A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Vladislav M. Zubok. Chapel Hill, NC:The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 504 pp. $25.00. ISBN 978-0807859582
Vladislav Zubok, in his A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev, analyzes the Cold War from the Soviet Perspective. Considering the development of the Cold War as it pertained to the Soviets and the shifting policies that were implemented during the various leadership changes in the Politburo, Zubok examines the “motives that drove the Soviet Union in the Cold War” (p. ix). He considers the ideological changes and social tumult that resulted, as their ideas and values were challenged. His motivation is that it was the Cold War that shaped the modern world, and is therefore worthy of deeper research and study.
The book is organized in a chronological manner, looking at each Soviet leader in turn, and how each one affected domestic changes and conducted international diplomacy. While chronological, it does not attempt to analyze every event in the time period, but focuses upon “major developments, policies, and leaders on the Soviet side” (p. x). From Stalin’s policies that damaged international relations that had existed during World War II, Khrushchev’s bungling of diplomacy, cultural changes under Brezhnev, to Gorbachev’s rapid social, economic, and political changes, Zubok traces the evolution of Soviet thought and policy.
Zubok admits that he would like to have included more on the social and economic conditions, but focused primarily on the political and diplomatic actions (p. xi). These topics that are given less attention are not ignored, but are integrated into the larger overall picture, while Soviet diplomacy and interaction with the United States are primary.
The Soviet leaders, many who are not well known to modern students born after the events, are shown to be human, making decisions that they felt would be beneficial to their nation. Stalin was driven by ideology and the insatiable need to maintain order and power. Khrushchev desired to roll back much of Stalin’s domestic policy, while advancing Soviet prestige in the international community. Brezhnev led a return to a Stalinist perspective, while attempting to maintain a healthy dialogue with the West. After the brief interlude during the reigns of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev inherited a failing state and attempted to implement massive change, resulting in the final dissolution of the Soviet Empire. As Zubok traces these developments, he highlights the failure of them all, hence the title of the book. Ultimately, the failure of Soviet policies within the Soviet Union itself, while its opponents in the West became increasingly attractive, led to this conclusion. He argues that the West did not defeat the Soviet Union, so much as it committed suicide from poor policy decisions (p. 344).
The organization of the book is easy to follow, allowing the reader to follow Zubok’s argument effectively. Admittedly, many of his conclusions are suppositions, not fully based on complete data, as he recognizes in his preface. The majority of those conclusions are plausible, however, and worthy of further research. He argues that the Soviet leadership desired to expand Soviet control, based upon Socialist ideology, but the leadership of each generation interpreted that mandate differently from the one that had gone before. His attention to the personalities involved make the book a compelling read, providing invaluable material for those in the West learning about the Cold War from the Soviet perspective. Particularly helpful in this regard is the use and inclusion of material gathered from Soviet documentation that was only recently made available. This gives the book an advantage over studies done previously without the use of these materials.
Zubok entered the research with a biased view against the Soviets, which perhaps colors the way in which he presents his data. While he acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of each leader, his analysis is designed to show the failure of the Socialist system as a whole. His dedication to his parents in the preface shows his perspective, as they “had to live [the Soviet Cold War] from the beginning to the end” (p. xiii). This negative approach affects his interpretations, where the Soviets are viewed with less favor than their counterparts in the West. It is a credit to the author that he still goes to lengths to point out noble intents, however misguided in his opinion, of the Soviet leadership.
While easy to follow, the vast number of people who are mentioned and discussed in the book can obscure the events being depicted in some cases, especially where relatively minor characters are introduced. It is hard to keep track of leaders of minor nations involved in the Cold War, yet their participation is important for the message of the book. It would behoove the reader to take notes while reading to keep up with who did what. Regardless of any deficiencies in the book, it is an invaluable resource for the student who desires to learn about the Cold War from the Soviet perspective.