30 years ago today a man only moderately old died in an élite Moscow hospital; he had smoked incessantly for six of his seven decades and drank heavily for five, and after years of mounting illness, his liver, lungs and heart had all given in. His name was Konstantin Chernenko and he had, for 13 months, been the leader of one of the world’s two superpowers, and he was a gravely ill man for all of that time. Never in history had such a mighty realm had such an anonymous tyrant.
Chernenko’s life started six years before the birth of the world’s first Socialist state and ended seven years before its doom. When he was born as the son of an impoverished miner in smalltown Siberia in what was still the Empire of the Tsars, it would have been unthinkable that he might end up heading up an empire with military might and global reach beyond any Tsar’s wildest imaginings.
For ambitious men from proletarian backgrounds, born in the decades before the First World War, the establishment of Soviet power was a tremendous boon. With the children of the aristocracy and liberal intelligentsia suspect on class grounds, and the peasantry being only slightly less suspect and considerably less educated, the correct proletarian origins provided a lottery ticket to promotion in the expanding middle bureaucracy of the burgeoning Soviet state. Khrushchev and Brezhnev were from similar stock. Young Konstantin joined the Communist Party’s youth wing in 1929 and never looked back, aided by the elimination of countless older and more capable rivals in the madness of the Great Purge and desperation of the Great Patriotic War.
At the time of Chernenko’s appointment in 1984, the USSR seemed to be imperious in its power – secure domestically and in its Eastern European satellites, still glowing in Indo-China after the relatively recent defeat not only of the United States, but the Khmer Rouge and China in succession, and adding new loyal satellites from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. Solidarity had been crushed in Poland. Soviet SS-20s menaced London and Paris – this was the era of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes. Soviet misreading of NATO’s Operation Able Archer exercises in 1983 and shooting down of Korean Air Flight 007 saw the world stare over the edge of a nuclear precipice.
The contemporary Western viewpoint was that global peace rested on Soviet conventional superiority being balanced by American nuclear superiority. A serious Soviet attempt at nuclear parity seemed to threaten that, while Soviet conventional superiority was seemingly underscored by the ease with which it was dealing with a bloody but seemingly futile insurrection in Afghanistan. America’s Vietnam débâcle had exposed to the world the weaknesses of a military riven by race and class and rife with drugs; America’s military renaissance was already happening but was yet to be noticed, even by military analysts in Washington.
Outside the military sphere, the Eastern Bloc economy seemed rosier than it was in reality by gross falsification of figures and by dint of comparison with the recession-hit Western economies of the early 1980s. The IT revolution was about to bury the Eastern Bloc in technological obsolescence, but that was far from obvious in 1985. The Commodore 64 seemed unimportant alongside memories of Sputnik.
Western talking heads were bitterly divided on the best approach to the USSR, but almost all shared the view that it was permanent and it was strong. Policy wonk articles in Washington journals had titles like Living with the Soviets or, with reference to Nicaragua and Grenada, The Bear in the Backyard, scattered among the retrospectives on Vietnam and agonising about the Middle East. The signs of impending Soviet crisis and collapse, so obvious in retrospect, were completely missed.
Chernenko was the ultimate apparatchik, a man so anonymous that the Kremlinologists of Western intelligence and academia did little more than scratch their heads on his appointment. The balance of Western expert opinion on his appointment was probably correct, in the very short term: he was the representative of a Brezhnevite old guard reasserting itself after Andropov’s short reformist reign. The nest of slaters that lay below the seeming rock of stability was still hidden. In reality, Andropov’s minor reforms and anti-corruption drive had already deeply shaken the Soviet system. That the only alternative to Andropov’s chosen successor and young protégé, Gorbachev, was a terminally ill man of no distinction was a sign of profound crisis. Almost Chernenko’s entire working life was spent as an official propagandist and ideologue. Quite apart from his health, it would be difficult to think of a less useful CV for tackling the problems of the 1980s USSR. Like its leaders, the USSR was wracked by ill heath brought about by decades of self-abuse, denial and alcoholism. Few of the experts, over there or over here, could read the signs of the times.
It collapsed with extraordinary speed, with Gorbachev not the architect of the collapse but merely the foreman of forces beyond anyone’s control. Economically, the Soviet Union was already bankrupt. Perestroika could never have been other than a failure: the patient was too sick to survive even the mildest of medicine.
Reagan’s military policy doubtless played some role. Star Wars was an escalation of the nuclear arms race that Moscow could not match financially even had Communist social and economic policy not been stifling the creativity of the Eastern Bloc’s brightest and best. For all that Charlie Wilson’s War was romanticised, the fact remains that the funding, arming and training of the Afghan opposition by an unlikely coalition of Western and Middle Eastern powers cost the USSR blood and treasure it could ill afford. More than that, defeat by a peasants using pack mules for transport destroyed the myth of Soviet conventional military power.
Soviet Communism was, however, defeated by its own ideology more than anything else. Marxist-Leninist theory held that centrally planned economies were inherently more efficient than capitalist ones and that, freed from the chauvinism, superstition and selfishness of imperialism and bourgeois supremacy, the Party of Lenin would inevitably lead to the triumph of Communism. By the mid-1980s, it was obvious that it wasn’t, and every trade delegation to Bologna or KGB posting to Bonn allowed the rising generation of the Soviet élite to see that with their own eyes. Who would send the tanks in to defend a dream that had proven to be hollow, especially when power and wealth were still available under a new order?
Less than eight years after an oldish man’s death, the USSR had ceased to exist, dissipating into fifteen independent states, mainly a bizarre mix of continued authoritarianism and free market shock therapy. The winners were the people who, when the music, stopped, had control of what remained of Soviet quality capital goods and state enterprises, and no scruples about selling them off on terms most favourable to them personally. A cheery soft rock ballad like The Winds of Change doesn’t fit the reality of, say, post-Soviet Belarus terribly well.
Yet the chaos and corruption of the 1990s, the ethnic wars in the provinces, the old ladies selling Marlboros in the snow and the millions of men dying of alcoholism in their fifties and sixties, can make people, especially on the left, romanticise what came before. But it was really, really, bad – the people running the system just told lies about it and locked people who tried to tell the truth up in psychiatric wards. The epidemic of alcoholism was already there in the 1980s, along with the reversal of life expectancy and shredding of elder care; so was the theft of state assets by the personally connected for enrichment.
In retrospect, nobody knew what was happening, before, during or after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Perhaps that’s what’s most important about the whole story. In what claimed to be the first state in history run on rational scientific and historical principles, the people running the system didn’t have a clue; nor did the clever products of Oxbridge, Harvard and West Point who studied it from the other side of an Iron Curtain.
So much of how we understand the world is fed to us by clever people whose livelihood depends on their mystique of cleverness, people who are good at writing coherent and logical précises of chaotic and uncontrollable situations, and who have enough chutzpah to take a guess about the future course of events and call it analysis. The world is full of intelligent, well-reasoned, arguments on which policy decisions will lead to which future outcomes in Iraq, Ukraine or the Holy Land. And all of them are written by the same sort of people who saw the Premiership of Konstantin Chernenko as a sign that the hawks of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were reasserting their strength.