1977–2017: A Retrospective

Peter Turchin


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Forty years ago this day my family (and I with them) left the Soviet Union on our way to America. Our first stop was in Vienna, where, by a curious coincidence, I am today (visiting at the Complexity Science Hub).

From the cliodynamic point of view, four decades is not a lot of time. Still, these particular decades saw quite a dramatic change of the world’s geopolitical landscape. In this post I take a quick look back at how the world changed since 1977. I focus on the two superpowers of 1977.

USSR­ – Russia

I left Russia because my father was one of the dissidents calling for reforms that would make the Soviet Union more democratic and market-oriented. In the mid-1970s the Brezhnev regime had consolidated its power over the USSR and decided to do away with the last remnants of dissidents, even though they had zero influence on what was happening in the country. Some dissidents were forced to immigrate, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn and my father. Others ended up in prisons. By 1980 the Soviet Union looked like a monolith that was immune to both external and internal challenges.


Now, in retrospect, we know that this appearance was deceptive – the disintegrative trend had already set in. When the new generation of leaders replaced the Brezhnev cohort in 1985, they rapidly drove the Soviet empire into collapse and disintegration. The first time I went back to Moscow after emigrating was in winter 1992. I saw what a social collapse looks like. Massive immiseration of the population, passed-out drunks everywhere, collapsing infrastructure, collapsing law and order. For example, we saw several charred car wrecks that were left after some businessman or a mafia lord (actually, there was no difference between the two) was assassinated. In the produce market, ethnic Mafiosi were collecting protection money in the broad daylight. Shouldering aside the buyers, they walked down the stalls with thick wads of cash, the vendors handing them bills with shaking hands.

However, the reversal of the disintegrative trend occurred quite rapidly, by historical standards. The onset of the new integrative trend coincided with the shift from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. Putin is, of course, currently demonized in the Western press, but the Russians have a different view, because his rule was associated with rapid growth of personal incomes (mainly between 1999 and 2007), and return of Russia to the circle of Great Powers. Of course Russia today is nothing like a superpower that the USSR was—rather it’s a weak and shambolic great power (sort of like Austro-Hungarian Empire in the nineteenth century).

The integrative trend has faltered somewhat in the last few years, and it’s difficult to predict whether it will be sustained into the next four decades. In any case, the history of the past 40 years has seen two dramatic trend reversals. Predictions based on linear extrapolation, whether made in 1980 or 1995, turned out to be completely wrong. History is dynamic and nonlinear.


The United States

It’s hard to remember now, but back in 1977 it was the US that looked like an ailing superpower. The defeat in the Vietnam War was only two years in the past. Across the world, insurrections aided by the Soviet Union were seemed to be in ascendance. Within the country, the social turbulence of the late 1960s and the 1970s was just coming to an end. In fact, the Black Liberation Army was still active in the US until the Brinks truck robbery in 1981. The 1970s economy was in disarray, with one recession after another, and the Bear Market contributing to (or reflecting) the feeling of social pessimism.

But the subsequent four decades, again, showed that linear trend extrapolation is a really bad way of making geopolitical predictions. When the USSR collapsed in early 1990s, the US became the only standing superpower in the world, the status that it retains today. There was a lot of giddy prophesizing concerning how the 21st Century would be the American Century. That looks increasingly unlikely, especially given the outcome of the presidential elections of 2016. We have clearly just entered our own Age of Discord.

When I arrived in the United States, curiously enough, it was precisely at the end of the long positive structural-demographic (SD) trend, which saw historically unprecedented rise in broadly based measures of well-being, including its economic and biological aspects. The trend reversal from the integrative to disintegrative SD trend can be dated fairly precisely to 1977-1978 (this is described in detail in Part IV Ages of Discord, see in particular, the significance of Douglas Fraser’s resignation letter from the Labor Management Group written in 1978, p. 195).

In other words, just as the US was triumphantly winning the Cold War and becoming the world’s sole superpower, deep down in the American society’s foundations, a disintegrative trend was gathering steam, the significance of which is becoming glaringly obvious only today.

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Has a disintegrative trend every before occurred at a time of such rapid and profound technological change? The Soviet Union recovered quickly from its disintegrative trend: perhaps the reason was the modern information technology and the internet. It’s possible America also will get lucky in this respect, but the next big technological advances seem to me to heavily-encourage decentralization, so perhaps the best outlook is break up of the United States and the avoidance of civil war. I know that there are prominent American conservatives who wouldn’t mind either way if California succeeded.

Peter van den Engel

Interesting. I agree evolution is non liniar/ but you are mixing a couple of things up.
Social cultural is not economic and is not military/ but all three translate into each other, so that economy can become social cultural and military can too. They cause each other, but in a distinct order.

The so called monolith state of USSR in 1980 was a fake, because social cultural unrest in its satelite states Czechoslovakia and Hungary already happened in the sixties, although it was military surpressed and the notion commnunist ecnomy was inefficient had already established itself in western knowledge, as fi also expressed by the writer George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal farm. So, the fact this was surpressed by military was not convincing.

In other words, linear projections from that, predicting monolith state, were predicted wrong almost twenty years before that, had you looked at the right evolutionary trends.
This came to conclusion when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. The people simply literary crossed that line, thereby dismissing the installed political state, that of communism which had led to a poor economy, because it prooved to be inefficient in a material sense. This led to the falling apart of the USSR. Because satelite states no longer acknowledged it and Russia had understood it was not efficient enough too.

By ‘coincidence’ Putin was in Leipzig when the wall fell as a member of the controling state and wondered what the hell was going on. He must have realised very well, that economy goes before cultural politics.
So when in Russia he started to take controle of that, mainly by forcing oligarchs, who also used criminal force: maffia, to become part of a more social acceptable hierarchy. This resulted in a healthier economy. It has become more efficient.
The social unrest in the US, during the Vietnam war though was not caused by economy/ but by a young generation of whites, lifting on the American dream of the previous period/ but wanting more freedom and rejected being pulled into war and other selfcentered material obsessions. This fi also materialised in the music industy of that period as a parallel cultural understanding. On its turn black Americans also needed more freedom, as well in apartheid as in economic independence. So they were parallel to each other/ but for very differend reasons. In orher words Martin Luther King had nothing to do with the young white evolution, which found its singularity in Woodstock 1969.

The current social unrest though is on its turn caused by an economy which has become inefficient. A very different reason. It is not the liniar extension of what happend in the seventies, athough black Americans might feel nothing much has changed for them in the mean while.

In this case it will not lead to a union of states falling apart, because they already are a well integrated political union and because the economy is only half inefficient. This however does not mean nothing should change, because the evolution will not stop in its efficient progress.

Zaphod Beeblebrox

The obvious concern here is where the analogy with the Austro-Hungarian Empire leads. Its chief rival at that time (late 19th century CE) was the globe-spanning British Empire, also heading into a disintegration on a timeframe delayed by a couple decades so it would be weakening even as the Austro-Hungarian rallied and tried to stage a comeback. The result, as we all know, was World War I.

Replace the British Empire with the United States of America and the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Russia and it looks an awful lot like history might be about to repeat itself. Technology, though, has advanced in the interim, and that may change things enormously. For starters, none of the combatants in World War I were nuclear-armed…

Vladimir Dinets

Congratulations! I celebrated my own 20th anniversary last July by moving from USA to Japan 🙂

The early 1990s in Russia were a difficult time and millions of people went through awful suffering, but these years were a lot of fun to live through as long as you were healthy and adaptable.

Most, if not all, positive trends associated with Putinomics have actually started in the last years of Yeltsin’s rule. Of course, the official version of Russian history today is that it was all gloom and doom up until the day of Putin’s inauguration, but that’s just another false collective memory imprinted on the population by the elite.

steven johnson

Your father, you write, left the Soviet Union because he wanted democratization and marketization. He got what he wanted with Gorbachev, with the effective dismantling of central planning by 1987. The process went into high gear with Yeltsin. It is not clear what you mean about the old leaders being responsible for the situation in 1992, except as deflection. If he wanted a capitalist economy for Russia and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, he wanted mass unemployment for labor discipline, a rapid drop in living standards to raise profit rates and the expropriation of public property, rapidly concentrating capital in private hands. That’s exactly what Yeltsin did. Putin merely consolidated the process. The chaos of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin years had to come to an end for two reasons. First, the effective point of capitalist crisis is to lower production until profitability returns. The need for the crisis moderates at that time. Second, absent outside support, all wars eventually end with a set of winners too exhausted not to make a truce of some sort. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were just as much an integrative phase of a new order as Putin.

Second, you use the phrase “Soviet empire” as though you think it really means something. My view is that an empire is something that serves interests in the imperial power at the expense of the colonies, benefits that are vital to their standing at home and that the loss of empire cannot be an option because it is equivalent to suicide for them. The English are still in Ireland, the French are still intervening in West African countries, and the US still has Subic Bay. Gorbachev could surrender central Europe to NATO precisely because there was no empire.

I don’t know why you’re running down Putin’s Russia. It’s the dream of democracy and markets come true.


I wouldn’t get too obsessed about the precise definition of ’empire’. An empire can be expressed through projection of influence, which Russia certainly had, with its tanks, from Afghanistan to Hungary. Whether there is a benefit is beside the point. We need not consider empires to have benefits at all. There is no need to make a value judgement at all.

I agree about Putin’s Russia looking quite strong. There is always the question what the situation would be like without Putin but if you look at states such as Hungary and Poland in Eastern Europe, I don’t think Russia will be short of up-and-coming replacement Putins. ‘Democracy’ in Russia will probably always be as much as a fudge as Marxism in China.

Vladimir Dinets

Steven Johnson: are you saying that losing Subic Bay would be suicide for the United States? Now I am scared.


“Subic Bay,” Wikipedia:
“In 1979, the area under American control was reduced from 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) to 6,300 hectares (16,000 acres) when the Philippines claimed sovereign rule over the base.
“Following the destruction of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption, the Americans closed the base, and the area was transformed into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.”


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steven johnson

EdwardT: If projection of influence were a thing, the world empire of the US would be a commonplace. No mainstream analyst accepts that.

Vladimir Dinets: The point is really the opposite. The United States as a whole, as a people, can survive quite handily without Subic Bay (or the worldwide archipelago of military bases.) But there are powerful elements in the US whose current way of life depends upon the use of military force. That’s why the US is constantly at war, despite the majority of the population not really favoring this.


I’m not suggesting projection of influence is a mechanism it’s a fact that you know about only in hindsight. Useful for history but not current political analysis.



And one year before that, the french demograph Emmanuell Todd predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in his book “The Final Fall”, based on data of infant mortality rates there.

And now the mortality rates of White People between 45-54 is increasing in the U.S. (And it turns out pretty much teh same also happend in the SU.)


Peter van den Engel

The difference is the USSR fell apart because satelite states wanted to become more efficient than communism in its core was/ and now the trend of separation is inverted, because more efficient parts want to depart less efficient parts of its overall economy (England exepted, because it longs for the past where it was still more efficient than now)

Communidst satelite states at the time were not efficient yet.
This trend is far less predictable. So, you see statistics, although interesting, don’t prove anything without theory.

In the past the other side might use millitary force to compensate the difference, because they were larger in numbers, under the condition they belonged to the same language culture. Which did not happen in Singapore/ Malaysia, probably because both became independent at the same time, so they wete all happy.
It did work for Spain, Yugoslavia and Indonesia, to prevent seperation. But at the time millitary force was seen as strength/ and not weakness, as it is now. So, overall it would not work anymore. Therefore there are more examples of seperation now. Polticians are puzzled.

Karl Kling

Apropos time passing by: I just read your interview in the Austrian paper “Der Standard”:


Keep up with the good work!

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