On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which for nearly 70 years dominated the geopolitical landscape, smothered Eastern Europe and Eurasia within its dead embrace, and caused the deaths of around 30 million of its own people, dissolved.
The collapse of this brutal communist regime seems inevitable today. The glaring gap between the promised utopia of Communism and the reality it produced—at best, a bureaucratic morass, at worst, an engine of repression and mass murder scarcely matched in history—could not withstand the desire for independence, freedom, and human rights that animated dissidents and revolutions throughout the Soviet sphere.
In 1985, Gorbachev had enacted perestroika, restructuring, and glasnost, openness, in an attempt to jumpstart the Soviet economy, but only opened the floodgates of criticism. The collapse of the USSR’s dominion over Eastern Europe—symbolized most vividly by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—was followed by freedom movements in the Baltic states, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia that posed internal threats to the USSR’s power.
A coup in August 1991 further undermined the political stability of the Soviet Union. Soon afterwards, on September 6, the State Council of the Soviet Union recognized the Baltic republics’ independence, and during meetings on December 8 and 21, the remaining 12 union republics “declare[d] that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.” On December 25, Gorbachev resigned. As quickly as it had entered the world, the evil empire fell.
With hindsight, the endemic economic crises and fractious political climate of the late 1980s and 90s make the dissolution of the USSR look easy to predict. But at the time, it was considered near-impossible. Why was it that so many academics, government officials, and experts failed to foresee the end?
On the one hand, the ideological assumptions of analysts of both left and right blinded them to the coming collapse. Some on the right thought that the totalitarian might of the USSR rendered internal regime change impossible. Some on the left viewed the USSR as a defective enactment of a basically progressive philosophy that in the long run would survive and correct its course. Other social scientists and revisionist historians avowed that things were much, much more complicated than a simple totalitarian tyranny, and that if you squinted your eyes just right, the system was responsive and nearly democratic. None saw the collapse coming.
But was it actually impossible to foresee? Actually, no. Some eagle-eyed observers saw the roots of the collapse back at the beginning of the twentieth century. Max Weber, a father of modern sociology, and his student Robert Michels predicted that the Soviet Union would devolve into bureaucracy and oligarchy. The Marxist intellectual Rosa Luxemburg predicted that Leninism would produce tyranny. Others pointed out that Marx himself had argued that socialism could only succeed in a developed economy.
Closer to the present day, some academics saw how all these dynamics would lead to Soviet collapse. Robert Conquest wrote in 1969 that “the [Soviet] political system is radically and dangerously inappropriate to its social and economic dynamics” and predicted “sudden and catastrophic” change. Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the originators of totalitarian theory, also pondered during the 1960s whether the Soviet Union had entered a stage of rigidity and decay. Murray Feshback and Nicholas Eberstadt examined the grim living conditions communism engendered and concluded that they just weren’t sustainable. Andrei Amalrik in 1970 looked at the discontent, bureaucracy, and inter-ethnic tensions that characterized the Soviet Union and wrote an essay asking “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” And amazingly, the British journalist Bernard Levin sensed Soviet elites’ loss of faith in communism and predicted in 1977 that the Soviet Union would fall on “July 14, 1989”—the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille.
As for American politicians, President Ronald Reagan and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan consistently predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union through the late 1970s and the 1980s. Reagan called communism a “sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”
The failure of communism to provide for material needs, let alone spiritual ones, transformed ordinary citizens into dissidents determined to live free of communism. Their courageous and tireless efforts in the shipyards of Gdansk, at the television tower in Vilnius, in the underground universities in the Czech Republic, and in front of Moscow’s White House, they hastened the end of the Soviet Union.
On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev acknowledged the devastation of the communist regime in his resignation speech, saying, “the totalitarian system has been eliminated, which prevented this country from becoming a prosperous and well-to-do country a long time ago. A breakthrough has been effected on the road of democratic change.”
The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a major step on the road to a more democratic, peaceful, and prosperous world and the beginning of the path towards freedom, truth, reconciliation, and healing for the people of Europe and Eurasia. The journey is not complete. 1 in 5 people still live under communism. Communist regimes curtail freedoms of speech and religion and desecrate human rights. Communism can seem invincible, unavoidable, a reality of the 21st century. Twenty-five years ago, so did the Soviet Union. Now it lies in the ash heap of history. Let’s make sure communism ends up there too.