Did Robert Heinlein in 1961 predict the fall of the Soviet Union? Lessons learned from this.

Summary: Our past can help us to better understand our present. The ills of the present didn’t just appear, and often can be seen more clearly in the past — such as our penchant for believing fables. This post has it all: a great story about Robert Heinlein’s astonishing prescience, the Evil Empire, demographic collapse, gross errors by experts, a spectacular save at the end, and insights to help us tomorrow.  It’s another in a series about experts.

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I find it difficult to guess about the future (track record here). But it’s often difficult to get the past correctly, which makes it almost impossible to accurately see the present.

For example, in 2009 I wrote about the failings of our experts, especially those at the intel agencies, during the Cold War. I cited science fiction writer Robert Heinlein as an example of a non-credentialed expert who got a big question right while they were wrong. I told a commonplace kind of story one sees these days, about how the official sources are wrong when the outsiders are right.

It’s the story so often told by many groups — the climate scientists are frauds people, the down with the Federal Reserve crowd, the anti-vaxers, and the pollutants are everywhere (soda bottles, cell phone towers) tribe — as well as people with whom I largely agree (e.g., the military reformers, the 4GW community, and the peace and justice movements).

It’s an extension of the “crowdsourcing” concept — the anti-establishment belief that wisdom is found on the fringes, in the hands of outsiders. Since 2009 I have found other examples of this. Under examination most proved to be false.

As part of an article about our new cold war (it’s only a slightly chilled dispute, the past repeating as farce) I intended to again cite this example of Heinlein’s wisdom. But my mistakes of the past 5 years (tracked here) taught me to dig deeper before writing. Doing so disproved my 2009 post, giving in exchange some useful insights.

Did Robert Heinlein foresee the fall of the Soviet Union?

Cover of "Worlds of Robert Heinlein"
Available at Amazon.

In 1960 Robert and Virginia Heinlein visited Moscow. In 1966 he published this note about his trip in Worlds of Robert Heinlein, republished in 1980 as Expanded Universe. In 2009 I cited it as an example of genius by a non-expert. Let’s examine it more closely.

“For many days we prowled Moskva — by car, by taxi, by subway, by bus, and on foot. Mrs. Heinlein, in her fluent Russian, got acquainted with many people — drivers, chambermaids, anyone. The Russians are delightful people, always happy to talk with visitors … She was able to ask personal questions by freely answering questions about us and showing warm interest in that person — not faked; she is a warm person.

“But buried in chitchat, she always learned these things: How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? How many brothers and sisters do you have? How many nieces and nephews do you have?

“Put baldly, that sounds as offensive as a quiz by a Kinsey reporter. But it was not put baldly — e.g., “Oh, how lucky you are! Gospodin Heinlein and I didn’t meet until the Great Patriotic War … and we have no children although we wanted them. But we have lots of nieces and nephews.” Etc, etc.  She often told more than she got but she accumulated the data she wanted, often without asking questions.

“…Mrs. Heinlein is a close student of Russian history, history of the Russian Revolution, history of the Third International or Comintern, and so skilled in Marxist dialectical materialism that she can argue theory with a Russian party member and get him so mixed up that he’s biting his own tail.”

So far, so good. He’s established some grounds for credibility.

“{Virginia said…}  “They claim to have finished the War with about two hundred million and Moscow at four million. Now they are claiming twenty-five million more in the Union, and over a million increase in Moscow. It’s a lie. Unless they are breeding like flies everywhere outside Moscow, they have lost population since the War — not gained. I haven’t found even one family with more than 3 children. The average is less than 2. And they marry late. Robert, they aren’t even replacing themselves.”

“…We stopped in many other cities — Alma Ata, Tashkent, Samarkand, Minsk, Vilno, Kiev, Riga, Leningrad, etc. — and she continued her gentle questioning but never found reason to change her opinion. Even out in the Muslim countries of Turkestan the birthrate was low, or the answers seemed to show it.”

By the 1990’s Russia’s demographic collapse spread so that the total population began to decline, something rare in modern times except during wars. The Heinleins had discovered this in its early stages two decades before the CIA saw it! I was awed. Heinlein had more observations in this article, which were quite daft — suggesting his correct insight was just luck.

“One day we were seated on a park bench, back of the Kremlin and facing the Moskva River. I said, ‘How big does that guide book say this city is?’

“‘Over five million.’

“‘Hmmph! Look at that river. Look at the traffic on it. (One lonely scow) Remember the Rhine? …Ginny, this dump isn’t anything like five million. More the size of Copenhagen, if that. Pittsburgh. New Orleans. San Francisco, possibly.  Yet they are trying to tell us that this dump is bigger than Philadelphia, bigger than Los Angeles, bigger than Chicago. Nonsense. …Three quarters of a million, not five million.’   {1960 population of San Francisco: 740 thousand}

“She looked at that empty river. ‘Not quite as big as Copenhagen is my guess.'”

The CIA estimate of Moscow’s population in 1960 was 6 million. Heinlein’s estimate of 750,000 was absurd. That’s almost an order of magnitude difference. Asserting that experts are grossly wrong is a red flag for wingnuttery.

“How was it possible for the Russians to claim that Moscow was seven times as big as it actually was? How could I be right and the whole world wrong? The World Almanac gave the same figures the Russians did, all news services seemed to accept Russian population figures. How could a Big Lie that big not be noticed and denounced?

“About a year later I had a chance to discuss it with an old shipmate, an admiral now retired but then holding a major command. I asked him how many people there were in Moscow. …He closed his eyes and kept quiet for several minutes. “750,000, not over that.” (Jackpot!)

“I said, ‘Mister 007, have you made a special study of Russia? Or shouldn’t I ask?’

“‘Not at all. [This command] gives me all the trouble I need without worrying about Russia. I simply worked it as a logistics problem, War College style. That city just doesn’t have the transportation facilities to be any bigger than that. Get much over three quarters of a million and they’d starve. Until they double their tracks and increase their yards they can’t risk a bigger population. You don’t do that over night. They can pick up some slack with the river, but it doesn’t go where they need it most.’

“Look, both the Pentagon and the State Department know exactly how big Moscow is, and the Kremlin knows that they know. We were highflying ‘em with the U-2 for four years; you can bet Moscow was carefully photographed many times. Our present Eye-in-the-Sky satellites are so sharp-eyed that they can come close to reading the license plate on your car…

“I have one very wild theory. Our State Department may see no advantage in calling them liars on this point. Through several administrations we have been extremely careful not to hurt their feelings.”

This should have loudly rang the FAKE alarm for me, since it has so many of the classic elements of urban legends: an anonymous authority figure, an assertion that the author has the hidden truth not visible to lesser beings, and a conspiracy theory about the government hiding truths for mysterious reasons. But I wanted to believe him, and so my critical sense slept.

David Hume

Conclusions

A generation of Boomers grew up with Robert Heinlein as a voice of authority about the world. But this is an odd story in many ways.

Millions still believe Heinlein’s insights from his fiction — such as “an armed society is a polite society” (Beyond This Horizon, 1942 — rebuttal here), but this assertion about the Soviet Union’s weakness never caught on. Also, after WWII Heinlein was a far-Right conservative. Yet Heinlein’s story contradicts the Right’s belief about the USSR’s growing power, powerfully asserted even in the 1977 by the right-wing Team B (although largely wrong, its members went on to great career success).

Heinlein reminds us that political delusions passed by trusted people are always with us. They are easier to see in the past, which can help us to see them in the present. There are so many of them today, from both Right and Left. I doubt we can regain control of the Republic until we regain our sense of skepticism, even about those we trust.

This post was added to the “Smackdowns” page.

Robert Heinlein

Some thoughts about Heinlein

Here are comments about Heinlein much like my own, from Walter Jon Williams’ “Revisiting the Classics“:

Heinlein had the gift of a perfect avuncular voice: if you were a bright kid of thirteen and curious about the world, he was the kindly uncle who would help you find out how things worked. And as a 13-year-old I read Heinlein and I believed everything Uncle Bob told me: I believed we should bring back flogging (Starship Troopers), practice Upton Sinclair’s version of socialism (Beyond This Horizon), and practice Free Love (Stranger in a Strange Land).  (Of course, when you come down to it, what 13-year-old male doesn’t want to practice Free Love?)

That Heinlein’s various visions of the future were contradictory did not occur to me. I also was unable to distinguish between the ideas that Heinlein meant seriously and the ideas he was just throwing out for their own sake.

When I re-read the book in college, I had the feeling that my kindly uncle was something of a blowhard. Now that I’m older, I’m finding the avuncular voice just the least bit condescending.

Comment by MDHughes:

Stranger’s weird now because it’s not so weird; at the time it must’ve been pure fantasy, and today it passes for current events minus Mars (and we’ll be there soon enough). The sexuality and politics seem plausible …The religious lunatics and stormtroopers are half our political system.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See the other posts about Robert Heinlein and the other posts about experts, especially these:

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?
  3. Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?
  4. 2015 might bring an end to the great age of experts’ experiments on us.
  5. Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.
  6. Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?
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14 thoughts on “Did Robert Heinlein in 1961 predict the fall of the Soviet Union? Lessons learned from this.

  1. Yes, Libertarianism isn’t the only town anyone can walk into and announce himself Sherriff. The hard sciences no way. Self proclaimed physics iconoclasts tend to gain zero traction. But softer sciences; economics, sociology, even History, it seems like we have a new Sherriff in town every day. Fake it till you make it actually seems to work in these fields.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter,

      Great quote, and a powerful point. Note that there is an element of this in the physical sciences as well when dealing with highly politicized topics (e.g., race in the past, climate today). As you point out, it is a far bigger problem in the social sciences. And in the humanities it’s an overwhelming problem, and destroying their role in academia.

      {political movements} “are a kind of ghost town into which anyone can move and declare himself sheriff”.
      — Saul Bellow, quoted by Allan Bloom in Closing of the American Mind.

      Like

  2. The fall of the USSR was predicted several times on the basis of various factors, ranging from economic reasons (pricing etc.) to demographics. For example this was a quite well known example at least in Europe (Emmanuel Todd}. And even then he had a much more optimistic outlook on Europe that the situation warranted already in 2002, never mind how things played out since then, so a mixed bag.

    That the USSR was a deeply flawed threadbare society punching above its weight thanks to a permanent quasi war footing it was apparent to anybody who was willing to see (in truth not many) regardless of people making up stuff. That it would collapse on a particular schedule was a matter of contingent and as such pretty hard to predict. Pretty much everybody expected the DPRK to collapse in the mid 90’s, instead by minimizing reforms and maintaining harsh repressive measures they have been able to carry on for decades past their expiration date.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marcello,

      Thanks for pointing out Todd’s 1976 analysis, which was new to me! Still, I suspect that Heinlein’s 1966 prediction — if it had been founded on good analysis (as Todd’s was) — would have been among the earliest. Then the signs of decay were less visible in the West, which still saw only its pioneering space program and rapid industrialization.

      In the mid-1970’s the “cracks” in the facade were more visible. But only to people who cared to see! That’s why the Team B project was so important. A high-profile project by US intel (rather, injected into US intel) that concluded in 1976-777 (same year as Todd’s work!) that the Soviet Union was powerful and growing — and who key people (proven blind and prejudiced) advanced to the highest ranks of our defense apparatus.

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  3. “Note that there is an element of this in the physical sciences as well when dealing with highly politicized topics (e.g., race in the past, climate today).”

    The physical sciences are losing legitimacy with the general population too. The belief that scientists are a bunch of bad guys in cahoots with evil corps to poison the populace is gaining increased acceptance, the anti-vaxxers are just an example of this. I would not be terribly surprised if I lived to see the day when scientists will be lynched in front of cheering crowds

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marcello,

      That’s quite a dark forecast! But I wonder if this is just an endemic aspect of US society, and not growing (i.e., it just flares up occasionally, like malaria). We’ve always had creationists, astrologers, and believers in homeopathy. Plus those who wanted a return to nature, and fears of evil scientists.

      Is there much difference today?

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  4. The Difference today, is the lack of tolerance by the American public, due to Corporate Media(all types) framing the argument and the lack of critical thinking by average, working class citizens due to their hallucinatory passivity. This Great Passivity trend started in the late 1950’s with TV and has gone on to reach even higher stupidity. Chimpchat, Snapfool, Chumpfones, and on ad infinitum!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “That’s quite a dark forecast! But I wonder if this is just an endemic aspect of US society, and not growing (i.e., it just flares up occasionally, like malaria). We’ve always had creationists, astrologers, and believers in homeopathy. Plus those who wanted a return to nature, and fears of evil scientists.”

    It is actually pretty widespread, not just a peculiarity of American society. The thing is that stuff that a decade ago would not have gone beyond a thread at abovetopsecret.com is now being published in paper and increasing in circulation even in Europe. Given that the existing social, economical and political trends are likely to produce a sky-high demand for scapegoats and scientists fit the bill perfectly (soft targets, can be treated as disposable for an élite focused on short term etc.)…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marcello,

      “The belief that scientists are a bunch of bad guys in cahoots with evil corps to poison the populace is gaining increased acceptance, the anti-vaxxers are just an example of this.”

      These kinds of questions — how are we changing with respect to our past — are important but difficult to answer. We don’t have opinion surveys about this from the 1930s, but we can look at fiction as a window into people’s concerns. The US has a long tradition of evil scientists as the bad guys in fiction. For example, see the 1940s Superman film shorts by Max Fleischer and Famous Studios.

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  6. ” The US has a long tradition of evil scientists as the bad guys in fiction”

    Thing is, it was sold as fiction. Now it is being packaged as “The truth nobody wants you to hear” and an ever increasing number of people is swallowing it hook, line and sinker. It is not that stereotypes or suspicion towards science are new but several factors are lining up in such a way that people reaching for their crowbars might well be in the cards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marcello,

      I was not clear. I gave examples of this from fiction of the past, but I suspect it is a long-standing belief in America — but not the kind of thing that gets into the history books.

      The “History of Private Life” books show how narrow a slice of life — a carefully filtered one — goes into the history books. So it’s easy to overestimate the relative degree of irrationality in our time vs the past.

      Another example: in the 1980s I was researching the degree to which women were sexually exploited in societies using slaves — from Athens to American South. I found almost nothing written about this, although common sense suggests it was ubiquitous. Only recently has this been discussed in American history, and even then in a weird formal (unrealistic) manner.

      Still to hot to handle.

      Like

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