Jan 21, 2007

Book Review: Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000

Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000Kotkin, Stephen

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

Kotkin is a professor of Russian history at Princeton, and received his doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. He is currently the director of the program in Russian Studies at Princeton, and is also a member of the the editorial board of the Princeton University Press. Armageddon Averted examines the fall of the Soviet Union and the structures that followed in post-Soviet Russia. In particular, Kotkin considers why the Soviet Union – with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the West and with a five million man army – devolved from a Communist empire to the nation of Russia with a minimum of violence.

Kotkin began Armageddon Averted by discussing the global contexts through which the fall of the Soviet empire should be evaluated. The author noted that the 1973 oil crisis was both a blessing and a curse for the Soviet regime; energy exports accounted for approximately 80 percent of Soviet hard currency earnings between 1973 and 1985, but the 1986 implosion of the global oil market was a disaster for the Soviet economy and, especially, for the economies of Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Mikhail GorbachevLeft: Mikhail Gorbachev

Kotkin also argued that the 1930s were the years in which Soviet-style socialism could have most successfully competed against Western capitalism, as collapsing economies in the West made socialism seem like a viable alternative. Instead, the height of Soviet expansion came after World War II, during the “unprecedented boom” of capitalist democracies that lasted until the 1970s. Kotkin argued that the Soviet experiment could not win an ideological and economic struggle with the West in a period of tremendous economic growth.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been no dearth of commentators with explanations for its collapse. Many pro-American pundits tend to credit the anticommunist presidency of Ronald Reagan and the buildup of the US military in the 1980s as primary causes. Satter argued that, as “the first state in history to be based explicitly on atheism,” the Soviet Union replaced religion with Marxism-Leninism, and its demise was due to the triumph of political ideology over morality. Watson maintained that rising nationalism in the republics, dissolution of Soviet unity, and the costly Afghanistan war were primary reasons for the Soviet collapse. Hobsbawm argued that the fall of the Soviet Union was primarily economic in nature, due in large part to increasing consumer demands for commodities that an authoritarian regime and central planners could not meet:
Beginning in the 1960's; the USSR and the nations of Eastern Europe began to open up their command economies to trade with the western world. Inevitably, their citizens began to compare their cramped apartments and dreary cultural life with the wondrous freedoms available in the west. Meanwhile, under cynical autocrats like Leonid Brezhnev, even card-carrying communists shed their hopes for a classless society. In the 1980's; when economic crisis battered the ramparts of the Soviet empire, its ideological empire was bare.
Kotkin, however, argued that the seeds of future collapse were sown in the reformist idealism initiated by Nikita Khrushchev during the 1950s and early 1960s after the Stalin era. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign, argued Kotkin, produced a generation of “true believers” like Mikhail Gorbachev who believed in the “dream of socialist revolution.” The reformists, led by Gorbachev and introducing policies such as glasnost (political openness), perestroika (economic restructuring), and uskoreniye (rapid economic development), were more than mere political opportunists:
Far from an aberration, Gorbachev was a quintissential product of the Soviet system, and a faithful representative of the system’s trajectory as it enetered the second half of the 1980s. His cohort hailed him as the long-awaited ‘reformer,’ a second Khrushchev. They were right. Belief in a humane socialism had re-emerged from within the system, and this time, in even more politically skillful hands, it would prove fatal.
The period of Soviet reform led by Gorbachev, argued Kotkin, was one of well-intentioned (but contradictory) half-measures that produced unintended, destabilizing effects on the regime. Perestroika, conceived as means of moderninzing Soviet industry to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, relied upon a “recalcitrant ministerial bureaucracy to implement an improbable decentraliziation that would entail a significant loss of ministerial authority.” Glasnost, seen as a means to circumvent opponents of perestroika, became instead a vehicle that undermined faith in the Soviet system, as social, political, and economic problems previously ignored by the official government media were now brought to public scrutiny; Kotkin described this phenomena as an rising awareness by the general public that “all previous life was revealed as a lie.”

Gorbachev’s plan to bring greater democracy to the Communist Party through the newly-formed Congress of People’s Deputies had the unintended effect of weakening the power of the party Secretariat; the centralized power of the Soviet system was thus dispersed to the individual Supreme Soviets of the constituent republics, and Kotkin argued that these political bodies began to act as “parliaments of de facto independent states.”

Kotkin argued that Gorbachev’s foreign policy initiatives also produced a plethora of unitended consequences. His decision to withdraw Soviet troops from the expensive Afghanistan conflict – ostensibly a move to reduce military expenditures in an unpopular war – actually ended up costing the Soviet government more money, as the costs associated with demobilization initially exceeded those of deployment, straining the resources of an already cash-strapped government. In a similar fashion, the gradual removal of Soviet troops from the Eastern bloc cost the Soviet government dearly, as demobilization and the re-arming of former client states added to the revenue woes of Gorbachev and the reformers. In addition, Gorbachev’s decision to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine – a move designed to defuse the expensive superpower confrontation – meant the “surrender of all the gains of the Second World War,” and created an environment in which the constituent Soviet republics could assume greater autonomy without fear of retaliation from the retreating central govenrment.

Boris YeltsinLeft: Boris Yeltsin

The author’s view of Mikhail Gorbachev is generally a positive one, although Kotkin was quick to point out the Soviet leader’s failures to appreciate the possible effects of his reforms. Kotkin, however, spared little polemic in describing the post-Soviet presidency of Boris Yeltsin, often depicting the Russian leader as a bumbling, ill-mannered buffon. The author considered Yeltsin’s National Sports Foundation as a “con” designed not as a charitable foundation for destitute athletes, but rather as a means to evade taxes. Government bureaucrats, argued Kotkin, were “far more shameless under Yeltsin” in their corruption than they had been under Brezhnev. The author added anecdotes that paint Yeltsin in a particularly negative light:
At a 1994 ceremony to mark the completion of troop withdrawals, Boris Yeltsin, in a drunken, depressed state, grabbed a baton and started conducting a German orchestra, causing a scandal.
Kotkin’s synthesis follows a chronological progression, although the chapters are organized in a thematic fashion. There are relatively few footnotes, and the cited works are drawn from archival material, secondary texts, and personal interviews by the author with members and former members of the Soviet and Russian governments. It appears that the author intended this text for undergraduate students, non-specialist scholars, and the learned general public, and some familiarity with Russian history is helpful – but not essential - in order to enhance understanding.

Kotkin provided maps, photographs, charts, and tables as additions to augment the textual material, and he provided a bibliographical essay for further reading. The author’s writing style is literate, though accessible, and Kotkin possesses the ability to write elegant, compelling prose. One cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief after reading Armageddon Averted, as Kotkin skillfully demonstrates how lucky were the citizens of the world that the Soviet Union did not devolve into a the sort of endless bloodbath that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.


JoeBlogs said...

Quite an extensive book then. The Cold War must be on of the highlights I imagine and Yeltsins drunkeness at the end.

historymike said...

It's not a long book, Joe, only 248 pages.

It flows well, and reads more like historical narrative than dry analysis.

Dariush said...

Finally, an American analyst that actually isn't in love with Yeltsin... still one of the most hated men in Russia.

historymike said...

True, Dariush. Yeltsin presided over the fire sale of Soviet assets to the Russian oligarchs, sometimes for mere pennies on the dollar.

He instigated the first Chechen war, reinforced the KGB/FSB, and failed to secure Russian nuclear techology and technicians.

But he will be remembered in the West for little more than his photo-op in 1991 on the tank, "saving" democracy for Russia.