments on humans turned out to be successful. The children born could read and write at the age of three. By the time Chernenko came to power, the Soviet Union could have had a division of superhuman men and women, a division of John von Neumanns. It is futile to speculate how these superhumans would have made the Soviet Union an even greater power but we can imagine the Western reaction. Mice would have been fine, possibly even monkeys, but humans? Definitely not. The West would have fallen behind. The ultimate victory of Communism would have come that much nearer.

This example may be too specific. The point is that if there was danger to human life in any experiment the Soviet Union would always have had volunteers ready to please the authorities, whereas such experiments would have been banned in the West. So our conclusion is that the collapse of the Soviet Union could have been avoided if new technology had not come to the fore in the West. But it did.

The Soviet Union duly collapsed. The planned economy has been abandoned, a free-market economy has been installed. Russia has changed completely. But has it?  Russia has never had an independent judiciary. Corruption, collusion and narrow interests still prevail, inflation is rampant and military expenditure is once more enormous. Admittedly, there is now a middle class, more reluctant to accept official propaganda but once fear is reintroduced it will keep quiet.

We may safely conclude that not much has changed. The diseases of Soviet times are still there but they no longer threaten the existence of the regime. The base and the superstructure are once more in harmony: it is a capitalist economy upheld by the intelligence services. Putin has given up the messianic mission to convert the world to Communism. He just wants to get back what he believes was stolen from him. His ambition is to restore old Soviet borders. Can he do it? Can he challenge the West? Can he catch up with Western technology?

Our answer to the last question is no, the technological gap will remain. He might achieve some success in a few specialist fields but he will not be able to build a semiconductor industry comparable with that of the US. Will continued technological inferiority curb his ambitions? Unlikely. So what will happen in the next five years?

On the domestic front, it is unlikely that Putin would want to reconstruct the internal conditions that prevailed in Russia before Gorbachev. Times have changed. A little more freedom can be granted. In fact, it has to be granted because the hermetic sealing of the Soviet borders is no longer possible, nor is the monopoly on holding information. If he can’t ban everything Putin will realise that his best bet is to allow an opposition. Opposition broadcasting would be too risky but the opposition will be permitted to run a small-circulation newspaper, maybe even a daily paper financed by the government. This will be a kind of tame opposition. A genuine opposition will not exist in five years’ time. Putin will ensure that by using the time-honoured Soviet methods of intimidation, defamation, loss of employment, hounding by the security services, imprisonment for imaginary crimes, beating-up by thugs and the ultimate weapon,  assassination. Indeed, it is happening already.

Freedom of travel will be curtailed but restrictions will not be as strict as in Soviet times. All those who have shown loyalty to the regime and are wealthy enough to pay a “travel tax” will be allowed to leave the country for a limited stay abroad. To live abroad for extended periods will also be allowed but with the condition that a large proportion of the money earned has to be repatriated in foreign currency. Those who have dual citizenship will fare worse. They will be given a chance to return to the motherland with all their possessions but if they don’t they will be deprived of their Russian citizenship and their property in Russia will be confiscated.

Textbooks will be rewritten, children further indoctrinated, propaganda strengthened, patriotic mass movements initiated. The standard of living will be somewhat above that of Brezhnev’s time although with a lot of regional variations. And if it declines because of the overgrown military sector the vicious campaigns of the American imperialists against the Russian people will be blamed. That will only strengthen Putin’s regime, not weaken it.

There will be multi-party elections. Election fraud will be routinely perpetrated (once a certain habit is acquired it is difficult to discontinue it). That said, Putin might receive a stunning 85 per cent of the votes without any manipulation of the results. Russian nationalists will always back him to the hilt. He will forever be the hero of Crimea, the man of destiny who managed to restore the Soviet borders.

How will Putin proceed in his foreign policy? Slowly. He is an opportunist, but one who likes to create opportunities. It seems very likely that former President Yanukovich’s flight from Kiev was engineered by Putin. Once he could claim that Ukraine was ruled by fascists who had deposed the democratically-elected president, he had the excuse to annex Crimea. By encouraging and supporting the Ukrainian rebels he has managed to make Ukraine a failed state. For the moment he is just keeping it on the boil but sooner or later, very likely within a year, he will find an excuse to occupy the coastline needed to establish land access to the Crimean peninsula.

In the following years he will bring further parts of Ukraine under his control but not the whole country. To incorporate the various former republics would be easy: they will respond to intimidation. But it is unlikely that Putin will have to impose regime change on any of those countries. The present leaders will voluntarily accept Russia’s tutelage.

The sticking point will be the Baltic states. They are part of Nato. They want to remain independent. Nato makes lots of noises about defending them against Russian aggression but it is a hopeless mission.

Putin will start with Latvia, which has a large Russian minority. He will want them to return to the bosom of the motherland, and he can do that by making Latvia part of the motherland. He will foster angry demonstrations, demand full citizenship for the Russians, and then cabinet posts. By these means he will make Latvia ungovernable. The Latvians might then decide that Putin is the lesser of two evils. In this case Nato would have no chance of intervening.

But other scenarios are possible. Russian agents might murder a few Russians, attribute the killings to the Latvians, and send in the tanks to “protect” their compatriots. In principle this should invoke Nato’s immediate intervention but will Nato risk the Third World War for the sake of Latvian independence? Unlikely. With Latvia occupied, the Lithuanians and the Estonians will be surrounded, and will soon surrender. Finland? It will be Finlandised.

Having restored the Soviet borders, what will be Putin’s next move? He will rest on his laurels. He will assess the global military balance and realise his limitations. There will be no further territorial demands. The former satellites of Eastern Europe will breathe a sigh of relief. Putin will instead turn his attention to raising the living standards of the long-suffering Russian nation. He will be able to do so thanks to his country’s enormous natural resources.

What will happen after Putin? A difficult question but let’s be optimistic for a change. Feeling pressure from China and some of the Muslim states, Putin’s successor might start negotiations to join the European Union.