Could the Soviet Union have Survived?
Betteridge’s Law applies.
1.Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists
Stalin is a bloodthirsty manic, but he realizes that the only way for him to hold on to power is to kill everyone who opposes him. The system Lenin creates was inherently cutthroat and Stalin mastered it. You don’t stay dictator in a cutthroat system by letting smart, highly motivated, ambitious people live.
The way the Leninist system works is that only a small percent of the population can belong to the Party. To get in, you must prove your loyalty, and anyone can be kicked out at any time for disloyalty, which can be even the subtlest hint of independent thinking. In return, they get decent houses, decent food, and maybe even some entertainment and a car. Being kicked out of the Party is horrible because the living conditions for non-Party members are atrocious and there is no possibility for advance.
A tiny percentage of the party rise to the Politburo, who form a committee that controls every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. What people eat, where they work, who they talk to, which books they read, everything. They are the royalty of Communism. The head of the Politburo is whoever can cow the rest into submission, but he effectively becomes Tsar.
The key difference between monarchy and Communism is the reason why Communism is so much more brutal and oppressive than monarchy – everyone is replaceable. In a monarchy, everyone is born into their station and cannot change. Thus, they have no reason to act a certain way to advance because there is no advance. Stability is the rule of the day, but that stability also provides a sort of freedom among its members. If several Barons don’t like the King, the King must compromise. The King can’t just remove swaths of the nobility haphazardly.
However, in Communism, if a Party member shows even the slightest hint of disloyalty, they can immediately be kicked out and replaced by a horde of willing applicants. If someone in the Politburo is getting uppity, they can be exiled to Siberia, killed, or simply shipped off to a obscure corner of the country and there are thousands of Party members completely willing to take their place. Loyalty and brutality become the ways people compete for ever greater power. Of course the winner of that contest is a paranoid psychopath like Stalin. Maybe it would have been some other paranoid psychopath, Lavrentiy Beria perhaps, but to say it would have been a nice guy or even a well minded technocrat like Bukharin is naiive to the point of absurdity.
2. 1947: Truman loses his nerve
Ok, even worst case scenario, the Red Army keeps on rolling after Germany and conquerors all of Continental Europe. That just means they have even more countries they have to keep under control. The larger the Soviet Union is, the more Russia has to spend keeping everyone else in line, and the further they have to stretch their army. Furthermore, unlike Belarus or Romania, western Europeans actually know what it’s like to have a functioning economy. If anything, the U.S. leaving Europe to the Soviets would have made the Cold War more intense, but shorter. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, Russia was actually losing money on their satellites, as happens in most colonial empires. Does anyone think the British Empire would still be around if they had just conquered a bit more of Africa? No? Then why would that apply to Russia?
3. 1976: Operation RED DAWN
It’s a good thing Communists are immune to radiation. Oh, what’s that? They aren’t?
Even best case scenario, you’re back to reason #2. The Soviet’s mighty military did not have the capacity for large offensive conventional operations in 1975. Western MBTs, aircraft, and other military hardware were far in advance of them. Russia’s population is smaller than Germany and France’s combined, let alone all of NATO. In the late Cold War, the Soviet Union was feared only because of their nuclear might.
4. 1979: Lenin stays out of the jungles
This one I agree with, but it stands in stark contrast to the previous possibilities. Empire is not profitable in the long run. Isolationism would have preserved Communism in Russia, maybe even until today. North Korea is a complete basket-case but since they don’t give a fig about anything outside their borders, they survive. This scenario would not threaten the West, nor would it lead to nuclear annihilation. Without a global Communist threat, perhaps the U.S. would have been less interventionist and the world would have had more democracy and less terrorism today, but that’s just speculation.
1988: The China Syndrome
The dictator’s dilemma is that if they cling tightly to power, they become unpopular and their economy goes to heck. But if they loosen their grip, they get deposed, and in Russia’s case, collapse of the government did not turn out well at all. China managed to do capitalist reforms while maintaining a totalitarian government, but it’s not easy at all. I don’t think Russia would have been able to pull it off. The Chinese are both more pragmatic and more entrepreneurial than Russians, and their economy is much less dependent on natural resources. Russia was industrialized under Communism, whereas China was not, and it seems to me that its easier to start an industrial revolution from scratch using capitalist principles than it is to reform an already Communist heavy industrial base. Either way, there are too few historical examples of a totalitarian regime reforming into a market economy to draw any sweeping conclusions.