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.