The reality of the end of the Cold War was a lot more complicated than the myths which have formed around it would suggest
As the Cold War recedes into our memories, myths are crystallising. One is that Mikhail Gorbachev, a humane and visionary man, ended it by peacefully dismantling the Soviet empire. Another is that Ronald Reagan, the greatest of freedom-lovers, rolled back Communism through his willpower and inspirational rhetoric.
Reality was a lot more complicated, and Robert Service’s masterly history of the end of the Cold War shows why. The story he depicts is of confusion, fear and misunderstanding, both within and between the two camps. Reagan was not the carefree cowboy of popular caricature, but a sensitive and thoughtful man who was overwhelmed with worry that nuclear war could destroy the planet. His Soviet interlocutors were rivals at the beginning, supplicants by the end. But they never fully realised that the system they were trying to reform was doomed.
The focus of the book is on arms control, and on the relations of the “big four”: Reagan and Gorbachev, and two exceptionally able foreign ministers, George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze. Service — one of Britain’s best historians of Russia — draws on archives, diaries, news accounts and other materials to flesh out their meetings, rows and dilemmas during the last years of the Cold War. Both sides knew the situation was unbearably perilous. Both knew it had to change. Both were constrained by their own propaganda, and the expectations of their own camps.
This creates a neat framework for a sprawling series of events. The Cold War was not just about mutually assured destruction and the division of Europe. It spilled over into every continent. The Soviet Union and the United States fought proxy wars on the ground, and blasted each other with propaganda. Each was convinced that the other was bent on its destruction. Yet in the space of five years, the new Soviet leadership and the Reagan White House found a common language and settled their differences.
I worked as a journalist covering Germany, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during those years and Robert Service’s book fills in many of the gaps in my memories and understanding of events. He portrays vividly the almost erotic relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet leader — both hating to be interrupted, but happily interrupting each other. He gives a powerful sense of the disputes in both the Kremlin and the White House: the scepticism among hardliners, the determination of both leaders to overcome seemingly insuperable difficulties, and the worries of allies. He has a good understanding of the power relationships involved. The United States did not quite realise how weak the Soviet Union had become. For their part the Soviet leadership was only beginning to discover the true failure of the planned economy.
Professor Service meticulously documents the ins and outs of the diplomatic story. For those of us who have forgotten the intricacies and significance of the Pershing and Cruise missile deployment in Europe, or the importance of “Star Wars” — President Reagan’s visionary, costly and impractical idea of creating a missile-defence shield for the United States — this book is a powerful reminder. It is well worth remembering too that Reagan’s optimism about sweeping nuclear disarmament horrified his European allies: without America’s nuclear shield, they would be left facing the overwhelming conventional superiority of the Warsaw Pact.
Some of the mysteries remain unanswered. What was Gorbachev really up to in the last disastrous year of his rule? Shevardnadze resigned in December 1990, warning that dictatorship was round the corner. How much did Gorbachev know about the August putsch in 1991? Was he really the plotters’ victim, or also their accomplice? What happened to the Communist Party’s money, and the KGB’s slush funds, which were funnelled out of the Soviet Union towards the end, and played an important role in helping the old regime reinvent itself in capitalist clothes? On the American side, what was the role of Saudi Arabia in driving down the oil price in order deliberately to destroy the Soviet economy? The book devotes only two sentences to this vital question.
A bigger flaw in its high-level narrative is that it broadly treats the Soviet Union and the West as equals. In a sense that is true. Each had the capacity to obliterate the other. But it would be a mistake to ascribe equal moral weight to both. Reagan was right when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”: it was evil, and it was an empire. America was neither. France was able to leave Nato’s command structure. There was no Western equivalent of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, or martial law in Poland. Western Europe was part of the West because it wanted to be. Eastern Europe was under Kremlin rule because the Red Army had conquered it in 1945. That is a big difference. Might becomes right eventually (think of the Sioux, or the ancient Britons). But not that quickly.
The fundamental illegitimacy of the Soviet system is not just a detail. It is at the heart of the story of the Soviet collapse. American negotiators were in a position of strength not just because their economy was bigger and their military stronger, but because they represented a free society and were negotiating with slave-masters. Shultz, Weinberger and the other denizens of the Reagan White House were not perfect, but they had not risen to the heights of power by sucking up to mass murderers, denouncing colleagues, and bending their brains to fit the party line. Their counterparts in the Soviet Union had done all that and more. The shadow of Stalinism, and its millions of victims, hung heavy over the Soviet Union to the day it died. For all America’s flaws, there was no commensurate moral baggage.
This is particularly important because of the role of the captive nations in bringing down the Soviet Union. The USSR is best understood as an empire, not a state. It covered up its imperialism in the language of internationalism, but that should not deceive us. This book would have benefited from its author paying more attention to the struggle for freedom in the captive nations, and less to the politicking of their jailers.
With his heavy focus on Washington, DC and Moscow, Service treats the independence of the Baltic states, and the struggle for freedom in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries as abstract items on the diplomatic agenda. They were not. People risked and even sacrificed their lives for a freedom that they fully realised they might never see. The Soviet Union collapsed from the bottom up, as well as (and perhaps more than) from the top down. That perspective, and the voices of the brave people involved, are largely missing.
For his part, Gorbachev completely failed to appreciate either the way in which the Soviet Union was founded on a failed economic and political system, or its role as the jailer and despoiler of neighbouring counties. That was one of the many reasons why his haphazard and ill-thought-out reform efforts failed. He was undoubtedly a more congenial figure than any of his predecessors. But that did not make him an admirable one. Approbation makes most sense when it is absolute, not relative.
All this is not just a matter of historical interest. It affects Russia’s view of itself and the world today. The Putin regime’s worldview is founded on the idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union was (in his words) the “geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century. Russia, in the Kremlin’s view, was robbed of its birthright by malevolent outsiders. Its heroism in defeating Hitler has been shamefully forgotten. Instead, the West used trickery and economic muscle to bring down the Soviet Union, and to establish a sphere of influence that runs right up to Russia’s shrunken borders.
This is nonsensical, as Professor Service’s book shows. The West did not have a masterplan to destroy the Soviet Union. It treated the Kremlin with notable consideration — holding back on unifying Germany, for example. Moreover the ex-captive nations were not dragged into the European Union and Nato. They were pounding on the door, in the (justified) fear that Russia would become what it now is: an aggressive, revanchist power.
The book finishes with a sketchy comparison between the conflict with Russia today and the nightmarish confrontation of the Cold War. It is true that the dimensions are different: Russia is not the military adversary that the Soviet Union was.
But the similarities are greater than Professor Service perhaps acknowledges. The Putin regime in Russia is developing an ideology — not so philosophically sophisticated as Marxism-Leninism, perhaps, but still serviceable. It has discovered that the West’s weakest spot is finance, and deploys its money in ways that corrode our decision-making and corrupt our system. And it has developed information-warfare skills of a kind that make the Soviet Union’s tools look like flint axe-heads.
As we grapple with this new Cold War, we would do well to remember the lessons of the old one. Seizing diplomatic opportunities was vital at the end. But for most of those grim decades it was a matter of hanging on, with vigilance, unity and determination. Not much of that is visible at the moment.