Sunday, 31 July 2016

REVIEW: "From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR" by Louis Sell

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR
by Louis Sell
Duke University Press Books
ISBN: 978-0822361954
Copyright August 2016
Paperback, 416 Pages

A masterfully written book, From Washington to Moscow offers a comprehensive, magnificent, and primarily chronological narrative of the USSR—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—under the leadership of its General Secretaries—Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev—up to its stupendous collapse, and the ascent of Boris Yeltsin, the First President of the Russian Federation.

Central to, and predominantly incorporated into, the narrative are the wildly intriguing intricacies of US-Soviet relations and nuclear arms control agreements. Remarkably illuminating and superbly researched, and comprising of painstaking details and invaluable evaluations, the book is highly recommended and would prove to be particularly enjoyable for rapacious readers of foreign policy.

The climax of the book culminates in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the crumbling of the “entire Communist edifice.” Distinctly fascinating is the author's efforts in expounding the myriad of factors converging in eventually causing the collapse of the USSR.

The role of Gorbachev in accelerating the splintering of the USSR was one amazingly examined by the author. Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost were amongst the most significant in undermining the Soviet system, political and thereafter economical. Clearly noting fear as “the essential glue” that sustained the USSR system, the author furnished incisive evaluations regarding the impact Gorbachev brought to the system—as he “relaxed the threat of repression,” and “eliminated the fear-factor,” he also “inadvertently” unleashed the “moral outrage” of the Soviet people, and let loose “a torrent of political, national, and social criticism that eroded the very foundations of the system.”

Certainly, the author also covered a range of other factors that potentially contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet system, for example, the Soviet military involvement in Cold War conflicts, President Ronald Reagan's economic warfare against the USSR, the Chernobyl catastrophe, and even the role of dissidents or the Soviet human rights community, who formed for example, the Helsinki Monitoring Group.

The author delivered excellently and meticulously on the essential theme of US-Soviet nuclear arms control agreements and negotiations. Beginning with detailing the talks between the American Nixon-Kissinger team and the Russian Brezhnev-Dobrynin team, the author sequentially progressed along the timeline and covered for example, Nixon and Brezhnev's signing of the SALT I strategic arms accords—consisting of the ABM Treaty, and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms—, President Gerald Ford and Brezhnev's signing of the Vladivostok accords and the Helsinki Final Act, and President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev's agreement to the SALT II deal.

And certainly there were the INF Agreement and also the START—Strategic Arms Reduction Talks—agreements; START I of which George H. W. Bush signed with Gorbachev in the Moscow summit, and the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty which Bush later signed with Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin's Vladimir Hall.

The author aptly explored the conflicts that impacted US-Soviet relations and which inevitably stalled the progress of the arms negotiations. The United States and the Soviets were antithetically involved in the conflicts in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Poland. The US even penalized the Soviets for urging the imposition of martial law in Poland, and rather significantly, for the invasion of Afghanistan; severe measures were implemented against Moscow, including “limits on grain sales, stricter controls on the export of US high technology, reduction of Soviet fishing in US waters, and the suspension of exchange programs.”

Somewhat poignantly, the author highlighted the prevailing Soviet military's attitude toward strategic negotiations with the United States—“at best one of intense skepticism and more commonly downright hostility.” America was viewed as engaging in “deception” dogged in its solitary pursuit of “unilateral American advantage.”

The book provides an outstanding survey of the various Russian leaders' ascension to power and notable characteristics of their regime. Yeltsin was noted as the first and perhaps the “only democratically elected leader in Russian history.” Rather memorable is the inherent contradiction spotlighted between Yeltsin's supposed vision of Russia and the reality of the system he was compelled to operate in; he had to govern on the basis of “a Communist-era constitution” suited to a one-party system despite his vision for the country as “a democratic state of laws with a multiparty system that would be fully sovereign economically.”

The Brezhnev administration for example, was highlighted for bringing about “a heightened level of officially inspired anti-Semitism,” for policies that bred bureaucratic inefficiencies, and wasted investments in agricultural reform. The “upright and ascetic” Andropov, on the other hand, with his nationwide discipline campaign, apparently induced “a whiff of return to the Stalin era,” and infused the country with “an even grimmer climate of hopelessness about the future.”

Historically-significant, the author made allusions to the all-important and ingrained Soviet Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Apart from some discussions surrounding Stalin's historical legacy, the narrative was inserted with certain references including the “time-honored tradition of Stalinist show trials,” and the “Stalinist labor-camp system.”

The author vividly and transparently painted the totalitarianism climate pervasive in the Soviet Union, and the reader is certain to appreciate it. Dissenters were vigorously suppressed, very heartrendingly with the strategy termed as the Soviet “abuse of psychiatry for political purposes”—the concept of “sluggish schizophrenia” was invented to quell political dissenters on the incredulous grounds that “only a schizophrenic would criticize Soviet power.” Soviet human right abuses were commonplace, the government waged a war against the local intelligentsia, and the religious Pentecostals represent but another group of innocent people “persecuted and driven to the margins of existence.”

The book also contains certain decidedly interesting information, intellectually-stimulating but occasionally nerve-racking. One such piece of information pertains to the Soviet “Strangelovian” system called the “Dead Hand”—a system supposedly capable of automatically launching Soviet missiles “even if no senior civilian or military official survived to actually push the button.”

The preliminary mentions of the KGB at the start of chapter 2 in the book ought to have been accompanied at the very least with a concise description that explains the initialism. Considering that KGB is an initialism for a rather long and complicated Russian name (that could potentially have come across as an indecipherable jumble of alphabetical letters to English-language readers, but nonetheless culturally-educational), the author may opt to omit the inclusion of the Russian name to which KGB stands for.

It was certainly a shortcoming however, the omission to provide a decent description for the institution, especially when a reasonable understanding of the initialism is crucial for fuller appreciation of the contents of the book, and KGB's indispensable role in the narrative. On the other hand, one might assume that knowledge of the KGB ought to be taken for granted, or that later coverage in the book would allow the reader to rightly infer the entity of the KGB; in such an exceptionally written book however, the lack of an accompanying explanation at the onset of the use of the initialism qualifies as a slip which could have been rather painlessly amended.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review. 

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