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Review: Vladislav M. Zubok’s "A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War, From Stalin to Gorbachev"

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.


Historian Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War, From Stalin to Gorbachev, argues that histories of the Cold War have taken predominantly western perspectives, often exaggerating the Kremlins’ authority and aggression. In an analysis of the views of Kremlin authorities and other Soviet elites, Zubok presents a Soviet perspective on the Cold War through extensive use of declassified Politurbo records. Appealing to historians, political theorists, military strategists, Cold War enthusiasts, and other interested readers, Zubok presents Soviet foreign policy from the Soviet perspective.

In a chronological approach to such thematic motifs as “nuclear education” (p.123) the “Soviet home-front” (p.163), and “Soviet overreach” (p.227), Zubok argues that an exploration of the motives of the Soviet Union in its entrance to the Cold War reveals that western understandings of Soviet confrontation with the United States vary widely from the Soviet perspective. This is apparent through analyses of Soviet documentation. Although informative, the preface would have been better situated at the conclusion of the monograph, so that readers not already familiar with the contextual material throughout Zubok’s work might better understand the significance of the preface as they read it in conjunction of the Cold War perspective presented by Zubok (pp.ix-xxi). Throughout the monograph, Zubok works to bring to light the “mythologized Soviet past” (p.xv), and dispel notions of “complacency and triumphalism that accompanied the end of the Cold War” (p.xvii). Zubok argues that American conceptions of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, although reasonable due to the American fears of the growing Soviet Empire, were based largely on false conceptions of Russian power and false accusations of imperialism and “authoritarian centralism” amidst global economic market in cooperation and competition with China, the United States, and other major players in the “geopolitical” atmosphere of the Cold War (p. xviii).


According to Zubok, post-World War II Soviet feelings of economic turmoil as a justification of expansionist ideology were perceived by Americans and the West to be imperialist ideological instigations of American paranoia; as Soviet satellites formed and Russian nationalism encourage a Soviet "imperial project" (p.11). Stalin's unilateral approach to foreign policy is contended by Zubok to have been caused by his mistrust of foreign leadership after World War II, and was justified by treatment of the Soviets as an ostracized "other" after the sacrifices made by Russians during the war (pp.18-19). Stalin's postwar embrace of the Soviet "revolutionary imperial paradigm" emphasized the need and justification of a socialist empire in which the Soviet Union acted as a major world power with heavy European influence (p.19). Feeling betrayed by the Grand Alliance after the war, Stalin sought to reestablish Russian authority (p.20) through the establishment of an empire to keep Eastern Europe within Soviet control (p.21). With a dual purpose of security and regime building (p.21), Stalin implemented such steps as social and political reforms, as well as the suppression of opposition to his policies throughout Eastern Europe (p.22). Portraying Germany as a "mortal enemy of the Slav world," (p.23), Stalin is argued by Zubok to have handed down the struggle between “progressive humanity” of the communist world and the capitalist west to his succeeding Kremlin (p.98). Zubok sympathizes with the Soviet Union, emphasizing Russia looking out for their financial, social, and political interests from the viewpoint of a Russian; as opposed to a condemnation of Soviet behavior with a sole focus on Soviet expansionism. In doing so, Zubok describes Stalin as being confused and cautious, not calculating and totalitarian (pp.45-46).

Using Stalin's death in 1953 as a turning point for Soviet leadership and a transitional phase of Kremlin politics, Zubok contends that the “erosion of Soviet identity” occurred as revolutionary romanticism competed with traditional conservatism and national understandings of patriotism (p.96). With de-Stalinization came the Russian realization that the Soviet political system was maintaining a low standard of living for Russians, who longed to have the material prosperity enjoyed by the United States exposed to them through the post-Stalin influx of tourists and translated texts. (p.175) The growth in popularity of American popular culture spread throughout the Soviet Union during the 1960s, as many educated young Russians rebelled against traditional Soviet beliefs and propaganda (p.177). In response to the growing cultural shifts of the 1960s came the decline of militarism and jingoism. (p.183) “Post-Stalin peace offensives” (p.184) spread among the increasingly educated public, as rapid urbanization, changing demographics, avoidance of military service, and optimism for a future communist prosperity are argued by Zubok to have been the harbingers of Khrushchev’s ideal “Friendship of the Peoples” (p.186); within which anti-Semitic themes were eventually dropped and anti-Zionist propaganda was eliminated as the assimilation of urban Jews increased (p.187).

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As the 1960s progressed and more Russians became dissatisfied with Khrushchev’s cultural and political inconsistency and apparent “idiocy,” (p.189) Leonid Brezhnev launched Détente with the West to gain political legitimacy (p.191). Using court records, propaganda, personal memoirs and testimonies, diaries, and letters, Zubok examines 1960s documentation to argue that while the West viewed Détente as an “immoral appeasement of Soviet Power,” Russia viewed Détente as a means of international prestige and political leverage (p.192). Zubok emphasizes the lack of texts portraying the Soviet understandings of Détente, as historians seem to have been content with depicting Détente as a carefully orchestrated contributor to the “imperial overstretch” and consequential fall of the Soviet Union (p.192). Zubok argues that even on the “road to Détente,” the Soviet Union retained its Stalinist worldview and revolutionary-imperial paradigm among the ruling elites in the Kremlin cohort and “post-Khrushchev oligarchy” (pp.195-6). Emphasizing unilateralism and hegemony throughout his analysis, Zubok contends that such leadership was not merely unwilling to embrace the global cultural shifts taking place, they were afraid to abandon the “orthodox tenets” of Soviet socialism because they were unsure of how to successfully reform them (p.196).

Zubok includes photos of Brezhnev on a “relaxing hunting trip,” (p160), Brezhnev dancing (p.159), Khrushchev hunting ducks (157), and Khrushchev precariously descending stairs (p.158), in what seems to be an attempt to make these leaders appear more human; appealing to readers to perceive these figures not as warmongering, unilateralist, brinkmanship-loving Soviet oppressors, but instead as men trying valiantly to navigate the Cold War on an emotional spectrum from insecurity to overconfidence; guiding the Russian people towards what they believed would be a successful Soviet empire.

In an analysis of the process of de-Stalinization parallel to Soviet modernization, Zubok discusses the influences of World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War on the Soviet Union’s Cold War foreign and domestic policy; contrasting the personalities of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, and Gorbachev throughout his analysis. Heavily worded, Zubok’s highly detailed account is written for an audience of trained historians, using terminology which might limit the understanding of the subject for someone with limited historical and anthropological methodological experience. For example, in his discussion of Détente, Zubok references the “domestic sphere,” “sociocultural profile,” (p.196), “ascribed geopolitical importance” (p.198), and Brezhnev’s “hagiographic memoirs,” (p.202).

Another point of contention, is Zubok’s assertion that Gorvachev's wife Raisa was unlike the former Politburo spouses because former spouses "had accepted the roles of housewives and had no ambitions" (p.281); as if those women had simply given up on life. Just because a woman is a housewife does not mean she has no ambitions. Many housewives are highly ambitious, serving as a combination of cooks, maids, accountants, secretaries, receptionists, seamstresses, chauffeurs, child-care providers, and teachers within their household, while hosting a variety of gatherings, meetings, and receptions in their home. Zubok is not a trained psychological profiler, and provides no further information to argue that the former Politburo spouses lacked ambition; thus his argument that Raisa Gorbachev was highly involved in the public sphere is lost within rising questions from the reader regarding the activities of former Politburo spouses within the private sphere which Zubok does not explain in further detail due to their irrelevance to his study. However by the same logic, Zubok’s discussion of Raisa Gorbachev is also irrelevant.


Zubok discusses the importance of oil, ideas of African expansionism, effects of Chernobyl (p.288), the Reykjavik Summit (p.293), Gorbachev's "New Thinking" (p.296), the Strategic Defense Initiative, German reunification, the fall of the Berlin Wall (p.326), the "meltdown" of Gorbachev's power (p.332), alliances with China and India, impacts of wars in the Middle East, the unexpected outcome of the Watergate Scandal, Salzineitsen's influence, President Carter's ideas of nuclear disarmament (p.254), the military coup in Afghanistan (Chapter 8), the brief rule of Andropov (p.272), the "Arms Race" (p.242), and NATO's influence, on Soviet perspective and policymaking. Zubok's points throughout the monograph are clear, as he often states "In this chapter..." and "This chapter focuses on..." to provide his reader with a better understanding of his focus; reinforcing his arguments with evidence from such declassified materials such as the conversations between Brezhnev and Kissinger (p.218), communications between Nixon and Brezhnev (Chapter 7), correspondence between President Carter and the Kremlin (Chapter 8), and Communication between Brezhnev and President Ford (p.244). In evaluating the end of the Cold War, Zubok does not credit the Reagan administration, but instead asserts that the aggressive policies of the United States only prolonged the war. Zubok argues that Gorbachev was the person who ended the Cold War. In doing so, Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Empire came from within; economic problems led to reformist policies which narrowed the revolutionary-imperial paradigm and lessened the strength of the Soviet Union. However, Zubok’s study goes into little detail regarding the economic policies of the Soviet Union, only speaking of Soviet economy in broad terminologies and vague contexts. Despite such weaknesses, Zubok does not center his work on the typical superpower emphasis in an analysis of the Cold War. Zubok is careful to analyze Moscow’s relationship with surrounding states, and the impact of the global Cold War on the domestic sphere of the Soviet Union. Zubok's compelling analysis convincingly asks readers to consider the perspective of the Soviet Union in a study of the Cold War.


Zubok, Vladislav M., A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War, From Stalin to Gorbachev. USA” University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

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