“Age of Delirium” and the Collapse of Communism

Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union,” is another example of the apparent oxymoron, a good book about history written by a journalist. Its author, David Satter, first arrived in the Soviet Union in 1976, and spent a total of nearly two decades reporting and writing about it and Russia and the other states that merged after its collapse. Like David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,” it chronicles the fates of people, each of whose lives shed some light on the reality of Communism and the reasons for its final demise. As glasnost gradually diminished the fear of Soviet citizens, it loosened their tongues as well, providing a golden opportunity for first rate reporters with a sense of history like Satter and Remnick to gather individual stories that, collectively, provide a wonderful insight into the nature of the sytem and the reasons for its astonishing disappearance from the stage of history. I suspect later generations will come to see the rise and fall of Communism as the most significant event of the 20th century. Russia was not the only state to pay a heavy price for this arrogant experiment of cocksure intellectuals who had mesmerized themselves into believing they had the perfect formula for creating a paradise on earth. If we are to avoid stumbling into more such experiments, it would be well if we thoroughly learned the lessons of this one. Such books should be required reading in every high school.

One wonders if the fall of the system was inevitable, and how long it might have survived if, against all odds, a man as fundamentally decent as Gorbachev had not come on the scene. He certainly had his faults, but I think his role in history was a great deal more positive than he’s often given credit for today. When I say he was a decent man, I am not forgetting he was the leader of the Soviet Union during the events of January 1990 in Baku, or January 1991 in Vilnius.  When confronted with the unraveling of everything he had dedicated his life to building, he tacked to the right.  Still, in the end, he refused to yield to the conspirators who staged the August coup, though he surely realised his life was at stake.  Later, he yielded to Yeltsin and accepted personal humiliation rather than cling to power when he knew the likely outcome would be civil war and another bloodbath in a country that had already experienced too many.  In the end, he was one more example of the decisive importance of individuals in history.

And what of the future?  In “The New Class,” Milovan Djilas analyzed the emergence of the state as a vehicle to absolute power for an elite.  George Orwell gave us a fictionalized picture of the same phenomenon in “1984.”  These two brilliant 20th century thinkers have not lost their relevance with the demise of Communism.  State power shows no signs of withering away.  On the contrary, the role of government continues to expand in our lives, regardless of the nature of our leaders’ claims to legitimacy.  The expansion of state power is inimical to the liberty of the individual in any case.   In the 18th century, no less a thinker than Boswell’s Dr. Johnson could maintain with perfect seriousness that the nature of the government one lived under was irrelevant to individual liberty.  That is no longer the case today.  Perhaps the world of “1984” is inevitable.  The only question is whether it will come, as Orwell suggested, via revolution, or “on little cats feet,” by the evolutionary expansion of “democratic” state power.

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