Twenty years ago yesterday, the world witnessed the impossible; the peaceful disintegration of one of the major empires in world history - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In the previous 75 years, if you had asked any foreign policy expert what the chances were that the Soviet Union would go out with a whimper, it is doubtful that few, if any, would have predicted such. As late as the 1980's when Ronald Reagan launched his initiative not to "contain" Communism but to destroy it, most observers were calling his policies "provocative," "dangerous," and worse. While many of these so-called experts called Reagan a "war monger," the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain who were being oppressed and imprisoned blessed his name for calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
Ilya Somin sums up the benefits of a world without the Soviet Union:
With the demise of the USSR, we were spared a regime that slaughtered millions both within and outside its borders, inflicted numerous other human rights violations, and created a threat of nuclear annihilation that hung over the entire world. Compared to that, the very real dangers of the post-Cold War world seem minor by comparison. I recognize, of course, that the USSR in the last years of Gorbachev's reign was much less dangerous and oppressive than it had been previously. But had the regime survived, it is far from clear that Gorby's reforms would not have been reversed. Previous episodes of Soviet liberalization in the 1920s and 1956-64 had been followed by waves of repression at home and expansionism abroad. Moreover, Gorbachev himself was not as much of a liberal democrat as he is often portrayed in the West. He used force to try to suppress the independence movement in the Baltics, and otherwise sought to preserve the Soviet regime, not end it. He was certainly much less ruthless and repressive than his predecessors. But that is judging him by a very low standard of comparison. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that Gorbachev's efforts at limited liberalization spun out of his control and led to a beneficial outcome that he did not intend.
Somin does not fall into the trap that many former Soviet sympathizers do when explaining the end of the cold war by giving the lion's share of the credit to Gorbachev. The movement toward freedom was so much bigger than any one man - including Reagan - that trying to credit Gorbachev is faintly ridiculous. In essence, Gorbachev is being lionized for not sending in the tanks - for his forebearance compared to other Soviet leaders from the past. As Somin points out, it wasn't Gorbachev's policies that brought about the Soviet Union's destruction but their failure that sealed its fate.
In the recent parliamentary elections, the Communists polled the second highest number of votes. There is a lot of nostalgia among many Russians for the days of empire. But the Russian people have had a taste of freedom - even if it is being undermined by Putin. It is not likely that they will return to those days of terror and death.