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Louise Bryant, an American bohemian spent six months in Russia during the turbulent times that presaged the October Revolution - and which she wrote up as Six Red Months in Russia. In her conclusion she wrote:

"The Great War could not leave an unchanged world in its wake — certain movements of society were bound to be pushed forward, and others retarded. I speak particularly of Socialism... Socialism is here, whether we like it or not — just as woman suffrage is here — and it spreads with the years. In Russia the socialist state is an accomplished fact. We can never again call it an idle dream of long-haired philosophers.

then

And if that growth has resembled the sudden upshooting of a mushroom, if it must fall because it is premature, it is nevertheless real and must have tremendous effect on all that follows. Everything considered, there is just as much reason to believe that the Soviet Republic of Russia will stand as that it will fall. The most significant fact is that it will not fall from inside pressure. Only outside, foreign, hostile intervention can destroy it.”

How does Bryant's assessment stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century, thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism? Is it even possible now to make a fair assessment how and why the USSR collapsed? I appreciate this question might be too broad and perhaps too current to answer but some pointers to the literature would be welcome, ones which don't merely announce from the beginning that communism would fail as it doesn't work (which one fine book did).

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    Surely not - historians have been asking that question since 1991. – Semaphore Dec 1 '17 at 17:23
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    Title is very different from the question. Which do you want answered? Answer to title is "no". Answer to question is "book length, possible scope issue." Suggest a better question might be to ask how Bryant's thesis has held up. ? – Mark C. Wallace Dec 1 '17 at 17:31
  • @Mark C Wallace: your suggestion of a better question to ask:'how Bryants thesis has held up' is what I ask in the body of the question 'How does Bryants assessment stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century...'; the headline question is merely a nod towards the fact that it might be still too early to get a full answer, but perhaps partial answers might be possible, and I refer to that in the body when I say 'this question might be too broad and perhaps too current to answer'; what I mean by that is that the ideological divisions might be still too current to answer this fairly – Mozibur Ullah Dec 1 '17 at 17:39
  • and that documents important to a fair assessment may still be officially locked up. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 1 '17 at 17:40
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    @MoziburUllah For usability reasons its better that the title be a concise representation of the real question, so I edited the title a bit. – Semaphore Dec 1 '17 at 17:48
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"The most significant fact is that it will not fall from inside pressure. Only outside, foreign, hostile intervention can destroy it."

In fact, some historians have argued the exact opposite: the Soviet Union only lasted as long as it did because the Kremlin held up a foreign enemy to distract from internal pressures. Without a boogeyman to act as a unifying force papering over domestic cracks, the Soviet Union would have imploded long before 1991. As Dr. Wade Huntley puts it:

According to this view, had it not been for a tendency toward wild-eyed anti-communism on the American side, the Soviet Union may have collapsed under its own weight much sooner than it did. The stridence and belligerency emanating from Washington, from the 1950 adoption of "NSC-68" onward, had little effect but to strengthen comparable hard-line views in the Kremlin.

Armstrong, David, and Erik Goldstein, eds. The End of the Cold War. Routledge, 2013.

This theory is not the most popular with the public, but it enjoys respectable support among experts. None other than Truman's ambassador to the USSR George Kennan, who was once a leading advocate of containment, argued after the fall that:

What did the greatest damage was not our military preparations themselves, some of which (not all) were prudent and justifiable. It was rather the unnecessarily belligerent and threatening tone in which many of them were publicly carried forward. For this, both Democrats and Republicans have a share of the blame.

Kennan, George F. "The GOP Won the Cold War? Ridiculous." New York Times 28 (1992): A15.

In the same article, Kenan further advanced another theory, namely that the actions or policies of the West - chiefly the United States - were actually not very important. He implicitly affirms the idea that the Soviet Union fell to domestic factors, dismissing the idea that an external power could cause such domestic upheaval as "childish". In this view, the Western allies were little more than bystanders, witnessing the fall of the Soviet Union to internal pressures.


Louise Bryant's predictions, while certainly idealistic, were also an understandable product of her circumstances.

Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, once said that the struggle between socialism and capitalism would ultimately be decided by the productivity each side was able to achieve, not on the battlefield. And he was right in essence, if not wrong in picking the winning side.

Pechatnov, Vladimir. "Soviet-American Relations Through the Cold War." The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War. Immerman, Richard H., and Petra Goedde, eds. Oxford University Press, 2013.

When Byrant wrote her Six Red Months in Russia in 1918, it was not unreasonable to make the same mistake as Lenin. Communism was still essentially theoretical; the idealistic belief that it could compete favourably against capitalism in terms of economic output had not yet been undermined by decades of underwhelming reality.

Meanwhile, belief in the inevitability of class war underpinned the ideology. In fact, shortly before her book was published, the Allies did intervene against the Communist revolutionaries. Had their attempt to prop up the White Army worked, Byrant would've been completely correct.

What this really shows, is that predictions of the future rarely works out.


Of course, as you pointed out, there's still considerable debate over the exact causes of the Soviet collapse. Which make sense- the Roman Empire fell in the West over 1500 years ago and entire careers are still being made debating why it happened.

However, it's important to note that even those who attribute credit to American administrations, generally do not dispute the fact that the Soviet collapsed under domestic tension. No one contends that a foreign invasion ended the Communist government, as Louise Bryant thought would happen.

Instead, the primarily debate is whether the Soviet collapse was inevitable, and to what extent the Western Allies added to that pressure.

In the end, George Kennan's view that the Soviet Union would collapse under its own weight was accurate. Whether U.S. actions increased that weight or whether collapse was inevitable on its own schedule remains unknown.

Watson, Cynthia Ann. U.S. National Security: A Reference Handbook. Abc-clio, 2002.

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    I think these authorities are mistaken about the role of the outside power. It is not so much what the West did, militarily or politically. It was that it was there as an example of how superior economic & social life could be for most people. Which is why the USSR (and other Communist countries) did their best to restrict news and travel. – jamesqf Dec 2 '17 at 2:16
  • @jamesqf just like the west are doing quite intensely now that the new markets have opened although those activities have largely moved into the internet nowadays. – mathreadler Dec 2 '17 at 9:48
  • Collapse was inevitable because foreign capitalists could not allow it to continue. Lets be fair here, white Russians were heavily funded and encroached in all levels of government and society. That much is indisputable. Foreign propoganda was also a very real thing. They were paranoid about cutting off western influence for a real reason. Stalins paranoia was also based in a reality. Lets also be real here regarding economic output. Lenin adopted an agrarian country of peasants that had just come out of a major war, and in a period of less than 50 years defeated .... – maple_shaft Dec 2 '17 at 12:52
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    @maple_shaft I am not quite sure what your point is. But the "economic output" argument or whatever that is completely bogus - sure, Stalin had done industrialization. But at what price?! Even if his mass murder, genocide, warmongering and sundry other crimes are somehow given a moral pass, what he achieved was transient and hollow, while he paid for it with the lives of tens of millions of people. Had they lived, Russia would have achieved much more. If you read Russian, do have a look at a detailed study: demset.org/f/showthread.php?t=1915 – Felix Goldberg Dec 2 '17 at 19:15
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    @maple_shaft: No? The US (and Britain & France) fought in WWI, with IIRC greater losses than the Russians. In WWII, the US and Britain fought the same army the Soviets did, PLUS the Japanese military, PLUS the US provided a good deal of the materiel that allowed the Soviets to fight. The Soviets may have launched satellites a bit before the US, but that's largely because the US wasn't trying all that hard. The US soon launched far more of them, landed men on the moon, and sent probes to every planet in the solar system (and beyond). – jamesqf Dec 3 '17 at 4:35
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USSR/Russian Empire fell because its government could no long contain the centrifugal forces that are present in any heterogeneous empire.

The colonies (called in the USSR for propaganda reasons "republics" who even had a nominal right to secede) always wanted out (the more recent additions were more eager to separate, the more ancient less), and were held together by (the perception of) the iron fist of the Party/Czar.

As soon as it became clear that the Center was unable to maintain it expansionism, the colonies rebelled and split off. This happened in 1917 and then again in 1989 (satellites) - 1991 (republics).

Thus the "external pressure" decried by Kenan (mention by @Semaphore) was absolutely necessary to prevent USSR's "extended empire" of republics, satellites, "countries of socialist orientation" &c, from expanding, and as long as it was expanding in at least some sense, it was stable inside.

So, the bottom line: USSR collapsed by internal pressure, which became insurmountable because the outside world stood firm in the face of the Soviet expansionism.

  • But there are two distinct issues here. The one you address is why the Russian/Soviet Empire came apart. The one you don't is why none of the parts remained Communist. One could certainly imagine the USSR shedding satellites and republics to become a Communist Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, &c, but that didn't happen. – jamesqf Dec 2 '17 at 2:21
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The Soviet Union was split apart by "centrifugal" forces because "socialism," the glue mentioned in the Bryant thesis that held it together, was too weak. Perhaps more to the point, the revolutionary fervor and "class consciousness" reported by Bryant in the early days of the Revolution that motivated it had mostly disappeared by Gorbachev's time. Put another way, the problem was not that socialism in Russia was "premature" in Russia as Bryant claimed. Instead, its power was "real" (as she observed) but had outlived its usefulness by the early 1990s.

Basically, the Soviet Union was an artificial construct of one large country and 15 smaller ones, whose main commonality was their control by the largest one. This construct depended on continued Soviet expansion, which the Reagan Doctrine halted. When Gorbachev tried to institute a more open, democratic society as the basis of reform, he fatally loosened the bonds of force that had held the "Union" together before the economic reforms had a chance to do their work.

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In one thing she was right: socialism (and communism) still stays with us and shows no sign of declining or falling:-) I mean China first of all. The largest economy in the world, not speaking of he huge population.

So any explanation why Soviet Union collapsed must be based on some features which are not applicable to China. And this makes the task much more complicated.

EDIT. Of course there are differences between Soviet Union and China, but there are also big differences between Soviet Union in the 1920s and Soviet Union in 1980s.

Both Chinese and Soviet systems evolved. But I cannot understand why people deny that China remains a communist country: it is a one party dictatorship, and the ideology of this party is Communist. Considering atrocities that the government committed to their own people, China is comparable to Soviet Union. They don't do this anymore (on such scale) but the Soviets also did not in the ater time of their existence.

  • Could maybe have rather something to do with becoming anglo hemisphere nr 1 manufacturing outsource for cost reasons ever since the 60/70s and not so much the communism per se. – mathreadler Dec 1 '17 at 23:15
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    "Communism with Chinese characteristics" bears almost no resemblance to traditional communism. It's got a lot more in common with unrestricted capitalism. – Mark Dec 2 '17 at 1:53
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    China didn't collapse because it abandoned Communism in all but name. – jamesqf Dec 2 '17 at 2:23
  • @mathreadler: why did not Soviet Union become a nr 1 or nr 2 manufacturing outsource? – Alex Dec 2 '17 at 3:00
  • @Alex because an enemy is always needed. Soviet Union was big and industrialized enough to portray as a likely threat.Heavily investing and trading would have sent mixed messages that maybe they werent so evil after all. – mathreadler Dec 2 '17 at 9:42

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