West Meets East: Two New Versions of the Cold War

The Cambridge History of the Cold War

Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds. (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010)

Istoriia Rossii [The History of Russia] , vol. 2, XX vek [The 20th Century] 1939–2007
A. B. Zubov, ed. (Moscow: Astrel, 2009)

T he Cold War—is it finally over? It shaped world history during the second half of the last century and its consequences are felt even now, especially in Europe and in U.S.-Russian relations, more then twenty years after it ended. For decades the causes of the Cold War have been discussed and disputed: how did it start, whose (to put it somewhat crudely) fault was it, could it have been prevented, were opportunities missed in the decades after Stalin’s death, and when and how and why did it end? As long as Soviet rule existed, Russian historians and commentators were not in doubt with regard to the answers to these questions. The fault was with the “cold warrior”—a Western (mostly American) hard-liner distrustful of Soviet peaceful intentions, probably with a vested interest in the maintenance of tensions and conflict, a hopelessly prejudiced individual, an obstacle to world peace, and quite likely a warmonger. In some Western circles there was agreement with this Soviet stereotype.

Since the end of the Cold War, an enormous amount of hitherto inaccessible source material (but by no means all of it) has come to light, mainly from Soviet archives, and has been carefully studied. As a result, some of the more extreme Communist theories have been dispelled—for instance, the idea that Washington provoked the outbreak of the Korean War. But there remains a wide discrepancy of interpretations about the causes and conclusion of the Cold War, and the great divide today is perhaps not so much between Western and Russian commentators but within the two camps themselves. This divide expresses itself even in the language the stakeholders use. Many Western historians are most reluctant to use the word “totalitarian” with regard to Stalin’s Russia; they believe is a loaded, even propagandistic, term—not to be used by serious, dispassionate analysts. Some Russian historians and commentators have no such compunction; even the president of Russia has not shied away from using this term on occasion. Here’s Dmitri Medvedev in an interview with Izvestia from May 6, 2010: “If we speak honestly, the regime that was built in the Soviet Union cannot be called anything other than totalitarian.”

A comparison of two recent works—the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War (no mentioning of totalitarianism there) and the equally massive two-part Istoriia Rossii , whose enormous second volume is largely devoted to the Cold War period—throws some light on these complex questions. These books are the work of many hands (more than fifty contributors each). The cooperation of so many experts no doubt adds to the caliber of these works, but the contributions, by necessity, not only vary in quality, but reflect—within certain limits—different viewpoints. Still, if there is no “party line,” there remains much common ground in each of these mammoth enterprises.


W hat about the origins of the Cold War? The Russian study (with Professor Andrei Zubov as its editor in chief) has few doubts. Chapter 3 of the second volume refers to “Russia and Stalin’s preparations for a third world war—which did not take place.” Georgi Dimitrov, last head of the Communist International, is quoted to the effect that as early as January 1945 Stalin declared at a reception in his dacha outside Moscow that although Russia was allied with one capitalist faction (the United States and Great Britain) against another (the Nazis), it would soon fight its present allies too. Stalin believed that as a result of a postwar capitalist economic crisis, and conflicts between the Western allies, America would be compelled to withdraw its forces from Europe, which would enable the USSR not just to dominate Eastern Europe but to extend its influence to all of Germany as well as France and Italy. But as the Russian study notes with evident disbelief and perhaps even amusement, Western politicians continued to put their trust in the peaceful intentions of “Uncle Joe” and “simply did not want to believe in Soviet expansionism” until a more sober approach began to prevail in the West (which only happened after Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, which this volume reprints in full). Further stages in the unleashing of the Cold War were the Berlin Blockade provoked by Stalin, the Soviet takeover of Prague in 1948, and the rapid Sovietization of Eastern Europe.

The study further notes that Soviet military doctrine in the early 1950s was—according to Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, chief of the Soviet General Staff—based on a powerful belief that Soviet tank divisions that would occupy Western Europe as far as the Atlantic. As for the outbreak of the Korean War, the initiative came from Kim Il Sung, but Stalin gave him the green light and provided enormous quantities of military equipment and “fully consciously [ soznatelno ] attempted to draw America [into] a new conflict which could eventually lead to a third world war.” In brief, according to this volume, Stalin was a monster and eventually a disaster for Russia even more than for the rest of the world.


N othing so outspoken is found when we move from the Russian version to the cautious and balanced approach of the Cambridge history. It consists of essays by leading students of international affairs, covering every aspect of the Cold War. Twenty years ago, burdened by the Vietnam War and a general distrust among Western intellectuals of American motives, such a mainstream Western academic history would probably have been “revisionist” to some extent. Was it not true that Washington failed to sufficiently accommodate legitimate Soviet security interests, that many opportunities to prevent a conflict or to bring an existing conflict to a speedy end had been missed, that Western leaders grossly exaggerated Soviet political ambitions, engaging in one-sided condemnations? But glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union, along with access to Soviet archives, have moved the academic consensus away from revisionism, sometimes not that far but still significantly. The Cambridge history’s take on how the Korean War began, for instance, is not that different from the Russian version’s. It mentions the Gulag a few times (although not as often as McCarthyism), and its contributors do not hesitate on occasion to brand Stalin as a dictator.

In contrast to most earlier works, the Cambridge history deals with more than diplomatic history, and its scope is much wider than Europe—admittedly the main battlefield in the Cold War, but far from the only one. One of the great weaknesses of the revisionist school was that it was mainly written by Americanists focusing on American policy, which resulted in an incomplete and sometimes distorted picture. The Cambridge history includes not only Russian authors but also American students of Russian history and politics. Such additions provide a much fuller picture, yet even so, there is still a disproportionate emphasis on America and the West. To give but one example, there is a chapter on American grand strategy but no such essay about the Russian side. This would perhaps make sense if the West had taken the initiative most of the time in waging the Cold War and the Kremlin had merely reacted, but that was certainly not the case. There is also a chapter on culture and the Cold War in Europe, from which the reader learns that American cultural propagandists were innocents abroad who lost the battle against native European anti-Americanism. But apart from a few references to East Germany, the reader does not learn about Soviet cultural propaganda during the same period—how successful it was in Poland or Hungary or, for that matter, in the countries of Western Europe.

The Cambridge history is an encyclopedic work, but, as Sir Lawrence Freedman has noted, it does not quite clarify what the Cold War was all about—was it just a conflict between two superpowers, each with its own legitimate interests, or was there perhaps a certain asymmetry between the intentions of these powers?


T he Russian history is written from a certain political point of view that will not be shared by everyone, not even in Russia. It deals, for instance, in considerable detail with the USSR abroad—meaning the Russian emigration—and with the Russian church inside the Soviet Union, as well as other religious denominations. The activities of the Pravoslav (Orthodox) church were kept under strict control by the Soviet leadership, and the church was heavily infiltrated by the KGB. The political importance of the emigration was very small; the dissident movement inside Russia (about which we read less) had a greater impact. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn appears quite frequently in these pages, but his impact was much greater outside the Soviet Union than in.

The Russian history says Nikita Khrushchev stood for “revolutionary diplomacy similar to that followed by the Communist International in the 1920s.” When John F. Kennedy tried to peacefully solve the German problem and other Cold War bones of contention, Khrushchev interpreted this as the weakness of the young president and began to exert pressure on him—hence the Cuban Missile and Second Berlin Crises. The Cambridge history sees this differently and speaks of Kennedy’s “reckless policy of aggression.”

Following various other crises, we reach the age of détente. Where did the main impulse for détente come from? “Research and documents show that the main impulse came from the West,” according to the Russian history. It was caused by a variety of factors, including West German pressure from Willy Brandt, along with “illusions to the effect that the USSR had become a normal country,” and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s desire for breathing room that would allow them to get out of the Vietnam War. The Cambridge history feels less sanguine about the merits of the Western détente initiative, and while praising Nixon and Kissinger it blames them for a secrecy that undermined popular support for it. Both histories agree, however, that the Brezhnev doctrine was anchored in the belief of Soviet leaders that the overall balance of power had shifted in their direction and would continue to do so if they did not provoke dangerous confrontations. The Russian history quotes Brezhnev’s claim that he was genuinely against an arms race, but does not quite believe him because he was under constant pressure on the part of the military leadership and Communist Party grandees to achieve strategic superiority.

Both volumes agree, too, on the breakdown of détente—and, above all, on conflicts in the third world, although the language of the Zubov volume is certainly more emphatic, referring to “Soviet adventures in Africa and Central America, the scattering of Soviet resources, the crisis of the Soviet global empire.”

Each book has fascinating omissions as well. The Zubov volume mentions the KGB helping to finance Western peace movements, whereas the Cambridge history does not. The Russian history makes the Bulgarian and Russian secret services responsible for the attempt to kill Pope John Paul II, while the Cambridge history does not mention the affair at all. The Russian version reports that the Soviet leadership did not at first take Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric too seriously and thought that he would eventually “sober up,” but subsequently became very alarmed and even believed in the possibility (if not likelihood) of an American nuclear attack. The Cambridge history devotes a whole volume to the circumstances and the causes of the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet system; the Russian history, in contrast, hardly deals with it at all, perhaps partly because it thinks the reasons why the house that Stalin built could not last are self-evident in light of the history it has already presented. But it could also be that the issue is still considered too controversial for detailed discussion; did not Vladimir Putin recently argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the twentieth century?


I storiia Rossii is the most ambitious and massive such enterprise so far, but it is certainly not the new official version of Soviet history. On the contrary: when Putin convened a conference of history teachers in June 2007 to provide guidelines for the patriotic education of the young generation, the suggested doctrine consisted of elements of czarist and Soviet historiography, with an admixture of Solzhenitsyn (“live not by lies”)—admittedly not an easy combination. This summer, two Moscow professors (Barsenko and Vdovin) published a new “patriotic” history of the twentieth century that largely justified Stalinist policies—but also provoked immediate contradiction and protest.

Why attribute such political importance to the interpretations proposed by a history of the USSR or the Cold War? There is at least one good reason: the state and the future of American-Russian relations. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States (with NATO) considered each other their main enemies. This was decades ago, however, and in the twenty-first century it would seem that common interests should outweigh the tensions and disputes between the two countries. But the improvement in relations has been modest. Although President Obama has gone out of his way to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations and Putinism is not high on the list of threats that worry Americans, a majority of Russians, according to all public opinion polls, see the United States not just as the main culprit in the fall of the Soviet Union but as Russia’s greatest enemy now and in the foreseeable future. This view is reinforced day in, day out in the Russian media—and not just by a few retired generals, neo-Stalinists, neo-Eurasians, or spokesmen of extremist fringe groups. It reaches far into the centrist Russian political establishment. Alexander Prokhanov, perhaps the best-known ideologue of the contemporary Russian right, has called his new book Forebodings of a New Cold War .

True, there is also some support among the Russian leadership for improving relations with Washington, but the people espousing such views seem to be in the minority, and it was never clear whether this optimism was meant to go very far beyond enlisting American economic and technological help for the modernization of the Russian economy. In May of this year, there were reports about a decision from Moscow to improve relations with most Western countries. Welcome news, if true, but how far will it go? And how to explain the ongoing antagonism in the meantime? One could go back to nineteenth-century Slavophiles like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Danilevsky, who regarded the West (at that time, the target was Europe; America hardly figured in Russian thinking) as Russia’s eternal enemy. Western Russophobia was regarded as deep and immutable; there was a firm conviction among such people that the West was out to harm Russia always and in every possible way. But the Slavophiles were educated people and, for all their fear and loathing of the West, the threat they obsessed about was more of a cultural-spiritual character than a political-military one. Today’s anti-Western Russians look back only as far as the not-so-distant days of Cold War propaganda. The perdurability of its effects is a subject that certainly deserves further study.

Walter Laqueur is the author of The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent.

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