Communism did not end in Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It had already ceased to exist by December 1989: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union no longer played its “leading role,” nor was it any longer fit to do so. The rules of the game had changed: the party could no longer relay orders to other social institutions, partly because its central leadership no longer had the power to impose a unified party line. In turn, the end of communism in the Soviet Union led directly to its collapse throughout Eastern Europe. One man is responsible for this essentially peaceful self-liquidation: Mikhail Gorbachev. All other candidates for the title of slayer of the dragon–Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin–actually had supporting roles. Those politicians (and domestic problems caused by nationalism and economic stagnation) certainly played a part in the demise of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, but only insofar as they were enabled by Gorbachev’s actions.

This is the story at the heart of Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism. A distinguished British political scientist, Brown was one of the first Kremlin watchers to realize the potential impact of Gorbachev’s reforms of the Soviet system, and he became well-known in Western circles as one of Gorbachev’s most enthusiastic supporters and most sober and insightful defenders. But his book covers more than the perestroika era. It traverses the history of communism from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century to its establishment in Russia and spread around the globe to its rapid diminishment at the end of the twentieth century. As Brown tells us, a total of thirty-six countries that exist today were under communist rule for a good period of time, and some remain so. Brown examines those countries as well as many communist parties that never achieved power, but his central focus is the Russian experience.

Brown smartly demolishes clichés about the actual causes of the end of communism and the fall of the Soviet Union (two very different topics). The communist system, he explains, had three pillars: the political monopoly of the party-state, the economic monopoly of the command economy and the ideological monopoly of a world-historical mission. None of these existed any longer in the Soviet Union by December 1989. Political pluralism was already a fact by the time of the Nineteenth Party Conference in June 1988. For the first time since the 1920s, political, social and economic groups independent of the party were not suppressed, and they played an active role in society as a whole. Economic activity was no longer effectively coordinated by orders coming from central authorities–although market institutions were not yet in a position to replace central planners, with inevitably chaotic results.

Russia abandoned the communist system primarily because its top leader, Gorbachev, stopped believing in it. Gorbachev emerged from the reform communist tradition, and Brown presents him and other top reformers more as incipient social democrats than “Leninist” communists. In any event, Gorbachev and his team were pure products of the Soviet experience, and his radical reform ideas were defined primarily by the complicated dynamics of Soviet society. The subversive impact of foreign economic success and political freedom–especially when witnessed firsthand by elite Soviet citizens traveling abroad–cannot be discounted, but it was a secondary factor at best.

Up to the spring of 1989, Gorbachev was setting the pace of change, and he consistently sided with the most radical reformers–or rather, he himself was the pre-eminent radical reformer. Beginning in the summer of 1989, an accelerating interactive dynamic between Soviet reform and Eastern European independence transformed the whole region. For a short period in late 1990 and early 1991, Gorbachev played a balancing role between conservatives and reformers, but he resumed a more radical stance in the spring of 1991 by calling for the restructuring of the multinational Soviet Union. That process was cut short by the coup of August 1991 and the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin, whose political ambitions could be satisfied only by a death blow to the Soviet Union. And here Brown’s story ends.

Brown is favorably disposed to Reagan, even though he rejects the oft-heard claim that Reagan was responsible for bringing down the “evil empire.” For Brown, Reagan’s real contribution was his readiness to respond to Gorbachev’s desire to move past cold war hostility, despite the knee-jerk skepticism of the Sovietological establishment. Brown shows that the Reagan administration never sought to bring down the Soviet system, and that the bellicose rhetoric of the Reagan era only strengthened the hand of Soviet conservatives. Gorbachev’s view of foreign policy as potentially non-zero-sum came from homegrown sources, such as the establishment scientist turned dissident Andrei Sakharov. Brown quotes a warning of Sakharov’s published in a book by reformers in 1988: “the Afghanistan adventure [the Soviet invasion in 1979] embodies in itself all the danger and irrationality of a closed totalitarian society.” On Gorbachev’s orders, the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Brown also convincingly argues that Gorbachev pushed for reforms not primarily out of a limited desire to “fix the system” but because of his principled rejection of the monopolistic logic of the old system. It crippled Soviet society’s ability to respond effectively to new challenges and treated adults as if they were children incapable of choice. But for all that, Brown gives the impression that Gorbachev did not foresee the probable consequences of replacing the gears of a system that was functioning, albeit far from optimally. In the short term, his reforms created an ungainly, unworkable hybrid of the old closed system and the new open system. An absolutist regime is never so vulnerable as when it undertakes reform.

Brown confesses that he had hardly met any communists before he became professionally interested in communism in the early 1960s, but since then he has met hundreds. These personal encounters and contacts (especially with a generation of reformist communist officials, not only Gorbachev but prominent aides such as Alexander Yakovlev and Georgy Shakhnazarov) are his book’s greatest resource. Brown comes across as a good listener, happiest when he can relate what someone told him. Some of the best of these little stories are tucked away in the endnotes. His favorite reading is clearly memoirs, and he makes good use of them as well as of transcripts of high-level party meetings. At his best, Brown offers a superb account of high politics: Kremlinology without the guesswork.

Unfortunately, his book suffers from the limitations of its strengths. Brown’s writing comes to life only when the story reaches the 1960s and after, the period when he was making direct contact with communists from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. The early chapters devoted to developments before World War II are perfunctory. Also absent is a considered analysis of how the communist system actually operated politically, economically and ideologically. Brown appears to be a European-style social democrat, who cannot help digressing about how wonderful and superior to communists were the heroes of the British workers’ movement, such as Aneurin Bevan. He berates the Soviet Union for falling short, not so much of free-market capitalism as of the Scandinavian-style welfare state. Yet he fails to offer new arguments about key issues such as the relation between the Leninist era and the Stalinist era or the driving forces of the repressive frenzy in 1937-38. The book is marred by a deficit of historical imagination.

Emblematic is Brown’s discussion of The Communist Manifesto. He mentions–in a footnote–that the work became increasingly influential in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Why? Because of its “resounding phraseology,” its “claim to be enunciating a scientific form of socialism, combined with its brevity and readability.” Apparently, a bogus claim to be scientific and some tricks of style are all it took for Marx and Engels to win over nineteenth-century readers. In fact, the Manifesto makes no “claim to be enunciating a scientific form of socialism.” The business about Wissenschaft (science) came later, mainly in an effort to capture the intellectual prestige that Marx’s Capital offered the socialist movement. And even then, Marx and Engels were hardly the only socialists claiming to be scientific. “Bourgeois” political economists of the nineteenth century also showed “scientifically” that socialism was impossible, so socialists needed some equally impressive credentials in order to defend themselves.

The mere claim to be scientific, then, does not explain why Marxism became steadily more dominant within the socialist movement as the century wore on. Perhaps readers were capable of looking at the world around them and judging that the overall description of capitalist dynamics found in the Manifesto made more sense of their world than anything else on display. After all, beyond its analysis of the vast historical transformation that its readers found themselves caught up in, the Manifesto had a truly inspiring vision of how to achieve socialism. Marxism’s nineteenth-century socialist rivals thought that socialism was the answer to the problems of the poor and downtrodden, but they did not for a moment think that the poor and downtrodden were capable of something as difficult as introducing socialism. Only the elite could do that.

The Marxist brand of socialism placed its wager on the great unwashed–a wager that looked almost scandalous in 1848, when the Manifesto was published. Yet by 1909, the most prominent Marxist of the time, Karl Kautsky, could write that “the elite of the proletariat today forms the strongest, the most far-sighted, most selfless, boldest stratum, and the one united in the largest free organizations, of the nations with European civilization.” No doubt the Marxist wager was still romantic and unrealistic, but it was no longer ridiculous.

A fascinating and difficult question about communism is about assessing the quality of life of average Soviet citizens in the post-Stalin era. Brown’s answer follows the standard view: Soviet quality of life was vastly inferior to that in the West, materially, politically and spiritually. In a word, freedom was missing. After visiting the Soviet Union, Simone Signoret is said to have remarked, “These happy Soviets, they don’t know how miserable they are!” The Soviet Union’s challenge was to make sure its citizens never realized this. But they eventually did. The story Brown tells is of their gradual awakening to the vast gulf between their quality of life and that of the average Western citizen.

I find Brown’s account plausible, mainly because my contacts have been with Soviet citizens from the same demographic as his: educated professionals and researchers, coupled with (in Brown’s case) high officials of a reformist persuasion. Who else would be meeting with Western academics? And what Brown says about the desire of this demographic for more freedom (to read, to travel, to acquire) certainly rings true. But it’s not the full story. Neither Brown nor I have a sense of the lived experiences of other types of “average Soviet citizen”–workers, managers, apparatchiki (the very name betokens the marginalization of this social type in Western eyes), not to mention those living outside the big cities. Brown hardly even mentions these segments of the Soviet population.

There is one group in the position to make such existential comparisons: émigrés who experienced Soviet conditions but have lived for many years in the West. More or less by accident, I recently came across two accounts of the lived experiences of ordinary people in North America and the Soviet Union. Published by small presses, both books are the work of writers with a nonmainstream point of view. The accurately titled Apologia for the USSR, by Anna Makolkin, a Canadian scholar, is published by Anik Press. Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, published by New Society, was written by Dmitry Orlov, an engineer who has lived in the United States since the ’70s and is a first-class aphorist.

I will leave aside the good marks accorded by Makolkin and Orlov to the USSR in the areas of health and race relations, except to remark that these areas might be more important to the silent majority than the intellectual freedom prized by writers. What’s worth noting here is Makolkin’s claim that the post-Stalin Soviet workplace offered more freedom than those in the West, or at least North America. Despite limits on criticism of the system as a whole, Makolkin writes, in the Soviet Union “every worker could openly and fearlessly critique one’s supervisor, challenge the procedures, the attitudes and work habits of the co-workers, without fear of being dismissed.” In contrast, it was a revelation to former Soviet citizens who joined the Western labor force that “one had to be very constrained in one’s expression in daily life, they found themselves totally unprepared for the atmosphere of a blind obedience, an unquestionable subordination, passivity and silence in the work place.”

My first reaction to Makolkin was incredulity. My second was puzzlement: on what basis can I reject such assertions or even assess them? Certainly, Soviet citizens’ growing envy of the West was a fact, though perhaps it was based not only on new information about material standards and freedoms but also on an inability of Soviet citizens (partly because of deep-seated mistrust of official media) to grasp some other, not unimportant aspects of Western life. As it is, Makolkin is the flip side of Signoret: Oh, these miserable Soviets, they didn’t know how happy they were! That is, they took for granted the advantages of the Soviet system and just wanted more, and in the end lost the advantages and didn’t gain much else. Brown does mention opinion polls showing that Russians think the quality of life in the Soviet Union was best during the Brezhnev era. But he doesn’t ask whether facts like these are capable of changing our explanation of the dynamics of the Brezhnev and perestroika eras. Twenty years on, Brown’s genial and readable book is a good place to begin to understand the collapse of communism, but it’s not the place to end.