Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, by Vladislav M. Zubok

Charlotte Cowell

A new account of the collapse of communism in Russia is damning of Mikhail Gorbachev.
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As a long-term Russophile with a grudge against the Bolsheviks I jumped at the chance to review this authoritative book, written through the unclouded lens of such an illustrious Russian historian. Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union is enthralling from the get-go, brimming with fascinating insights into life in the former Soviet Union and legendary characters such as Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Shevardnadze. To name but a few! The list of Dramatis Personae extends to 68 key individuals, giving an early indication of the historical depth-charge that’s about to be detonated.

Nervous breakdowns, near misses and lost opportunities abound in the gripping narrative, which details the continual high drama of reality on the ground as the perpetual tragedy of Russian and Soviet history entered its second major collapse of the twentieth century.

Zubok makes clear from the start that he sees a “perfect storm, unleashed by the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev” as being ultimately responsible for the destruction of the Soviet Union. The awesome complexities of Soviet economic and socio-political affairs are laid bare, as is the Sisyphean nature of the task facing Gorbachev, an idealistic intellectual, zealous disciple of the earlier destroyer of statehood, Vladimir Lenin and a “hapless captain” of his nation.

Whilst it surely provides a definitive account of the whole epic saga, Collapse is worth reading for its character study of Gorbachev alone, especially when contrasted with that of populist rival, Boris Yeltsin. Hailed as a cooperative peacenik in the West and rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize, Gorbachev made a hole in the USSR that he never stopped digging, finding himself in the extraordinary situation of being a Soviet President opposed by a Russian nationalist leader who he couldn’t seem to stop empowering.

Yeltsin is presented as a cunning populist instrument – not so blunt that it shielded him from breakdown – but it was a quotation from this fanatical champion of Russian independence which struck me as especially poignant. The remark was given during Yeltsin’s first visit to America and a trip to Randalls discount supermarket, where he marvelled at the array of the readily-available, affordable goods so sadly lacking in his own country:

What did they do to our poor people? Throughout our lives, they told us fairy tales, tried to invent the wheel. And the wheel already exists…yet not for us.

The last vestiges of Yeltsin’s Bolshevik mentality thereby disintegrated, setting him on the free market path – “one long streak of gambling” – on which he became the final nemesis of Soviet Russia. Whilst this gambling was triumphant in the short-term, it also resulted in the economic collapse which brought his tenure to a swift demise.

Collapse served as a powerful contrast to the last book I read on this subject – a polar-opposite account – which focuses on the efforts of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II to destroy the malefic communist egregore as it operated through the KGB and Russia’s Eastern European proxies. This paints the classic Western image of an evil Soviet Empire which, though not inaccurate in its detail, can only ever be half a picture of seismic events as they unfolded in the world’s largest country, with all of its mysterious history and unimaginable misery.

From the first page of Zubok’s work it’s clear that western mythologising must be dispelled if we are to obtain a true picture of what Vladimir Putin described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. It is thanks to Collapse that I understood why the current Russian President recently described Gorbachev (someone I can’t help having sympathy for) as the worst-ever leader of his country, even if it did not attempt to justify how Stalin could be his clear favourite.

Putin makes a cameo appearance in the second half of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union as a KGB colonel who has declared he couldn’t work for both sides in the political conflict engulfing his motherland. He would go onto fulfil Yeltsin’s earlier promise that “Russia will rise from its knees”, opening another chapter in the rollercoaster story of Europe’s Great Bear.

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, by Vladislav M. Zubok is published by Yale University Press and is out now.