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  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev
  • Bruce Parrott
Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 467 pp.

This ambitious book presents a multifaceted analysis of the Soviet side of the Cold War from the end of World War II to the final collapse of the USSR. It explores the Soviet Union’s experience from several angles: the international calculations of the country’s top leaders, the interplay of foreign policy with elite politics, the long-term consequences of the changes in public attitudes triggered by de-Stalinization, and the relationship between foreign policy and domestic economic constraints. Vladislav Zubok draws on extensive research in Russian archives, the large Russian memoir literature published since 1991, and the relevant Russian and Western scholarship. His emphasis on situating Soviet foreign policy in a broad political and cultural context makes this the best single-volume overview yet available of the Soviet side of the Cold War.

Zubok is a shrewd interpreter of the foreign-policy strategies and styles of the USSR’s supreme leaders. He demonstrates that although Soviet external actions were based on an enduring “revolutionary-imperial paradigm,” particular leaders decisively affected the fashion in which that paradigm was applied. Josif Stalin’s complete domination of policymaking and central role as the “supreme editor of Soviet culture” (p. 165) had a profound effect on the USSR’s foreign relations, just as Nikita Khrushchev’s impulsive diplomacy and decision to launch de-Stalinization moved the country in a new direction. Strikingly, Zubok contends that individual leaders continued to exercise a major influence on foreign policy choices in the decade following Khrushchev’s ouster. Although the Kremlin was controlled by leaders sometimes derided in the West as mere clerks, Zubok convincingly argues that Leonid Brezhnev played a crucial role in establishing the limited East-West détente of the late 1960s and 1970s, thereby paving the way for the far more radical policies of the Gorbachev era.

In Zubok’s judgment, what set Brezhnev apart from his Soviet contemporaries was “his dream to become a peacemaker” (p. 203). Indeed, Brezhnev “was not unlike Ronald Reagan” in thinking that the military buildup he set in motion “was important not for its own sake but as a prelude to international agreements” (p. 205). Brezhnev agonized over the decision to invade Czechoslovakia, fearing that it might provoke a military confrontation with the West, but his final determination to authorize the invasion bolstered his credentials among Soviet hardliners and helped him win support later on for his efforts to forge an East-West settlement in Europe and an accommodation with the United States.

Zubok argues that superpower détente was inherently limited by the nature of the Soviet system (and of the American system.) The U.S. escalation of military action against North Vietnam in 1972 nearly derailed Brezhnev’s plans for a summit meeting [End Page 170] with Richard Nixon. A divided Soviet Politburo finally decided not to cancel the meeting because of the larger geopolitical and economic stakes, along with the argument “that the North Vietnamese should not be allowed to exercise a veto over Soviet relations with the United States” (pp. 219–220). Soon, however, new tensions developed over the neuralgic issue of the Soviet regime’s treatment of Soviet Jews and U.S. legislation that curtailed the economic benefits of détente in response. Such frictions, combined with the internal turmoil in the United States over Watergate and the ailing Brezhnev’s weakening hold on the Soviet political agenda, attenuated U.S.-Soviet détente well before Moscow’s military intervention in Afghanistan in late 1979 killed it altogether.

Zubok’s analysis of Soviet deliberations over how to respond to the rise of Solidarity in Poland sheds new light on the Soviet Union’s severe geopolitical overextension at the end of the 1970s. In 1980–1981 Yuri Andropov, who was then head of the Soviet state security committee (KGB) and a Politburo member, privately acknowledged that the revolutionary developments in Poland were spilling into the western territories...


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pp. 170-172
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