zenpundit.com » Blog Archive


In the comments section of Richards Brief post, Dan of tdaxp asked, in reference to my crticism of the assertion by Dr. Chet Richards that Afghanistan represented a ” proximate cause” of the Soviet Union’s collapse, that I explain further my contention that:

“Thirdly, Dr. Richards vastly overestimates the role of Afghanistan in provoking the Soviet collapse. While the war in Afghanistan certainly did not help matters for the Soviets, the cost of battling mujahedin was fractional compared to the vast sums the Soviets were spending as a percentage of GDP on military and state security services. Morally, the regime had crippled itself in the mod-1960’s when Brezhnev-Kosygin-Suslov reversed Khrushchev’s attempts to morally reconnect the regime with the Russian people and imposed a creeping ” neo-Stalinist” orthodoxy that became more sterile as the Politburo grew grayer. Afghanistan was a product of the Soviet leadership’s total moral isolation and the regime’s economic implosion, not the cause.”

In 4GW theory, a school of thought that draws deeply from the ideas of the late Colonel John Boyd, moral conflict is a more important (i.e. decisive) domain in which to orient strategy than the physical or mental. As DNI puts it on their website:

“The focus (Schwerpunkt) of the non-state player’s operations is to collapse the state morally, that is, to rob it of its will to continue the fight. What is new is that one of the states in question may be a distant superpower and the non-state participant a transnational, ideological group”

Now for some background in Soviet history to provide the context that explains why I think Dr. Richards has Afghanistan ” backwards” as a cause when it is really an effect of a preexisting moral collapse of Soviet power.

Nikita Sergeievitch Khrushchev is generally misunderstood by the Western public and not a few scholars. Most people recall Khrushchev as a dangerous buffoon who banged his shoe at the UN and blinked during the Cuban Missile Crisis that he recklessly provoked. This is, in my view, a serious misreading of a very ruthless Soviet politician; one who rose under Josef Stalin and succeeded him as ruler of the Soviet Union while supposedly better men like Kosior and Voznesensky went to unmarked graves.

Khrushchev came to power after Stalin had throroughly terrorized Soviet society for nearly thirty years, slaughtering some 20 to 61 million citizens along the way, the final figure depending on what kind of yardstick of moral responsibility one cares to use. After orchestrating the 1954 coup against Beria, Khrushchev was always more than simply primus inter pares but he never enjoyed Stalin’s undisputed power, instead checking his Presidium rivals through his dominance of the Central Committee of the CPSU and his support in the early years from the marshals of the Red Army. To understand Soviet foreign policy in the Khrushchev era one must realize that he was also manuvering against internal rivals – first Beria and Malenkvov, then Molotov and Kaganovich and finally Suslov, Kosygin and Brezhnev.

Stalinism had thoroughly demoralized Soviet society as evidenced by the near total collapse of Soviet armies during the initial phase Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Were it not for the politically obtuse racial barbarism of the Nazis that provoked a desperate resistance and the placement of SMERSH and NKVD machine gun units to prevent Red Army units from retreating, it is doubtful the USSR would have survived WWII. After the war, Stalin and Beria set about reimposing the terror system and many historians believe that Stalin was at the point of initiating a new, mammoth, antisemitic, purge when he suddenly died in March 1953.

Khrushchev, who was of the generation that experienced both the Bolshevik Revolution and the savage Russian Civil War, sought to revive the status of the CPSU, rehabilitate its reputation and secure his own position by restoring the Soviet Union to the true ” Leninist” path, relegating Stalin’s crimes to an aberration. He did so through a contradictory program of:

De-Stalinization – via the “Secret Speech“, the Khrushchev thaw and emptying the camps

Peaceful Coexistence with the West – competing through space and economic development

Support for ” Wars of National Liberation – and leaders like Nasser, Castro, Nehru.

Consumerism, Soviet style – de-emphasizing heavy industry, slashing conventional military budgets, investing in light industry for consumer goods and agrarian development of ” virgin lands” to raise Soviet living standards.

In short, Khrushchev’s program which he brought about by tactical shifts and improvisation, ran against many key tenets of Stalinist thought. As erratic as Khrushchev may have seemed at the time, his policy was ” Re-Legitimization” of the regime; to try and bring real benefits to the Soviet citizen either materially by raising living standards, culturally by relaxing censorship or in terms of prestige and national pride by achievements like Sputnik and ICBMs. He tried to portray the Communist Party as a another victim of Stalin’s homicidal paranoia by stressing the events of the terrible 1937 “Yezhovschina ” – ignoring of course Stalin’s Ukranian genocide or Collectivization, both of which had left Khrushchev’s own hands dripping with blood.

All of Khrushchev’s rivals except (ironically) Beria and Kosygin were either die-hard Stalinists like Molotov and Suslov or nostalgic neo-Stalinists like Brezhnev who wanted a velvet glove, ” soft” version of the dead dictator’s U.S.S.R. While Khrushchev’s program in terms of its parts were incompatible, he was popular outside of the Nomenklatura and secret police ranks whose prerogatives and status were made insecure by his quixotic reforms. Some of Khrushchev’s ideas, at least in the Soviet central planning context, made a good deal of sense and ideologically at least, his foreign policy, however provocative, was far closer to Lenin’s than Stalin’s imperial realpolitik ever was.

Brezhnev, prompted by Mikhail Suslov, eventually reversed all of Khrushchev’s reforms, he tightened up censorship, broadened the powers of the KGB, poured 25 % of Soviet GDP into military industry ( even Stalin would have balked at that figure !). The Nomenklatura that Stalin once terrorized into robotic obedience, Brezhnev bought off with an indulgence of widespread corruption. The Soviet populace, as Hedrick Smith recorded at the time, were left deeply alienated, cynical and in despair.

Then in December 1979, an ailing Leonid Brezhnev, who was then only capable of working 2-3 hours per week, met with Stalin’s last Politburo appointee, Mikhail Suslov and his fellow septuagenarians, Andropov, Gromyko, Ustinov and Chernenko and gave his feeble assent as General Secretary of The Communist Party of The Soviet Union to the invasion of Afghanistan.

6 Responses to “”

  1. Dan tdaxp Says:

    Thank you. I always learn so much from these historical posts.

    From Wikipedia

    There was a suspicion that the practical Beria was willing to trade the reunification of Germany and end the cold war, for massive aid from the United States such as had been received in World War II.


  2. mark Says:

    You’re welcome.

    Wiki has that right. Nobody knew the problems the Stalinist system had imposed better than Beria did and his willingness to chuck much of the Communist ideological baggage helped provide a pretext for his overthrow.

    A pretext only – mainly the other Oligarchs were frightened to death of him and wanted Beria dead before he could create an NKVD state in earnest.

  3. phil Says:

    Very Interesting. So after the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko die-off, did it take a lot of infighting for Gorby to come to power? Did he have to struggle with factions who did not want to reform? Was he responsible for the reforms or was he part of a generation that realized it had to change?

  4. mark Says:

    Hi Phil

    well, you are asking almost as big a question as Dan. My caveat here is that a) I have not read the most recent scholarship on Gorby and b) there’s too much still in the archives to be certain.

    Gorbachev’s accession was an almost done deal after Andropov’s death. Andropov’s faction did not have enough heft, due to Andropov’s short tenure, to outmuscle the remaining Brezhnev stalwarts. So they cut a deal whereby Chernenko became the new General-Secretary, Gorbachev was the # 2 heir-apparent and Gromyko remained dominant in foreign affairs.

    Andropov had proteges who all rose to the heights of power – Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, Ligachev, Kryuchkov and Kalugin – and all of whom fell out eventually with one another during Perestroika. The KGB realized the Soviet Union needed drastic economic reform to keep up with the West but the Party nomenklatura was dead-set against fundamental changes in economic central planning. So Gorb went the political reform route hoping to accumulate enough power to reform economically. Kryuchkov and Ligachev sided with the nomenklatura, Shevardnadze and Kalugin with the more radical reformers.

    I’ve never spoken to Gorbachev personally though I was once in the general crowd about 10 feet from him at a reception listening to him expound via his longtime translator. He could work a room even in a foreign language. smart guy but his reach exceeded his grasp

  5. StrategyUnit Says:


    Great post.

    On Krushchev
    Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” was an earth-shattering event for the Soviet Union – from the politburos to those that read the samizdat. I dont think many American scholars appreciate this.

    I think its also important to understand that Khrushchev “Little Deal” reforms opened the economy, which was badly needed. USSR’s GDP growth rate had been slowing since 1950s and Kruschev helped slowed that decline. But things got worse when Brezhnev kicked off Krushchev.

    Along with the increase in state terror, Brezhnev also rolled back the “Small Deal” economic reform. This only served to accelerate the economy dire situation and solidified the pessimism that had been growing in Soviet society.

    On Gorbachev
    As for Gorbachev, I disagree with ” So Gorb went the political reform route hoping to accumulate enough power to reform economically.” I dont see why he would think political reform would help empower him to conduct economic reform.

    In my opinion, Gorbachev was an honest believer in communism and saw democratic political reform as path to correct USSR’s ills. However, his attempts to reform had two critical flaws:
    1. Gorbachev did not have full backing of all the political players.
    2. The rot was very bad in the USSR, with outbreaks of demonstrations/riots already occuring in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Baltics and else where in the late 1980s.

    Basically, his reforms set off a political train crash beyond his control. It finally ended for Gorbachev with the Communist’s August 1991 Coup. With the coup, Yeltsin saw an opportunistic opening to became the “hero” to save Russia from the coup and lead Russia’s democracy movement.

    Gorbachev was no doubt a intelligent man, but I always felt he was too naive at that time.

  6. mark Says:

    Hey StrategyUnit

    I agree that Gorbachev was at heart a true believer in socialism, as was Khrushchev.

    The reason that Gorbachev went the Glasnost route first was because a large number of party apparatchicks had their careers invested in economic central planning, especially the economic black hole of the soviet economy, collectivized agriculture.

    Liberalization of the economy/property rights meant the end of their power which was why collective farms continued well into the Yeltsin era. Too much opposition by the elite.

    It was, as you point out, a mistake for Gorbachev to try the opposite of Chinese reform. Deng tackled agriculture first so that Chinese reform took place on a full belly and with a quiet countryside

Switch to our mobile site