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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 162-164

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Book Review

Gorbachev's Revolution

Gorbachev's Revolution. By Anthony D'Agostino. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Pp. ix + 384. $50 (cloth).

In the years following Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev's rise to power as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, a veritable sea change has swept across the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, generating an ever growing body of academic and popular literature that seeks to assess the "Gorbachev revolution." One of the newest contributions to these writings is Anthony D'Agostino's Gorbachev's Revolution, which builds on the author's earlier study of Soviet succession struggles. In his latest book, D'Agostino addresses the paradox of how a reform movement designed to fortify Communism actually brought about its downfall. He dismisses those who see this dramatic development as the natural or logical extension of the course of reform, and those who see the collapse as the inevitable consequence of the command economy or of the Soviet system's illegitimacy. Instead, D'Agostino argues that "the end of Communism was never the goal of the Gorbachev government, but like so much else in the history of the Soviet Union, was the unplanned and unintended result of an intense and many-faceted struggle for power" (p. 6). Spotlighting the role of contingency, chance, irony, and human frailty, he discards the notion that Gorbachev had a conversion experience that convinced him to reject Communism. He insists--rightly, in my view --that the only way Communism could have been destroyed was by attempting to reform and strengthen it.

After spelling out his argument, D'Agostino documents the power struggle with which Gorbachev had to deal during his entire tenure in office, switching to a more powerful lens in examining the period [End Page 162] between spring 1988 and the attempted coup d'├ętat of August 1991. The author does so against the backdrop of the Warsaw Pact and the democratic revolutions that swept across eastern Europe. Others have covered this ground before, and the specialist will find little if anything that is new in D'Agostino's account. But he crafts a lucid narrative, making effective use of memoirs, the Soviet press, and so-called thick journals.

D'Agostino does not, however, engage the considerable academic literature on the subject or clarify the significance of his arguments. Moreover, readers will certainly question some of his judgments. For example, likening Gorbachev to King Lear, D'Agostino concludes that "even Yeltsin will no doubt appear to be more forceful and purposeful than the prodigal Gorbachev" (p. 354). More problematic is his penchant for historical analogy and digressions, many of which should have been penciled out by a discriminating editor. Particularly dubious are the monologues D'Agostino imagines a Faust-like Gorbachev sinking into, which reflect the conflicting feelings between "Gorbachev the Heir to Lenin" and "Gorbachev the Political Man."

The book's most serious shortcoming, however, is its failure to factor in Soviet society and to appreciate global processes that influenced Soviet domestic politics. Readers of this journal, for instance, will most likely see the study as a missed opportunity to discuss what lessons can be drawn from the Gorbachev revolution that resonate on a world stage. Over the years writers such as Isaac Deutscher, Moshe Lewin, Basile Kerblay, and Andrei Sakharov have argued that the Soviet system itself, ironically enough, generated the social transformations that were the sources of reform and change under Gorbachev. This argument shifts historical focus away from Gorbachev and onto his generation or, more broadly, onto the society produced by industrialization, urbanization, and expanding educational opportunities, especially in the decades of peace following World War II. It acknowledges reformist currents within the system from the 1920s onward, with emphasis on the long-term consequences of the ferment of the Khrushchev years, the intelligentsia's role as surrogate civil society, and the cautious reconsiderations of official ideology under Gorbachev's immediate predecessors. Implicit in such assessments is the sense that Gorbachev is a product of those changes and a...