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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 405-407

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Book Review

Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change

Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change. By ROBERT STRAYER. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Pp. xi + 232. $55.95 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).

In the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, scholars and popular writers have produced a veritable avalanche of books on this monumental event in world history. Many of these studies, including Moshe Lewin's Russia-USSR-Russia: The Drive and Drift of a Superstate (1995), Jerry Hough's Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 1985-1991 (1997), and Archie Brown's The Gorbachev Factor (1996), trace the processes by which a nation of enormous size and military might imploded virtually overnight and with surprisingly little bloodshed. A welcome addition to this ever-growing genre is Robert Strayer's Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? Understanding Historical Change, which successfully undertakes a postmortem of the USSR in a succinct and highly engaging two-hundred-page text. Employing a readable style, Strayer (professor of history at SUNY-Brockport) presents the Soviet Union as a unique political and social entity in world history. In comparison to the multinational empires that preceded it, particularly the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman, the Soviet Union exhibited historical uniqueness in the nature and speed of its demise.

In his introductory chapter, "Contexts and Comparisons," Strayer [End Page 405] examines the two claimants to the ideological legacy of Marx and Lenin: the People's Republic of China and the USSR. While Deng Xiaoping and his successors sought only to transform the Chinese economy, Mikhail Gorbachev and his coterie simultaneously attempted to introduce elements of a market economy and popular democracy into Soviet society. The first chapter explores the ramifications of this decision, which, along with economic mismanagement, burgeoning national consciousness within the fifteen Soviet republics, and heavy financial support for the Warsaw Pact and other client states, constitute the "burdens of Russian and Soviet history" that brought down this once mighty nation.

The "burden" of nationality especially interests Strayer, who holds that only after the cooption of local elites into the Soviet bureaucracy did members of many non-Slavic ethnic groups, especially those in the Caucasus and Central Asia, truly develop national consciousness. Conspicuously absent here is the example of Chechnya, which Strayer could have used to support this assertion. The author concludes that many of the problems that eventually rended the USSR apart, including the nationalities issue, economic inefficiency, and the problematic task of installing wide-ranging social and economic reforms, were of the Soviet Union's own making and had little to do with the influence of outside forces.

Strayer also argues convincingly that "imperial overstretch"--a term coined by the historian Paul Kennedy and borrowed by the author to describe the relationship between economic and political power--contributed to the Soviet breakup. After its victory in the Second World War, the USSR sent vast amounts of military and economic aid to its Warsaw Pact satellites and favored Third World nations. A concomitant drain on Soviet resources was the need to maintain control over the "internal empire" or "near abroad," where a rapidly growing non-Russian, mostly Islamic, and potentially extremist population in Soviet Central Asia appeared to jeopardize longheld Russian dominance. Strayer returns to this theme in his penultimate chapter, "Unintended Consequences: Economic Crisis and Social Awakening," which looks at the resurgence of nationalism in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as the strained relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian republics. Strayer also ably illustrates the effect of waning central control during the late 1980s on the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabagh.

Chapters Three and Four analyze the tenure of the Soviet General Secretary and later President Mikhail S. Gorbachev as a catalyst to the ultimate downfall of the USSR. Looking at the "Gorbachev factor," [End Page 406] Strayer maintains that the last Soviet leader's unavoidable (according to Gorbachev himself) and...