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THE FINAL CURTAIN : Reflections : 'Perpetuating the Politics of Fear'

December 31, 1991| James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress and historian: and

"The Soviet Union was, in effect, two things. It was the scene of the most sustained and serious attempt to impose a totalitarian utopia on human society in the 20th Century. In that sense, it was an ideological experiment. At the same time, that experiment produced the prolongation of the last of the multinational empires.

"It lasted so long for the same reason it came down so fast. It had, in a technical sense, the most efficient and most ruthless political machine in modern history. The Communist Party nomenklatura , atomizing opposition at home and covering up its activities abroad, kept it going. It couldn't survive exposure to alternatives that was a byproduct of modern communications.

"Once people knew there were alternatives, the subordination and terrorization of this machine no longer worked. But it was the greatest perpetuation in the modern age of the politics of fear. World War II legitimized the system. With the horrors of the 1930s, it would have collapsed much sooner except for the fact that its army conquered Hitler's Wehrmacht.

"There can be a final spasm of the imperial idea in Russia or a rapid internal democratization of Russia itself. It's very much to the interest of the West and the civilized world that it be the latter. . . . They have a commitment to democracy, but they have no experience with it. It's important to provide training and assistance so they can make it work.

"As for the end of the Soviet Union, I don't know why we're having such a long face about it. It's better for everybody, including the Russians."

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