Panelists: Soviet fall had multiple causes

by Liz Yepsen | 11/19/03 6:00am

The fall of the Soviet Union can be attributed to a combination of economic, military and political factors, according to panelists at yesterday's discussion, "The Implosion of a Super Power: Why the Soviet Union Fell."

Panelist Kenneth Yalowitz, U.S. Ambassador and Director of the Dickey Center, attributed the fall to "a number of elements, the sum total of which made the end result almost inevitable."

The economy of the Soviet Union was one such element. The quick conversion of the USSR from a predominantly agricultural country to an industrial superpower resulted in an inability to produce goods on the world market.

While the USSR provided large quantities of cheap oil and gas to parts of Europe, the products it received in return were inferior. The new empire could not meet the costs of globalization.

Education and a growing sense of nationalism were also factors. Soviet leadership did not recognize the separate groups that existed within its borders, and states sought independence from Moscow.

"A better educated and more aware Soviet population could no longer be manipulated as it had been 20 and 30 years before," Yalowitz said.

Another panelist, David Shipler '64, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former New York Times journalist, attributed the fall to a lack of belief in the regime and a lack of faith on behalf of the party members and the public.

"When nobody believes in anything, you have a rather serious problem in culture," he said.

The prevailing sense of shame and deep nostalgia for Stalin under Khrushchev led to a national identity crisis, leaving the people with little to believe in about their own country. Mandatory readings of party newspapers and attendance at lectures were factors in the decline in national pride.

This lack of faith was apparent in the party members too, Shipler said.

"They were careerists, essentially, and they really wanted to advance through the ranks," Shipler said.

Dartmouth Assistant Professor of Government William Wohlforth, the third panelist, said the cause of the fall of the Soviet Union can be attributed to three events: the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Russian Empire and the collapse of communism. An equally relevant question, Wohlforth said, is not so much what caused the collapse, but why the USSR lasted as long as it did.

"The legitimacy of the system was based on a demonstrably false ideology," Wohlforth said. "At the end of the day it was a materialist ideology."

The system stayed in power as long as the elite were willing to use force to keep themselves in power.

Wohlforth also noted Gorbachev's role in the fall of the Soviet Union. An effective inside player, Gorbachev had faith in the system and believed that, with internal reform, socialism could withstand competition from the U.S. and the west.

"What he had to do was destroy the party elite. The problem was that the elite was the one thing that held the country together," Wohlforth said.

The discussion, which was held in Carson Hall, was sponsored by the Dickey Center.

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