Book Review: Russia's Cold War
Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall
Yale University Press 550pp £25
ISBN 978 0 300 15997 4
The Shadow of War: Russia and the USSR, 1941 to the Present
Wiley-Blackwell 387pp £19.99
ISBN 978 1 4051 6958 5 (pbk)
The Dead Hand: Reagan, Gorbachev and the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race
Icon Books 588pp £20
ISBN 978 184831 230 2
The Cold War may be over but argument about why it ended continues. The debate is of major historical interest but has contemporary policy implications, too. Those who think that the American arms build-up left the Soviet Union no option but to admit political defeat are more inclined to look to military solutions for ending authoritarian rule elsewhere. And if the Cold War, as a clash of systems and of ideologies, is behind us, there remain in Russia even today enough nuclear weapons and the ingredients for germ warfare, developed in biological weapon research institutes, to devastate the supposedly victorious West. As a result of the Cold War’s ending, the main worry is much less that these would ever be used by a Russian government than that even a minute quantity of them might fall into the hands of a more reckless state or a non-state terrorist group.
Jonathan Haslam has written a scholarly history of the Cold War that is stronger on its origins and middle years than on its ending. He accepts the thrust of the dubious claim of Robert Gates that the United States played a significant role in ‘intensifying the Soviet crisis and in forcing actions and decisions in Moscow that led ultimately to the collapse’. Gates himself, a leading Soviet expert in the CIA and subsequently its director, was hopelessly wrong in his interpretations of Soviet politics during the Gorbachev era, as US Secretary of State George Shultz complained both at the time and subsequently. On the perestroika Soviet period Haslam is not always reliable on the facts. For example, he quotes a 1988 memorandum of Gorbachev’s aide Georgy Shakhnazarov, which questioned the utility of keeping Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, ‘including the GDR’ (East Germany). What Shakhnazarov wrote in the Russian source cited was, however, ‘except the GDR’, thus negating Haslam’s statement that he had at that time ‘raised the German question’.
Some of Haslam’s big generalisations are questionable. He writes: ‘The archives leave no doubt that Gorbachev was very reluctant to turn against the military until driven to it in order to forge progress in East-West relations.’ Archives rarely are so unambiguous. There is plenty of archival evidence which, taken in conjunction with the first-hand accounts of Gorbachev’s aides and senior colleagues, show that, from early on, this very different Soviet leader was intent on reducing military influence on policy and on cutting the size of the defence budget.
No less dubious is Haslam’s reference in his conclusions to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘endless berating of Gorbachev’. Mrs Thatcher and Gorbachev certainly disagreed radically on nuclear weapons. Gorbachev, like Ronald Reagan, aspired to abolish them completely. Mrs Thatcher maintained that they had kept the peace. However, on Gorbachev’s domestic reforms, in particular, and on many aspects of his foreign policy, she was enormously supportive. Her foreign policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock, complained that, especially after her visit to the Soviet Union in March 1987, he found it hard ‘to talk about Gorbachev with her entirely objectively’, for her ‘formidable powers of self-identification and advocacy were enlisted on his behalf’. In his pursuit of internal reform Gorbachev was becoming for Margaret Thatcher, said Cradock, ‘something of an icon’.
Stephen Lovell’s The Shadow of War is a work of a different kind: a textbook which should appeal also to a general readership. It is both a social and political history and provides an excellent synthesis of the Russian experience from the Second World War to the present. On the ending of the Cold War Lovell aptly concludes that, while in the early 1980s the Reagan administration ‘increased the economic pressure on the USSR’, a different Soviet leadership could ‘have defied sanctions and, through a combination of coercion and austerity measures, kept the Cold War in the deep freeze for longer’.
The most alarming of the books under review is David Hoffman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dead Hand. Hoffman tells the story of the end of the Cold War persuasively and duly notes the large cutbacks of weaponry that Gorbachev gladly embraced. He notes, however, that the Soviet military-industrial complex kept more facilities for the manufacture of biological weapons than either Gorbachev or, later, Boris Yeltsin fully realised and that to this day these pose an immense potential hazard. As recently as 2005 the retired general who supervised preparations for germ warfare repeated the cover story that the anthrax which killed many people in Sverdlovsk in 1979 came from contaminated meat. In fact it resulted from an accident at a military research facility cultivating anthrax for use as a biological weapon. Hoffman raises the stark question of what would happen should such arsenals fall into the hands of terrorists willing to die while taking millions of others with them. Any complacency about the end of the Cold War should be dispelled by his grim conclusion that ‘the tools of mass casualty are more diffuse and more uncertain than ever before’.
Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University and the author of The Rise and Fall of Communism (Vintage paperback, 2010).
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology