Imperial Collapse Markers

Imperial Collapse Markers by Dmitri Orlov – ClubOrlov

In thinking through the (for now) gradually unfolding collapse of the American empire, the collapse of the USSR, which occurred close to three decades ago, continues to perform as a goldmine of useful examples and analogies. Certain events that occurred during the Soviet collapse can serve as useful signposts in the American one, allowing us to formulate better guesses about the timing of events that can suddenly turn a gradual collapse into a precipitous one.

When the Soviet collapse occurred, the universal reaction was “Who could have known?” Well, I knew. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a surgeon in the summer of 1990, right as I was going under the knife to get my appendix excised, waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. He asked me about what was going to happen to the Soviet republics, Armenia in particular. I told him that they would be independent in less than a year. He looked positively shocked. I was off by a couple of months. I hope to be able to call the American collapse with the same degree of precision.

I suppose I was well positioned to know, and I am tempted to venture a guess at how I achieved that. My area of expertise at the time was measurement and data acquisition electronics for high energy physics experiments, not Sovietology. But I had spent the previous summer in Leningrad, where I grew up, and had a fair idea of what was up in the USSR. Meanwhile, the entire gaggle of actual paid, professional Russia experts that was ensconced in various government agencies in Washington or consuming oxygen at various foundations and universities in the US had absolutely no idea what to expect.

I suspect that there is a principle involved: if your career depends on the continued existence of X, and if X is about to cease to exist, then you are not going to be highly motivated to accurately predict that event. Conversely, if you could manage to accurately predict the spontaneous existence failure of X, then you would also be clever enough to switch careers ahead of time, hence would no longer be an expert on X and your opinion on the matter would be disregarded. People would think that you screwed yourself out of a perfectly good job and are now embittered. Right now I am observing the same phenomenon at work among Russian experts on the United States: they can’t imagine that the various things they have spent their lives studying are fast fading into irrelevance. Or perhaps they can, but keep this realization to themselves, for fear of no longer being invited on talk shows.

I suppose that since expertise is a matter of knowing a whole lot about very little, knowing everything about nothing—a thing that doesn’t exist—is its logical endpoint. Be that as it may. But I feel that we non-experts, armed with the 20/20 hindsight afforded to us by the example of the Soviet collapse, can avoid being similarly blindsided and dumbfounded by the American one. This is not an academic question: those who gauge it accurately may be able to get the hell out ahead of time, while the lights are mostly still on, while not everybody is walking around in a drug-induced mental haze, and while mass shootings and other types of mayhem are still considered newsworthy.

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