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  • What Happened to the Soviet Union? How and Why American Sovietologists Were Caught by Surprise
  • Mark Kramer
Christopher I. Xenakis . What Happened to the Soviet Union? How and Why American Sovietologists Were Caught by Surprise. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002. xi + 237 pp. $75.00.

The subtitle of this book captures its theme more accurately than the main title does. The author, Christopher Xenakis of Tidewater Community College, claims that "the vast majority" of U.S. experts on the Soviet Union "failed to anticipate the possibility of significant innovation, or of virtually any kind of political, economic, or social change taking place in the USSR" and that "most American Sovietologists miss[ed] the sure signs of Soviet change that were evident during the 1970s and 1980s" (p.1). Xenakis sets out to explain why "so many political scholars [were caught] by surprise" (p.1). He is by no means alone in this endeavor. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a spate of "gotcha" articles that castigated American experts for having failed to predict the breakup of the USSR. The authors of these postmortems differed in their explanations: Some argued that American political scientists had been remiss in using Western concepts to analyze the Soviet system; others argued that American experts had been too indulgent toward the Soviet Union; and still others insisted that American scholars had been led astray by their reflexive anti-Sovietism. Whatever the precise reasoning, nearly all the critics would agree with Xenakis's contention that "America's foremost political scientists and Soviet experts failed to anticipate even the possibility of significant social, political, and economic transformation occurring in the USSR" (p. x). Many of these retrospective critiques were polemical and tendentious, but Xenakis assures us that his own "enquiry is scholarly" (p. x). He also asserts, however, that the lessons of his story "are deeply relevant to Washington's current diplomatic and military challenges—including the war on terrorism" (p. x).

Xenakis believes the main reason that "so many scholars reject[ed] even the possibility of Soviet political, social, and economic change" is that they were driven by "virulent anticommunism" and were conditioned by the Cold War to take a "hostile and moralistic" view of the Soviet Union as a country that "could not and would not change" (p.17). Elaborating on this indictment in a repetitive opening chapter, Xenakis outlines what in his view were "eighteen indicators of Soviet social, economic, and political transformation" that were "right before our eyes" in the 1970s and early 1980s (pp.10-16). His next chapter focuses on the works of "three of the most influential American Sovietologists of the Cold War era": George F. Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Jerry Hough (p.23). In four subsequent chapters, Xenakis considers how American experts (political scientists, historians, economists, sociologists, and even journalists) assessed what was going on in the Soviet Union during four periods under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors: 1974-1977, 1978-1981, 1982-1985, and 1986-1988. In a brief epilogue, he once again emphasizes his main allegation (an allegation that recurs over and over)—to wit, that American experts on [End Page 177] the Soviet Union "seemed to expect the status quo in Moscow [and the Cold War] to continue forever" (p.210). Xenakis contends that these "scholars may have been co-opted" to "mirror the Cold War consensus" and to "parrot the official government line" by the "possibility of acquiring lucrative research grants or winning the ear of an influential senator or presidential candidate" (pp.215, 216).

The premise of Xenakis's book is questionable. It is not the task of political scientists to anticipate every chance event that occurs. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a highly contingent phenomenon, and the notion that political scientists should have predicted in the 1970s or early 1980s that it would happen is a misrepresentation of the scholar's mission. Political scientists are not fortune tellers. Xenakis argues that after "the Sovietological crystal ball failed to predict the events of 1989 and 1991," some experts tried to gloss over this failure by asserting that "it was not the job of Sovietologists to...