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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Gorbachev put Russia -- and world -- on this path

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (R) meets with US

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (R) meets with US Vice-President George Bush at the Soviet embassy, 10 December 1987, on the final day of Gorbachev's summit visit in USA. Credit: EROME DELAY/AFP/Getty Images

A little-noticed anniversary went by last week: 30 years ago, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed his post as the head of the Communist Party.

No one, of course, could have known that his ascension would start the final chapter of Soviet communism and change the world forever. This date comes at a dark time for Russia and a turbulent time in many countries; too often, the promise of freedom and peace has been eclipsed by tyranny and terror.

Nonetheless, in crucial ways, the changes that began in 1985 have made the world a better place in 2015 -- and given us hope for the future.

In 1984, the world seemed unchangeable to a degree that's difficult to imagine today. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in what looked like an eternal standoff between two nuclear superpowers. The Soviet Union lay mired in stagnation, most of its people eking out a drab existence under a repressive regime with a moribund ideology; the suppression of dissent might slacken or intensify, but the regime would stay the same.

The two sides in the Cold War made tactical moves in their global chess game, but few foresaw a fundamental shift in the balance of power.

Gorbachev, the dynamic leader from a new generation, wanted to inject energy and openness into the Soviet system; it turned out to be too weak to survive the experiment. Eastern bloc countries, which had long chafed at Soviet domination, fell away; the Berlin Wall, that grim looming symbol of communist oppression, came down. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself broke apart into its 15 constituent republics, declaring communism dead.

It was an optimistic time. The collapse of communism also spelled the end of many right-wing authoritarian regimes (such as the military dictatorship in Chile) that had used the red menace to justify their existence. In a famous essay, American historian Francis Fukuyama argued we had reached "the end of history": the liberal capitalist order had won.

The reality of 2015 is not what freedom's cheerleaders had hoped for. After communism's demise, militant Islamism has improbably emerged as a global totalitarian ideology that advances both through violence and through false promise of empowerment for the oppressed. In Russia, a neo-authoritarian regime is seeking to restore the dubious glories of the Soviet empire and challenge the West in a rivalry that some regard as Cold War II. In many ways, the post-Soviet world is arguably more dangerous and less stable than the world before the Soviet collapse.

Should we, then, look back with ambivalence at the path taken in Moscow 30 years ago? No. For one, the crisis of communism was almost certainly inevitable, and that crisis could have been far more devastating. Today's world is not the best of all possible worlds, but also not the worst. Many formerly captive nations from Eastern Europe to Latin America are now democracies -- even if some of them are beset by social conflicts and economic problems. The appeal of radical Islamism is limited by its religious exclusivity and openly reactionary nature. The new Russia is far less powerful than the Soviet leviathan was, and even under its current repressive regime its people are far freer and less isolated than they were in the Soviet era.

Finally, while stagnation may be safer than turmoil, instability has potential for positive change. At the start of 1985, the end of the Soviet empire would have been a fantasy. Its collapse is a reminder that seemingly impregnable tyrannies fall.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics



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