Is there anything to the popular theory about the USSR collapse?
March 3, 2005 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Are there any serious scholars of Russian history who buy the "increased US military spending bankrupted the USSR" theory of the Soviet Union collapse?

"Serious Scholar" = reads Russian, has some familiarity with original source material, etc. I'm not interested in what National Review (or New Republic for that matter) contributers have to say. My question is, is there anyone with the credentials of, say, Steven Kotktin , who disagrees with his assertion that US military spending was largely irrelivant?
posted by bonecrusher to Law & Government (11 answers total)
Not from a serious scholar, but certainly an interesting viewpoint, Gorbachev's translator/spokesperson Gennady Gerasimov claims that US spending on SDI was a strong contributor to the Soviet collapse in this Morning Edition Interview.

This was during the postmortem Reagan love-in, though.
posted by cosmonaught at 7:37 PM on March 3, 2005

One argument that I find convincing, but rarely made, involves demographics. In 1991, no one who was under 50 years old (that is, the vast majority of the population) had any personal, significant memories of World War II - what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

Why does that matter? Because the USSR was not just a command economy, with direction from the top. What made it work - for many decades - was a commitment by patriotic citizens to make things work by subverting bureaucratic obstacles. So the grain ship at anchor got unloaded first, despite the rules, and the grain didn't rot, because the captain bribed a harbor official with a bottle of vodka.

So why didn't such subversion - for the greater good - continue? Because those born in the 1900s and 1910s and 1920s and 1930s saw things getting better (yes, millions died at Stalin's hands, but ... ), and, more importantly, they had successfully fought off the Germans, who had intended to treat them as subhumans. But those born in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s had no such commitment to making things work despite the system - they simply had expectations.

Anyway, such is the theory, which I do find convincing as a major factor in why the Soviet economy was so hollow.
posted by WestCoaster at 8:17 PM on March 3, 2005

hooey! I've even heard that it argued that it kept the Evil Empre running past its time...

Emanuel Todd wrote the book predicting the decline through demographics, and he came out pretty right.
posted by stratastar at 8:58 PM on March 3, 2005

Oh please. Take your tendentious stuff to the Blue, wudja? . It took me exactly one half-assed Google search to find many links, such as this one, that document that there are a number of serious scholars who believe that while the USSR " collapsed mostly from its own weight, but [Reagan's] unrelenting pressure certainly had an effect, as many former Soviet officials have said. I was no fan of Reagan, but you can't just write him off, either."
posted by mojohand at 9:23 PM on March 3, 2005

I am not a history buff, but if I remember correctly a good portion of why the USSR collapsed was poor management of resources in the mad rush to industrialize. True, the collapse came long after Stalin's infamous industrial quotas, but they never really came back from that.

examples would be things like demanding that a certain number of tons of nails be manufactured in a given amount of time, but there was no call for the nails and they were terrible quality because they just wanted to meet the quota.
posted by shmegegge at 9:48 PM on March 3, 2005

Sylvester Stallone ended the Cold War with his speech at the end of "Rocky IV".

"If I can change...and you can change...EVERYBODY CAN CHANGE!!"

Even Fake Gorby was moved to stand, and applaud his stirring words.

Shortly after that, the wall came down, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Don't believe all this Reagan hype. And this isn't meant to be a wisecrack--I assure you that I am entirely serious about this.
posted by First Post at 1:18 AM on March 4, 2005

Oh please. Take your tendentious stuff to the Blue, wudja? .

I'll admit, I hesitated before posting this. I tried to qualify what I was looking for to hopefully fend off some sort of partisan debate. But I'm completely serious about wanting to know the answer, and figured mefi'ers might know.

As for your "half-assed googling", it gave the results one would expect. Some random page full of assertions by people whose credentials aren't listed. Neither google scholar not amazon lists any published works by "Miles Seeley" for example, and the page gives no idea what his credentials are. This is specifically what I'm not looking for.

There are some quotes on the page by Peter Schweizer, who has apparently written some books on the subject. Is he worth taking seriously? I have no clue. He is apparently a "scholar" at the Hoover Institure - the only thing about which I know is that their homepage has a picture of Karl Rove on it. Does that make them an AEI-style bunch of professional propagandizers?

Enough people believe the story (on both left and right) that I'm willing to take it seriously. But I don't want to waste my time reading someone's campaign literature.
posted by bonecrusher at 3:31 AM on March 4, 2005

John Lewis Gaddis's recent lecture, Strategies of Containment: Post-Cold-War Reconsiderations, might be worth looking at.

It's a very interesting question. My impression is that the jury is still out, for several reasons: (a) many of the crucial documents may not have come into the public domain yet, (b) historians haven't had time to sift through all the evidence, and (c) there aren't that many scholars who have a mastery of both the US and the Russian archives. This sort of multi-dimensional international history takes time, if it's to be done well. After all, scholars have now had sixty years to chew over the history of the Second World War, and ninety years to chew over the history of the First World War, and there are still many unanswered questions in both fields.

However, I am not an expert, only an interested observer, and if there is any important new scholarship on the ending of the Cold War then I hope someone will point me in its direction, as I would very much like to read it.
posted by verstegan at 3:58 AM on March 4, 2005

It is a spectacularly good question. I can't imagine why it wouldn't be appropriate here.

This is Gwynne Dyer's take on Ronald Reagan. The second half is all about the fall of communism, and it is very interesting. This is the core of his argument:

The old Soviet Union was finished long before Mr Reagan became president. Communist central planning was incompatible with a modern economy, and the Soviet economy had effectively ceased growing by the late 1960s. As a result, Soviet military spending, which tracked US spending through the 1970s, swelled in relative terms until it was absorbing 30-35 percent of the economy. High oil prices plastered over the cracks for ten years -- the Soviet Union was the world's second-biggest producer -- but when the oil price collapsed in 1981, Communist rule was doomed.
posted by Chuckles at 5:08 AM on March 4, 2005

He is apparently a "scholar" at the Hoover Institure - the only thing about which I know is that their homepage has a picture of Karl Rove on it. Does that make them an AEI-style bunch of professional propagandizers?


Hoover has an axe to grind.

But. It's also, on the one hand, made up of or affiliated with some utterly serious scholars -- the list of scholars is full of people at the top of political science and economics. These folks are emphatically not professional propagandizers, and many probably don't much care about axes that Hoover wants to grind -- they're there to study, teach, or work on game theory, or institutional economics, or something like that.

But it also has people like Newt Gingrich and Pete Wilson, who are not scholars of any sort.

Frankly, I'm not familiar enough with IR or sovietology to know which camp Schweizer is from. I'd be a little bit suspicious that he's mostly written for the popular press.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:33 AM on March 4, 2005

You may want to see if you can find a copy of a book called Turning Point, by Nikolai Shmelev and Vladimir Popov. Written in the final years of the USSR, these two Soviet economists explained in detail how their economy was going to hell in a handbasket. They make no mention of the military-industrial complex in their book, for obvious reasons.

Here's a quote from Turning Point (helpfully cribbed from the must-read Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, by Thomas Sowell):
According to the calculations of the Soviet Institute of World Economy and International Relations, we use 1.5 times more materials and 2.1 times more energy per unit of national income than the U.S. . . . This correlation is apparent even without special calculations: we produce and consume 1.5 to 2 times more steel and cement than the United States, but we lag behind by at least half in production of items derived from them. . . . Recently, in Soviet industry the consumption of electrical energy exceeded the American level, but the volume of industrial output in the U.S.S.R. is--by the most generous estimates--only 80 percent of the American level.
I got the impression from Sowell's explanation of the book that it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Economy collapsed, so it didn't much matter whether the U.S.S.R. was producing beets or battleships. Of course, it helped that the Soviet Union was wasting tons of resources just trying to keep up with us. You might say that their military spending was sufficient, but not necessary, to cause their economic collapse. (And it didn't help that we were feeding them booby-trapped technology.)
posted by the_W at 7:49 PM on March 5, 2005

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