Bryan Caplan  

Was Gorbachev the Most Influential Man of the Second Half of the 20th Century?

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Tonight I'm going to see Mikhail Gorbachev, last dictator of the Soviet Union.  I've heard he's really boring.  I plan to leave early.  Even so, I'm happy to pay $20 to see the most influential man of the second half of the 20th century with my own eyes.

Is Gorbachev really "the most influential man of 1950-2000"?  I'm not sure, but I suspect so.  If Gorbachev had played his cards right, he'd still be the dictator of the Soviet Union, and the world would be in far worse shape.  Instead, he tried reformed, fumbled, and brought the Evil Empire to the ground. 

I know that many conservatives want to give Reagan and his defense build-up the credit.  But there's no reason the USSR couldn't have stayed the course: With strict internal security and nuclear weapons, Communism could have lasted forever.  Imagine how Stalin would have reacted to Reaganism - instead of backing down, he would have staged show trials of "Reaganites."

This doesn't mean, of course, that I admire Gorbachev.  He was the least evil man who ever got to the top of the USSR, but that's not saying much.  With the benefit of hindsight, I have to think that he wishes he'd been like Deng - lots of perestroika, very little glasnost.  In the end, though, Gorbachev was a maximally useful idiot for the freedom and peace of the world.

But maybe I'm wrong.  Who else is in the running for the most influential man of the half-century?  Deng's a strong contender, but he's a better candidate for the most influential man of 2000-2050.  Despite decades of high growth, China's economy was so small when Deng assumed power that it didn't become a true world power until after his death.

Care to disagree?  Any other contenders?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (58 to date)
Blackadder writes:

Stanislav Petrov?

Zac writes:

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WWW. Ushered in the Information Age. A major leap for humanity.

I would agree that the fall of the Soviet Union was the most significant event of the latter half of the 20th century, but I have to think there was much more at work to cause the fall of the Evil Empire than the policy blunders of Gorbachev.

liberty writes:

I say

And, I'll see you there! :)

gregransom writes:


caveat bettor writes:

Bryan, I think Gorbachev's hand was pretty weak vs. Reagan's. Just consider respective GDP-per-capita of the two nations.

RL writes:

Are you restricting the question to politics? If not, it seems clear that the person most responsible for the personal computer is the most influential.

Troy Camplin writes:

Pope John Paul II. Kept the Catholic church relevant and up to date without sacrificing essential Catholic teachings. Central to the fall of communism in eastern Europe.

I would also nominate Keynes, whose damaging macroeconomic theories dominated throughout the second half of the 20th century, and are unfortunately being resurrected as we speak. He was dead most of the second half, but his theories have haunted us since.

Along those lines, one can only hope that Hayek will become the most important figure of the 21st century.

liberty writes:

More seriously, I am not sure I agree with this: With strict internal security and nuclear weapons, Communism could have lasted forever. Imagine how Stalin would have reacted to Reaganism - instead of backing down, he would have staged show trials of "Reaganites."

It is true that communism lives on in North Korea. But North Korea is so small and isolated that the people can be more easily repressed because they know less about the rest of the world.

But, by the 1980s, Russians knew too much. They knew about blue jeans and coca-cola before glasnost, I am not sure by then it was possible to turn back time and impose Stalinism. Perhaps Gorby knew that this would just lead to revolution; so he tried to avert it with glasnost and perestroika--which, of course, just made the inevitable fall come sooner.

But imagine a Soviet Union today, in the age of the Internet, satellite and cell phones! It would never have lasted the late 1990s. It was its time.

So, I tend to agree that he didn't do it on purpose and wasn't necessarily critical himself - and the leftist line that he was creating a kinder communism that should have been allowed to last is just sad - but I still think fondly of Gorby: The man who fumbled and inadvertently pulled open the Iron Curtain, letting the sunshine in.

Jacob Oost writes:

Well, I think Reagan and his arms buildup and strong stance towards the Soviets created the necessary incentives for reform and set the stage for its collapse, the emboldening of wholesale reformers like Yeltsin, etc. Incentives, incentives, incentives. :-P

Anypoo, what about Milton Friedman? While not directly influential, he was an enormous influence on economic policy throughout the world.

But really, there is no one single man. Cerf, Kahn, Kilby, Faggin, Farnsworth, Berners-Lee, Sutherland, Engelbart, Von Neumann, the list of technical innovators who shaped the latter half of the 20th century goes on and on. To say nothing of the physicists such as Bohr and Einstein and Heisenberg whose work set the stage for much of that technology (as well as the nuclear bomb, which shaped world politics).

Carl Oberg writes:

What qualifies someone as a dictator? I have trouble seeing Gorbachev as one.

He succumbed to a coup (briefly), he reached his position through bureaucratic power games (not military might), and he clearly didn't have ultimate authority even within his own Central Committee. Perhaps most importantly, people didn't fear Gorby liked they feared Hitler or Stalin.

Les writes:

If the choice is constrained by ethics, then it seems to me that Gorbachev and Deng (both of whom reached the top by climbing the greasy pole of Communist politics) are out.

It also seems to me that lack of ethics causes lack of greatness, so I believe that the choice of greatness is necessarily constrained by ethics.

Fazal Majid writes:

I doubt perestroika without glasnost would have worked as well in the USSR as in China. The Soviets had been through two generations of Communism, with more collateral damage to the ability to think productively. That's why the Russian economy is still based on oligarchs parlaying their political connections into privatizing mineral resources for their own benefit. The Chinese economy, for all its faults, mostly fins ways to produce stuff people actually want.

Robinson writes:

Communism has killed a lot of people, but not nearly as many as Norman Borlaug is estimated to have saved.

Don M. writes:

George Lincoln Rockwell

richard writes:

I thought that the low oil price really did it. The ussr had to import food in the 80's and really couldn't afford this anymore.

Delenda writes:

As I'm sure Arnold Kling would agree, Lexington Steele had the biggest influence in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

Zac writes:

After reading about the man and his accomplishments, I switch my vote to Norman Borlaug. I never would have thought that one man's ideas and actions could have been so influential.

However, it seems in his old age he is developing a bit of a Malthusian streak regarding the population growth of the next century and its demands on food supplies. I think he is not optimistic enough about the ability of future innovators to find ways to increase food yields. But since he is firmly in his 90s I will forgive him a little pessimism.

johnleemk writes:

I second Borlaug. Zhao Ziyang would be a potential contender too, although he was much more a behind-the-scenes type than Deng, and has been largely forgotten since he was purged after his receptive approach to the Tiananmen incident. It's a sign of how influential and potentially powerful he was that the Chinese government has never accorded him public recognition since they purged him, and barely even acknowledged his passing even though he was the second-most powerful man in China for a number of years.

B. Kalafut writes:

Norman Borlaug and Milton Friedman both come to mind, although, like Deng, the correct time interval for Friedman possibly lies in the 21st Century.

Another worth considering is William Shockley. Sure, the transistor is a one-shot idea, but the only comparable one-shots in human history are fire and the wheel. Consider not only the advances in quality of life and the like due to widespread use of digital computers, but also how much physical science opened up due to man's newfound ability to numerically integrate differential equations that would otherwise have required a small army of computers in the old, human sense of the world, to work for years to just produce a meaningful number.

J Cortez writes:

I think Gorbachev was very infuential. But I think Deng Xiaoping is more so. It might not be obvious then or even now, but I think in the coming decades, he will be seen as very important.

If we were to take a snapshot of the state of computers in 1938 and show them to someone in 1958, they still wouldn't see the significance. They would see progress, but not earth shattering change. What do we do now, that is not in some way computer related: banking, retail, manufacturing, automobiles, phones, etc.? If in 1958, we could show somebody computer generated 3d special effects in video games and movies, they'd freak. Just like if we could show the internet, social networking, email, etc.

Re: the assumption that the USSR could have lasted forever. I think it was doomed to fail from the beginning. Both Hayek and Mises gave excellent reasons as to why. Yuri Maltsev, a former advisor to Gorbachev before the fall, concurs with their view.

Scott Wentland writes:

Gorbachev had embarrassing showing in his bid for President in the 1990s. In 1996, he got one half of one percent of the popular vote! That's the same as Nader in '08, and about the same as Bob Barr.

It's a tough case to make that he's the most influential man of the second half of the 20th century when he was about as popular as Nader in his own country shortly after he was the ruler.

On the other side of that coin, it's not too tough of a case to make that the Russian electorate is about as "rationally irrational" as an electorate can get given their track record of immensely popular despots.

Methinks writes:

My family in Moscow is always baffled by the fawning over Gorbachev and his "achievements". They and others in Russia have asked my why Americans are so fascinated by him. I was long gone by the end of the 70's, but the economic situation worsened in Russia throughout the 80's. Almost bare shelves became completely bare and a family member remembers taking a concoction of sugar water as her daily sustenance while she was pregnant because no other food was available.

I know liberals hate crediting Reagan with anything, but he pushed a bankrupt country over the edge. A lot of Russia's power came from its ability to fool the rest of the world into thinking that its powerful facade was real. The reality is that this was a country which had not created wealth for decades and after limping along on accumulated capital and the slave labour of the Gulag, it finally ran out of steam. If Gorbachev couldn't answer Reagan's military buildup with one of his own, the jig would be up. It was up because Reagan pressed the issue and wouldn't agree to another arms deal which would buy Russia time. Reagan isn't solely responsible for ending communism, but he was not "communism is just another way to live" Jimmy Carter willing to engage in ceaseless and useless detente. He delivered the final blow of the hammer to the final nail on the Soviet coffin. I don't think that without the Reagan administration strong anti-Soviet stance and teh support of the United States, the rebellions in the peripheral regions of the Soviet Empire stood a chance. So, Gorbachev, this ardent, lifelong communist became a reformer because he had nowhere else to go.

Gorbachev did not end communism. First of all, the Union of Soviet SOCIALIST Republics could in no way be described as a communist system after Lenin abandoned that pursuit following the complete and catastrophic collapse of the Russian economy in response to the Bolsheviks' ill-fated imposition of Marxian communism soon after taking control. In fact, Gorbachev did everything in his power to keep the country's political system intact by dropping economic reform on the population. It would have worked had the country not been a completely bankrupt, third world disaster by the late 80's. I think China saw the writing on the wall and decided to start liberalizing its economy rather than go through a similar catastrophic event.

Gorbachev was in no way the "least evil" man who got to the top of the USSR. He was just the guy with the least number of options by the time his number came up.

None of my candidates for the most influential men are from government or politics. The likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are much more influential than any political monkey.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I do not know who was most influential, but I shall agree with Bryan that Gorbachev, or more likely a rival, could have kept the system going and the USSR together, although a real irony is that indeed at the time of Gorby's selection, it was the KGB that was the main force pushing reform, and Gorby got where he did initially due to the patronage of the hard-lining, but reforming, former KBG head, Andropov.

So, let us consider an alternative scenario, requiring only a minor change. Gorbachev was elected to his crucial initial position as Chairman of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Soviet Union, by a one vote margin within the ruling Politburo over then Moscow Mayor Victor Grishin. By all accounts the swing vote was then Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, who was reported to say that Gorbachev had "a nice smile, but iron teeth." Grishin was a hardliner, smarter than Chernenko, the predecessor, who had been the ill flunkie of Brezhnev, but not a full-bore Stalinist.

So, the model might have been what Belarus has become, stagnant, but still running with a system little changed. That the populace had soft drinks and blue jeans and pop music was not a big deal. So do the Chinese today (and the Belarusians today). You just keep putting in jail the loudest of the dissidents, which is happening again anyway these days in Russia. The economy would not do great, but it would chug along, like Belarus's, which did not collapse like most of the transition economies, but has also not grown, just stagnating along in the same old, same old.

The real issue for maintaining the USSR was being willing to crack down on the republics and the satellite states. Regarding the satellites, this may have been ultimately too hard. In late 1989, the liberalizing government in Hungary took down the barbed wire, and people began flowing into Austria. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall came down, and that was it. But that last one might have been stopped, and prescient East German leader Erich Honecker asked Gorbachev for persmission to shoot some people to keep it up, but Gorbachev said no, let it go.

The republics could probably have been kept in line, but this would have required major military force. A test case was Lithuania, where Gorbachev held back from a really severe crackdown against demonstrations in 1991. That was followed by the political move by Yeltsin and the Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders to dissolve the USSR. If the Soviet military was cracking down on demos in the republics (after not letting the Berlin Wall fall), Yeltsin et al would not have made their move, and the Soviet military certainly had the power to do it in those days. Gorbachev simply was not up to it.

So, perhaps, on this argument, and the old butterfly effect, the most important person was actually Andrei Gromyko... :-).

Jim Glass writes:

"Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WWW ... the person most responsible for the personal computer "

Forget anything technological, if it hadn't been invented by X in year 1 it would've been by Y soon enough later.

Even Einstein didn't come up with relativity out of whole cloth. It's component ideas were being considered by others. If he'd been hit by a bus someone else or the scientific community as a whole would've put them together in the following few years.

But Gorbachev made a decision that immediately affected the lives of many millions of people on an historical basis. How many people do that?

When the East German people took to the streets in Liepzig, Honecker told Gorbachev "We have to run the tanks over them like in Budapest, Prague, ..." Gorbachev told him "No". Honecker said then the Soviet Empire would fall and he, Honecker, and the other Eastern block leaders would end up in jail. Gorbachev said then that's how it's going to be.

After that all in fact happened and while Honecker being held for trial in Germany, in 1992, Gorbachev told Pravda "He is guilty". Gorbachev cited "Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Warsaw", then said of Honecker:

"He is guilty. Because if you are head of state then either you should have the courage to stand up against what you believe is unacceptable, or you should resign."

It is simply unimaginable that any other prior Soviet leader would have even thought such a thing, much less have said and acted on it.

(Hey, I'd like to hear Obama say that!)

In the history of the world, how often has the leader of an empire (not to mention a totalitarian empire) intentionally brought down his own empire for ethical reasons?

"I think Gorbachev's hand was pretty weak vs. Reagan's. Just consider respective GDP-per-capita of the two nations."

Sure, but irrelevant. The Soviet Empire was armed to the gills, with guns pointed both internally and externally, and thousands of nukes targeted world-wide.

(Before WWII the allied nations had far higher combined GDP than the Axis, and theirs was growing faster too -- how peacefully did that turn out?)

If there had been a Honecker-like leader in the Kremlin -- and there were still plenty in the Politboro who could have had Gorbachev's job, but for the vagaries of fate -- there is absolutely no question that the Soviet Empire could have carried on for another generation or so.

I was in Prague in 1968, and saw first hand the power of tanks to crush dissent and bury the political desire of the people for a life of higher GDP.

Then, when the Soviet Empire finally did fall, who knows how it would have gone down? The classic tactic of such an enitity in crisis is to lash out at outside threats to try to unify internal forces. There was no shortage of paranoids in the Soviet leadership who liked that idea already in the 1980s.

As the Empire went down, with a Kremlin leadership trying to hold on to power by force, there could have been war over the border (such as if East Germany tried to split off and join the west ... of if the Chinese exploited Soviet weakness in east) ... or there could have been massive bloody internal fighting and civil wars -- what happened in Romania writ large. Who knows? But how many Empires built on military force and repression have collapsed in peace?

As it happened, the world got the best possible outcome -- total collapse of totalitarian empire, nearly completely peacefully, and at least a generation ahead of when any contemporary observers in the 1980s would have predicted it.

Would George Orwell have predicted such a thing? (Or Paul Samuelson, considering what he was writing about the Soviet economy at the time?)

I would not want to rerun that part of history to see how else it could have turned out. Appreciate getting the best possible result. Don't take great good fortune for granted.

No small part of that good fortune was Gorbachev being on the spot making key, history-turning decisions such as no other Soviet leader ever would have made.

LemmusLemmus writes:

I was going to second the vote for Stanislav Petrov, but Borlaug, whom I'd never heard of, seems like a strong contender.

Zac writes:

Some applause for Methinks, please?

Jonathan Bydlak writes:

This is probably one of the few times in the last year that I've disagreed with anything Bryan has said, but to be honest, I find this post somewhat embarrassing.

First, Caplan says that "if Gorbachev had played his cards right, he'd still be the dictator of the Soviet Union" and "there's no reason the USSR couldn't have stayed the course: With strict internal security and nuclear weapons, Communism could have lasted forever."

Come now. That's patently absurd. There's a reason that Gorbachev rose to power, and that was because of his reform credentials. And there's a reason why value was placed on reform at that time -- it's called internal crumbling.

As methinks said in the comments, "Gorbachev was in no way the "least evil" man who got to the top of the USSR. He was just the guy with the least number of options by the time his number came up."

(Yes, there's Cuba and North Korea, but there are reasonable arguments as to why those examples are not analogous to the Soviet case.)

But Caplan's post is also way off the mark regarding his take on Reagan. Bryan implies that Gorbachev "backed down," but that view just buys into the idea that it was Reagan's hard-line rhetoric that mattered most.

Budget deficits aside, James Mann lays out the case nicely in his new book that it was Reagan's cordial actions in his second term that helped end the Cold War, rather than his first term's bellicosity. Vanity Fair had a nice excerpt a couple months ago.

And as far as Gorby being the most influential person of the second half of the twentieth century... if you don't believe that Gorbachev prevented a massive number of future deaths, then it becomes really hard to accept Bryan's case.

How could you choose anyone else but Borlaug, for whom we actually have hard evidence about his impact?

kurt writes:

My choice would be between Pope John Paul II and Germany's Konrad Adenauer.

Methinks writes:

The Soviet Empire was armed to the gills, with guns pointed both internally and externally, and thousands of nukes targeted world-wide.

Sure. But, half the guns and 60% of the tanks didn't work and the ones that did had no ammo. Once the curtain fell, the sad state of the "mighty" Soviet military became apparent. This wasn't 1968 where tanks left over from WWII and a few stray bullets could subdue unarmed civilians.

The only decision Gorbachev made was how to end wealth destroying economic system in the hopes of preserving the communist party's consolidated power. Believing that Gorbachev skillfully decided to end totalitarian rule in a way that was least destructive to the whole world is fantasy. His goal was to preserve Soviet control, but for that he needed funds. The Soviet Union didn't produce wealth. He believed that by introducing wealth creating capitalism, the country would generate enough wealth to keep the communist party and himself in control. What happened - the complete collapse of both the communist party and the remainder of the economic system - was not the carefully orchestrated outcome he had hoped for but an unintended consequence of the implementation of his plan. "Who else gets to make such mistakes?" should be your question. The answer: every dictator throughout history and congress.

Vangel writes:

My money would be on Deng. He saw reality as it was and sent China along the path to prosperity.

Superheater writes:

As there is no agreed upon measurement of "influence", this is a beauty contest.

Dave writes:


James Watson

Gregory Pincus


Phillip Huggan writes:

(J.Glass) "Forget anything technological, if it hadn't been invented by X in year 1 it would've been by Y soon enough later."

Borlaug refutes you. Tough question. Reagan brought the Chicago School to the world. Safe pick is JFK for his singular decision to go against the advice of all his military advisors and not first strike Cuban missile silo sites. Deming comes to mind too. He brought Kaizan to Japanese industry. It might even be Elvis. The world is American culture.

Phillip Huggan writes:

I take it back!! The Soviet spy who stole the USA nuke blueprint.

kurt writes:

But that was already done before 1950 Phillip :)

Nick Naylor writes:

Steve Sailer.

100 years from now, it'll be common knowledge that everybody was reading Steve Sailer and taking all his best ideas and being influenced by him. It will also be common knowledge that while everybody was reading him, nobody would admit to reading him, nor would anybody even acknowledge his existence.

Igor writes:

USSR was going one way or another. It could not last indefinitely. I recommend Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia if you haven't read it already.

Snark writes:

If Deng is subject to qualification as most influential in the half century following his death, then the most influential person of this half century must be Mahatma Ghandi.

Ed Hanson writes:

Hear my applause for Methinks. And he is not the only escapee from the Soviet system to bring clear perspective to the West of that terrible system.

Ronald Reagan is clearly the most influential leader in the 2nd half of the twentieth century. And it was not just in strong foreign policy toward the Soviets that made him so. His resolve to return more power to individuals, especially economically, in the US alone would produce that status. Other events and people combined to make this happen. His coordination with Maggie Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II had a lot to create his effectiveness. In fact, Maggie Thatcher could be so determined to be the most influential, and would be if her country had still been the economic leader of the world.

Kurbla writes:

I think Reagan was irrelevant. When Lenin took power, Russia wasn't close to the most powerful state in the world, under attack of counterrevolution, anarchists, foreign intervention, isolation ... and they survived. So, why shouldn't they survive 1990? They were not that powerful like in 1950's, but they were still far more powerful than in 1920's.

The reason was internal motivation of the movement. Russian communists lost belief in their own dictatorship. Gorbachev or someone else, few decades later, it had to happen.

But it was Khrushchev who started that direction, and he had real alternative in Beria. So, my vote goes to Khrushchev.

8 writes:

If judging from today, I'd say Khomeini. The rise of radical Islam was the defining event of the past 30 years and the global superpower is currently bogged down in 2 wars due to it.

If judging for the future, perhaps John Paul II or Deng. Christianity appears on the cusp of an upsurge, and the current Pope continues what John Paul II started. China will grow in influence due to Deng's reforms.

If we hold to the 50 year range, such that everything after 2000 is irrelevant, then I'd say Martin Luther King.

guthrie writes:

@ Methinks: *Applause*!

DBC Reed writes:

Greenspan and Thatcher.So influential that,with Communism out of the way, they managed to destroy Capitalism straight after.

Bob Hawkins writes:

The nomination of Elvis is not a joke. If blue jeans and rock helped to bring down the Curtain...

Norman Borlaug is a strong contender.

RE: low oil prices bringing down the USSR. That was a deliberate policy, carried out by Vice President, then President, George H.W. Bush via his contacts in the House of Saud. Cut their supply of chips, raise with an arms buildup, watch 'em fold. H.W. also prevented Saddam from keeping Kuwait's oil and getting Saudi Arabia's, and set the stage for establishment of a democracy in the heart of Islam. So Bush 41 should be on the list.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I should not waste my time with this, but all the people applauding "Methinks" need to think a bit more carefully. Methinks got out in the 1970s, and some of the reports he hands out are not accurately reflective of the general situation. Also, while the arms of the Soviet military were getting more and more technologically backward and less functional relative to those of the US, they were certainly sufficiently functional in 1989 and 1991 to put down any uprisings in East Germany or Hungary or Lithuania or anywhere else in the Empire.

As for the ongoing exaggeration and misrepresentation of Reagan's role, after his first term bellicosity, he did agree to arms control agreements with Gorbachev. Heck, he was ready to give up all nuclear weapons at Reykjavik, but got pulled off that by all his advisers and supporters. Furthermore, last time I checked he left office on January 20, 1989. The decision not to smack down the people pulling down the Berlin Wall was in November that year, and had nothing to do with "the jig being up" with respect to technological stagnation of the Soviet military, and the riots in Lithuania and the attempted coup against Gorbachev by hardliners were all in 1991, with the USSR formally dissolving on Christmas Day, 1991, nearly three years after Reagan left office. And even at that point, it is not clear that if he had wanted to Gorbachev might still have been able to call on the Soviet military to resist the proclamations by Yeltsin and crew that brought the nation officially to an end. Gorby accepted it peacefully, and as Methinks noted, there are plenty of people in Russia who are very pissed off at him, most of them for his doing so.

Methinks dismisses Carter, but it was Carter who started arming and supporting the Mujaheddin against the Soviets after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan continued this, of course, but this was a major drag on the USSR, at least as much of a military and morale problem for the Soviets as the push for a (still non-functional, talk about Potemkin villages) "star wars" system by Reagan.

As for the business of "communism," Methinks is right that it was not a truly communist system, and it did not claim to be, even if the ruling party called itself "Communist." The official line until the very end was that they were a socialist system (see that word in the official name of the country), "in transition to communism." Even the hacks and hypocrites running the place knew that everybody had read enough Marx to know that under true communism, the state was supposed to wither away.

Oh, and to Methinks, please do not attempt to pull some sort of one-upmanship game about coming from there and having relatives there. I have relatives there by marriage, and I also know (and knew some of those now dead) many of the top Sovietologists. Claiming personal knowledge here will not cut it, especially when it is wrong. It is called "anecdotal evidence" for a reason.

And a final point that everybody should keep in mind. While the economy was declining after a final peak in 1986 before oil prices began to go down, the real collapse of the Soviet economy did not happen until the country itself came to a political end, although the satellites were in economic collapse before then. If it had managed to keep itself going in a relatively unreformed way, it would probably have performed since like its least reformed successor republics, Belarus (already mentioned) and Uzbekistan. These places are not booming, they did not experience the declines of the other republics and continue to go along in their stagnant states. Do keep that in mind, all of you who declare that the system was just inevitably going to collapse, at least in the semi-near term. With a different and harder line leader, it probably could have kept going, which is part of why all those Russians who are down on Gorbachev are down on him.

AB writes:

I would nominate The Unknown Rebel from the Tiananmen Square protest. He might not have taken down the communist Chinese government, but what he did that day will live on for many years to come. If you disagree, that's fine, but you have to admit that what he did took guts.

Snark writes:

I'm surprised nobody has nominated Henry Ford, "Father of 20th Century American Industry" and creator of the middle class.

Buckland writes:

The most important 'man' of the second half of the century? I put my money on the Iron Lady of Britain, Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher took over a country that was in terrible straits economically. The unions were crippling the economy, and everybody knew that nothing could be done about it. She broke the transit and coal worker unions and set her country on a course to a firmer footing financially.

If that were all she would have been considered great. However as an encore she became one of Reagan's closest allies, destroyed the Argentinian Junta (bringing an end to that country's terrible times), and was a big part of pushing the Soviets out of Eastern Europe.

The most influential collaberation of this period was Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II relentlessly pushing the Soviets until they broke. Although all were great, I think the Iron Lady was the indispensible piece of the puzzle.

Methinks writes:


First of all I'm not a "he". Second, thanks for warning me about pulling one-upmanship while in the same breath claiming cozy relationships with "top" Sovietologists and your marital ties to one up me. We all know that having relatives in Russia (assuming it's Russia) makes you vastly more knowledgeable than actually living in Russia as a Russian. We were informed of this after arriving in the United States by breathless leftists in awe of the wonders of the Soviet Union. After the collapse, we found out just how wrong all these "top Sovietologists" were about the realities behind the iron curtain. My parents are academics and there was no end to the fighting between them and the Sovietologists in this country. They all magically disappeared when the truth came out. I'm unimpressed. But, I brought up my relatives as an anecdote, Barkley.

You can indulge whatever fantasies you want about Gorbachev's morality relative to the other Soviet leaders and you can read into my comments on Reagan and Carter all you want. Reagan's support (or the support of his administration) to anti-communist protesters in whatever way it came strengthened their position. He didn't need to be present at the time of the final breath of the Soviet Union to have had an impact. Neither should that be construed as a claim that Reagan brought down communism. That's also untrue.

The Soviet economy didn't peak in 1986. The statistics the Sovietologists used were a lie. Like most Soviet statistics, they were a complete fabrication. The Soviet Union was bankrupt and exhausted long before the poltical power toppled. Gorbachev understood this. He understood that putting down more and more rebellions in a country the size of Russia would become increasingly difficult and counterproductive. He understood that the best chance the communist party had to stay in power was to loosen the grip on the economy and allow people to engage in private enterprise openly. He presented glasnost and perestroika to the population in this context. He had no clue that this reform would topple him from power. An abrupt change to a market economy created enormous hardship for people. But that decision did not stem from some moral position. It was purely pragmatic. I don't know who these people are who are down on Gorbachev because he didn't keep an iron grip on the population. I've never met any and I suspect you haven't met one who isn't a former American Sovietologist either.

The Belarus scenario you keep bringing up was not possible. Belarus is tiny, much easier to control and, like most of the satellite states it never felt the full weight of the fist of the Soviet regime in quite the full and brutal way that Leningrad and Moscow did. The fire burns hottest at the center. Belarus and Russia are incomparable. BTW, Moscow didn't have soft drinks and jeans until after the collapse and my mother brought suitcases of basic necessities when she went back to conduct research in Russia after the collapse (just as an anecdote). Had Gorbachev's economic reforms not come too late or had he approached reforms differently, he may have succeeded in holding on to power the way that the Chinese have.

The Chinese communists didn't run out of time. They maintain power in China by liberalizing the economy. What's happening in China now was what Gorbachev was going for and failed.

That said, the collapse of the Soviet Union seems pointless. It doesn't seem to have collapsed so much as morphed into a new version of itself. At least this time I'm allowed to visit my hometown and my family is allowed to visit me. So, I guess it's better

For failing to hold on to power by introducing capitalism in order to hold on to power, Gorbachev does not deserve to be called a humanitarian or the most influential person of the second half of the 20th century. You're free to disagree.

Zac writes:

For anyone still following this comment thread:

"Billions Served": Reason online interviews Norman Borlaug on his 95th birthday.

This guy is a real hero for the ages.

"Borlaug: Ehrlich has made a great career as a predictor of doom. When we were moving the new wheat technology to India and Pakistan, he was one of the worst critics we had. He said, "This person, Borlaug, doesn't have any idea of the magnitude of the problems in food production." He said, "You aren't going to make any major impact on producing the food that's needed." Despite his criticisms, we succeeded, of course. "

Barkley Rosser writes:


Apologies on the gender mistake, but you must admit that this blog is rather heavily populated with males.

I never said a word about Gorbachev's morality, and my wife is not at all a fan of his. I also explicitly said I was not going to get into this debate over who was the most important person of the last half of the 20th century, a rather pointless exercise, although one that is somewhat amusing as the comments here show.

If 1986 was not the peak year of Soviet output, then when was it? I know that Igor Birman has his own stats that look pretty good in hindsight. You do not happen to be one of his many daughters are you? Oh, but then he lives here.

Of course, you admit to not having lived there since the 1970s, so I guess your expertise from "having lived there" is a bit out of date, just a bit.

Belarus has no oil. If they could pull it off without oil, the old USSR with its oil was in a much better position to pull it off.

Yeah, maybe Gorby should have pulled a China policy, beat up the dissidents while liberalizing the economy. Easy to say, but a lot harder to pull off there than in China, and I suspect you agree.

Methinks writes:


I'm not offended by the gender mistake, your assumption was incorrect but reasonable. Sorry about the morality thing, I had you confused with another poster. Gorbachev is so wrongly and persistently painted as morally superior to other Soviet dictators.

Of you're Barkley Rosser the economist from JMU, then "here" is the USA and I am "here". I missed the '80's in Russia but since a few years after the the collapse of the Soviet Union, I've been heavily involved both with my family and (against my better judgment) businesses there.

Could the Soviet Union have limped along on oil? If it survived the early 1990's, could it have survived the huge decline in oil prices in the late 1990's? We had an interesting way of drilling for oil. It became obvious from virtually the beginning that people responded to incentives. This gave rise to interesting incentive programs across Russia. Russian oil drillers were paid by the total distance drilled. In oil drilling, the further down you drill, the slower the drilling goes. So, drillers routinely poked shallow holes in the ground to get paid. The worst possible outcome was to accidentally hit oil because then you have to stop drilling altogether and pump the oil! When American companies arrived in the 1990's, they discovered an industry in complete disarray with damaged formations, decrepit equipment and drunk operators.

Igor Birman was abrasive but correct. You have no idea how abrasive American Sovietolgists were as they condescendingly imposed on "disgruntled refugees" their version of life in a country that they not only never lived in but didn't have open access to.

Ultimately, for a long list of reasons including but not restricted to the increasing technological backwardness, crumbling infrastructure, worsening comparative living standards and the ever growing awareness of that fact, I don't think I can agree that the Soviet Union could have survived in a Belarus-like state given the events taking place at that moment in history even if rebellions and demonstrations were crushed. I don't think he could have "played his cards right" and ended up like Belarus. Of course, when indulging in counter-factual history, practically anything is possible. The hard part is assigning probabilities to each outcome.

Gorbachev's reforms were sheer Soviet-style comedy. "Social markets" and capitalism without private property, imposed on a population brainwashed from birth against capitalism and a deep fear and mistrust of government. I don't know how his plan could have worked.

If you are who I think you are, then you're not married to some mail-order bride looking to escape Russia but a Russian economist whom you went through the ringer to marry. So, you more than merely have relatives in Moscow and know a few arrogant Sovietologists.

Barkley Rosser writes:


I am who you think I am, and, yes, I know more than most people would like to about certain matters that I am not going to discuss here.

And, yes, there are (were, increasingly they are dead) some very arrogant and annoying Sovietologists, along with some extremely interesting and well-informed ones as well, a more diverse crowd than some others I know.

And regarding the Soviet-Belarus comparison, I guess the question can be posed more directly: how has Belarus pulled it off?

Methinks writes:


Unfortunately, this is not the forum but your stories would be interesting. What you say about Sovietologists is true, but the general state of American Sovietology was pretty sad.

Belarus is a small country with a relatively homogeneous population only 20% larger than the population of New York City. Unlike the Soviet Union, Belarus never had to spend as much as 25% of GDP on a military-industrial complex to maintain the illusion of superpower, fight a cold war in practically every corner of the globe while cowing its own population and squashing dissent and defections. Unlike the Soviets, Belarus never had to oppress an ethnically diverse population 15x the size of the population of Belarus which was experiencing increasing ethnic and other tensions resulting from the deficits of Soviet life across the largest land mass on earth.

After it broke away in 1991 the tiny country maintained the coziest relations of all the breakaway republics with Russia, its largest trading partner. Russia essentially subsidizes Belarus in key ways, including selling it discounted oil which it resells at a markup - although, Russia has reduced that subsidy dramatically recently. Once the borders are relatively open, the path of least resistance for the discontented is to simply leave rather than revolt. Predictably, Belarus has experienced a large brain drain. I should think that you of all people understand the difficulties of leaving Soviet Russia by contrast. Thus, I think that there was more pressure to bring down the Soviet Union and it was becoming increasingly unsustainable and unstable. Belarus, on the other hand, can limp along like this forever. In short, Belarus has less to pull off.

Why do you think the Soviet Union could have survived in a state similar to Belarus given the large cost of maintaining the superpower mirage, the cumulative effects of 70 years of idiocy and such heavy reliance on a volatile commodity the extraction of which the state was badly mismanaging? Given the collapse of oil prices in the mid-80's and the disastrous effect of the collapse on the Soviet economy resulting in the desperate need for loans from the West, did Gorbachev really have the option to stomp out rebellions? How could the Soviets pull off a Belarus intact?

Kurbla writes:

Idea that communists couldn't survive 1990's cannot be right, because 1990s' were much better than 1920's. What rebellions, what loans? They survived counterrevolution and foreign intervention and isolation and anarchist revolution in Ukraine and famine all in the same time. In fact, maybe even had less popular support in 1920's than in 1980's. Sure, 1980s' were not that good as 1950's, but much better than 1920's.

Their only problem was - lack of motives. Party changed, idealists were out, killed or disappointed, opportunists were in. Partly because illegal revolutionary party attract different kind of persons than party on power, and partly because that better world they expected didn't shown up.

Opportunists didn't cared for communism vs capitalism, as long as they are doing well. They were not willing to give up from power, so they supported communism, but only as a status quo. Then, at one moment, they discover that "transition" allows them something much better than communism: money. I mean, for opportunists. It is much better to be 50th richest man in Russia than to be 50th ranked Party officer, right? OK, it is maybe better to be Stalin or Tito or Ceausescu than Bill Gates, but on the level of 50th, it is quite different. I mean, for opportunists. And they had opportunity to "privatize." Remember that, it is not trivial reason, it is THE reason.

At that point, game was over. Only low ranked Party members were true believers, and they had no much power. And some of them certainly gave up when they heard that Lenin was not really better than Stalin, the most important difference was that Lenin was not liar. Remember "Red terror", while Stalin would call that thing "Red defense" or "Red pacification."

True, it was not communism, but not that much because of the state - more because communism is - by definition - collective rule. And Stalin is hardly collective. Neither Politburo is that collective. One of the most interesting question is - why people actually believe that Stalin was communist? Is it only because he said so?

How strange, isn't it?

Barkley Rosser writes:


Regarding the old Sovietology, much of it was indeed pathetic, but it is far from clear to me that things would have been worse if those folks had been the ones advising the various transition governments than some of the crooks who got sent over who had not been comparativists or Sovietologists before, but jumped in from their perches at Harvard to... well, I am not going to name names...

Your points about Belarus are certainly valid, and I could add more, such as a greater tendency to agree with the old ideology due to Belarus having been the part of the old Soviet Union that suffered the most from the German invasion in WW II, making it a stronghold of traditional Stalinist orthodoxy.

Certainly, assuming the satellites were let go as they were in 1989, the old USSR would have had to contend with (and crack down hard militarily, as I said) on uprisings in various republics to keep the show going. But then, that is what China did to dissidents in 1989 and has since in Tibet and Xinjiang, and so on.

An important fact to keep in mind is that the really serious economic collapse came after the breakup of the USSR, although the loss of the satellites and breakup of the CMEA was hurting, thus keeping the satellites would have made it easier to keep things going. Certainly the ups and downs of oil prices had lots to do with things, and Gaidar has recently emphasized that in the book somebody recommended above.

But something they did not really need, or could have dispensed with gradually, was this business of "maintaining the illusion of being a superpower." Why? Britain has survived the giving up of its empire. Would the USSR face invasion if it gave up this "illusion"? I doubt it. It could have continued to go into a long and gradual decline and dismantling of that illusion, including doing some of the things that happened anyway, such as pulling back from expensively supporting former foreign satrapies like Cuba and North Korea.

Which gets to an important bottom line: what makes a "superpower"? I would say that the crucial element of it is having nukes, lots of nukes, and Russia still has them, although it does not have the ability to manipulate parties and governments around the world that the old USSR once had. Even with a gradual decline and decay of its military, a hanging-on USSR would probably still have been able to hang onto its nukes, just as Russia has, and probably maintained enough of a military to put down internal rebellions, if not enough to threaten any outside neighbors in any serious way.

BTW, I think that Russia has fairly recently cut their oil subsidy to Belarus, increasingly finding Lukashenka to be rather annoying, although I could be wrong about that.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

"Influential" is almost always bad.

Very good people tend to have influence bubbles that do not reach very far - like managing a happy orphanage.

But my vote for "Most Influential" goes to Rachel Carson, responsible for the death of tens of millions of children and the utter impoverishment and ill-health of perhaps a hundred million.

But her intentions were good. Al Gore is on course for being even more "influential".

Methinks writes:


Thank you for your response. Very interesting.

Certainly having nukes makes one powerful, so long as not too many others also have similar nukes. I favour a slightly different definition of superpower. Nobody except a few Russians regard Russia as a superpower today even though it has retained its nukes.

I think a key difference between Britain and the USSR is that Britain's empire didn't result from an organized ideology of world domination and didn't depend on brutal oppression of its own indigenous population - although it obviously depended on brutal force to bring its conquered nations to heel, it wasn't nearly the oppressive force of the Soviets. Britain could recede without losing its religion. Russia lost its religion.

You discussed what could have happened. Do you think that was the more likely outcome so that what did happen was a shock to you?

Thank you for the discussion.

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