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Book Review: Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav M. Zubok

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In collapse, Vladislav M. Zubok examines the fall of the Soviet Union, showing how the collapse was not sudden but rather the result of a long decline with economic strains at the center. It is a compelling and detailed study that will prove to be the new standard work on a critical period in world history that still has ramifications today, writes William B. Whisenhunt.

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union. Vladislav M. Zubok. Yale University Press. 2021.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was once news, but now it’s ancient history. The last years of the Soviet Union were tense and contentious. The 1970s and 1980s were defined by the idea of ​​Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Cold War movies like The next day, War games and Red Dawn, economic stagnation and the fiery rhetoric of such figures as the leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, and US President Ronald Reagan. For those who lived through this era, the fear of an apocalyptic disaster was mixed with a grim cynicism about the politics of the time.

With collapse, eminent historian Vladislav M. Zubok has written what will prove to be the new standard work on one of the most dramatic events of the late 20th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 seemed to the world suddenly, and even a little unbelievable. Yet Zubok highlights the fact that the collapse was not so sudden, but rather the result of a long decline.

Zubok’s book takes a new approach to the subject by focusing on economic tensions as the main cause of the collapse. The economic stagnation of the 1960s and 1970s has often been referred to in other works on the last years of the Soviet Union, but collapse brings this theme to the fore. After reading Zubok’s long study, the economic argument becomes more and more convincing. While traditional interpretations still hold up over time, this work clearly shows that the main constraint was economic.

This economic theme falls squarely on the shoulders of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. His economic reforms, known as perestroika (“restructuring”), were slow to develop and did not produce the kind of change that allowed the Soviet economy to modernize. Its policy of openness, known as glasnost, allowed Soviet citizens to see this world in a new way, but it also exposed many flaws of the Soviet regime in the past and present. This engendered impatience among Soviet citizens to fulfill the long-held Soviet promise of a better standard of living, but this did not materialize.

Zubok’s long and detailed study is easy to read. It is designed with a strong narrative approach to tell an unfolding drama. It not only keeps the reader’s attention, but also provides a wealth of detail and analysis that can only be undertaken by someone who has worked Zubok’s entire life on the subject.

The first section of the book focuses on the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in decline as it passed through a series of older and ailing leaders before Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. For the generalist reader as well as the specialist, this section is very important. . It draws the reader into the details of the drama that shaped not only the internal collapse of the Soviet system, but also describes how the outside world (especially the United States) played a key role in the development of that era.

In the second section, Zubok emphasizes the roles that many Western powers played in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. The intimate details that Zubok reveals about the conversations and negotiations that took place place between 1989 and 1991 are treasured in this book and will be used by scholars for years to come.

In particular, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush (1989-93) played a crucial role in dismantling the Soviet Union with its desire to see it end peacefully rather than explode into regional or international conflict. . While the Bush administration hesitated in the first half of 1989 to fully engage with Gorbachev, it would prove central to the events that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the final months of 1991.

One of the most compelling parts of the books is Zubok’s account and analysis of the period between August and December 1991. The details are revealing of the inner workings of the Soviet government in its final days and weeks. The future first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, emerges in this treatment as a pivotal figure who saw the changes ahead and positioned himself to take advantage of them for his own personal power. Moreover, the hardline communists in the leadership presented obstacles at almost every turn to Gorbachev’s reforms that rendered his attempts at transformation quite anemic.

Zubok concludes, however, that the real responsibility for the collapse rests with Gorbachev. He introduced sweeping economic reforms that could not be carried out. He points out that Gorbachev’s inability to adapt to developing realities during his six years in power helped spread disillusionment with the system itself. Gorbachev’s inspiration for this reform effort was the work of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin. However, he only partially adopted Lenin’s tactics to bring about such radical change. Zubok’s conclusion about Gorbachev is revealing. He notes that “Gorbachev’s messianic idea of ​​a humane socialist society was increasingly detached from the realities of Soviet power and its economy” (427).

In conclusion, Zubok’s book is an excellent study of this critical period in world history that still has ramifications today. His research and analysis will prove invaluable to scholars and the general public as they attempt to understand the 1991 collapse and its continuing impact on the present.


Note: This article was first published on our partner site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Tengyart on Unsplash