The Collapse of the Soviet Military

By Burger, Ethan | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Collapse of the Soviet Military


Burger, Ethan, Demokratizatsiya


The Collapse of the Soviet Military, William E. Odom. New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1998. 480 pp. $45.00 hardcover.

General William E. Odom is widely respected as one of the leading experts on the Soviet military. His book Collapse of the Soviet Military represents a well-thought and admirably researched analysis of the Soviet armed forces. In it he recognizes that the Soviet military reflected the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet society. At the same time, he does an thorough job of explaining why it largely stood on the sidelines during the fateful days of August 1991 when the Soviet state unraveled. Odom's description of the putsch is informative, balanced, and notably willing to state that the evidence is ambiguous as well as offer explanations for why.

The books is organized into sixteen chapters and contains useful tools for students and scholars, such as well-developed maps and charts, a list of abbreviations, a valuable chronology, biographical references, detailed footnotes and an excellent bibliography. A major strength of Odom's analysis is that he understands that the Soviet Union was an empire and "that when the army of an empire can no longer recruit effectively, the regime itself is in danger" (272). That situation existed as much in 1917 as it did more than seventy years later.

Furthermore, Odom clearly makes the point that the Soviet military power couldn't "be understood apart from Soviet political power." This had several key elements: (a) the role of official ideology was critically important for the military's own justification and claims on resources; (b) the military's role in the command economy was often not appreciated in the West (due to methodological obstacles, it is hard to determine with accuracy the size of Soviet defense spending-there are reasonable arguments that it was anywhere in the range of 20-40 percent of Soviet GDP; [235-366, 429, n.1]), (c) the military was an integral part of the Communist Party; and (d) the Soviet military's approach to nuclear weapons and arms control was frequently misunderstood in the West (389-90).

In writing about Mikhail Gorbachev, Odom raises a critical question: "How could a man who could rise to become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union be so oblivious to the requisites for the system's stability?" Odom observes that Gorbachev "obviously failed to grasp the force of nationalism in several of the republics. That he never held a party leadership position in a non-Russian Republic has been widely noted to explain this blind spot. That he never served in uniform has received less attention." He also had less experience with the Soviet military and contact with senior officers than his predecessors (397).

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