Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall

March 17, 2011

The half-century following the Second World War, an era we know as the Cold War, is commonly seen as a period of stability compared with the confused state of the world today. It was a time when relations between the Soviet Union and the West seem, from today's perspective, to have been easier to understand and to predict.

As Jonathan Haslam reminds us, it was George Orwell in 1945 who predicted that the Soviet Union was both unconquerable and in a state of permanent "cold war" with its neighbours. A year later, Winston Churchill declared that an Iron Curtain had closed the USSR off from its Western neighbours, the "Free World", confirming Orwell's diagnosis. Haslam's purpose in this impressive study is to revisit the Cold War from the Russian point of view and to show that it was in fact a time of constant war, near-wars and political upheaval on both sides.

Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" of February 1956, which for more than a generation buried Joseph Stalin as a malign force in Russian history, had stirred the consciences of rising party functionaries such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, to name only two. Neither "peaceful coexistence" nor détente would prove capable of warming up relations between the Soviet Union and the West, so when the generation of the 1960s came into high office in the mid-1980s, it decided that "we can't go on living like this".

The 1960s generation took the Soviet reins during a period when economic stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev was brewing a crisis, American advancement in science and technology was visibly moving rapidly ahead of the USSR's, and Communist Eastern Europe was showing increasing discontent under Russian hegemony.

Further weakening the USSR, in 1986 the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl effectively breached the country's Western border as fallout drifted westward out of the Politburo's control. In 1988, an earthquake in Armenia brought relief from the West in such uncontrolled conditions that even transport planes from Israel were able to fly across the southern border with expert assistance: the Iron Curtain was falling.

Poland in particular was worrisome: the immensely popular Solidarity movement rose like an organised opposition - with a Polish Pope in Rome - yet, as Haslam shows, even as late as 1988, Gorbachev felt that the situation was containable and that the Polish Communists would be able to sustain socialism. Eager to withdraw from its 10-year entanglement in Afghanistan, the USSR was unwilling to contemplate any show of force against the "fraternal" countries of Eastern Europe, and its official posture vis-a-vis the West became correspondingly mild.

As the Cold War visibly receded, and with the USSR's failure in Afghanistan, the Red Army's demoralisation was plain to see: soldiers were filmed picking over rubbish dumps in East Germany and a full marshal's discarded uniform, from cap to ceremonial sword, could be bought in Moscow markets for as little as $500.

Meanwhile, the political situation in Eastern Europe was rapidly, and seemingly spontaneously, falling apart, and none of its leaders was empowered to use force to stop their citizens flooding into West Germany and Austria. The Berlin Wall had become an irrelevance and was pulled down as Communist border guards looked on. All signs of leadership faded.

The Cold War has been described and analysed in many academic and journalistic books and memoirs, but Haslam, while focusing on Russia, digs deep into the political background of all sides. His sources are a wide range of archival materials - American, British, Western and Eastern European - and he has used them to understand the initiatives and thoughts of all the political leaders whose role in the conduct and ending of the Cold War was significant.

Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall

By Jonathan Haslam. Yale University Press, 512pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300159974. Published 24 February 2011

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