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Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

The world is much freer today than when I was born, largely because the “Evil Empire” collapsed.

The Soviet Union was awful. It killed at least 20 million of its own people (some say as many as 60 million). It enslaved and impoverished its own citizens, as well as those who languished behind the “Iron Curtain.”

Ronald Reagan deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the collapse of communism – in part because he restored America’s economic vitality and built up the nation’s military, but also because he directly condemned the immorality of Marxism (often using humor).

But since the last dictator of the Soviet Union just died, let’s examine Mikhail Gorbachev’s role.

An editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal is worth reading because it explains that his biggest achievement was not using bloodshed to preserve communist rule.

Mikhail Gorbachev…rose through the Communist ranks but presided over the end of the regime. His greatest achievement was allowing the Cold War to end without a war or a worse conflagration that the world feared for decades. …He understood that the country he inherited in 1985 when he became general secretary of the Communist Party was losing the Cold War to a revitalized West. Its economy wasn’t the juggernaut of central-planning genius that the CIA had assessed at the time. …Ronald Reagan had reversed the U.S. malaise of the 1970s with a defense buildup and reforms that unleashed America’s private economy. …Gorbachev’s reforms were intended to revive the Soviet regime to be able to compete with Reagan’s America. …The countries of Eastern Europe, long enslaved as members of the Warsaw Pact, saw their moment to break free. Gorbachev refused to send in the tanks as his Soviet predecessors had done in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. …mutual trust between Gorbachev and Reagan…helped to bring the Cold War to an end with freedom as the victor.

George Will is also grateful that Gorbachev allowed Soviet communism to whither away without violence. Here’s some of what he wrote in his Washington Post column.

Failing upward into the world’s gratitude, Mikhail Gorbachev became a hero by precipitating the liquidation of the political system he had tried to preserve… Like Christopher Columbus, who accidentally discovered the New World, Gorbachev stumbled into greatness by misunderstanding where he was going. …Gorbachev’s most noble facet, his “extraordinary reluctance” to use violence to hold the Soviet system together. …President Ronald Reagan…described the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” …he launched a high-tech challenge to a Soviet Union in which 30 percent of hospitals lacked indoor plumbing. …The Soviet Union’s brittle husk crumbled as Gorbachev struggled to preserve it. His reputation rests on the world’s amnesia about this.

Professor William Taubman of Amherst also opined in today’s Wall Street Journal.

He seems more sympathetic to Gorbachev than George Will, but also lauds him for opting against a bloody crackdown.

Mikhail Gorbachev…deserves to be celebrated… When he entered office in 1985, Gorbachev had almost unlimited power. He could have presided indefinitely over the status quo. Instead, he…acquiesced in the dismemberment of the Soviet empire without the violence that accompanied the collapse of most other empires. …he persuaded communist hard-liners to vote themselves out of office. …Gorbachev was happy to give up domination of Eastern Europe… Gorbachev tried to save the Soviet Union but ended up hastening its destruction. When it became clear in late 1991 that his great project was doomed, he could have lashed out, mobilizing the military to save him and what was left of the U.S.S.R., at the risk of civil war. Instead, he bowed out with dignity.

Matt Welch of Reason also weighs in, emphasizing that Gorbachev was not great, but that he allowed a great thing to happen.

f the late Mikhail Gorbachev had gotten his way, the world would look a lot different than it does now. Socialism would still be the dominant economic system from Leipzig to Yakutsk. The Warsaw Pact would still exist; a unified Germany would not, nor would the independent Baltic states. Above all, the planet would still be blighted by the wheezing and malevolent existence of what Ronald Reagan rightly described as “the evil empire”—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. …Yet we should not judge the eighth and final Soviet leader, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, by his base geopolitical desires but rather by the glorious human flourishing that his actions—and especially his inactions—allowed to take place. …November 9, 1989 became the most liberating day of the most liberating month of the most liberating year in human history.

Last but not least, David Satter shared some insights in a column late last year for the Wall Street Journal.

During its 70-year life, the Soviet regime killed at least 20 million of its citizens for political reasons. …however, the Soviet Union wasn’t indomitable. In 1988 the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed a space for free information in Soviet society, creating a contradiction between free speech and a system based on lies. When glasnost wasn’t repressed, it led to the collapse of the system. …President Reagan rejected the idea that the West had no alternative to accommodation. In the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he took the offensive “ideologically and geostrategically.” …As for his strategy, Reagan said it was simple: “We win. They lose.” …the U.S. rearmament drive began to bear fruit. …Stunned by these developments, the Soviets eventually decided to take the risk of major reforms.

As you might expect, I like the emphasis on Reagan’s role. Yet another reason why he is the only great president of my lifetime.

The takeaway from today’s column is that Gorbachev mostly deserves praise for what he didn’t do. By opting against a crackdown, he allowed the Soviet Union to wind up on the “ash heap of history.”

And that’s a great result.

P.S. Here’s my collection of columns about the grim 100th anniversary of communism.

P.P.S. And here’s my collection of anti-collectivism humor, including many columns mocking communism.

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There are not many advantages to being old, but I feel lucky to have been alive to see the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

We should celebrate this victory over evil every day.

But especially on December 26, which is the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s downfall (the Soviet flag was replaced by the Russian flag on Christmas, but the USSR wasn’t formally dissolved until the following day).

In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Doug Bandow writes joyfully about the end of the Soviet Union.

…the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which Reagan accurately labeled the Evil Empire…assuredly was evil. …the Evil Empire’s death wasn’t the miracle that occurred three decades ago. The Soviet Union’s peaceful death was. …Reagan was vital. He recognized the USSR as a national Humpty Dumpty, ready for its great fall. Contra the widespread assumption among foreign policy specialists that communism was likely to be with us for years, even decades, Reagan saw weakness, economic, to be sure, but also moral and spiritual. …Gorbachev…kept Red Army troops in their barracks in the breakthrough year of 1989, when the East European “satellites” slipped their orbits. …Poland and Hungary began the cascade. Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria followed more slowly. Most dramatically, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, after East Germany’s leadership refused to commit mass murder and mow down protestors. …The Soviet Union staggered along for two more years. The regime increasingly failed to manage the economy. …Three decades ago this month the Evil Empire—created by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, empowered by Joseph Stalin, dessicated by Leonid Brezhnev, and buried by Mikhail Gorbachev—ended. Disappeared. Collapsed. Vanished. Disintegrated. Failed. And all the misguided intellectuals, venal apparatchiks, and murderous ideologues could not put it back together again. …good people can, and sometimes do, win.

The point about the “moral and economic” weakness of the Soviet Union is probably not sufficiently appreciated.

Reagan pointed out (often using humor) that communism was a moral abomination, not some sort of legitimate competing system (I’d be rich today if I had a dollar for every time some supposed expert asserted that we needed to find a middle ground with communism).

It’s probably not possible to measure the extent to which foundational criticism played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but these excerpts from James Pethokoukis seem very relevant.

December will mark the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. …One of the best brief analytical accounts of Soviet Union’s demise is by AEI scholar Leon Aron — a 2011 piece in Foreign Policy, “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong.” …To Aron, the sudden demise of the Soviet Empire is ultimately a story of moral renaissance, an “intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country’s past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled… The long-run decline and demise of the Soviet Union is also, of course, a story of the economic failure of socialism and central planning.

While Reagan deserves considerable credit, he wasn’t the only leader to help push the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history.

In an article for Reason, Stephanie Slade discusses the role of Pope John Paul II.

In 1979, less than a year after ascending to the Catholic Church’s highest office, Pope John Paul II returned to his home country, then under communist rule. He disembarked at the airport, knelt, and kissed the Polish ground. That moment was arguably the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. …While celebrating Mass at Warsaw’s Victory Square, John Paul…said, “that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!” It was an astonishing political rebuke to the Soviets, who following World War II had installed communist governments across Eastern Europe that were “independent” in name only. …As the labor organizer and future Polish president Lech Wałęsa put it, John Paul’s pilgrimage “awakened in us, the Poles, the hope for change….I have no doubt that without the pope’s words, without his presence, the birth of Solidarity would not have been possible.” …In 1987, Pope John Paul II made his third pilgrimage to Poland. Independent unions were still outlawed at the time, but that did not stop supporters from hoisting Solidarity banners during a papal Mass attended by some 800,000 people. That same week, Reagan, during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, intoned: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, the Berlin Wall would indeed come down. We often think of that as the first domino to fall in Eastern Europe. But in fact, it occurred a few months after Poland held its first semi-free parliamentary elections. Solidarity claimed 99 percent of the open seats. …The events of the period were a triumph for individual liberty.

I’ve pointed out how a grocery store in Texas also helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union.

A TV show about the same state may have played a role as well. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Sun.

Classic soap Dallas brought down communism in the Soviet Union, Eurythmics star Dave Stewart has claimed. …And the claim comes from an impeccable source — a conversation the songwriter had with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1990s. Dave, 68, said: “What ­Gorbachev was saying — it was Dallas, the TV show. …“Somebody managed to get a VHS to work and broadcast it to part of Russia and they thought, ‘Hang on, that’s how people live in America’. “He said that had more effect, that half an hour, than anything else.” …watching such shows was banned behind the Iron Curtain.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think grocery stories and TV shows were quite as important as Reagan and the Pope.

But I think such factors helped to erode the confidence of the communist elite (the bosses who were much more likely to be exposed to the superior economic outcomes in capitalist nations).

Let’s close with a final observation about the failures of the American policy elite.

I’ve previously opined on the glaring inability of some academic economists to understand the inherent flaws of communism. Well, a recent column by George Will contains these amazing observations about a similar blindness by supposed experts inside the U.S. government.

In 1992, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) remembered a warning by CIA Director Allen Dulles (who would become a Washington casualty of the Bay of Pigs) in 1959 that the Soviet Union’s economy was humming so efficiently that by 1970 the gap between the Soviet and U.S. economies would be dangerously narrow. But, then, the 1957 Gaither Commission projected that the Soviet gross domestic product would surpass the U.S. GDP in 1993. (The sclerotic Soviet Union did not live that long.) Moynihan noted that in 1987 the CIA reported that East Germany’s per capita GDP was higher than West Germany’s, an assessment that “any taxi driver in Berlin” could have refuted.

I don’t like majoritarianism, but passages like this are why I’m also not a fan of rule by self-styled experts. But that’s a topic for another day.

The moral of today’s column is that communism was an evil failure.

As epitomized by the Soviet Union, it was an economic failure and a humanitarian failure.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the economic performance of East Germany and West Germany, you can click here.

P.P.S. If you want other examples of how communist economics led to terrible outcomes, you can also compare Czechoslovakia to nations in Western Europe, as well as Cuba vs Chile and North Korea vs South Korea.

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Yesterday, most of us celebrated Christmas.

Today, all of us should celebrate the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which officially happened on this date in 1991 (aided and abetted by a Texas grocery store).

A 2016 FEE column by Richard Ebeling documents the relentless evil of Soviet communism.

…the curtain was lowered on the 75-year experiment in “building socialism” in the country where it all began following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin in November 1917. Some historians have estimated that as many as 200 million people worldwide may have died as part of the 20th century dream of creating a collectivist “paradise on earth.” The attempt to establish a comprehensive socialist system in many parts of the world over the last 100 years has been one of the cruelest and most brutal episodes in human history. …as many as 68 million innocent, unarmed men, women, and children may have been killed in Soviet Russia alone over those nearly 75 years of communist rule in the Soviet Union. …This murderous madness never ended. In the 1930s, during the time of the Great Purges instituted by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to wipe out all “enemies of the revolution” through mass executions, millions were sent to the Gulag prisons that stretched across all of the Soviet Union to be worked to death as slave labor to “build socialism.” …Soviet central planning even had quotas for the number of such enemies of the people to be killed in each region of the Soviet Union, as well as the required numbers to be rounded up to be sent to work in the labor camps in the frigid wastelands of the Siberia and the Arctic Circle… The nightmare of the socialist experiment, however, did not end with Stalin’s death in 1953. Its form merely changed in later decades. As head of the KGB in the 1970s, Yuri Andropov (who later was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982), accepted a new theory in Soviet psychiatry which said opposition to the socialist regime was a sign of mental illness.

Based on the sheer number of victims, Stalin understandably has the worst reputation of all Soviet dictators.

But let’s not forget that Lenin was a horrible human being as well.

Lenin’s streak of cruelty began long before he came to power. By his early 20s, his zealous dedication to Marxism led him to believe that anything justified revolution. When a famine broke out in the Volga region in 1891—one that would kill 400,000 people—Lenin welcomed the event, hoping that it would topple the Czarist regime. …Later, in 1905, when Czarist forces killed hundreds of striking workers and 86 children in Moscow, Lenin refused to mourn for the dead and, instead, hoped the event would further enflame class antagonisms. In his eyes, human lives were expendable… While in exile, Lenin railed against the imperial government for its oppressive ways—for instance, its censorship of the opposition and dismissal of parliament. Of course, once in power, Lenin repeated these policies and usually exceeded their cruelty, imprisoning and confiscating the property of his opponents. …Lenin appointed the homicidal Felix Dzerzhinsky to head up the Cheka (the secret police)… In less than a year, hundreds, if not thousands, were executed… He marked wealthy peasants, or kulaks, as enemies of the revolution and encouraged violence against them. He imposed fixed grain prices at low rates, straining peasants who already were living on the margins, seized their grain, and left them to starve. When the peasants began resisting, Lenin ordered government officials to torture them or apply poison gas.

By the way, it’s not directly relevant to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but I can’t resist sharing this story from the BBC.

Karl Marx’s Grade I-listed memorial in Highgate Cemetery has been “mindlessly vandalised”. The marble plaque on the imposing sculpture’s base has been attacked, seemingly with a hammer. A cemetery spokesman said they did not know when it had happened, but believed it was within the last couple of days. No witnesses have come forward. …Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, said: “This is mindless vandalism, not political commentary. …This is not the first time the monument has been damaged. In 1970 a pipe bomb blew up part of the face, swastikas have been painted on it and emulsion paint has been thrown at it.

My only comment it that the memorial wasn’t “mindlessly vandalised.” There were 100 million reasons why it was defaced.

Now let’s look at the economic performance of the Soviet Union.

I’ll start with the simple and near-tautological observation that there’s no longer a Soviet Union in large part because its economy became so anemic.

Yet some people believed that the Soviet Union’s version of socialism could be economically successful. I wrote about their naivete as part of my collection of essays on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

I suppose we can partially forgive them because much of the economic misery in the Soviet Union was hidden from outsiders.

What’s less forgivable is that some people still make absurd claims about the Soviet economy. Consider this screenshot of the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the economy of the Soviet Union. I’ve highlighted in red the parts that are laughable.

Though, to be fair, there wasn’t a problem with unemployment and job security in the Soviet Union. Just like slaves in Alabama in 1830, Soviet workers were victims of state coercion. They were forced to show up at the collective farms and state-run industries.

And state coercion was the basis of a failed system. Contrary to whoever authored that Wikipedia entry, the Soviet Union did not enjoy high growth rates.

A 1994 World Bank study by William Easterly and Stanley Fischer exposed the Soviet Union’s very poor track record.

Soviet growth from 1960 to 1989 was the worst in the world after we control for investment and human capital; the relative performance worsens over time. …The declining Soviet growth rate from 1950 to 1987 can be accounted for by a declining marginal product of capital with a constant rate of growth of total factor productivity. The Soviet reliance on extensive growth (rising capital-to-out-put ratios) was no greater than that of market economies, such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, but a low elasticity of substitution between capital and labor implied especially acute diminishing returns to capital compared with the case in market economies.

“Worst in the world” is quite an achievement.

Not that any sentient being should be surprised. Politicians are bureaucrats don’t do a good job of allocating labor and capital.

If you want prosperity, it’s not a good idea to have central planning and other features of socialism.

Here’s a fascinating look at the world’s largest economies (by overall size, not on a per-capita basis) from 1961-1989.

Here’s a chart based on the Maddison database, so we can make comparisons based on per-capita economic output.

As you can see, even though convergence theory says poor countries should grow faster than rich countries, the gap between the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever larger.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that compares the Soviet Union’s claims about growth (blue) with both CIA estimates (red) and later revisions from a Russian economist (green).

There are two lessons to be learned.

That latter point may be relevant for people who think China is an economic powerhouse.

P.S. The Soviet Union is gone, but most of the countries that emerged from the wreckage are still struggling with a legacy of statism and intervention.

P.P.S. In addition to celebrating today, we also should celebrate November 9.

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