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This claim was made by Foreign Policy in 2011:

In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union

I was wondering if the above claim is true. Would the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been a huge surprise to Western intellectuals and politicians in, say, 1985 (before Gorbachev)?

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    There's always someone predicting the demise of everything. – Ne Mo Sep 27 '16 at 11:56
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    I've met somebody, who had access to the real economical statistics of one of the satellite countries. At this time, the published statistic was "tuned", faked, and the real data was state secret. He said, from the data he knew, that a big crisis is coming, but even he didn't know, what will be the result. The common people didn't believe until 1989 that system was really collapsing. Even much later, roughly until the the early 90s, there was a strong suspection, that it is only a temporal softening, which may be followed by a new hard-line "restructuring". – Gray Sheep Sep 9 '17 at 23:57
  • As a data scientist, I must expand on the very apt comment by @NeMo: it is not enough that person P correctly predicts event E. What matters is the total number of predictions P made and how many of them came true. Alternatively, we can take the whole body of "Western expert, scholar, official, or politician" opinion on the future and see what predictions came true and which did not. IOW, the way the question and answers are formulated (Q: no predictions?! A: here are the predictions: 1,2,3...) is not very useful or generally informative. ;-) – sds Oct 11 '17 at 15:32
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In 1976, Emmanuel Todd published La Chute finale.

The book states that the Soviet Union had been stagnating since 1970 and that its economy was collapsing (its main novelty, which made it justly famous, is the use of demographic indicators, and especially infant mortality, to pierce through the obfuscations of Soviet statistics). It predicts the decomposition of the Soviet sphere in 10 to 20 years because of the centripetal forces exercised on the politically dominated european periphery of the Soviet sphere by a new generation of educated individuals well-aware of the much higher standards of living in Western Europe (the precise mechanism described, involving economic stagnation, then ideological decomposition and finally the decomposition of the state system is well-worth reading).

The book was well-received and was a publishing success. It favorably cites Amalrik's work in numerous occasions and in fact claims multiple times that its core thesis, though controversial, is not at all uncommon in the West, so that in addition to providing a clear example of a prediction of the final dislocation of the USSR in a timeframe and manner reasonably close to actual events, it is also a testimony of the fact that many people in the late 70s had come to the conclusion that the USSR would collapse within one or two decades.

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There is a once famous book written in 1970 by Andrei Amalrik, titled "Will Soviet Union survive until 1984?"

English edition: Harper and Row, NY, 1970.

(I don't think it was ever published in Russian. The author is an emigrant from Soviet Union).

The date of his prediction is slightly incorrect, but in 1970s this was a very unusual prediction, people did not believe him. The details and reasons of collapse that he describes are all wrong.

When it actually collapsed, I tried to find whether there is any published text of 1970s or 1980s which predicted this, and I found none, except this book. Neither I could find any convincing explanation of reasons of this collapse. Why China does not collapse? I lived in Soviet Union, and talked to many people. Nobody could see this before 1989.

Pemark. The other answer mentions decline of oil production. This does not logically imply a dissolution of Soviet Union. (Cuba and N Korea have little oil, but they still exist). Decline of revenues from export may mean an economic crisis. But I believe that dissolution of Soviet Union had other reasons. Most countries which experience economic difficulties do not fall apart as a result.

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    Regarding oil production - it's not about oil per se, it's about an economy whose fundamentals (in 1980s) required a high level/value of resource exports to sustain import of basic necessities, i.e. grain. A decline in oil revenue meant being unable to sustain the current model and feed the population without structural changes. aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/20070419_Gaidar.pdf by Yegor Gaidar is an interesting treatise on this subject. – Peteris Sep 29 '16 at 11:00
  • It was published. I am not sure whether the publisher was Posev or Herzen's Foundation - I am sure I have read it in Russian (and in USSR of course), at about 1979. – user58697 Oct 4 '16 at 5:42
  • @user58697: Thanks for the information. When I searched for it (in the West) I could only find an Engish version. – Alex Oct 4 '16 at 21:04
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    1984 was probably chosen more as a literary reference than an actual metric? – Spencer Oct 10 '17 at 22:45
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    @Spencer: Yes, probably the reference on Orwell. – Alex Oct 10 '17 at 23:44
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In his book „The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century“, Zbigniew Brzeziński, National Security Advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, refers to several own predictions about the collapse of Communism in general and the „Soviet Union“ project in particular.

The earliest reference is to his master's thesis of 1950 (I could not find the references on the Web). In his newer predictions of late 1980's, he suggested five possibilities:

  1. Pluralization and „democratizing“ of the Communist regime;
  2. Protracted crisis;
  3. Economic stagnation;
  4. A KGB coup;
  5. The explicit collapse of the Communist regime.

As we know, in 1989-1991 the collapse took place, gradually changing into the KGB coup in 1999-2000.

So, the direct answer to your question would be,
Certainly, it was not a surprise for officials.
However, the topic was not very popular in media, so it may become a surprise to average citizens in the West.


Further reading:

  • KGB coup in 1999-2000? Do you have evidence for this? – James Sep 28 '16 at 7:23
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    @James, Yeltsin's „resignation“ on 31/Dec/1999 has been widely questioned. There was no such thing as „resignation in favor of the heir“ in Russian presidency since the times of Tzars. For more information, check „Blowing Up Russia“ by Litvinenko & Felshtinsky (The Guardian review)). – bytebuster Sep 28 '16 at 7:52
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    That's not exactly a glowing review of that book. Yeltsin was a colourful character, and his performance as president was undoubtedly woeful – James Sep 28 '16 at 9:05
  • Much more to the point is the abortive GKChP coup of August 1991 which precipitated the final fall of the Union. – Felix Goldberg Oct 11 '17 at 15:36
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Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, probably the greatest French writer on the history of the USSR predicted the fall of the USSR in her book "L'empire éclaté" in 1978. She thought it would fall because of the faster growing demography of the Muslim republics of Central Asia (the soviet "stans").

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M. King Hubbert predicted that Soviet oil production would decline as it did, thus implying an economic collapse.

It seems that the CIA took Hubbert’s methodology seriously and applied it to the USSR (Anonymous 1977). This report predicted that Soviet oil production would peak in the early 1980's. In fact there were two peaks, the first in 1983, at 12.5 million barrels per day and the second in 1988 at 12.6 barrels per day. Since then production has declined steadily. It seems likely that the Reagan administration, which took office in 1981, bearing in mind the economic havoc produced when US production peaked in 1981, followed by the Arab oil embargo and the "oil crisis" of 1973-74 and the deep recession that followed, decided to use the "oil weapon" to destabilize the USSR. Reagan embarked on a major military buildup, putting the Soviet Union under pressure to keep up. Meanwhile, declining prices after 1981 forced the USSR to pump more oil to supply its clients in Eastern Europe and to sell in world markets for hard currency. Then in 1985 Regan persuaded Saudi Arabia to flood the world markets with cheap oil. Again, the USSR had to increase output to earn hard currency. This led to the second peak in 1988. Two years later the USSR imploded (Heinberg 2004) pp 40-41.

The same methodology could be applied to predict the collapse of the Shah's government, the 1970s stagflation in the US, and the fate of oil producers in general. Hubbert published his method in 1956.

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    That's an incorrect attribution. You have the wrong Hubbert. – rougon Sep 27 '16 at 12:22
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    "Implying an economic collapse"? I beg to differ. This scheme just implied that Soviets would have less dollars and hence less goods desired by Soviet population (USSR really sucked at consumerism, internally). There is a looong way from such conclusion to the complete death of USSR. Many countries have shown that they can cut off the Western consumer market and somehow survive. – kubanczyk Sep 27 '16 at 13:23
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    To my knowledge no one foresaw the rise of Boris Yeltsin. I was in graduate school studying International Affairs in Washington DC at the time so it was a very fascinating time to be a student...although I learned very quickly the collapse of the USSR had nothing to do with making the American people better off... quite the opposite actually and indeed nothing like World War 2 and FDR. Ronald Reagan certainly predicted the Fall of the Berlin Wall though...and indeed achieved that. – Doctor Zhivago Sep 27 '16 at 19:12
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    Yes, Ronald Reagan got it right, and not too many other people. – Tom Au Sep 27 '16 at 22:57
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    The Reagan administration applied western economic standards to a regime whose economy existed to supply their armed forces and little more. It was naïve of them to think that mattered more than Glasnost; but then it gets votes to massage the ego of the American people, that because of what they did, they won. Rather than, actually, it didn't really matter because the USSR's failure was owing to a loss of control going back to de-Stalinisation. – inappropriateCode Sep 29 '16 at 9:14
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I'd argue that Ronald Reagan, or someone in his administration or amongst his influencers did.

Whether one might like the character or not, methinks he deserves credit for great Soviet Russia jokes and for having reversed the policy of deescalation of his predecessors. He basically smashed the accelerator to the floor and proceeded to militarily outspend the USSR to death. It ended up very costly for the US but by 1985 the Soviet Union was spending 25% of its GDP on its military - which is completely unsustainable, and indeed led it to its collapse a few years later.

In this sense one could argue that his contribution to ending the Cold War was quite significant, if not key, and I can't imagine him moving forward with this without at least some of his surroundings or influencers thinking - or outright predicting - it might work.

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