On the thirtieth anniversary of the demise of the Soviet Union, Vladislav Zubok’s Collapse offers a timely, sharp new lens with which to view events then—and now.
by Vladislav M. Zubok (Yale University Press, 560 pp., $35)
Anniversaries of November 1989—when the Berlin Wall came down and with it the iron curtain that had separated Europe—are typically euphoric. A nightmare had ended, allowing a more humane epoch to begin. Celebratory anniversaries of December 1991, when the Soviet Union actually collapsed, are few and far between. They tend not to be so euphoric. Vladimir Putin’s Russia emerged from that wreckage, and is in some ways neo-Soviet. While outside of Russia few mourn the passing of the Soviet Union, few actively commemorate it either: The event no longer generates a coherent historical narrative.
In the 1990s, the demise of the Soviet Union could be tied to the triumph of the West. In 2021, the Nineties are a distant, luxurious memory. Europe seems once again on the verge of a major war, while many Western countries are accruing democratic deficits, including the United States, the self-proclaimed victor of the Cold War. If the present moment seems inexplicable, the thirty years that have passed since 1991 must be inexplicable as well.
A response to this intellectual blur is Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok, a distinguished historian of Soviet and Russian history. Zubok’s main insight in this extraordinary book is not that the United States won the Cold War or that the Soviet Union lost it, but that the Soviet Union’s unraveling was something of an accident. Its troubles were protracted, starting perhaps with Stalin’s death in 1953, then taking shape in the stagnation of the 1970s, and reaching a turning point in the early 1980s, when the backwardness of the Soviet economy could no longer be ignored.
After Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, reform was essential, but nothing foreordained the eventual prescriptions of the Soviet Union’s reformer-in-chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985. Zubok does not regard Gorbachev either as a hero or as a tragic figure undermined by his own decency. Zubok’s Gorbachev is the holy fool of Soviet history, the man who extinguished a state by trying to preserve it, and who did so without the pressure of war or revolution. Gorbachev’s peacetime liquidation of a superpower is not just sui generis for Russian history. It is a historically anomalous occurrence.
Zubok forges his history from three distinct elements. The first and most opaque is the Soviet element. The Soviet Union’s economic malaise in the 1980s unleashed the ambitions both of Gorbachev and of the Communist-turned-Russian-patriot Boris Yeltsin. The other side of Gorbachev’s defeat was Yeltsin’s anti-Soviet victory. The second element of Collapse is national, and it is the easiest to understand: How the many Soviet populations (including Russians) that did not wish to be Soviet made use of Moscow’s growing weakness. Third and finally, is the Western element. Zubok does not applaud the United States for trying to topple the Soviet Union.
While admiring the diplomatic finesse of President George H.W. Bush and his team, Zubok notes “how narrow-minded and unimaginative, albeit remarkably prudent, the American leadership was in wielding their enormous ‘soft power.’” American policymakers, according to Zubok, were too quick to dismiss Gorbachev’s desire for an undivided Europe. In general, the West’s recipes for economic shock therapy contributed to the illiberal, anti-Western mood that would enable Putin’s rise.
The plot of Collapse thickens after 1983, until suddenly in one climactic year—1991—the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Few recent events compare in magnitude to the Soviet Union’s self-elimination. When the Kremlin lowered the Soviet flag for the last time in December 1991, it altered the political topography of Europe. American foreign policy was entirely recalibrated. The geopolitical consequences for Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East were grave.
These eight momentous years amount to a paradox. Although the Soviet Union’s disappearance was revolutionary, the causes of its disappearance were not necessarily revolutionary. For Zubok, they reside in a botched effort at reform. Had the Soviet Union not opened up so quickly after 1985, and had its leader not been so keen on devolving power, the Soviet Union might have survived. After all, Communist China, the Soviet Union’s younger cousin after World War II, successfully transitioned to global capitalism, outlasting its older cousin.
In Collapse, Zubok does a great deal to rescue contingency from destiny. Zubok begins his narrative before Gorbachev took the reins. In 1983, General Secretary Yuri Andropov had initiated “controlled, conservative reforms.” He felt the need to keep up with the United States, and he could not ignore “the growing Soviet engagement with the global economy,” which threatened the established Soviet way of doing business. Andropov drew a cohort of younger reformers to Moscow, among them a rising star from the provinces, born in 1931 and described by Zubok as “the last true Leninist believer”—Gorbachev.
Already as a student at Moscow State University Gorbachev had subscribed to the “humanist, inclusive ethic of the Russian intelligentsia” (Zubok has also addressed this storyline in Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia). Half Leninist, half humanist, a youthful Gorbachev became the improbably idealistic leader of the Soviet Union. For a few years, he bestrode the world like a colossus, while slowly losing control of his own country.
Zubok assesses two of Gorbachev’s core agendas in detail. The first was decentralization. Decentralization appealed to Gorbachev in theory, though it launched the careers of many proto-national leaders within the Soviet republics. They amassed power by carving it out from the Soviet system at a time when assets and money in general were being extracted from the Soviet economy and parked in the global economy. Opportunities for corruption were everywhere in the 1980s, diminishing the state’s official income and creating new centers of power. Zubok shifts focus to Russia from the Baltic republics and from Ukraine, each of which sought to be the gravedigger of the Soviet experiment. No one drove harder or more meaningfully against Soviet power than did Yeltsin, the impromptu Russian leader of the late 1980s. He based “the centrifuge of political separatism” in Moscow. Politicians from the other republics followed Yeltsin’s lead.
Gorbachev’s other agenda was world peace. Zubok’s Gorbachev was naive about decentralization: He could not see how it would be turned against him. He was equally naive about the West. Zubok characterizes the fall of the Berlin Wall as “the greatest geopolitical opportunity presented to the West since 1945,” which the West exploited to push its security structures and its economic viewpoint. “Nobody cared that neoliberal policies [the free-market Washington consensus] created huge social inequality and political tensions,” Zubok writes. Nobody cared that Gorbachev—who agreed to eliminate the Warsaw Pact and to withdraw Soviet troops from Eastern Europe—expected the same to be done with NATO and with the American military presence in Western Europe. Gorbachev thought that he had ended the Cold War between 1989 and 1991. Washington thought that it had ended the Cold War when the Soviet Union fell apart and when Europe could be conceived as one region under the singular umbrella of American leadership. Much follows from this difference of perspective.
Approaching as he does the Soviet Union’s collapse through Gorbachev’s misjudgments, Zubok does not portray that collapse as the moment when the clouds parted and the sun shone forth. Instead, he inverts the triumphalist interpretation of the Cold War. The West did not “consolidate democracy in Russia.” It did not create a European security architecture more welcoming to Russia, and that failure was a precondition for Putin’s rise. From the vantage point of 2021, Zubok designates the Baltic republics as “the only success story among the post-Soviet states.”
Collapse is an excellent work of history. The particular emphasis Zubok puts on economic history lends his monograph a salutary empirical quality. Without perestroika and glasnost, without Gorbachev’s reforms, Moscow might have explored only conservative reforms; or, like China, it might have transformed itself from within to accommodate the demands of a modern global economy.
Gorbachev’s rash restructuring gave economic levers to the Soviet republics, while draining the Soviet treasury. Dependence arose on West German and American loans, giving the West immense leverage over the Soviet Union. The economic dimensions of the Cold War’s end phase, as Zubok presents them, are not entirely new. President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft intuited them in the late 1980s. But Zubok embeds the Soviet Union’s economic entropy in a wider history that ranges from Eastern Europe to the United States. In this regard, Collapse is a brilliant and original contribution to Cold War scholarship.
Never polemical, Collapse is more than archival scholarship. It mirrors time’s passage, and time’s passage since 1991 has united the end of the Soviet Union with the beginnings of Putin’s Russia. Gorbachev’s dream of a common European home never gained real traction, whereas the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and the unfinished Russo-Ukrainian war of 2014–15 forced the West to pay heed to Putin’s foreign policy.
Over time, Yeltsin’s populist nationalism and Putin’s authoritarian nationalism intersected with the travails of several post-Soviet states, proving that Europe will be what it has always been: a patchwork quilt of nations and empires. These are sharpened by ethnic and religious differences that especially in Eastern Europe cannot be homogenized, and which make existing borders the constant object of revisionist aspirations. Since the 17th century, the uncertain status of Russia’s western border has fueled countless wars. If anything, the current uncertain status of this border is more dangerous than was the Soviet border with the West during the Cold War. This is not a state of affairs to celebrate.
The bitterness of recent history does much to inform Collapse. Superpower diplomacy from 1975 to 1991 had yielded bona fide cooperation. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 settled Europe’s borders. The 1980s was a remarkable decade for arms control, and in the 1990s Washington and Moscow invested in diplomacy, in international conferences, and in summitry. There were a few bursts of U.S.-Russia partnership—from 2001 to 2003 between George W. Bush and Putin, and from 2008 to 2012 between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev—but since the late 1990s the overall trajectory has been downward.
Regardless of how much blame for the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations can be pinned on Putin, on his character, and on his foreign policy, the last thirty years do not showcase the workings of progress. Daggers have been drawn once again; arms control has ground to a halt; and diplomatic ties between the United States and Russia are now minimal. Proxy conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are under way, and in the winter of 2022 a shooting war between the United States and Russia in Ukraine seems hardly science fiction.
Collapse is cautionary history. Zubok wants its Western readers to think about the West’s possible break-up by reading about the Soviet Union’s unexpected demise. But the contemporary West is so dissimilar to the Soviet Union that direct historical analogies are more likely to mislead than to enlighten. The West will not go the way of the Soviet Union; it is less imperiled by economic stagnation, or freedom of speech, or nationalist fervor. It has all the resources it needs to survive and flourish.
And yet the West could be imperiled by the toxic mix of (false) hope and (genuine) hubris. The hubris that political outcomes congenial to the West, when resisted, can be achieved through military force has in the past been horrifically costly; Gorbachev’s overzealous faith in the future moved from East to West in 1991. In Zubok’s cautionary history there lies much potential for political pedagogy. Probing the lessons of political error, of Gorbachev’s misguided hopes and his richly punished hubris, certainly gives us the chance to learn from the past. There is no better way to commemorate the thirty-year anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Michael Kimmage is professor of history at the Catholic University of America and author, most recently, of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (2020).
Images: By Link, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65037746
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe