If success in predicting the future is any criterion of analytical accuracy, Sovietology must be among the least exact of social science disciplines. The record of Western specialists on Soviet affairs in forecasting the direction of change in the USSR has been remarkably poor. The imminent overthrow of Lenin's government in 1917, the victory of the Whites in the Civil War; the natural reversion to capitalism in the 1920s, the impossibility of modernising through a centrally-planned economy in the 1930s, the weakness of the Red Army on the eve of the Second World War, and Soviet technological backwardness in the 1950s, before Sputnik and Gagarin inaugurated the space age, are only a few of the discarded orthodoxies about the Soviet Union over past decades. Predictions of leadership changes have been even less successful. On Lenin's death the natural successor was held to be Trotsky or Zinoviev. (The inconspicuous Stalin was then and for some time regarded as a cautious moderate far more acceptable to the West than his more prominent rivals.) When Stalin died, the consensus of expert opinion was that more of the same individual despotism was likely, with Beria, Malenkov or Molotov as the new dictator. Surprise at the outsider Khrushchev's rise to power was exceeded only by that at his sudden fall in 1964. Brezhnev, on the other hand, gave observers plenty of time to identify his successor. Shelepin, Suslov, Mazurov, Kirilenko and Chernenko were among the candidates favoured at various times by the Western media, though not as it happened by the Politburo. One name was notable for its absence from speculation about the succession until the very end of the Brezhnev era. The orthodox view was that the Soviet leader could not possibly be a man who had been head of the KGB for as long as Yuri Andropov.
LRB 19 April 1984 | PDF Download