We humans tend to believe that the life we experience today is “normal” and that it will go on like this indefinitely. Evolutionary psychologists probably have some pat explanation for this, but we don’t know what it is. We do know, however, that many things thought permanent were anything but.
In the late 1960s, a Soviet historian named Andrei Amalrik wrote a prescient essay: Will the Soviet Union survive until 1984? At the time, it seemed laughable, but the KGB didn’t think it was funny, and Amalrik did a couple of stints at the Kolyma concentration camp before being exiled to the Netherlands. He was dead by 1981, in a car crash that, although certainly convenient for the KGB, was probably just a car crash.
In 1984, grinning KGB goons told Scharansky, “It’s 1984, Amalrik’s dead, and we’re still here.” The eternal workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary state, like the thousand-year Reich that was modeled upon it, seemed destined to last forever.
Amalrik admitted that he had nothing in the way of evidence. Just observation and logic. And he said logic guaranteed that a state built on terror and oppression could not stand forever. As it happened he was off by only a few years, although he was thwarted in his desire to live to see “the end of… the Russian Imperial state.”
I have been hearing and reading a great deal about the so-called “liberalization” of Soviet society. This idea may be formulated as follows The situation is better now than it was ten years ago; therefore ten years from now it will be better still. I will attempt to show here why I disagree with this notion. I must emphasize that my essay is based not on scholarly research but only on observation. From an academic point of view, it may appear to be only empty chatter. But for Western students of the Soviet Union, at any rate, this discussion should have the same interest that a fish would have for an ichthyologist if it suddenly began to talk.
The fish had this to say about the long-term prospects of his fishbowl:
I have no doubt that this great Eastern Slav empire, created by Germans, Byzantines and Mongols, has entered the last decades of its existence. Just as the adoption of Christianity postponed the fall of the Roman Empire but did not prevent its inevitable end, so Marxist doctrine has delayed the break-up of the Russian Empire, the third Rome, but it does not possess the power to prevent it.
Carrying this analogy further, one can also assume that in Central Asia, for instance, there could survive for a long time a state that considered itself the successor of the Soviet Union, a state which combined traditional Communist ideology, phraseology and ritual with the traits of Oriental despotism, a kind of contemporary Byzantine Empire.
For all that Amalrik and other dissidents, exiles and refuseniks experienced the USSR as a nightmare regime, that was not the experience of most Soviets. Especially Russians. They lived their lives, they did their best, they loved their country and its culture and some of its institutions, and they cultivated a healthy sense of humor about the unloveable parts. Most of the fish loved the fishbowl. Many today are nostalgic for it, because it wasn’t all KGB guys with coshes and steel-toed shoes: it was a proud, strong nation, and for some Russians today the USSR with all its flaws has the same appeal as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (with all its flaws!) had to generations of American southerners.
Yet it still came crashing down; Amalrik, almost alone of the tens of thousands of historians, economists, and other experts in the USSR, had it right.
Which brings us back to the starvation state, North Korea,
The division of a single nation into separate states is a force like the chemical bonds between atoms in a molecule. It is stable right up until the moment that it is not stable.
Then, the bonds break with a great release of energy, and reform in new ways.
In chemistry, this reaction is predictable with mathematical certainty. In statecraft, it is not.
What, then, are the beliefs and guiding ideas of this people with no religion or morality? They believe in their own national strength, which they demand that other peoples fear, and they are guided by a recognition of the strength of their own regime, of which they themselves are afraid. ….
Under this assessment it is not difficult to imagine what forms and directions popular discontent will take if the regime loses its hold. The horrors of the Russian revolutions of 1905-7 and 1917-20 would then look like idylls in comparison.
It should be noted, however, that there is another powerful factor which works against the chance of any kind of peaceful reconstruction and which is equally negative for all levels of society this is the extreme isolation in which the regime has placed both society and itself. This isolation has not only separated the regime from society, and all sectors of society from each other, but also put the country in extreme isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation has created for all from the bureaucratic elite to the lowest social levels an almost surrealistic picture of the world and of their place in it. Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable.
Amalrik, in that last paragraph, is predicting the exact sort of preference cascade that actually occurred in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989-92. As it happened, restraint by Soviet and particularly Russian leadership ensured that the transition was largely peaceful.
But Amalrik saw coming for the USSR what no one had seen coming for Rome:
Evidently, if “futurology” had existed in Imperial Rome, where, as we are told, people were already erecting six-story buildings and children’s merry-go-rounds were driven by steam, the fifth-century “futurologists” would have predicted for the following century the construction of twenty-story buildings and the industrial utilization of steam power.
As we now know, however, in the sixth century goats were grazing in the Forum just as they are doing now, beneath my window in this village.
The USSR, unlike North Korea, had many strengths in natural and human resources; there is a lot of ruin in a nation, and a lot more in a large and forward-looking nation than there is in a small, isolated and regressive land.
One wonders if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the world’s most backward and inbred absolute monarchy styles itself, can survive until 2024. And what terrors will be unleashed by its long-delayed expiration.
Amalrik’s essay is available online: