November 26, 2015


The Battle Of Wills That The Soviet Union Lost (EDWARD LUCAS, December 2015, Standpoint)

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.

The final tragedy of the USSR was that Yuri Andropov, the first leader to realize that it had no future, died before he could negotiate its end.  He was their Ariel Sharon.

Posted by at November 26, 2015 8:46 AM