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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 124-125

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Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. 693 pp. $45.00.

The English translation of this sensational book, published first in Russian in 1998, provides a resource of immense value to scholars and practioners in arms control. Although working exclusively from unclassified sources, the talented team of authors has provided an accurate and comprehensive accounting of the Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons program from its first faltering steps to the present.

In a number of respects the book is unique and of great value. In tracing the evolution of weapons systems, it records and correlates the evolving names of organizations, key individuals, and weapons. Many of the institutes and weapons changed names during the period covered by the book, and the weapons not only changed names internally but were often cited in Western sources by the designations given by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The correlation of all these names is a blessing. Similarly, the accurate and precise accounting of forty years of Soviet nuclear explosions with abbreviated test data provides a temporal perspective from which to examine parallel U.S. and Soviet developments.

The careful analysis of the technical development of weapons and of the internal decisions on production opens a previously closed door on when and how the Soviet Union was responding to U.S. programs and when it was pursuing its independentgoals. Unfortunately, the book provides no comparable analysis of Soviet political decision making and the political interactions of key individuals and organizations.

It is important to note that Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces was prepared initially in Russian for a Russian audience. The heavy reliance on Western sources not normally available in Russia ironically allowed the authors to provide detailed information to their fellow Russian citizens, who until recently knew far less about their own nuclear weapons than those living outside the country did. The benefit for Western readers is that although the book has been slightly updated and includes an afterword covering the three-year gap between the appearance of the Russian and English versions, it comes without a political message for foreign audiences.

Although the book draws strictly on unclassified sources, the authors have deliberately pushed the edges of the information-control system in Russia to provide data that are still regarded as sensitive. Their willingness to push this limit provides unique opportunities for Western scholars to engage in a healthy and equal dialogue on how to cope with the most significant and dangerous legacy of the Cold War. [End Page 124]

As the authors acknowledge, the book is intended to be a basic reference source and not an object for enjoyable armchair reading. However, the compelling candor of the authors and the welcome change in seeing such material available from Russian scholars draws in Western readers in ways that even the best reference books normally fail to do.

The decision to trace the development of weapons systems separately in terms of land-based systems, sea-based systems, and aircraft is a good organizational tool and allows a clear focus on all three elements of the triad. However, because the development of weapons was often a function of geopolitical and technological shifts that were not exclusive to a single system, readers might not find it easy to discern the main threads in the bilateral arms race with the United States.

Three technical aspects of the book make it especially valuable as a reference. First, the detailed noting of sources and the inclusion of editorial observations in each chapter will be of help to other scholars who are pursuing related research. Second, the detailed and accurate index exceeds what is often found in Russian sources, allowing readers to find requisite information quickly. Finally, the quality of the translation appears to be excellent, with none of the awkward structures or confusing passages that are often introduced in translations of both narrative and technical data.

As the world has entered a time in which the entire arms control enterprise and the benefits of mutual transparency...