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A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev

October 16, 2007 // 4:00pm5:30pm
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History and Public Policy Program
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On Tuesday, October 16, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a book discussion for A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, the new book by Vladislav Zubok, Professor of History at Temple University, Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) Senior Scholar, and former Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute. The event was co-sponsored by the Wilson Center's CWIHP and Kennan Institute and the George Washington University's National Security Archive and Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies.

The event began with opening remarks by History and Public Policy Program Director Dr. Christian Ostermann and panel chairman Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at GWU. Blanton commented on Zubok's stature as one of the stars of the new Cold War historians and the importance of A Failed Empire.

Zubok began by noting the changes in Soviet national and ideological identity over the course of the Cold War. He introduced the concept of the revolutionary-imperial paradigm, a dualistic concept in which Soviet behavior is explained by interaction between more traditional imperial motivations (i.e. realpolitik, security, creating buffer zones around the USSR, etc.) and the messianic Soviet revolutionary ideals of international communism. Zubok followed the societal changes in the Soviet Union's leadership. After the Second World War, Stalin mobilized the exhausted Soviet society for conflict with the powerful United States by emphasizing the imperial over the revolutionary in the paradigm. Stalin believed himself to be a realist who was ideologically superior to previous realists: a sort of realist ideologue. This caused him to view the US as another European great power, and Stalin was surprised when the US began to behave globally as an ideological force.

Leonid Brezhnev also belonged to the generation that was scarred by the Second World War. Like Stalin, Brezhnev didn't understand that the United States was also an ideological power that could not acquiesce to Soviet survival. In contrast, Professor Zubok characterized Mikhail Gorbachev as the paragon of the new generation of Russians, a result of the generational shifts. Gorbachev completely changed orientation during his six year reign from a passionate reformer to something more like a European social democrat. Although the book focuses on the Soviet elites, Zubok stated that he was careful to also consider forces in Soviet society as a necessary counterpoint.

Finally, Zubok addressed the causal forces behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to him, the United States played only a limited role. Although it is popularly assumed that either Ronald Reagan's aggressive policies or George Kennan's containment strategy were the ultimate cause of the USSR's collapse, neither was. Reagan's aggressiveness only stiffened Soviet backbones, while containment was the only policy available to the US, since neither regime change nor appeasement were ever real options.

Professor Zubok ended his remarks by pointing out areas where future research is necessary for a fuller understanding of Soviet Cold War history, namely the economic and financial means used by the USSR to pay for its policies, and the history of the Soviet military-industrial complex. Such research will not be practicable until the relevant archives are opened and additional data becomes available.

Comments were provided by Raymond Garthoff, former ambassador to Bulgaria and senior advisor for the SALT I and ABM Treaty negotiations, and Timothy Naftali, first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Calling A Failed Empire a "major contribution" to Cold War historiography, Ambassador Garthoff noted that Zubok does a masterful job of incorporating the premise of a confrontation at both the geopolitical and ideological levels while showing the importance of the individual Soviet leaders and their cultural backgrounds. Naftali also noted the strong evidence Zubok provides for the formative influence of personalities in the Soviet leadership, although Naftali also cautioned that the extent of individual influence and the Soviet balance between ideology and realism will not be fully known until more archival sources are available.

Drafted by Richard Helke

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