A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev

By Vladislav M. Zubok | Go to book overview

PREFACE

This book explores the motives that drove the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a global confrontation with the United States and its allies. The opening of archives in Russia and other countries of the onetime Communist bloc provides fascinating opportunities to write about the Soviet past. The abundance of sources on domestic politics and social and cultural developments behind the former iron curtain is astounding. One can now examine Politburo deliberations, read hour-by-hour cable correspondence between Communist leaders, observe how impulses from above trickled down into the bureaucracy, and even read the private journals of Communist apparatchiks. A series of critical oral history projects brought together veterans of the decision-making process and provided the emotional background that is missing in the bureaucratic paperwork.

With all these sources, it became possible to write about the Cold War not just as a clash of great powers and as an accumulation of deadly weaponry. Above all, every history is the story of people and their motives, hopes, crimes, illusions, and mistakes. The Soviet Cold War had many fronts and dimensions—from Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to Moscow kitchens, where dissidents spoke about Communism “with a human face,” from the Politburo in the Kremlin to students’ dorms. It was a war of nerves and resources, but above all it was a struggle of ideas and values.1 Also, truly international comparative studies have become possible, an intellectual accomplishment that helps place Soviet policies and behavior in a larger perspective—the context of empire. Recently, scholars have done a great deal of research illuminating the leverage of the Kremlin’s allies and satellites upon Soviet international behavior. Some of the most striking findings in the “new” Cold War historiography reveal how the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, East Germany, Cuba, Afghanistan, and various other clients affected Moscow’s motives, plans, and calculations.2

These expanding horizons and new methodological challenges shaped this book. A Russian scholar by nationality and training, I have lived and worked in the United States since the early 1990s. Months of research in Russian, American, and other archives, participation in numerous international scholarly conferences, and exchanges with colleagues, friends, and critics have greatly influenced the last fifteen years of my life. My participation in the CNN twenty-four-part television project on Cold War history was a new experience that alerted me to the significance of perceptions, images, and collective imagination. Finally, teaching

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