Causes of the Collapse of the USSR

Here and here I argued that there has been an overglorification of the Pope’s role in the demise and collapse of the Soviet Union. While I think that the burden of proof lies with those who claim that the election of Pope John Paul II was “a decisive turning point in the Cold War,†or that “fifty percent of the fall of communism is his doing,†I’ve been challenged to prove my position and below is my attempt.

As I see it, here are the factors (weighted) that contributed to the fall of the USSR:
1. Internal contradictions of the system (40 percent);
2. The US-led arms race (20 percent) — exacerbated #1
3. The Reagan doctrine (20 percent) — spread Soviet resources thin;
4. Loss of faith among the intelligentsia (10 percent) — artists, intellectuals, academics could no longer defend a lie;
5. Loss of faith among the masses (10 percent) — the worker’s paradise proved to be anything but.

The influence of the Pope (which I never said was nonexistent) was a factor in #5, in a single country. I can accept to an extent that Poland was a key country in a “domino effect,†but there were mass movements in every other Warsaw Pact country as well. While we may want it to be true that a spiritual leader could shake the foundations of an entire system, I simply don’t think the facts bear this out. I went back through my library of books on the subject (both academic and not) and found that half of them do not mention the role of the Pope at all, while the other half mention him once or twice and in passing.

So if you want to cling to the idea that the Pope was instrumental in the fall of communism, that̢۪s fine with me. I don̢۪t think the facts are on your side. But perhaps I need to answer the question as to why I care. One, I think it̢۪s dangerous to create false myths; do we want future leaders, confronted with authoritarianism, to believe that victory over communism came as the result of prayer and hope, or because of sound policy? Second, as a cradle Catholic I was dismayed at John Paul II̢۪s constantly calling for non-violence on the part of the West, but I don̢۪t recall him ever confronting the dictators of the Third World. If you believe that poverty in the Third World is the result of tyranny, and you believe that the Pope is empowered to counsel the West, then it was his duty to admonish those responsible for the poverty and enslavement of billions of people. This he never did to my satisfaction.

I should stop here, lest I become OTB̢۪s Paul and get fired.

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Leopold Stotch
About Leopold Stotch
“Dr. Leopold Stotch” was the pseudonym of political science professor then at a major research university inside the beltway. He has a PhD in International Relations. He contributed 165 pieces to OTB between November 2004 and February 2006.


  1. bryan says:

    From an earlier comment: My argument may be bolstered by this: if the Pope’s influence on Soviet politics was so profound, why was it 11 years after his election that the wall came down?

    I’m not so sure that the amount of time between the Pope’s election and the fall of the Berlin wall is even a relevant matter.

    The Pope’s election was not the sole impactful event. But his three visits to his home country were certainly influential in emboldening the Polish solidarity movement.

    In Poland, at least, JP2 is seen as a key figure in their struggle against communism [ ]:

    Even Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the hardline communist leader who declared martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, gave credit to the pope for the pro-democracy revolution.

    “Of course, the social and economic conditions in Poland were ripe for protest,” he said in a TV interview. “But the pope was a detonator who liberated the spirit of the society.”

    A native of Poland, John Paul II made his first trip there as pope in June 1979, the year after his election to the papacy. He stayed eight days, delivered 46 homilies, and was seen live by an estimated 10 million people.

    Some 2 million Poles gathered in a Krakow meadow called Blonia to hear him speak. Official Soviet news reports said turnouts on his trip amounted to “a few small groups of religious fanatics.”

    So let’s see, that’s Jaruzelski, Walesa and Gorbachev all acknowledging the influence of the pope on the democracy movement in Poland. Two of those spoke well before JP2’s death. Hmmm. Dangerous mythmaking?

    And the influence on the whole soviet system was certainly overshadowed by later events like perestroika and the failing economic system, and Reagan’s arms build up. Those catalysts certainly made the ball roll downhill faster. But the pope was involved to a large extend in one of the first mass movements contra communism in a Russian client state.

    I think you miss something of Walesa’s nuance on this matter. He said that communism would have fallen eventually, but the presence of the pope helped hasten its downfall, at least in Poland.

    To call that merely “coincidental” is, again, to ignore the reflections of those who were actually involved in the matter.

    And I should hasten to add that I’m no pope defender. He screwed up in a lot of areas. But in this one instance, I think there’s a middle ground between Walesa’s view and yours that probably should be taken.

  2. reliapundit says:

    The legacy of a pope who changed history
    The Economist
    John Paul II, spiritual leader to the world’s one billion or so Catholics, has died. He will be remembered as a pope who resisted pressures to “modernise” the church’s values—and a man who changed history by precipitating the fall of Soviet communism

    WHATEVER future generations may say about Pope John Paul II, who died on Saturday April 2nd, aged 84, they will look back with amazement on the moment when, for the first time in 500 years, a Christian bishop was in the vanguard of world history. That was in June 1979, barely nine months after the Polish prelate’s surprise call to the Vatican, following the untimely death of Pope John Paul I. On a return visit to his homeland, the new pope was bathed in an outpouring of popular devotion that amazed almost everybody, from Warsaw’s dissidents to an appalled Soviet Politburo. Millions of Poles turned out to sing, weep and pray with the man they knew as Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of the university town of Krakow. From then on, the Soviet communists began losing their grip on their East European vassals, and the end of the Iron Curtain was in sight. Stalin’s mocking question—“How many [military] divisions has the pope?”—had received its answer.

    What John Paul managed then was to neutralise, at a stroke, the tyrant’s most important weapon, fear. For the remaining quarter-century of his papacy, he reaffirmed his message: “Be not afraid”. But by the end of his reign, the world had in many ways become an even more terrifying place, and fewer people thought the Catholic church had all the answers. Frightening as the cold war was, the next pope may be required to wrestle with an even larger and more intractable army of demons: mass terrorism, the risk of a “civilisational” conflict between Islam and the West, and the wars and disease that have already ravaged Africa.

    John Paul’s successor should, in theory, have the advantage of taking over a relatively coherent and unitary organisation, after a quarter-century in which Vatican authority over the world’s 400,000 or so Catholic priests, and their combined flock of about one billion people, has steadily been reasserted. The senior ranks of the Vatican bureaucracy include a broader range of nationalities than ever but on John Paul II’s watch there was little tolerance of dissent from his conservative views.

    This reaffirmation of Roman power has come at a cost. It has not solved, and may well have exacerbated, the problem posed by the utter diversity of church life at the grass-roots, from wealthy Boston suburbs to African war zones. A papacy which began by invoking “people power” against tyranny often seemed to be imposing, from a great height, a rigid set of principles on believers whose everyday experience it barely understood. Partly for that reason, the moral influence of the Catholic church slumped in some of its old strongholds, from Malta to Poland.

    In the slums of the developing world, from Mexico City to Lagos, the number of Catholics continues, at least on paper, to grow. But in Latin America, especially, the Roman church has been losing out to Protestant evangelicals in recruiting the truly faithful—those who worship regularly and contribute to the church coffers. Though the Brazilian Catholic church still asserts its mission to tend to the poor, it is fast-growing evangelical groups like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God that have been the bravest in dodging the drug gangs’ bullets and spreading the Word to the wretched inhabitants of the lawless favelas.

    A black or Latino pope? Or another Italian?

    One obvious way to seek to reverse the Catholic church’s decline in the developing world would be for the conclave of cardinals which appoints a successor to choose one of their Latino or African brethren as the next pope. If so, the leading contenders might include Cardinals Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras or Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Cardinals seeking to safeguard John Paul’s conservative legacy—eg, the refusal to accept married, female or openly gay priests and continued opposition to contraception—might support Joseph Ratzinger, the stern Austrian cardinal who heads the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.

    However, John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and there is at least an even chance that the church will revert to tradition and select one of Italy’s cardinals to succeed the Polish pontiff. Front-runners include Angelo Sodano, who is already the “deputy pope”, or Vatican secretary of state; and Dionigi Tettamanzi, currently the Archbishop of Milan. Campaigning for the papacy is strictly forbidden, though there is bound to be much whispering in the cloisters about the strengths, weaknesses and policies of the various candidates. Two things seem certain: that this time, unlike on some past occasions, there is no clear front-runner; and that the new pope would have to be an exceptionally strong personality if he wanted to take the church in a new direction, given the elderly and conservative cardinals that John Paul has bequeathed him.

    For the next pope, relations with Islam, both in the developing world and the European heartland of the Christian faith, will be high on the list of concerns. Senior church figures are deeply worried about the welfare of Christians in parts of the world where they coexist uneasily, and at times violently, with Muslims: Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia, even Iraq. The church as a whole is desperate to avoid a generalised confrontation between Islam and the Christian West. That has prompted the Vatican to distance itself sharply from American policy in the Middle East, while reaching out where possible to moderate Muslims. These delicate calculations are a long way from the early days of John Paul’s papacy, when the Vatican and America were aligned in defence of Polish freedom.

    Whatever its diplomatic difficulties, the Catholic church remains a unique global community. It is both a small sovereign state with an impressive diplomatic service, and a transnational non-government organisation that makes every other NGO seem puny. Yet ever since the triumph of democracy in eastern Europe, the church has often appeared to the secular world to be slipping behind the train of history. In a world where freedom of choice, and therefore moral relativism, are very much in fashion, the Vatican’s efforts to impose unity in its own ranks have seemed heavy-handed.

    There may, perhaps, have been good doctrinal reasons why the church felt it must bar controversial leftist theologians like Leonardo Boff of Brazil and Sri Lanka’s Tissa Balasuriya from speaking in its name. But in a world which expects to discover truth through open-ended discussion, the treatment of these turbulent priests made them into popular heroes. And in an era where sexual freedom and “reproductive rights” are widely acknowledged, the Vatican’s adherence to a rigid line over contraception, homosexuality and the new challenges of bio-ethics has appeared unimaginative and uncharitable.

    Nowhere is this more shocking than in the church’s attitude towards the use of condoms in the developing world. For years, its opposition to condoms has pitched it against the sensible family-planning campaigns of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. More recently, its attempts to deny that condoms help prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS have jeopardised the lives of some of its most devoted members, the congregations of sub-Saharan Africa. Only very recently have a few senior figures in the church conceded that condoms may have a role in fighting disease.

    As if this instance of moral blindness were not enough, the English-speaking Catholic countries, in particular, have been shaken to the core by allegations of child abuse by clergymen and cover-ups by their bishops. The proportion of erring priests is far lower than the eager press would have it. But both to victims of abuse and to people who observe church affairs from outside, the spate of disclosures has mocked the Vatican’s claim to be a fount of moral authority and have made it harder to see why the church insists on restricting the priesthood to celibate males.

    Faith as choice

    These scandals probably accelerated one of the most important social changes that occurred, paradoxically enough, during John Paul’s high-profile papacy. There is no longer any industrial society—not even Ireland, not even Poland—where attendance at a Catholic church is a socially-imposed norm. These days, people who go to mass do so as a conscious choice in a world that offers a bewildering variety of religious and philosophical options.

    Defenders of John Paul’s papacy would argue that he responded in the right way to this inexorable trend: instead of watering down the faith, he upheld the fundamentals of Christian teaching, in the belief that a significant minority, at least, would be drawn to the light if it burned brightly. That does appear to be true. There is no other frail octogenarian figure in the world who could gather an enthusiastic crowd of more than 2m youngsters from the world over, as John Paul did in 2000.

    The fall and rise of the Roman faith’s appeal is well exemplified by the Catholic community in England, a vigorous minority in one of Europe’s most secular societies. Religious practice has fallen in traditionally Catholic places, but there are countervailing trends. London’s churches are no longer peopled by Irish immigrants, but they seem tolerably full of pious merchant bankers, hotel workers from Croatia, and Filipina nurses.

    In such a cosmopolitan world, those who still adhere to the Roman Catholic faith have come to it from a bewildering variety of routes. Perhaps for that reason, John Paul never managed—since the triumph of his campaign against communism—to rally such a broad constituency for any of his favoured causes. In part that is because his ideology was, from a secular viewpoint, such an unusual mixture. He counselled western states against the use of military power and denounced unbridled capitalism, but remained profoundly conservative on all questions of morality and the family.

    In America, the political right approved his opposition to abortion and homosexuality, but squirmed or pretended not to notice when he condemned the death penalty or the bombing of Belgrade and Baghdad. Among the America-bashers of western Europe, the pope ought to have won a sympathetic hearing when he called for a tempering of market forces—by stressing the dignity of labour, the legitimacy of trade unions and the idea that property ownership implies duties as well as rights. But few of Europe’s believers in a gentler capitalism had much liking for John Paul’s social conservatism. This may account for one of the Vatican’s more surprising diplomatic setbacks: its failure to influence the social policy of the European Union’s new constitution.

    Seeking truth, or stating it?

    In a shrinking planet, where religious faiths cannot remain hermetically sealed from one another, John Paul certainly took bold steps to heal the historic wounds between the Christian world and Islam and Judaism; but dark skies over the Middle East limited his role as a peacemaker. By establishing diplomatic ties with Israel and apologising for the church’s record of anti-Semitism, he went a significant way—albeit not as far as some critics would have liked—towards mending fences between Christians and Jews.

    But these are not easy times for inter-faith dialogue. Think of the incident which marred the pope’s visit to Syria in 2001, where the pope broke new ground by entering a mosque to pray at the tomb of John the Baptist. President Bashar Assad used the papal visit to make comments that were not merely anti-Israel but anti-Semitic. Jews then demanded to know why the pontiff had listened politely.

    If John Paul had ever hired an American political consultant, he might have been told that the final years of his papacy were a period of lost or fumbled opportunities. But this pope was not, or at least not primarily, a political leader: he saw his mission in the light of eternity. For the pope himself, his big legacies to the church lay in actions beyond the secular media’s ken.

    One was the publication of his encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor”—“The Splendour of the Truth”—which voiced ideas about knowledge and reality that were sharply at odds with modern fashion. As the title suggests, this document is a rejection of the notion that truth is merely in the eye of the (human) beholder: the greatest truths are eternal ones, and they are discovered by a combination of God’s own revelation and the human mind’s honest and free but, above all, prayerful inquiry. Old-fashioned as these ideas might appear to others, they represent, in Catholic terms, a softening of traditional doctrines, like Augustine’s pessimistic view of human potential. Pope John Paul not only saw human nature as redeemable; he also recognised as God-given and noble the thirst for wisdom.

    Intellectuals and peasants

    Apart from reasserting the church’s intellectual tradition, what else would John Paul consider important about his legacy? On the face of things, the other leitmotif of his papacy was quite different—he reaffirmed the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which many people associate with piety of the folksiest kind.

    Biographers with a Freudian bent often attributed the pope’s love of Mary to his own travails, including the early death of his mother. Whatever the psychological background, it is clear that his re-emphasis on Mary was not an intellectual impulse, but a personal one. When he escaped assassination in 1981, he went to offer thanks at Fátima, the place in Portugal where Mary is said to have appeared in 1917 to a group of children and made a series of enigmatic prophecies. John Paul’s reverence for the Virgin of Fátima, and the Marian shrine of Lourdes, which he visited last year, is one example of his attachment to popular piety. Others include a wave of canonisations: 482 people were recognised as saints during his papacy, more than the total for the previous five centuries.

    By reaching out simultaneously to intellectuals and peasants, John Paul seemed to be struggling with the recurring challenge of all universal religions: the need to balance the intellectual and mystical, the rational and the intuitive. Both strands are powerful in his native Poland—and stronger still in Russia, where, in tsarist times, intellectuals would consult simple monastic sages. So, in theory at least, the pope’s penchant for mixing the mystical with the cerebral should have brought him closer to the eastern Orthodox world, which sees that synthesis as one of its greatest gifts. The pope said the Christian world must breathe with two lungs: the logic of the Latin west and the subtlety of the Greek east.

    In practice, this remains difficult. The pope’s outreach to the Orthodox world came at a time when the Christian east had become more defensive. The Moscow Patriarchate reacted furiously to his appointment of Catholic bishops with responsibility for Russian territory. The pope got a chilly reception when he invited himself to Greece, despite enjoying warm personal relations with the Orthodox world’s most senior prelate, Patriarch Bartholomew.

    The bully pulpit

    Oddly enough, Cardinal Wojtyla was not seen as a conservative by the cardinals who elected him. They were expecting him to implement the changes in Catholic thinking and practice decreed by the second Vatican Council, which assembled in 1962. These included a decision to embrace, rather than shy away from, the modern world, including technology. Even more revolutionary was the council’s desire to decentralise authority: instead of stressing the pope’s infallibility, it said the “body of the faithful”, from bishops to believers, were guardians of the faith.

    In these terms, how did John Paul fare? His papacy was, in a narrowly defined sense, thoroughly modern: he exploited air travel and electronics to become a global media star like no other religious leader. But there were few signs of the decentralisation promised in the 1960s—and plenty of moves in the opposite direction. Doctrinal discipline was imposed with great firmness in Latin America. John Paul made clear from the start his opposition to “liberation theology” as proclaimed, for example, by the political left in Nicaragua—a reading of the Christian message that placed more emphasis on social justice and redistribution, and less on spirituality in the traditional sense.

    Could the pope have allowed greater freedom of thought and debate within the church? There was, perhaps, a fundamental contradiction in the mandate which he received in 1978. He could either fulfill the decisions of the second Vatican Council and allow the church to become a looser and more quarrelsome organisation; or he could impose ideological unity, at the risk of seeming like a bully.

    He veered towards the latter course, but in doing so may have undermined the papacy’s authority in the eyes of the world. If, for example, the Catholic church’s teaching on sexual behaviour had plainly been the outcome of a deep reflection from its grass roots (female as well as male, in poor countries as well as rich) it would have carried great moral power, even among those who disagreed. But its views commanded less authority when they seemed to originate from a small number of powerful (and unmarried) men.

    On the other hand, Pope John Paul would not have been true to his own deepest beliefs if he had been concerned, first and foremost, with how things seemed in the eyes of the world. He regarded himself as accountable to God; and how he fared by that measure is not something that any human being, whether believer or atheist, may presume to judge.

    Source: The Economist

  3. bryan says:

    And I’m certainly not interested in seeing you fired for striking a contrary stance.

  4. Wine-a-holic says:

    Just a question — wouldn’t factors 2 and 3 overlap significantly since a fair amount of Reagan doctrine was related to the acceleration of the military issues (whether it be spending, deployment, philosophy) that fueled the arms race? I recognize that the two factors are independent (there was an arms race without Reagan, and Reagan had more tools than the arms race), but still I see a lack of total mutual exclusivity.

  5. And, of course, Paul wasn’t fired – Kevin basically “fired” him for April Fool’s Day. He’s still on hiatus, though.

  6. The Soviet Union never tried to murder Ronald Reagan or Margarate Thatcher. They seemed to think the Pope was influential.

    I will grant that without the underlying forces, he could have done far less. I think of him as the crystal inserted into a supersaturated solution.

  7. Just Me says:

    By himself I don’t know that the soviet system would have crumbled, but I think he injected a certain psychological factor into the minds of the protestors and those who wanted freedom, that is hard to quantify, but was there.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Perhaps it’s included in your #4 but there’s a factor that I think was critical: generational change. Leaders like Gorbachev were no longer the old revolutionaries but were bureaucrats. Had they been the old revolutionaries they would have just hunkered down.

  9. reliapundit says:

    Pope’s gift to native Poland

    By John Simpson
    BBC world affairs editor

    In the latest of his weekly columns for the BBC News website, John Simpson looks at the late John Paul II’s lasting influence on his native Poland.

    “I have the feeling,” said writer Adam Szostkiewcz in his superb English, nursing his empty coffee cup, “that we will never really get over the death of our Polish Pope.”

    He looked round the magnificent main square in the heart of Krakow, the city in Poland where so many things had happened to him.
    It was here that he fell out of love with communism, and became an impassioned spokesman for Solidarity, the free trade union.

    It was here too that he came to know Karol Wojtyla and was arrested and imprisoned during the crackdown on Solidarity in 1981.

    He dragged out the rest of the 1980s here, banned from serious employment, but later greeted the downfall of Poland’s communist rulers.

    It was in Krakow that he once again met the Pope who had helped to change everything in his life.

    It was here also that he greeted Poland’s entry into the European Union.

    I can’t think what life will be for us now he has gone
    Polish woman

    And now Poland is on its own again, without the man who has helped to guide it through these extraordinary, totally unexpected reverses of fortune.

    “I can’t think what life will be for us now he has gone,” said a middle-aged woman outside the shrine of Jasna Gora.

    For a moment, she looked as desolate as a child separated from its parents in the crowd.

    New heart

    It is possible to overstate his influence, of course.

    Listening to some of the eulogies, you might think he had brought down Marxism-Leninism single-handedly.

    The fact is, the Soviet Union was close to breaking point before he was elected Pope, overstretched and deeply inadequate. It was just that no-one realised it.

    Karol Wojtyla’s election as Pope put new heart into the largest and most important country in Russia’s European empire.

    It shook the Poles out of the lassitude into which they had sunk ever after the British and Americans handed them over to Stalin at Yalta, and showed them that they still belonged to the wider Europe which was only just starting to emerge.

    And when Solidarity began to threaten the very basis of Soviet control, it was Pope John Paul II who gave its members the assurance that they would not be ignored by the rest of Europe, or by the world in general.
    “I’ll never forget it,” said one-time Solidarity leader Mieczelaw Gil, as he showed us round the vast, grim steelworks at Nova Huta.

    The air was filled with little glittering metallic flakes which settled on our clothes and got down our throats.

    From somewhere below us came the hot roar of the gigantic smelter.

    “He took me by the hand and said: ‘Do not be afraid.’ He had such an aura about him,” said Mr Gil.

    It was Pope John Paul who put new heart into Solidarity at the very moment in 1981 when it became clear the communist authorities, prodded hard by Moscow, would try to destroy Poland’s demand for greater freedom, rather than accommodate it.

    He reminded the Poles that one of the most successful moments in their history was when they joined a political union with Lithuania in the 15th Century

    But he was also the one who showed Solidarity’s members that this must not be a violent struggle.
    The clampdown of 1981 was not, as many people feared, the start of a revolution or a civil war.

    When the Berlin Wall came down and one country after another got rid of its old Marxist-Leninist masters, the process was essentially peaceful.

    Sadly, this is not a fairy tale: Poland has not been particularly well-governed since the fall of communism.

    But despite its 20% unemployment, it is now on the road to long-term prosperity within the European Union.

    Influencing opinion

    And this was perhaps the last thing Pope John Paul did for his people.

    By the middle of 2003 it looked as though Poland might reject EU membership at the forthcoming referendum.

    Opinion polls were evenly divided. Many Poles were worried that, having just escaped from one big political grouping, they were about to be swallowed up in another.

    At this point, John Paul made perhaps the most carefully considered sermon of his entire pontificate.

    It was short, but to the point – and it dealt with events 600 years before.

    He reminded the Poles that one of the most successful moments in their history was when they joined a political union with Lithuania in the 15th Century.

    There will presumably never be another Polish pope to help when his country needs him

    That was all. But it helped to swing public opinion, and by a small but clear majority Poland agreed to take the decisive step of integrating with Europe once again.
    When you watch the crowds at Jasna Gora or in the superb churches of Krakow, you are always struck by how young many of the worshippers are.

    Young men who in any other European country would be more concerned with football are kneeling in prayer and lighting candles here.

    This too is the result of Pope John Paul’s influence.

    But already, a few days after his death, the process of change is starting.

    Catholicism will never be so desperately needed here again, and there will presumably never be another Polish pope to help when his country needs him.

    Poland, we can surely say with some certainty, will never have to go through such tribulation again.

    It will always need good and sensible government, but it will not need a Pope John Paul II.

    And that, too, is part of his gift to his people.

    Read John Simpson’s previous columns:

  10. JakeV says:

    A link would suffice, reliapundit.

  11. Dave says:


    You’re right.

    The fact that the JPII obliquely criticized communism in Poland was a small factor in its demise. And a timid response to evil.

    That said, I doubt the Catholic church will do as well with JPII’s successors.