Can individuals have an impact?

Just got back from a conference in Moscow devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. It was hosted by the Gorbachev foundation. Unfortunately the great man canceled at the last minute — he was recovering from eye surgery — but we had a good discussion about the role of the ...

ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Just got back from a conference in Moscow devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. It was hosted by the Gorbachev foundation. Unfortunately the great man canceled at the last minute -- he was recovering from eye surgery -- but we had a good discussion about the role of the leader in history. Can individuals make a decisive difference -- or are they merely the plaything of larger historical forces, such as the clash of ideologies, the rise and fall of empires, the constraints of geography, and the shifting fortunes of the economy?

I argued that communism was doomed for the reasons identified by the American diplomat George Kennan more than four decades previously. In his celebrated Long Telegram, and Mr. X article, Kennan insisted that the monolithic Soviet system contained within it the seeds of its own demise. He predicted that the state-run economy would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that Poles, Balts, and other repressed nationalities would never reconcile themselves to centralized rule from Moscow. Kennan's views were very much in line with those of an aristocratic French traveler, the Marquis de Custine, a century earlier:

In a nation governed like this one, passions boil a long time before breaking out; while the danger approaches from hour to hour, the evil is prolonged, and the crisis delayed. Even our grandchildren may not see the explosion; but we can say today that explosion is inevitable, while we cannot predict the time.

Just got back from a conference in Moscow devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. It was hosted by the Gorbachev foundation. Unfortunately the great man canceled at the last minute — he was recovering from eye surgery — but we had a good discussion about the role of the leader in history. Can individuals make a decisive difference — or are they merely the plaything of larger historical forces, such as the clash of ideologies, the rise and fall of empires, the constraints of geography, and the shifting fortunes of the economy?

I argued that communism was doomed for the reasons identified by the American diplomat George Kennan more than four decades previously. In his celebrated Long Telegram, and Mr. X article, Kennan insisted that the monolithic Soviet system contained within it the seeds of its own demise. He predicted that the state-run economy would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that Poles, Balts, and other repressed nationalities would never reconcile themselves to centralized rule from Moscow. Kennan’s views were very much in line with those of an aristocratic French traveler, the Marquis de Custine, a century earlier:

In a nation governed like this one, passions boil a long time before breaking out; while the danger approaches from hour to hour, the evil is prolonged, and the crisis delayed. Even our grandchildren may not see the explosion; but we can say today that explosion is inevitable, while we cannot predict the time.

The fall of communism may have been inevitable, but the timing of the collapse and the manner in which it happened were shaped by the actions and decisions of mortal men. The former Yugoslavia offers a horrifying reminder of how things might have turned out in the Soviet Union had Gorbachev adopted the political survival strategy of Slobodan Milosevic and played the nationalist card, stirring up the grievances of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Central Asia. The Communist superpower would have been transformed into a "Yugoslavia with nukes."

In the end, after some hesitation, Gorbachev remained true to his democratic principles. He refused to unleash violence against his own citizens in order to remain in power. His attempts to breathe a new lease of life into the moribund one-party state ended in utter failure, but he achieved something that he never set out to achieve. He succeeded in dismantling the most enduring totalitarian dictatorship of the 20th century with a minimum of bloodshed and violence. It cost him his job — but at least he did not end up before an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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