Jonathan Haslam, Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 544 pp., $38.00.
Silvio Pons and Robert Service, eds., A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 944 pp., $99.50.
Russia's Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall ONE MIGHT have thought that the end of the Cold War would lead to a rapid reappraisal of the origins, nature and meaning of that strangely amorphous conflict. Yet this did not happen in any immediate sense, and initial access to long-coveted Soviet files did not generate much in the way of fresh basic insights. We Now Know, the title of a book published in 1997 by the dean of U.S. Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, promised more than it delivered: the new knowledge, as reviewers pointed out at the time, looked awfully like the old. It was, to paraphrase Gaddis, pretty much all Joseph Stalin’s fault, although one could trace back an underlying antagonism between the United States and Russia far into the nineteenth century. Stalin was a ruthless dictator presiding over an authoritarian regime, dedicated to building the wrong kind of empire. Fortunately, he was confronted by America, which was ready to build one of the right sort. Stalin started it; Washington fought back in the name of freedom. And thank goodness it did. What was surprising in all this was certainly not the interpretation—familiar to readers of Gaddis’s earlier work. It was rather that the opening of the Soviet archives, and the spate of memoirs and other firsthand accounts that emerged in Russia in the 1990s, had apparently done so little to shift our basic historical terms of understanding.
But as the years pass, things have begun to change. Communism is now less a matter of politics and more of history. At the same time, scholars of U.S. foreign policy, of European diplomacy and of Soviet Russia have begun to read one another’s work and have learned that they have interests in common. A special contribution to this process has been made by historians from Europe, as these two books testify. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cold War looks from the Soviet perspective much more like a conflict over the Continent than it once did. In fact, both books under consideration suggest that there was only one global power—and that it was not the USSR: Soviet priorities were more traditional (more bounded) and less far-reaching than those of their principal, and much more powerful, transatlantic antagonist.
A Dictionary of 20th-Century Communism THE SHIFT in perceptions starts with the question of when it all began. Plenty of answers to the timing of the Cold War’s origins have been offered in the past: between 1944 and 1948 has been the usual response, though more ideologically inclined writers sometimes plausibly suggested looking to 1917–1921 and the clash between President Woodrow Wilson and Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. Those who took the very long view even pushed things back to Pan-Slavism, imperial autocracy or—but could the Cold War really have been their fault?—the Mongols. What was not taken seriously enough, despite or maybe because of the regime’s emphasis on the topic, was the rather obvious idea that its roots were located in the experience of the Second World War, the German invasion and occupation, and the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.