Fall of the Soviet Union Symbolized Death of an Idea
By Robert H. Reid
The Associated Press The wheels of history turned on a sweltering June day in 1979 before thousands of people standing in a field in Poland to hear Pope John Paul II say Mass in his communist homeland. The words of this first pope to visit a communist country rang out through a Europe divided by hostile military blocs and rival social systems: "Is it not Christs will that this Polish pope, this Slav pope, should — at this precise moment — manifest the spiritual unity of Christian Europe?"
Polands communist government seemed to pay little attention. After all, it was Josef Stalin who had once asked mockingly: "How many divisions does the pope have?"
Twelve years after that open-air Mass in Gniezno, western Poland, the Soviet empire was collapsing. A system that once ruled nearly half of humanity had suffered a mortal blow. Where communism survives — in China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba — it is being eroded by capitalism.
Ten years have passed — and the whole world has changed — since Aug. 19, 1991. True, the world is hardly a safe place, and human history did not grind to a halt when the Soviet Union collapsed. However, the specter of humanity incinerated in a massive nuclear exchange now seems a distant memory. It all seemed very different not so long ago. "History is on our side," Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev boasted to Western diplomats in 1956. "We will bury you."
At the time, Moscow was on a roll. It was the West that was struggling to hold the line against what the communists insisted was the tide of history.
Communism spread from China to Africa to the heart of central Europe — and even to North Americas own doorstep in Cuba. Communist insurgencies raged from Greece to Malaysia to Central America.
Despite its flaws, the Soviet Union served as a beacon for peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America seeking to shake off the vestiges of colonialism. A generation of their best and brightest studied at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow or read Marx and Mao by candlelight in jungle hideouts.
The Soviets beat the United States into space, starting with Sputnik in 1957. The West talked of "containment," then of "detente." At best the Soviet empire might be stopped from spreading. Rolling it back was unthinkable.
For Karl Marx, the 19th-century father of communism, history was an inexorable march from feudalism, to monarchy, to capitalism and ultimately to a system where workers would control the means of production and resources would be distributed "to each according to his needs."
Lincoln Steffens, the American writer, visited the Soviet Union in 1919 and declared, "I have seen the future and it works."
But as Soviet power reached its height, contradictions in the system were becoming clear. If communism was inevitable, why did communist governments use violence to stay in power?
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev built up the Soviet military machine at the expense of industries capable of raising living standards. The planned economy proved inflexible. Soviet mathematicians could design the worlds best computer chips, but there were no factories to make them. They werent in the plan.
But the failure of their own economies encouraged communist leaders to open up trade with the West. With that came Western influence and ideas — not always positive ones.
Western executives visiting Moscow would see schoolteachers from remote cities working as prostitutes during their vacations. They could earn more in a week than their state jobs paid in a year.
Historians will long debate how much the popes visit to Poland influenced the unraveling of the communist bloc, but a year after his visit, Lech Walesa and his fellow shipyard workers went on strike to demand an end to censorship, the right to organize their own unions and the freedom to travel abroad.
The government granted those demands, and although it rolled back in December 1981 and imposed martial law, it could not suppress those ideals. By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was being led by Mikhail Gorbachev, who hoped to reshape communism into a more, humane, open system.
But Gorbachev could not move fast enough to keep pace with the pressure for change. First Poland and the Soviet Unions other East European satellites, and then the Soviet republics themselves, began to break away.
In 1991, in a last effort to reverse history, communists in Moscow mounted their coup. Their failure proved to be Soviet communisms last gasp.
An era died, too. Nuclear holocaust is out; global warming is in. Class struggle to human genome; glasnost to globalization. Dennis Tito, a self-made American capitalist, pays his own way for a ride in space — aboard a Russian rocket.