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A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (New Cold War History) [Hardcover]

Vladislav M. Zubok
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

15 Sep 2007 New Cold War History
This book features the Cold War from the Soviet side. In this widely praised book, Vladislav Zubok argues that Western interpretations of the Cold War have erred by exaggerating either the Kremlin's pragmatism or its aggressiveness. Explaining the interests, aspirations, illusions, fears, and misperceptions of the Kremlin leaders and Soviet elites, Zubok offers the first work in English to cover the entire Cold War from the Soviet side. "A Failed Empire" provides a history quite different from those written by the Western victors. In a new preface for this edition, the author adds to our understanding of today's events in Russia, including who the new players are and how their policies will affect the state of the world in the twenty-first century.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (15 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807830984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807830987
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 17 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,558,288 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Draw[s] on abundant new primary sources to refine our understanding of the Cold War, turning it from a melodrama into a nuanced tragedy....Zubok reveals the full extent of Stalin's brutal post - World War II suppression of the Soviet people." - Washington Post Book World" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

VLADISLAV M. ZUBOK is associate professor of history at Temple University. He is coauthor of Anti-Americanism in Russia: From Stalin to Putin. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This well-researched and insightful work is a major study of the Soviet Union in the Cold War from 1945 to 1991. It is far better than Jonathan Haslam's recent Russia's cold war.

Zubok presents Stalin's brilliant analysis in September 1945 of the purposes behind the US proposal for a treaty to demilitarise Germany: "First, to divert our attention from the Far East, where Americans assume a role of tomorrow's friend of Japan, and to create thereby a perception that everything is fine there; second, to receive from the USSR a formal sanction for the US playing the same role in European affairs as the USSR, so that the US may hereafter, in league with England, take the future of Europe into their hands; third, to devalue the treaties of alliance that the USSR have already reached with European states; fourth, to pull out the rug from any future treaties of alliance between the USSR and Rumania, Finland, etc."

Zubok assigns the blame for the start of the Cold War to Britain and the USA, noting that the British consul in Mashhad wrote that it was "above all, the efforts of Standard and Shell to secure oil-prospecting rights that changed the Russians in Persia from hot-war allies to cold-war rivals."

As Zubok points out, "Stalin left to the West the role of breaking the agreements of Yalta and Potsdam and starting a confrontation." He observes, "every Soviet step towards creating units of military and secret police inside the zone was taken after the Western powers took their own decisive steps toward the separation of West Germany: Bizonia, the Marshall Plan, and the formation of West Germany."

He comments, "Land reforms in East Germany as well as elsewhere in Central Europe were a definite political success for the Soviets and their Communist appointees.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview 11 Oct 2008
By Sergey Radchenko - Published on Amazon.com
This is an excellent book - a coherent, persuasive and well-written overview of the Soviet side of the Cold War. Zubok resurrects the "revolutionary-imperial paradigm" of his (and Pleshakov's) earlier book and extends it to the 1980s. The Soviet leaders, he argues, were motivated both by dreams of imperial aggrandizement and messianic revolutionary zeal. The thesis is well-made. I think on the whole Zubok's book chips away at the "revolutionary" part of the paradigm: the Soviet policy makers come across as rather cynical political operators, who carefully or sometimes unconsciously used ideological platitudes in pursuit of realpolitik aims. But that's just my reading of Zubok's own evidence. The book stands on familiar ground with regard to Stalin and Khrushchev; it does offer a remarkably vivid account of the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years. Brezhnev, dismissed in anecdotes as a senile fool manipulated by grey cardinals in his entourage, comes across as a real statesman, a peacemaker. Zubok's portrait of Gorbachev penetrates beyond the facade of naive idealism, revealing some of the layered complexity of the Gorbachev phenomenon. This is a must-read for anyone interested in post-war Soviet history.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why the USSR fell 30 Dec 2010
By Amrit - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The collapse of the USSR is one of the most important events of the twentieth century. During its existence after 1917 until 1991, the USSR stood at the centre of world politics - especially after 1945. It embodied many of the important aspects of modern history including socialism (which it embodied in its Marxist-Leninist form), State-led industrialisation and development (which it pioneered), technologically driven change (the Soviets took an early lead in the space race) and the State as a provider of welfare (of which the USSR was an early practitioner). The end of the USSR also meant the end of a key defining feature of the twentieth century. This was the case not only for those in the Soviet sphere but also for those outside it who defined themselves as the opposite of the USSR, notably American capitalist democracy.

Zubok's book is a "must read" for any one interested why the Soviet Union came to its sudden end. The conventional Western view is that during the Reagan-Thatcher era, the US commenced an arms race in order to exhaust and bring down the USSR. This worked. Unable to keep up, the Soviets simply threw in the towel and gave up. While plausible on the surface, this explanation opens as many questions as it answers. After 1945 the USSR though a victor in the Second World War, lay exhausted and devastated. The difference in Soviet capabilities and those of the US at that time was much greater than at the point of the dissolution of the USSR. Nevertheless, the USSR stared down the Americans, within two decades had narrowed the gap and set itself up as a seemingly viable alternative superpower, forcing the US to deal with it as its equal. Having beaten Germany and become a superpower in the 50s and 60s starting with a low base, it seems unclear why the USSR in the 80s with less of a difference in power with the US could not have survived the new US challenge. Zubok's answer is that it was not external pressure but internal factors that brought the USSR to its end. It was not brought down by outsiders but "committed suicide".

Zubok sees that collapse unfolding over a period of decades commencing with the immediate post war period and Stalin's last years. According to Zubok, the beginning of the demise of the USSR lay at the very point in time when the Soviets triumphantly marched into Germany and occupied the eastern parts. For the Russian soldiers, it was a shock to discover that the Germans not only enjoyed a higher standard of living than them but also produced better quality products and enjoyed more productive agriculture and industries. They had been taught that theirs was the best country in the world. What they saw in Germany threw this into question. When Soviet soldiers returned to Russia, they brought back with them their doubts and questioning - and also demanded a greater say in running their own affairs in recognition of their great sacrifices during the War. The programme of ideological rigidification after the War was perhaps in part a response to these developments. Returning soldiers after demobilisation can be a volatile lot. Zubok notes the contrast for American GI's who on returning home generally found prosperity and little reason to challenge things.

The anti-Semitic campaigns of the early 50s also had an impact in eroding the ideological foundations of the USSR. It raised questions in the minds of many people of the bona fides of a system and ideology that purported to set itself up against racism and prejudice. It "had an enormous divisive and corroding influence on Soviet elites and the educated society". Stalin was nevertheless able to use fear of encirclement to convince people to go his way - which included setting out on a course of confrontation with the US and Britain. This coupled with a sense of entitlement as victors to hold on to the territories acquired by the Red Army. Zubok describes the mindset as a "revolutionary imperialism" paradigm which combined messianic ideological zeal with a desire to hold on the territory taken by the Red Army and expand as far as possible to secure the ideology and the Soviet state. Zubok considers that all Soviet leaders from Stalin to Brezhnev were motivated to some extent by this paradigm.

The next major development was the "thaw" under Khrushchev when the new leader moved to de-Stalinise the country but in doing so, took the first step that set the USSR on a path to its end. Encouraged by Khrushchev's more open society, the process of questioning continued. The generation of the sixties including Mikhail Gorbachev were in the end those who brought the system down. Importantly, Khrushchev also changed gears by promising to match and surpass the West in giving its citizens a comfortable consumer society. It was in the end the failure to achieve this that convinced the elite of the USSR that the system had to go. This was something that Stalin never wanted or promised - what he had on offer was something entirely different to a comfortable consumer society.

Khrushchev however did not abandon the revolutionary imperial paradigm. He tried to soften it through greater engagement with the West. The holding of a Youth Festival in Moscow in the late 50s was an important event that brought Russians into contact with their peers in Europe and the rest of the world. These contacts helped break down stereotypes of the hostile "other" and contributed to the process of questioning the system. This happened at the same time as an energetic thrust to spread Soviet influence into the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa - and also into Latin America following the guiding principles of the "revolutionary imperial" world view.

The Brezhnev era saw the Soviet system slowing down towards a halt. The economy found it ever more difficult to deliver what Khrushchev had promised - let alone provide basic necessities. This was an era of increasing shortages and an ever widening gap with standards of living in the West. During the Khrushchev era, the Russian elite still subscribed to Communist ideology - albeit a softer more reformed version. By the end of the Brezhnev years, that commitment had fallen away amongst the elite even if it espoused the ideology in a formulaic manner. Brezhnev's commitment to détente also helped weaken the ideological foundations by seeking to contain and manage the conflict with the capitalist West. This conflict formed part of the raison d'Ítre of the regime and its ideology and containing it therefore weakened the foundation. Without Brezhnev says Zubok there could have been no Gorbachev.

The economic crisis became critical by the time Yuri Andropov and Gorbachev took power - as did the impact of the drawn out and debilitating war in Afghanistan. By this time, declining revenues from oil had left a large hole in the regime's finances. In a last attempt to reform and save the system through a programme of restructuring (perestroika) Gorbachev unwittingly brought the system down. Gorbachev's policies themselves contributed to worsening the economic situation through hasty reforms. In the end "Gorbachev and those who supported him were not prepared to shed blood for a cause they did not believe in and for the empire they did not profit from". The elite abandoned any hope of reforming the system and also abandoned Gorbachev. They replaced the USSR with its successor states hoping that these successor states would follow a more Western model and bring on the long denied "good life".

Zubok sees Gorbachev's own personality as important in his impulsiveness and naive faith in the possibility of a quick transformation of the USSR into a more Western-like state. The obvious contrast is with Deng Xiao Ping in China who in the 70s formed the same conclusion that the system was unworkable and then undertook a process of gradual reform, "crossing the river by feeling the stones" as the Chinese saying goes - rather than the overnight change that Gorbachev and the Yeltsin thought they could deliver.

In the end, it was economic failure that brought the USSR down. Zubok however traces the decline and then fall of the system not by analysis of macro-economic data such as production figures and growth rates but through the changing viewpoints of the Soviet elites their debates amongst themselves and the eventual view they formed that the system was not working and had to go. The picture he paints of the USSR is of a shaky edifice with much insecurity and uncertainty amongst its leaders as to where to go and what to do (especially after the Stalin era). This insecurity characterised the leaders themselves and their conduct. During their youth during a trip to Western Europe in the 50s, Raisa Gorbachev asked her husband the painful question why "they" had more than Russians did. Henry Kissinger thought that Brezhnev concealed his insecurity through his boisterousness. This contrasts with the Western image of the USSR as something much stronger and formidable with a clear sense of self and direction.

Zukok looks at his subject through the eyes of the Soviet elite. He has little to say about what ordinary people thought. Did they also hold the same views? Was there a difference between their level of support for the system and that of the elite? The tentative answer might be that their views were similar - since no party promising a return to the old system has done well in post-Soviet Russia even if most Russians resent deeply the fall in the status of their country and the hardship they suffered during the 1990s - and have little time for the two leaders they see as the architects of the demise of the USSR, namely Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Zubok's book is a valuable window into perspectives on the rise and fall of the USSR. It tells the story from the "inside" and tells a story that is very different to what Western readers are accustomed to hear from their own experts and scholars. Surprisingly, Ronald Reagan comes through not as the determined Cold Warrior who brought down the USSR but as a pragmatic and effective peacemaker who worked with Gorbachev to de-escalate the Cold War - before it was clear that the USSR would soon be no more. Ultimately, the analysis that Zubok puts forward is compelling and forces a rethink of how we understand the end of the USSR.

Zubok's thesis raises an interesting question. Could the USSR had survived had it not allowed exposure to the outside world from the time Russians soldiers returned from Germany? Could the belief in a perfect socialist society have survived if there was no information available on the alternatives from the outside world? Zubok's narrative ties the demise of the USSR in some respects to increasing awareness of the better lives of others outside the USSR. A parallel may be drawn with Bhutan's celebrated position on the "happiness" index. That "happiness" seems to take a beating the more the country opens up and exposes its citizens to the possibilities in the world outside.

As we ourselves now face the reality of declining standards of living and less availability in consumables (this appears to be a given if we move towards a low carbon economy), one wonders what the reformers of the 80s and 90s in Russia will make of the choices they made under Gorbachev and Yeltsin? Are they reaching for their "holy grail" just at the very point in time when it becomes less attainable for people in the West whom they seek to emulate? Perhaps, the old Soviets will have the last laugh after all. However, if we all need to adjust to a more modest standard, one hopes that the West's democratic way of life can survive major adjustments in a way that Soviet system could not - as it has done succesfully in the past.
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprising history with chilling detail 16 Mar 2009
By AT1988 - Published on Amazon.com
I was originally expecting a run of the mill history of the Soviet Union, but I, like most prospective readers, was pleasantly surprised. The detail in which Zubok elaborates on his research gives the reader a true insight into Stalin's moves on the diplomatic chessboard, Krushchev's brinkmanship, Brezhnev's indiscipline, Gorbachev's attempt to liberalize the USSR, which inadvertently and ultimately brought it down, as a system based on oppression cannot stand once the masses have their say. However, the inclusion of original research enriches the experience, which allows the reader to truly understand the symbiosis between the KGB and the Politburo, and understand how such a system lasted for so long. A must read for those not looking for a thousand page volume on Stalin, but for a brief but highly detailed history of the former Evil Empire.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine Book With Solid Scholarship 22 April 2008
By D. Macdonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent overview of Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War. Judicious and fair, and drawing on much new information from the archives, one gets a sense that this will be the definitive work for some time. The only criticism I have is that I wish the author had dealt with the Sino-Soviet split in more depth. It is here, but only episodically brought in to the narrative. But all and all a great book and a fine read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars interesting and informative book 5 Nov 2011
By fatandhappy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If one desires to understand events as they transpired in any historical event, the necessity of reviewing both parties to a conflict becomes of particular import, and in the case of Vladislav Zubok's book A Failed Empire, the "other" side, the Soviet Union, is thoroughly analyzed from the inside in this pursuit. The result of Zubok's careful review of primary sources, from the memoirs and diaries of many participants, to the actual transcripts of meetings as they occurred in the halls of power, is a wide-ranging and informative description of Soviet perspectives and ideology, and how these positions informed the events of the Cold War.

The overriding theme that the author tackles in his careful analysis of the conflict between the USSR and the US is one that involves a "revolutionary-imperial paradigm", meaning that, whatever the ideology of revolutionary zeal that spawned and maintained the Soviets, they were also an empire that wished to bring other nationalities and regions under their control, either for the purpose of security--as was the case with the occupation of Eastern and Central Europe--or to pursue its goal of eventual communistic overthrow where it was deemed possible for the revolution to take root, as in Cuba or Ethiopia. This idea of a nation that saw itself as an antidote to the history of capitalistic imperialism, but ironically acted in the same way to translate its own ideology into power, is a clever and revealing point to be understood about the Soviets, because it casts them in a light of following the same self-interest as the enemy they so effectively denounced.

When viewing the different stages of the evolution of the USSR, Zubok makes some revealing points about each stage of its development. While true that Josef Stalin was a murderous tyrant, he also acted with pragmatism and bargained effectively with his former Western allies following World War II. In accordance with his security concerns for spheres of influence and his self-perception of being a "realist", Stalin gained the admiration of his contemporaries, and expanded the cause of his constituents. Unfortunately, Stalin pushed his effectiveness too far, because his efforts to solidify the communist hold on Eastern Europe and push for eventual change elsewhere forced the US to counter his moves with a concrete policy of containment and to heavily fund the rest of Europe through the Marshall plan. After a period of collective leadership following the death of Stalin, the author notes that the De-Stalinization efforts that followed under Nikita Khrushchev actually helped to undermine the overall conception of the benevolence of communism within Soviet Society amongst its most educated population, a group that would eventually assume power in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev and likeminded "new thinkers". As Zubok then moves through the period of Khrushchev's successor and investigates that era through the prism of détente, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev is shown to be an effective leader in his own right, because he espoused a relaxation of terms between the two superpowers, one that would provide hope in spite of the growing military might on the Soviet side. The idea that Brezhnev was a good leader who wished for peace is not one that has been made so effectively in the wider view of history, and makes for a convincing new angle in contemporary history. With regard to the end of the Cold War, the support by its final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, of a transformation of the USSR into a socialist bloc that could coexist with the West and integrate itself into the capitalist world without violence, is offered by Zubok to be a naive and ill-defined experiment who was unable to harness his ideas into effective action.

Though these positions are fresh and add greatly to the ideas of how the Cold War occurred, the reading is not without problems. When the author discusses détente in 1972 between Nixon and Brezhnev and the first SALT agreement, he barely mentions one of its primary causes, which was the rapprochement between China and the US, a version of triangulation that sought to play Russia and China against one another. Similarly, the fact that the US was greatly weakened by the loss in Vietnam should have been presented as a primary concern by the Americans for engagement with Brezhnev, instead of just crediting the Soviet leader's leadership primarily. Finally, when discussing the end of the Cold War and attributing the chaotic breakup of the USSR to Gorbachev's inept guidance, and in turn stepping into the hypothetical of wondering if the Soviet Union could have performed instead in the way that China did in emerging from a statist economy, Zubok has made the mistake of pining for a an equivalence that did not exist. The truth was that the Soviet Union and China had huge differences in composition and geographic necessities, and further, it may seem a miracle of sorts to the unbiased eye that such a construction as the USSR was able to break apart as quickly as it did with limited bloodshed. In short, what actually did occur was far from a failure for humanity.

It is apparent, however, that whatever the small quibbles that one may have with this book, its information is in fact brilliantly presented and convincingly conveyed, with all of its contentions seeming to be historically sound. Whether one is a novice to Cold War history or an experienced researcher of its various facets, they can do no better than to investigate its breadth and conclusions.
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