Friday, October 30, 2009

What were the Soviets thinking?

Cross-posted to FreedomDemocrats

The issue of trust is one that is central to politics, but often seems to get left out political philosophy. Our decisions of who to trust and how we can trust them depend on what we expect to occur if others get a power advantage over us. Conversely, this influences how we use our power when we gain advantages over others. All of this is of course based on our experiences*, and cannot be fully encapsulated in an ahistorical philosophy.

During the much of the Cold War, the balance of power was actually a balance of terror--the strategy of nuclear deterrence known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). My childhood was in the 1980's, in America. Even in my community of middle-class liberals, the Soviet threat was ever present. I'm not surprized to see that the Bulliten of the Atomic Scientists marks the early 80's as a period of increased risk of global nuclear war.

All of that fear is put into a broader perspective by Nicholas Thompson's article at Wired describing the Soviet doomsday machine. I'm not sure if I believe the facts presented (it seems to be based on rumors and an interview with a single Russian expat), but it is interesting to think about how the MAD stalemate would be influenced by a system that could launch a nuclear strike even if the entire civilian and military command structure was destroyed. At the least, the story got me in the mood for Halloween.

Another interesting fact of the Cold War is that the commies saw themselves (and their military interventions) as a progressive force. After all, most of their military actions were primarily targeted at at repressive feudal or colonial regimes--not at liberal democratic counties directly. Glenn Greenwald discussed the universality of war propaganda, in which he notes how the justifications of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan were eerily similar to the justifications of our own soldiers. So from the Soviet perspective, if they got power in Afghanistan, the country would be egalitarian, peaceful, and prosperous, but if their enemies gained power, it would remain repressive, warring, and impoverished.

Finally, here is probably the biggest issue underlying the entire Cold War, and I have no direct information about what the Soviets thought: What did they think would happen if they lost?

I know the American/Western side of this equation: their totalitarian system would be imposed on us, just as it had been imposed on East Germany. We had popular visions of such a system, ranging from Orwell's classic novel 1984 (also a pretty good movie) to the Swayze movie Red Dawn (one of my favorites for awhile, incidentally made in 1984, and being remade next year).

But what did the Soviet Union's public think would happen to them if their military were weak? Was it the classic "rape and pillage" of invading hordes? Or were their fears founded in Marxist theory? Did they expect trans-national corporations to establish polluting, dangerous factories while paying starvation wages and dismantling all social services, including the education system? Or perhaps even worse, their countries would become decapitalized colonies, producing commodities for export. Perhaps they would even become the battlefield for colonial wars among Western powers, who would inevitably start fighting among themselves once The Revolution was crushed.

I know that the Soviet state produced extensive propaganda, and that much of the public saw through it. But for those who feared losing the Cold War, does anyone know what they thought the consequences would be?

*For Drama and SciFi fans, the recent SyFy TV series, Battlestar Galactica, does an excellent job examining the issue of trust between warring groups.