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A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)


Review: A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)
(December Review, 2007)

A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)
by Vladislav Zubok (2007, University of North Carolina Press)

Review by Ursula Gurney

For fifty years the Soviet Union stood in the eyes of the West as a terrifying enigma bent on imperial and ideological expansion. According to Washington, it was a threatening state that needed to be confronted and contained. From Berlin to Hanoi and Cairo to Havana, the United States and the Soviet Union clashed in an era known as the Cold War.

The East-West struggle shaped relations between states, economies, cultures and peoples from 1945 to 1991. The conflict was a geo-political and ideological struggle, which not only involved armies and resources, but ideas and values.1 Historians have examined the causes, events and consequences of the Cold War, but few have done so from the perspective of the Soviet Union. The opening of archives in Russia and Eastern Europe has permitted Vladislav M. Zubok to produce the first international study recounting the struggle from the perspective of the Kremlin.

Zubok explores the motives which drove the Soviet Union to confront the United States and its allies. He uses a framework awkwardly entitled the "revolutionary-imperial paradigm" to understand the mindset of Moscow's leaders and explain Soviet actions. The paradigm is a dualistic concept in which Soviet behavior is explained by the interaction between traditional imperial motives and the messianic revolutionary ideals of Russian communism.2

Originating in Czarist Russia, traditional imperial motives reflect Moscow's desire to expand to enhance the Soviet Union's security. On the other hand, messianic communist ideals, which date back to Bolshevik upheaval of 1917, represent the Leninist aspiration to spread world revolution. Zubok uses this dualistic framework to explain the shifting nature of Soviet policies from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev. His book is divided into ten chapters which trace each leader and the significant phases of the Cold War.

A Failed Empire begins with the origins of the Cold War under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Zubok asserts Stalin mobilized his people for conflict using ideological rhetoric, but desired to control various regions to create a security buffer zone. Kremlin leaders believed the more territory the Soviet Union conquered the safer the state would be. The goal was to gain control of Eastern Europe and the Balkans; within these regions Soviet ideology would also be promoted. For Stalin, security and regime-building were two sides of the same coin.3

Stalin hoped he could build an empire without antagonizing the United States, but this would prove impossible. According to Zubok, Soviet policy was the main factor which contributed to the origins of the Cold War.4 He faults Stalin for meddling in Turkey and Iran, claiming Soviet actions outside the areas of cooperation agreed upon at Yalta and Potsdam put the superpowers on a collision course.5

In 1953 Soviet policy shifted under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. A new foreign policy developed which sought to reopen ties with the West. Policymakers within the Kremlin hoped to curtail the effects of the militarization of the Cold War. The new policy intended to gain flexibility for Moscow on the international stage.

Despite the formation of a new policy, Zubok claims the revolutionary-imperial paradigm still guided Soviet leaders. The Soviet Union had acquired a vast empire by 1953 and the Kremlin was not about to give it up. What was important to Khrushchev was to maintain the spread of communism. Khrushchev's calls for peaceful coexistence were not reflected by the Moscow's actions abroad, which signaled the commitment to the revolutionary-imperial paradigm. During his tenure, the Kremlin increased its support for Third World nationalists, wrangled with the United States over Berlin and Cuba, and threatened nuclear war. Zubok asserts Khrushchev's actions did significant damage to the relationship between the superpowers.

Zubok next examines the rule of Leonid Brezhnev between 1964 and 1982. With passion and admiration, Zubok examines the attempts of the aging Soviet leader to usher in an era of negotiation – known as détente. Shaped by his experience in the Second World War, Brezhnev hoped to avoid war at all costs. The goal was to overcome Khrushchev's legacy of brinkmanship by building a firm foundation for world peace. The desire for peace did not mean the Iron Curtain would be rolled back nor the revolutionary-imperial paradigm abandoned. Brezhnev wanted to secure the Soviet empire by creating a period of stability between the superpowers. Brezhnev renounced the use of force and enhanced relations with Washington, but the Kremlin never stopped its military build-up or its ideological expansionism in the Third World. In my opinion, Zubok gives far too much credit to Brezhnev for the reduction of tensions between Moscow and Washington, asserting détente would not have happened without Brezhnev.6

The 1980s saw a new generation of leaders dominate the Kremlin. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 hoping to reform the Soviet system. In the realm of foreign affairs he wanted to end the Soviet Union's isolation, dismantle the old ideological dogmas, all while reinvigorating the now-stagnant Soviet Union. It was a bold and ultimately failed effort. Gorbachev's actions wound up destabilizing the Soviet Union and exhausting it of its ability to act as a superpower. In 1989 the Iron Curtain was torn asunder and two years later the Soviet Union collapsed.

In evaluating the end of the Cold War, Zubok does not give credit to the Reagan administration. The aggressive policies of the United States only served to prolong the conflict. Zubok asserts that Gorbachev did more than anyone else to end the Cold War – in this, he echoes the opinion of Reagan himself who always credited Gorbachev with bring the cold war to an end. Ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet empire came from within – the economic problems gave rise to reformist policies which eroded the strength of the revolutionary-imperial paradigm and the power of the Soviet Union.

A Failed Empire is a momentous study which exposes the policies of the Soviet Union. However, Zubok's adherence to the revolutionary-imperial paradigm limits the scope of the monograph. Economics hardly figures into the work and the geopolitical reasoning for Soviet intervention in the Third World is not fully explored. Zubok gives a great deal of credit to individual Soviet leaders for shaping the course of the Cold War, perhaps a predictable consequence of Zubok's choice to look at the Cold War world from Moscow's point of view. Brezhnev and Gorbachev appear to shape the Cold War on their own.

In addition, grass roots movements which gained momentum after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 are not examined. These movements played a major role in eroding Soviet power in the 1980s. Despite these shortcomings, Zubok's work does not fall into the trap of most works on the Cold War. He does not center his work on the superpower conflict. He looks at Moscow's relationship with several states and the impact of the global Cold War. He also spends many chapters on the domestic impact of the Cold War and successfully explores the role of personalities in the struggle. Overall, A Failed Empire is a compelling work which reminds us that the Cold War looked different to those on the Soviet side.


1 Vakdislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), ix.

2 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev," www.wilsoncenter.org.

3 Zubok, A Failed Empire, 21.

4 Ibid., 29 and 48.

5 Ibid., 45.

6. Ibid., 246 and 257.


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  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History) (2007, University of North Carolina Press)

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    U.S. President Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev walk in Red Square in Moscow, Soviet Union. In the background is St. Basil's Cathedral. May 31, 1988

    Source: AP/Wide World Photo

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. June 3, 1961

    Source: AP/World Wide Photo

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    President Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev meeting in 1973

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    Map of Cold War Europe, 1950s

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    Western cartoon illustrating the fears of Soviet imperialism

  • A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (The New Cold War History)

    Yalta Conference, February 1945. Jospeh Stalin discusses the division of Europe and Germany with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt