Monday, March 13, 2017

Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev

Zubok and Pleshakov have multiple goals for Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, including the use of newly opened Soviet and Chinese archives to achieve a new understanding of the driving factors in the early Cold War from the Soviet perspective.  Other authors have attempted to produce similar works, notably Gaddis in We Now Know.  However, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War takes a different tack, made possible by the fact that the authors were educated under the Soviet system, being born in Moscow and Yalta during the 1950s.  Their unique background allows Zubok and Pleshakov to approach the topic of Soviet Cold War leadership with an understanding of Russian history, values and goals that is not possible for a non-Russian.  Zubok and Pleshakov’s Russian background also makes for some challenges in translating documents feelings and shared understanding to the American audience, especially as they intended Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War for a broad American audience, not just academics.  All of this combines to lead to the conclusion that three main factors created the Kremlin’s view of the Cold War: the personalities of Soviet leaders, the ideological and geopolitical motives of those leaders, and the policies of the United States.

Inside the Cold War is organized in chapters devoted to an individual leader or set of leaders that had a significant impact on the Soviet approach to the Cold War.  Because Zubok and Pleshakov present the leaders in the order of their ascent to power, this arrangement has an almost pseudo-chronological effect as well, although some of the events in the different chapters may overlap to some extent.  With the traditional stance that the Cold War began approximately at the end of World War II, Inside the Cold War begins with Stalin.

In their discussion of Stalin, Zubok and Pleshakov take the stance that, in addition to the frequently cited paranoia and self-identification with the State, Stalin acted within a complex Russian national messianic complex that was inherited from the Tsarist period.  This argument can be summed in this manner:  from the 15th century the Tsars, and by extension the Russian people, had seen themselves as the guardians of Christianity with the Russian Empire a third Roman Empire.  As such, it was the duty of Russians to expand the Empire to save mankind.  The idea of Russia as the savior of mankind was further enhanced by the view that Russians had protected the West from the Mongol Hordes, had stopped Napoleon from conquering Europe in the 19th century, and then Hitler in the 20th century.  Zubok and Pleshakov further argue that Soviet leaders, particularly after Lenin, combined the traditional Russian ideal that the Russian Empire had the mission to save the world from a “militant anti-Christ” with the universalist doctrine of Marxism to form a revolutionary-imperial doctrine that informed their decision-making.  Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War claims that Stalin internalized this Russian national messianic ideal, and that it drove his expansion in Eastern Europe and support for nationalist movements in colonial areas such as Southeast Asia.

Although Zubok and Pleshakov continue to make the case that Stalin truly hoped for post-war cooperation between the “Big Three”, and therefore, waited before making truly expansionist moves and supporting revolutionary movements at the end of the war, the death of FDR and the election loss by Churchill unsettled him, as he was used to dealing with small numbers of equals.  This awakened his inherent paranoia: he did not consider either Truman or Atlee to be his equals and did not trust their motives.  The atomic bomb used on Hiroshima heightened his sense of insecurity, particularly toward American intentions in Japan.  According to Zubok and Pleshakov, Stalin worried that a quick Japanese surrender would deprive the Soviet Union of the defensive perimeter of Outer Mongolia, Manchuria, and North Korea he wanted in the Far East.  Atomic bombs combined with American and British air power could also be used to attack critical targets within Russia proper, which upset his vision of the supremacy of the Red Army against the two sea powers.  The atomic bomb caused Stalin to push for his East European security zone with more vigor, as it would provide additional attack warning and anti-aircraft defenses for American attacks to negotiate.  It also caused him to place much more emphasis on the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons program, which made excellent use of intelligence information acquired from agents in the United States.

The result of Stalin’s change of heart regarding international cooperation caused him to return to his conception of a revolutionary-imperial power.  Where the Soviet Union had refrained from supporting Greek, Macedonian, and Vietnamese revolutionaries immediately after World War II, after the use of the atomic bomb, he lent aid to the Chinese fighting Chiang Kai-shek and to Kim Il Sung in North Korea, ultimately giving North Korea the weapons, training, and approval for their attack on South Korea.

Zubok and Pleshakov, then move to a discussion of the roles of Molotov and Zhdanov in the creation of the Eastern Bloc and development of a clear revolutionary-imperial ideology.  Both of these discussions are important, but more interesting is the analysis of the potentially radical change in the Cold War environment provided by Beria and Malenkov, who attempted to split control over the Soviet Union’s foreign policy between themselves upon Stalin’s death.  These two men, according to Zubok and Pleshakov, are responsible for sudden changes in Soviet foreign policy upon the death of Stalin.  Beria controlled the NKVD and the Soviet Atomic bomb production projects, and was driven primarily by the accrual of power. He used terror and coercion as motivators. Malenkov, in contrast, was a capable administrator who was not driven by dogma or a search for power, but pragmatism.  These two men were the ones chosen by Stalin for his secret tasks and projects such as restructuring military and intelligence organizations, atomic weapons projects, and missile technology development.

At first, it appears that Beria and Malenkov worked subtly within the Presidium, asking pointed foreign policy questions and requesting that issues be revisited.  The issues included peace in Korea, policy toward Germany, Iran, Turkey, and Austria, as well as internal changes like amnesty to a million prisoners in the Gulag.  Beria supported a united and neutral Germany whether it was socialist, or not, and called for the disbanding of collective farms and the cessation of policies discouraging capitalism in general.  Beria supported these ideas on the theory that Germany was the entire source of the Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.  He shared this view with Malenkov, but the rest of the Presidium did not agree.

Beria and Malenkov lost the struggle for power when Khrushchev, who had maintained control of most of the Soviet Union’s domestic policy, suddenly sided with Molotov to denounce Beria’s policies as anti-Soviet.  Malenkov was eased out of his position after he declared in speeches that warned that thermonuclear weapons could destroy world civilization.  According to Zubok and Pleshakov, this flew in the face of the Soviet revolutionary-imperial theory motivating the Politburo, and as a result Malenkov was ultimately removed from the Central Committee and sent into exile.  Khrushchev continued to reform Soviet foreign policy, but with a different goal than Beria and Malenkov, who had sought peace with the West.

Khrushchev’s reform of Soviet policy sought to mend fences with other Socialist countries by addressing their grievances against the high-handed policies of Stalin.  To promote amity with China, Yugoslavia and others, Khrushchev discarded Soviet military bases and economic concessions with those countries and sought to show that Soviet foreign policy was aimed at promoting the spread of Socialism, not merely enhancing Soviet status. Khrushchev used the new military capabilities of the Soviet Union, including ballistic missiles and hydrogen bombs to promote his interpretation of the revolutionary-imperial paradigm.

According to Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, Khrushchev’s personality and foreign policy seem full of contradictions.  While fully embracing Stalin’s revolutionary-imperial doctrine, the basis for Soviet demands in Eastern Europe, and placing the blame for the Cold War on Western leaders, particularly Truman and Churchill, he spent political capital denouncing Stalin’s crimes and seeking peace with the United States.  By seeking peace with the United States, despite his feeling that the Soviet Union had been poorly treated at the end of World War II, he cost the Soviet Union its most valuable ally: China.

Additional contradictions appear in other aspects of Khrushchev’s foreign policy, particularly in his efforts to promote Communist revolutions around the world while attempting to pursue détente with the West.  Zubok and Pleshakov point out that he failed to see the contradiction in this dichotomy, and blame the dual nature of Khrushchev’s foreign policy goals for the increased tensions of his reign between 1954-1964.  Khrushchev’s almost schizophrenic nature is again illustrated by the claim that at the same time he recognized the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and missile systems, he ordered his air defense forces to shoot down any unidentified aircraft in Soviet airspace.  While claiming that he knew how close to the brink he could push the United States after Dulles’ announcement of the “massive retaliation” policy, he ordered nuclear missiles placed in Cuba to threaten the United States’ mainland.  A final part of Khrushchev’s foreign policy strategy was the belief that the nuclear deadlock between the United States and Soviet Union made it possible to support revolutionary movements around the world at no real risk to the Soviet Union itself.  This belief would drag the Soviets into military interventions in Afghanistan. Angola, and the Horn of Africa.

Zubok and Pleshakov continue to discuss the Sino-Soviet schism and difficulties in Germany, including the erection of the Berlin Wall, before turning to relations between Khrushchev and Kennedy.  The illustration of the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit meeting in Vienna is a good illustration of opportunities lost because Khrushchev was operating on assumptions that the American President could not understand and that Khrushchev underestimated the resolve of Kennedy and the relative balance of nuclear power between the two nations.  It is particularly interesting that Khrushchev took Kennedy’s endeavors to seek a more prudent type of diplomacy between the two nuclear powers as a sign of weakness, and dismissed Kennedy as not having the depth or stature of Eisenhower. Khrushchev’s underestimation of Kennedy led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, Zubok and Pleshakov have provided a valuable and insightful look at the inner workings of the Soviet leadership and how those leaders affected Soviet-American relations in the post-war period.  They do this using methods that are unique to their work.  First, the utilize newly available Soviet and Chinese archives and apply their understanding of Russian history and cultural identity to “read between the lines” to draw deeper meaning from documents such as secret and coded communications that they claim rely on the Soviet mentality to convey their true and fullest meaning.  This has the potential of adding a much greater understanding of what those documents actually refer to.  However, there is also the danger that Zubok and Pleshakov may read in detail that simply does not exist in these documents.  Not being able to read the mind of a Molotov or a Beria means that they must rely on their memories of what it was like to live under the Soviet system to fill in gaps.  This is particularly true of an individual such as Stalin who they maintain opened up only to his second wife, who committed suicide in 1937.  With no letters or diaries discussing the thoughts or what Zubok and Pleshakov portray as an almost introverted and intensely private man is fraught with dangers.  The main danger, of course, is that Zubok and Pleshakov read into the evidence they do have from other sources what they wish to see there.

Another weakness is that although American policies and acts are mentioned in some places, it is quite sporadic.  It makes it difficult to assess how some of the policies or perceived policies of the West impacted Soviet thinking.  Although some like brinksmanship, which is assigned solely to the Eisenhower Administration, is mentioned, as is the policy of “massive retaliation”, little mention is made of the policies of Truman at the start of the Cold War.  Similarly, no mention is made whether the implicit exclusion of South Korea from the American defensive perimeter had any impact on Stalin’s decision to support Kim Il Sung’s request to invade the South.  American authors frequently cite the South Korean exclusion in at least one speech as a key event in the decision for North Korea to attack, as it implied that the United States would not intervene.

That said, the insight into the psychology of the Soviet Union’s leaders is quite valuable, especially after it is put into the context of Russian history and the ideological perspective dominant among those leaders.  The idea of the doctrine of revolutionary-imperialism that takes an pre-existing Russian messianic mind-set and melds it with the Marxist-Leninist doctrine that world revolution is inevitable is particularly instructive when applied to the expansionist policies of Stalin and the support for nationalist-communist insurgencies in the third world by both Stalin and Khrushchev.  Although it is not stated in Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War, this philosophy was bound to run up against the American universalist ideal of democratic and capitalist systems everywhere.

Finally, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War is a valuable resource for understanding the development of the early Cold War Era, especially when combined with works that focus on the Western perspective because it deals with those unfathomable questions that Western-oriented texts cannot deal with, the most nagging being “What drove Stalin, Molotov, and Khrushchev to make the decisions they made and act in the manner they did.”  Zubok and Pleshakov’s work is also eminently readable for either an academic or non-academic audience, and should be accessible to the authors’ stated target audience: the American reading public.  In this it is assisted by not apologizing for the acts of Stalin or others, calling them criminal or misinformed when appropriate.  Despite a few problems, Zubok and Pleshakov achieve their goal of providing the reader with a greater understanding of the other side of the Cold War.

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