In the Party, the young civilians who were brought to the fore not only lacked expertise, they lacked courage and initiative.
They had, really, only one important skill: they knew how to survive in Stalinist Russia.
Today, people with almost no memory of the period accept the Soviet collapse as just another inevitable historical moment. Counterfactual history, the game of “what if,” is an intellectually hazardous exercise.
No one can really explain what didn’t actually happen. Maybe the Persians could have beaten the ancient Greeks; maybe Columbus could have taken a wrong turn and been lost at sea; maybe the first atomic bomb could have been a dud and convinced everyone to go back to the drawing board.
But it is undeniable that Stalin's purges of the Soviet military and the Communist Party struck down some of the best and brightest from the generation of the Revolution.
Shortly after leading Bolshevik Sergei Kirov was gunned down (on Stalin’s secret orders) in Leningrad in 1934, Stalin initiated a cyclone of murder and repression that exterminated mostly imaginary enemies in the Party and the military.There were many moments where this planetary conflict—as I called it in a 2003 book, the fight to “win the world”—with the Soviet Union seemed a near-run thing.With that in mind, let’s consider five historical periods where different choices could have led, if not to global victory, at least to survival and a fighting chance for the since-departed Land of the Soviets.Greece was in the middle of a civil war with Communist rebels.Other parts of Western Europe, broken in spirit and bankrupt from two world wars in thirty years, were also ripe for revolution and conquest.The reason we even think about these alternate possibilities, however, is to prevent us from making the mistake of believing in inevitability.The inability to see alternatives leads to lazy strategic thinking, which is why so many programs—including the department I once chaired at the Naval War College, Strategy and Policy—use counterfactual history.1938: Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists Was Stalinism an inevitable outcome of the Soviet experiment?This is one that historians of the Soviet period have long loved to argue about, and it won't be settled here.But the Persians did lose, Columbus did make it across the Atlantic, and the Trinity test did light the sky with nuclear fire.It would take a lifetime to imagine the alternatives, none of which are real.