- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

With a suggestion of sadness, Russian scholar Vladislav M. Zubok writes that although “it took three decades to turn the Soviet Union into a superpower, the main challenger of the United States in the world,” the disintegration of his homeland required only three years. Through an examination of Soviet archives and a mammoth amount of other material, he makes a strong case that the collapse came about because of a series of strategic blunders by the USSR’s “own leadership,” and that the Soviets have only themselves to blame.

For someone immersed in Cold War minutia the past several years, Mr. Zubok’s work is a fascinating study of Moscow’s view of the long-running confrontation. His book is A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (University of North Carolina Press, $39.95, 467 pages). An earlier volume covered the period through Khrushchev. Mr. Zubok teaches at Temple University after work at several Washington research institutes.

Revelations from the Kremlin’s own archives should permanently silence the revisionist “historians” who blame the Cold War on an imperialist-minded Truman Administration. As Mr. Zubok documents, in his post-war “peace offensives” Josef Stalin had American allies whose behavior went beyond the label of “useful idiot.” Consider Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace, who came within a hair of the vice-presidential nomination in 1944 and hence the presidency.

In October 1945, Wallace sought out the NKGB rezident in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky, to make an offer to Stalin. A reporting NKGB cable quoted Wallace, “Truman was a petty politician who reached his current post by accident. He often has ‘good’ intentions but too easily falls under the influence of people around him.”

Wallace claimed that he was “fighting for Truman’s soul” against an assemblage led by Secretary of State James Byrnes, who were “extremely anti-Soviet” and “advance an idea of a dominating Anglo-Soviet bloc consisting mainly of the US and England” against the “Slavic world.” Wallace offered to play the role of an “agent of influence” on behalf of the Soviets. As Mr. Zubok writes, “He pleaded with Stalin to help him and his followers.”

Stalin happily complied, writing Wallace a denial that the Soviets “are waging any Cold War. The United States is waging it.” Any Soviet-US differences could be resolved through negotiations.

But while espousing peace, Stalin cynically ignored post-war treaty obligations concerning Berlin, Italy and other areas, as Mr. Zubok documents. Most of his ploys backfired. His blockade of West Berlin in 1948 led to the creation of NATO and a division of Germany that lasted throughout the Cold War — a “propaganda fiasco and a strategic failure,” Mr. Zubok observes.

Also cited is evidence that Stalin considered giving military aid to Italian communists before the 1948 elections there. Stalin flinched at the last minute, and communists were defeated at the polls.

Truman wisely chose to judge Stalin on his actions, not his words. And in due course, he fired the noisy Wallace.

Mr. Zubok explores at great length the development of Soviet military strength. In 1959-1960, eyeing a presidential election, a host of Democratic politicians took at face value Nikita Khrushchev’s blustery claims that the Soviets were “producing missiles like sausages.” The “missile gap” debate dominated the news for months.

Reality was somewhat different. For many years, Mr. Zubok writes, “the Soviet Union had only a hypothetical strategic capacity against the United States.” Its first ICBM, the R-7 (the SS-6, to NATO), first deployed in 1957, “was an inefficient and horribly costly weapon,” weighing 300 tons and operating on liquid rocket fuel, “which made every launch a nightmare.”

Only four of them were operational by the end of 1959, and limited launch pads meant that the Soviets would have time for only two launches should it decide to attack the United States. (Amusingly, such is almost exactly what CIA analysts determined from afar, thanks to U-2 photos and other sources. CIA documents from the era released in 2001 noted the “enormous” size of the missile but said its use of cryogenic fuel caused “nightmarish logistical problems” for deployment.). In later years, Khrushchev’s military did acquire more serious missiles, and in abundance.

Mr.Zubok’s figures on Soviet defense spending support the thesis that President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup essentially forced the USSR down the road into bankruptcy. Expenditures on the armed forces by 1984 consumed 18.5 percent of the budget. Add in “defense related” spending, as Premier Leonid Brezhnev admitted years later, and the outlay consumed an incredible 40 percent of the budget.

An “adequate response” to Reagan’s buildup would have increased the military budget by a further 14 percent. Such would have necessitated drastic cuts in living standards (perhaps a six-day work week) and would have ended Brezhnev’s “live and let live” pact with the Soviet people.

Fortunately, the Soviets’ harsh position towards Reagan gradually softened as they got to know him at summit meetings. Anatoly Dobryin, longtime Soviet ambassador in Washington, stated later that “Reagan’s vision of nuclear apocalypse and his deeply rooted but almost hidden conviction that nuclear weapons should ultimately be abolished, would prove more powerful than his visceral anti-Communism.” Khrushchev also came to realize the futility of nuclear war.

In arms control talks, the Soviets had an incentive not to agree to the mutual on-site inspections insisted upon by Reagan. As Zubok writes, “The [military] General Staff was horrified at the prospect of NATO inspections, which might reveal the many Potemkin villages in the armed forces.” Only after the Chernobyl disaster did the Soviets relent.

Predictably for a man who spent his formative years in the USSR, a residual pro-Soviet bias seeps through Zubok’s work from time to time. For instance, after acknowledging a Kremlin decision to publicly deny that KAL-007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter plane, Mr. Zubok writes that Washington launched a “worldwide hate campaign: Against the USSR. Given the enormity of this crime, “hate” seems a harsh word to describe the U.S. reaction.

Be warned that Mr. Zubok’s book is not one you will breeze through in an evening. But he makesinvolved material exciting, and he depicts brilliantly the last days of the fading Soviet empire, presided over by a succession of aging, ailing leaders. A superb read for the specialist and the layman alike.

•••

So, are overseers of Russia, the USSR’s successor state, performing any better than the last overseers of Communism? Yegor Gaidar argues that the government of Vladimir Putin is blindly rebuilding a replica of the failed USSR in an attempt to regain status. The major flaw, he contends, is that Putin et al are concentrating power in the Moscow officials and institutions even though “that power and those institutions do not extend to the entire territory under its control.”

Collapse of An Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia (Brookings, $29.95, 332 pages) carries a special credibility because of Mr. Gaidar’s credentials. An economist, he held high positions under the government of Boris Yeltsin, including a stint as acting prime minister.

Mr. Gaidar makes a strong — and to me, frightening — argument that Russia seems on a path parallel to that of Germany in the post-World War I period. Noting the yearning for a return to the “good old days” of Stalinism, he writes, “A public humiliated by military defeat is easily enchanted by myths.” He sees a Russia that is exhibiting “post-imperial nostalgia, nationalistic xenophobia, the usual anti-Americanism, and even to a not quite habitual anti-Europeanism.”

Mr. Gaidar argues that Russia should restore economic order to its own house before entertaining notions of become a world player again. Further, he feels the problem is an immediate one, writing, “We should not succumb to the magic of numbers, but the fact that there was a fifteen-year gap between the collapse of the German Empire [in 1918] and Hitler’s rise to power, and fifteen years between the collapse of the USSR and Russia in 2006-7 makes one think.”

Think indeed, and also worry.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG984@aol.com.

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