Vladislav Zubok’s absorbing account of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a powerful piece of partisan history. At its heart is a searing critique of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who delivered freedom to Russia and to the European communist bloc. “The Soviet Union,” concludes Zubok, “fell victim to a perfect storm and a hapless captain”.
Gorbachev’s leadership style, he writes, was a lethal combination of “ideological reformist zeal with political timidity, schematic messianism with practical detachment, breath-taking foreign policy with inability to promote domestic reform”.
In the West, Gorbachev remains the valiant hero of a (sadly) failed attempt to revitalise and democratise the Soviet communist system. In Russia, he is reviled as the man who imploded the Soviet economy and plunged tens of millions into prolonged and abject poverty. Alongside Gorbachev in this pantheon of popular villainy stands Boris Yeltsin, whose overweening ambition to be Russia’s leader led him to deliberately break up the multi-national Soviet state.
The Russian Zubok, at the time of these events, was a young, western-leaning liberal. Now he is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and shares the negative evaluation of his erstwhile compatriots toward Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But he does not share the nostalgia of those who mourn Soviet communism’s passing. Rather, he robustly regrets the consequences: rapacious robber-baron capitalism, the rise of extreme forms of nationalism, and the complacent claims of western supremacists that what happened was inevitable once Gorbachev lifted the lid on Pandora’s box of freedoms.
President Vladimir Putin’s conservative regime became the ultimate beneficiary of the plunder, pillage and political chaos of the 1990s. Historical memory of those terrifyingly unstable and insecure times has always been a potent vote-winner for Putin. And the current crisis in relation to Ukraine is one of many dangerous legacies of the precipitous break-up of the USSR.
Zubok frames his narrative of the complex events of the late 1980s and early 1990s within a counter-factual argument: it could have turned out very differently had Gorbachev followed the reform course set by Yury Andropov, his mentor and predecessor as Soviet leader.
A former head of the KGB, Andropov succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet communist party in 1982. He, too, saw the need to reform and modernise the Soviet regime, especially in the economic sphere. His strategy was gradual economic reform within the framework of a strong party-state that could both cajole and control change.
Zubok sees Andropov as the Soviet Deng Xiaoping – the communist leader who replaced state socialism with state capitalism without collapsing China’s authoritarian political system. While this is not an implausible scenario, more dubious is Zubok’s implication that, unlike in the Chinese case, Soviet economic reform would have been followed by democratic political change.
Continuing authoritarianism and repression were essential to Andropov’s strategy but he died in 1984 and his protégé, Gorbachev, had a “visceral aversion to the use of force” – “an admirable moral quality in an individual”, comments Zubok, but “a huge political flaw in the face of toxic nationalism”.
Gorbachev’s fateful mistake when he came to power in 1985 was to pursue radical economic and political reform simultaneously. As Zubok shows so well, Gorbachev and his political advisers did not understand the intricacies of the Soviet financial system, in particular how the county’s central bank controlled its currency. To encourage enterprise, they decentralised economic decision-making, but the result was runaway inflation and severe shortages, especially of food and consumer goods. Their experiments in “market socialism” led to little more than the enrichment of a few entrepreneurs who turned Soviet state assets into their private profits.
Gorbachev believed economic reform failed because of vested interests and conservative resistance within the communist party. He also feared that if democratisation faltered the whole reform process would collapse. He strove therefore to transfer political power from the party to representative institutions, notably the semi-democratic Congress of People’s Deputies, elected in March 1989. These actions empowered the third villain of Zubok’s analysis – the Soviet intelligentsia – who used the new structures as platforms to propound unrealisable populist economic demands and propose utopian schemes for an immediate and pain-free transition from socialism to capitalism.
Gorbachev’s devolution of power to the Soviet Union’s national republics was another tactic that backfired, creating the opportunity for ethnically-based nationalist agitation in Ukraine and Baltic states, together with inter-communal violence in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, Zubok believes it was the exit of Yeltsin’s Russia from the Soviet empire, not the centrifugal forces of periphery nationalism, that tore the USSR apart.
Yeltsin was voted head of Russia’s parliament in May 1990 and in June 1991 became the popularly elected president of the Russian Republic. By this time Gorbachev was president of the USSR but had no democratic mandate and little popular support. In August 1991 the failed coup by communist hardliners handed Yeltsin an opportunity to wrest power from Gorbachev and take control of central Soviet institutions. In December he met the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus and they agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union into its constituent national republics. Shortly after, Gorbachev resigned as the leader of the now-defunct USSR. Zubok’s coverage of the August coup and the ensuing dissolution process are just two of many outstanding chapters in the book.
The story he tells is highly detailed and sometimes technical, but it is always clear and gripping. At no point does his partisanship overwhelm the facts or distort his treatment of alternative views of the epic drama that was the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Thoroughly and deeply researched and emotionally engaging for the reader, it is difficult to envisage how there could be a better book on the subject.
Geoffrey Roberts is emeritus professor of history at UCC. His latest book, Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, will be published by Yale next month.