AFTER MIKHAIL Gorbachev's ascension to power, considerable effort went into predicting the Soviet future. This concern spread from the op-ed pages and congressional hearings to infect the furthest corners of the discipline of Sovietology. Pundits, politicians, and undergraduates who could not locate the Volga river on a map would happily write essays or deliver speeches about Gorbachev's real intentions. Professional conferences were increasingly devoted to round table discussions of Gorbachev's next move, rather than to the presentation of research findings.(1)
Despite all this effort, most commentators got it totally wrong. Social scientists in general, of course, have a poor record when it comes to predicting political developments, from the wave of democratization in the 1980s and the economic boom in China to the civil war in Yugoslavia.
One can only conclude that social scientists should not be enticed into futurology. It may be that prediction can work if one is dealing with large numbers of human events, as in Durkheim's classic study of suicide. But there was only one Soviet Union, and the collective suicide of its ruling elite has few historical parallels. Perhaps social scientists should quietly steal away and retrain as historians of the present.
One of the principal arguments of historians that social scientists will have to accept concerns the role of accident in history. In the Soviet context, acknowledging this role is usually a prelude to a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Mikhail Gorbachev: his courage in launching perestroika, his foolishness in failing to see that democratization would undermine the very institutions which sustained him in power.
This concentration on interpreting and reinterpreting Gorbachev's actions has been overdone, on occasion to the point of absurdity--as, for example, in Gail Sheehy's biography, The Man who Changed the World, where the transformation of the USSR seems to hinge on Gorbachev's reaction to male menopause.(2) This is not to deny Gorbachev his place in history. But Gorbachev was not a Lincoln or an Ataturk, a Lenin or a Hitler; he was merely an above-average product of the nomenklatura system. It is hard to find anybody fluent in Russian who has heard Gorbachev speak and come away in awe of his intellectual abilities. And despite all the talk of factionalism within the Politburo there is little evidence that he faced serious opposition in the upper reaches of the party until 1988-1989--by which time the die was cast.
There are at least two other serious candidates for the role of the critical accident in the demise of the USSR, though they have been neglected because of the obsession with Gorbachev. The Afghan war was never taken very seriously by Sovietologists, who dismissed the notion that it was a Soviet Vietnam. Instead, it was portrayed as an embarrassing vestige of the Brezhnev era, a minor impediment to perestroika. Thus Ernest Gellner, arguing that the USSR was not likely to collapse in the near future, mentions by way of contrast that the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires only fell after defeat in foreign wars. But he does so without referring to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.(3) Afghanistan, though, was a humbling reversal for the Soviet Army, and raised serious doubts in the minds of the military about the relevance of "socialist internationalism" and the competence of the established political elite. No surprise, then, that when in 1991 the Party needed the army, it deserted them. (Perhaps the main contribution Ronald Reagan made to the fall of communism was sending Stinger missiles to the mujaheddin).
Second, there is Chernobyl--literally and figuratively, an accident of the first magnitude. It is amazing how many accounts of "the Gorbachev era" deal with Chernobyl in a sentence or two. Yet Chernobyl played a crucial role in transforming glasnost from a sterile political campaign into a genuine movement for change. …