A ship without a captain — Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok review

  • Themes: Russia

Zubok's mammoth work is a provocative, honest examination of the dissolution of the Soviet empire and Gorbachev's failings. At the end, it strikes a note that is intriguingly personal and even hopeful.

Soviet War Memorial in Berlin
Russian visitors at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin's Treptower park in November 1989 during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Credit: Martin Nangle / Alamy Stock Photo

‘My book is not an exercise in ‘how the evil empire could have been preserved.’ Rather it is an attempt to be intellectually honest about what happened’. Vladislav Zubok strikes a slightly defensive tone early on in his new book on the Soviet collapse, anticipating perhaps the cries of protest from the not inconsiderable audience of fellow historians, political scientists, know-all pundits and just your general reader who hold steadfast to the sacred conviction that the demise of the Soviet Union was the best thing that happened to the world in a generation. Zubok, who experienced those turbulent events first-hand as a young intellectual only to re-examine them now as a seasoned historian, departs sharply from such triumphalism. He recounts in brutal detail the crimes and the follies that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform effort, which, as well-intentioned as it may have been, was nevertheless hopelessly misguided and almost completely counterproductive.

This is a very brave position to take, even for a larger-than-life historian like Zubok. The prevalent Western narrative of the Soviet collapse holds that it was inevitable insofar as the USSR was an unreformable monstrosity: militarised, overextended, mired in structural economic problems, and coping with pent-up energies of centrifugal nationalism only by means of relentless repression. Once Gorbachev launched the process of reform, the Soviet empire was bound to collapse. This is not how Zubok describes what happened. Of course, reforms were needed. The Soviet leadership recognised this since as early as the 1960s. But Gorbachev’s solutions often made the situation worse, not better. Zubok draws attention to ill-thought-through measures like the Law on Socialist Enterprises, which provided a legal basis for looting the State, and republican ‘self-accounting,’ which he describes as a ‘camouflaged bomb planted under the Moscow-centered pyramid of power’.

Not only was there a problem with the kinds of reforms that Gorbachev pursued but also with how he went about it. Zubok turns the spotlight on the Soviet leader: his delusions, ambitions, and character flaws that account for the astonishing failure of implementation. Yet Gorbachev does not become a scapegoat. Other characters enter the colourful stage, ranging from the pathetic to the outright malicious: fanatical intellectuals, shady entrepreneurs, hard-headed military men, and cowardly party bureaucrats. Boris Yeltsin cuts an unsightly figure, as a man who so badly craved power that he would sacrifice a country to achieve his aims.

To the extent that there were opportunities to turn things around with the broken Soviet economy, they were rapidly slipping away at the turn of the decade as Gorbachev embraced political theatre instead of decisive action. The Cold War had ended. Eastern European countries were fleeing Soviet tutelage for the promise of a better future with the West. In the Soviet Union, people were queuing for basic goods. But passions raged in the recently elected Congress of People’s Deputies, where well-meaning democrats, glum bureaucrats and fire-breathing populists debated the country’s future as Gorbachev looked on.

Here is how Zubok describes the chaotic scene:

‘It is hard to find a case or a metaphor that captures what the Gorbachev leadership did during 1989. One thinks of the captain of a huge ship who suddenly decides to sail towards a distant Promised Land. He does so against the mood and instincts of his crew. He and his followers have no map; their compass is broken. They are under the impression that the ship is sailing westwards, whereas in reality it is heading south. As the voyage becomes more and more difficult, the captain decides that his crew are unreliable saboteurs. So he turns to inexperienced passengers keen to take part in the voyage and lets them deliberate among themselves on the best ways to reach the Promised Land’.

This is a comical image but the tragic consequences of inaction leave little to laugh about. What Gorbachev should have done, Zubok argues, was to concentrate political power in his own hands in order to implement painful but necessary reforms. ‘Instead of attending congresses, convening councils, and tinkering with texts,’ he writes, ‘Gorbachev could have… appointed a ruling economic junta with emergency rights’. The economists, Zubok says, were on hand to give him the needed advice. Nor did he face much opposition from the party stalwarts. He could have pressed on with a clear purpose, and perhaps even used force, when necessary, to keep the ship of state on the right course.

This is where Zubok is at his most controversial. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that he considers Gorbachev’s aversion to the use of force a serious disadvantage for a reformer. ‘An admirable moral quality in an individual,’ he notes, this aversion ‘was a huge political flaw in the leader of a country with a tragic history and facing a rising wave of toxic nationalism’. Gorbachev failed to act decisively to punish ethnic rioters in Azerbaijan, sending a ‘a powerful negative signal across the Soviet Union’. He also sent conflicting signals in the Baltics. Fourteen civilians were killed in Vilnius in January 1991 in an infamous clash between Lithuanian youths and the Soviet military and security services. Gorbachev incompetently contributed to this bloodshed by having seemingly encouraged the use of force before disclaiming all responsibility for what had happened. Argues Zubok: ‘Dictators and some historians are familiar with the effects of an indecisive use of force: better not to use force at all than to use it and recoil. The Baltic affair left the Soviet conservatives demoralised and the military let down’.

Zubok’s position is very carefully formulated, very nuanced but nevertheless reasonably transparent. Gorbachev, who modelled himself after Lenin, had enough of Lenin in him to unleash chaotic forces but not enough to keep them under control. A reformist vision without a required degree of toughness thus became a recipe for disaster. ‘A much more logical path for the Soviet system,’ he argues, ‘would have been the continuation of Andropov-like authoritarianism which enjoyed mass support, combined with radical market liberalisation.’ At this point the cries of protests grow louder, especially from the Western constituency of Gorbachev’s admirers who will immediately point out that his greatest accomplishment was precisely to step back and allow things to take their own course. But Zubok – hardly an admirer of Andropov – would draw attention to the atrocious demographic consequences of the Soviet collapse – millions in excess mortality, and a longing for economic stability that translated into popular support for Putin’s authoritarianism and unbridled Russian nationalism.

There is an ideologically attractive but historically unsound opinion in the West that reduces the story of Soviet collapse to an epochal struggle between Moscow’s imperialism and hopeful aspirations of imprisoned nations. In this telling, which Zubok conspicuously avoids, nations are rendered in quasi-primordial terms: as objectively existing and thirsting for freedom from the imperial diktat. The reality, as this book shows, was much less clear-cut. Identities in the late USSR were provisional, intersectional, and ever shifting. One could hold multiple overlapping identities at the same time. Identities changed with political winds and personal prospects of those wielding power. Emerging nations, having separated themselves from the ‘centre,’ were from the start themselves susceptible to separatism. Nationalism, once unleashed, simply could not be contained within the arbitrary parameters of a particular national unit, leading to prolonged and ongoing ethnic conflicts from eastern Ukraine to the Caucasus.

The book evaluates past prophesies, good and bad. Secretary of State James Baker turned out to be one of the worst prophets, telling Gorbachev at one point to rid the Soviet Union of the three Baltic states, because ‘they will not be able to separate from you economically. They will be forced to create an association with you, economic, political, and social’. By contrast, Gorbachev’s adviser Georgii Shakhnazarov had the foresight to see Russia lose influence among its former republics, which would be ‘pulled into other blocs and alliances, and it would be unthinkable to bring them back by force’. Unthinkable for him, perhaps, we might add wearily. But the best prophet by far was the philosopher Alexander Zinoviev who enters the stage at one point in the book to argue that ‘Yeltsin… would kill the USSR, and the West would applaud him. In several years, however, Russian society would slide back to authoritarianism, and people would feel nostalgia for Brezhnev’s ‘golden age’.

It is good of Zubok to bring out these predictions from archival vaults and personal memoirs (historians will take delight in his astonishing archival discoveries). It’s too bad of course that it was mostly the prophesies of doom that proved on target.

Meanwhile, America stands larger than life in Zubok’s story. Soviet and Russian reformers, he argues, looked to the United States with admiration and sought approval and recognition. More than anything, they needed help: economic support in carrying out reforms. They didn’t get far. ‘The White House,’ he argues, ‘continued to pursue the short-term vision of locking in the Cold War gains’ and not only refused to supply badly-needed credits but sabotaged Soviet efforts to join the IMF. Although Bush professed loyalty to Gorbachev, his administration’s position on the desirability of the Soviet Union’s continued existence was highly inconsistent, with some influential voices privately arguing that the Soviet collapse was in the US national interest. ‘It is remarkable how narrow-minded and unimaginative, albeit prudent, the American leadership was in wielding their enormous ‘soft power,’ Zubok concludes. He notes, not without irony, that some of the funding the US did provide was appropriated by the Russian radicals to campaign against Gorbachev.

There were conceivable alternatives. The book investigates efforts by the Harvard professor Graham Allison and the Soviet economist Grigorii Yavlinskii to drum up support for something that would approximate the Marshall Plan for the USSR. The view is contestable. Given Gorbachev’s disastrous propensity for procrastination and his failure to impose control (which Zubok so brilliantly describes), it is not at all clear that the billions of dollars poured into the Soviet black hole would not be immediately siphoned off to offshore accounts. What could America have done short of changing the crew and arresting the hapless captain to save the Soviet ship from crashing on the rocks?

Beyond these pragmatic considerations, one could argue that by blaming the United States for its highly reasonable desire to see the old adversary to the grave, we tend to diminish Moscow’s own responsibility for its many misadventures. In short, we did it to ourselves, and we must live with the consequences. Would a reformed Soviet Union, kept afloat through infusions of American cash, have become Washington’s partner in building a free and democratic world? Maybe it would, or maybe it wouldn’t. Given the remarkable resilience of Stalinist and quasi-imperialist undertones in the Russian political discourse, it’s difficult to blame George H.W. Bush for being unimaginative in his political choices.

After spending more than four hundred pages on documenting Soviet miseries and failures, Zubok strikes a mildly hopeful note. He argues that there is nothing particularly eternal and unchanging about the Russians. If anything, the Soviet collapse demonstrated just how quickly things could and did change. An opportunity was missed for Russia to become free and democratic. Who knows why? Maybe the Russians were not ready. Perhaps they were too inexperienced, too arrogant, too idealistic. Perhaps they needed an Andropov. Or perhaps the Americans missed the bus. Perhaps it was all those things.

Zubok concludes with a philosophical observation, Fukuyama-in-reverse:

‘History has never been a morality play about the inevitable victory of freedom and democracy. Instead, the world remains what it always was: an arena of struggle between idealism and power, good governance and corruption, the surge of freedom and the need to curb it in times of crisis and emergency’.

These are wise words from a historian who had seen ideals dashed and rebuilt and dashed again. That’s why perhaps this book feels so much like a personal journey – a dialogue of young, hopeful Zubok with that other Zubok who travelled down the treacherous path of time only to discover that there was no happy end to the brave new world that dawned at the turn of the 1990s. But who can tell? There might yet be.

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok, Yale University Press, pp 560, £18.59


Sergey Radchenko