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SAIS Review 22.2 (2002) 339-347
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The Demise and Residue of the Soviet Union
Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. By Stephen Kotkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). 236 pp. $27.50.
Now that a decade has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed, memories have begun to fade of the remarkable events that followed Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985. Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost ushered in a momentous period of change and turmoil. When perestroika began, no one expected that the Soviet Union would soon disintegrate. Gorbachev aimed to reform Soviet communism, not to destroy it. Yet, less than seven years after he took office, the Soviet regime abruptly collapsed.
The downfall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was astonishing in its own right, but what was even more striking was the way it occurred—with only minimal violence. As late as mid-August 1991 (just before an attempted coup d'état in Moscow), few, if any, observers anticipated that the Soviet Union would peacefully break apart. Whenever large, multiethnic empires disintegrated in the past, their demise usually came after extensive warfare and loss of life. 1 A similar fate seemed likely to befall the Soviet Union, a country whose leaders had used horrific violence in the past to consolidate and maintain their power.
Contrary to expectations, however, the collapse of the Soviet state was largely free of bloodshed. Although some violence did occur under Gorbachev—riots in Kazakhstan in 1986, skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988 on, a crackdown in Georgia in April 1989, clashes in the Ferghana Valley in June 1989 and 1990, a crackdown in Azerbaijan in January 1990, and a more limited [End Page 339] crackdown in the Baltic states in January 1991—these tragic incidents were surprisingly infrequent at a time of such rapid and disorienting political change, and they were certainly not enough, in and of themselves, to precipitate the breakup of the Soviet state. Moreover, the events in December 1991 that culminated in the final dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred with no violence at all. The generally peaceful end of the Soviet regime is often taken for granted nowadays and is sometimes depicted as inevitable, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s (not to mention in the pre-Gorbachev era) this outcome seemed far less plausible.
Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton University, offers a cogent reassessment of the demise of the Soviet Union in his brief, elegantly written book, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. Kotkin is well known for two earlier books that used the city of Magnitogorsk as a vehicle for analyzing "Stalinism as a civilization" and the nature of Soviet society in the Gorbachev era. 2 In recent years he has published highly insightful commentaries on post-Soviet Russia in The New Republic and other periodicals. Traces of his previous writings are evident in Armageddon Averted, but the book does more than simply recapitulate his earlier work. The introduction and seven chapters, arranged both chronologically and thematically, provide a sweeping, sophisticated analysis of the nature of the Soviet system, the reasons for its collapse, and its pernicious legacy in post-Soviet Russia.
The subtitle of Armageddon Averted suggests that it covers the period from 1970 to the present, but this is somewhat misleading. Kotkin allots only about twenty pages (in chapter 1) to the years from 1970 to 1985, emphasizing what he sees as the connection between Yuri Andropov, the long-time director of the KGB who briefly led the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1980s, and the rise of Gorbachev. Although Kotkin makes a few subsequent allusions to the early years of the Soviet regime, most of the book focuses on the period from 1985 to the late 1990s, particularly the events that culminated in the dissolution of the USSR.
The turbulent years under Gorbachev (1985-1991) and Russian president Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) have been shrouded in numerous myths that Kotkin seeks to dispel. He rightly argues that...