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Soviet reform and the end of the Cold War: explaining large-scale historical change*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2009



After years of retirement in the academy, macro’historical commentary on contemporary events has returned to fashion. Radical domestic changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and new patterns ofEast’West relations-in short, the collapse of communism and the end othe Cold War’mark the end of an era and present an invitation to international theorizing.1 Few would deny that these changes are momentous, but there is little consensus concerning their origins, trajectory, and implications. Explaining these events will necessitate a reweighing of fundamental theoretical issues. Thesize and speed of these changes were largely unexpected,reminding us how primitive our theories really are and encouraging us to broaden our theoretical perspective. To capture these events, theorists must reach across the disciplinary divides of Sovietology, international relations theory political economy, and political sociology.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 1991

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The authors would like to acknowledge helpful comments and suggestions by Michael Doyle, Randell Forsberg, Joseph Grieco, John A. Hall, Atul Kohli, Richard Matthew, Andrew Moravcsik, James Rosenau, Jack Snyder, Richard Ullman, and seminar participants at Columbia University and Princeton University. Research for this paper was supported by the Center of International Studies, the Peter B. Lewis Fund, an d the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Princeton University.


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72 Brzezinski and Huntington describe convergence expectations thus: ‘The Communists believe that the world will converge, but into an essentially communist form of government. In the West, on the other hand, the widespread theory of convergence assumes that the fundamentally important aspects of the democratic system will be retained after America and Russia “converge” at some future, indeterminate historical juncture. Although probably there will be more economic planning and social ownership in the West, the theory sees the Communist Party and its monopoly of power as the real victims of the historical process: both will fade away. Thus on closer examination it is striking to discover that most theories of the so-called convergence in reality posit not convergence but submergence of the opposite system. Hence the Western and the communist theories of convergence are basically revolutionary: both predict a revolutionary change in the character of the one of the present systems. The Communists openly state it. In the West, it is implicit in the prevalent convergence argument.’ Political Power: USA/USSR (New York, 1964), p. 419 Google Scholar. For a critique of convergence theory as it relates to the Soviet Union, see Wolfe, Bertram D., Revolution and Reality: Essays on the Origin and Fate of the Soviet System (Chapel Hill, 1981).Google Scholar

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74 This argument has been made recently by several Soviet academics: [A]s the completion of the stage of industrialization in economic development approached and the transition to the next scientific-industrial, technical-technological stage of production began, the administrative economy, devoid of any market elements, became an obstacle to the development of those very economic spheres whose accelerated development had once constituted justification of the system. At the scientific-industrial stage of technological development, the deformed socialist relations of production, of the state monopoly type, clashed with the forces of production engendered by scientific-technological progress’. Gordon, L. and Nazimova, A., ‘Perestroika in Historical Perspective’, Government and Opposition, 25 (Winter 1990), p. 18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

75 Coser, Lewis A., ‘The Intellectuals in Soviet Reform’, Dissent (Spring 1990), p. 183.Google Scholar

76 Soviet scientists were indispensable to the regime and, as a result, had more independence than any other group in Soviet society. The atomic designer, Pytor Kapitsa, was one of the few men to defy Stalin and live to tell about it. And, of course, Andrei Sakharov had similar independence and was therefore able to play a catalytic role in Soviet reform.

77 As Brzezinski and Huntington argued in 1964, the theory of industrial modernism is, ‘in effect, anti-soviet Marxism: the forces of production will shape the social context of production, which in turn will determine the political superstructure’. Brzezinski, Zbigniew and Huntington, Samuel P., Political Power: USA/USSR (New York, 1964), p. 10.Google Scholar

78 Comparing and testing these theories is not a straightforward proposition because these theories differ greatly in scope and are attempting to explain different aspects of these contemporary events. Often proponents of different theories dispute factual claim. For example, the hard realists and the nuclear one worlders do not agree upon what Soviet nuclear policy is. Perhaps more importantly, these theories are not just competing explanations of agreed-upon facts, but differ about what facts are important to explain.

79 Noting the difficulties of a return to repression, Lewis Coser argues that ‘[t]he fact that the intelligentsia is no longer dispensable in the Soviet sphere is among the prime reasons why a return to a totalitarian regime or to military solutions is unlikely’, ‘The Intellectuals in Soviet Reform’, Dissent (Spring 1990), p. 183.

80 Bialer, Seweryn, ‘The Passing of the Soviet Order?Survival, 32 (March/April 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Desai, Padma, Perestroika in Perspective: The Design and Dilemmas of Soviet Reform (Princeton, 1989), p. 138.Google Scholar

81 For a discussion of the range and logic of state adjustment choices, see Ikenberry, G. John, ‘The State and International Strategies of Adjustment’, World Politics, 39 (October 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Mastanduno, Michael, Lake, David A., and Ikenberry, G. John, ‘Toward a Realist Theory of State Action’, International Studies Quarterly, 33 (Winter 1989), pp. 457–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

82 Woodly, Sylvia, Gorbachev and the Decline of Ideology in Soviet Foreign Policy (Boulder, 1989)Google Scholar. For an analysis of the evolution of Soviet theories underpinning ‘new thinking’ see Light, Margot, The Soviet Theory of International Relations (Brighton, 1988).Google Scholar

83 This situation is noted by Seweryn Bialer: ‘Never in their history have the Russians been as secure from external danger as they are now and will remain in the foreseeable future … A Soviet Union that understands that it is extremely secure may be less hostile to the West’. Bialer, , ‘Gorbachev's Program of Change: Sources, Significance, Prospects’, Political Science Quarterly, 103 (Autumn 1988), p. 459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

84 Of course, security demands may decline but they will not disappear. And the security organs, forged n i an earlier environment, may persist in making disproportionate claims, despitechanges in the environment.

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