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Idealists of the 1980s: Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. (Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times)
Idealists of the 1980s: Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. (Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times)

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Review: Robert Service sets himself an immense task in The End of the Cold War Add to ...

  • Title The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991
  • Author Robert Service
  • Publisher Macmillan
  • Pages 643
  • Price $47.99

The world in which the Cold War ended is still recognizable, but discernibly antique in its innocence. Although the high risk of nuclear war and the imprisonment of half of Europe are nothing to pine for, there is something rather sweet about an era in which leaders quarrelled earnestly over big ideas, and thought enough of human progress to advance new ones. Today, Barack Obama may aspire to a world without nuclear weapons, but it will be enough for his legacy if he has prevented Iran from “breaking out.” As for Russia’s future, who now breathes a word about “openness” or “restructuring”?

The life of ideas in the 1980s belonged largely to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The first, an amiable kook with a lot of spine, had a horror of biblical Armageddon and thought he could postpone it by challenging the godless Soviets in every sphere while drawing up plans for defensive weapons in outer space. The second, a relatively young and energetic Leninist, had bided his time as the Soviet Union’s post-Brezhnev gerontocracy aged out and won himself the privilege of deciding how to “restructure” a precarious economy and a rusty, resentful empire.

Reagan had all the initiative and impetus. He came into office four years ahead of Gorbachev and dismissed his advisers’ objections to his dream of abolishing nuclear weapons. He learned with shock that America would not even be able to defend against a “first strike.” Shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, he realized he might have died without ever gauging the Soviets’ position. NATO’s close scrape with Moscow over the Able Archer military exercise in 1983 embossed for him the urgency of the nuclear question. A practised red-baiter from his Hollywood days, he also knew how to goad the Soviets on the PR front.

Europe, whose map closely resembled that of 1945, bristled with a new generation of missiles on either side of the Iron Curtain. Europeans had little to gain from the status quo but a most tenuous “security.” Even that was in doubt, as Western European leaders wondered whether America would really risk Chicago to save Paris, let alone West Germany. In 1986, the Chernobyl disaster polluted swaths of the continent and provided a sneak preview of what it might be like to live, battle or die in an irradiated landscape. It also afforded Gorbachev and his reform-minded foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, a chance to advance an experiment in “openness.”

So far, so compelling. But Robert Service has set himself an immense task in these pages and it balloons to the very limits of his powers. He covers not, as his title suggests, 1985 to 1991, but the entire decade from Reagan’s inauguration to the dissolution of the USSR. As Reagan and Gorbachev get to grips at arms-reduction summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow, Service strains under the sheer weight of available sources, offering well-informed but artless accounts of every glacial half-shift of negotiating position, every banal reiteration and, seemingly, every damned lunch break.

Nor is the rest of the book just about the trajectory of arms-control talks. Service’s parameters are so broad that he must draw in and juxtapose the domestic politics of the United States and its allies, and of the Soviet Union and all its Warsaw Pact captives; he must anatomize U.S.-Soviet rivalries across the “Third World” (the Soviet war in Afghanistan being only the main flashpoint) and detail the whole range of U.S.-Soviet quarrels over human rights, espionage, trade, technology sharing, violations of past treaties and so on. He ends up with plot threads and dramatis personae to rival War and Peace, in half the space, no less.

Yet, even if Service is no Tolstoy, he does bring to bear considerable skills as a biographer, which he honed in his studies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. He turns up vivid anecdotes about the big players of the era and their personal relationships. This reader will not soon forget his account of then-U.S. secretary of state George Shultz toasting the Georgian Shevardnadze with a Russian-language performance of Georgia on My Mind. Also memorable is his portrayal of Margaret Thatcher’s unlikely affection for the Soviet leader. In 1988, she exclaimed, “If Dukakis wins the election, Gorbachev will be my only friend left.”

The election of George Bush that year brought an end to idealism, as he and his ever “prudent” advisers put Reagan’s anti-nuclear genie back in the bottle and focused on the prickly practicalities of winding down hostilities and birthing the Europe we know now. Here, the contours of contemporary Russo-American relations come into view, with recurring descriptions of Gorbachev’s perceived humiliations, his plummeting popularity on the home front and his ardent objections to NATO expansion.

When the Soviet conservatives tried to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991, Bush could hardly believe it; he had, after all, sent one of the coup leaders fishing lures. But for many Russians, Gorbachev was a villain who gave away, in a diplomatic fire sale, the world they had won in 1945. And since hardly anyone in the East or the West actually wanted the Soviet Union to collapse at the time, Bush was imprudent to declare victory when Boris Yeltsin brought it crashing down. It is partly for that reason that today we can’t be sure the Cold War really ended.

Roland Elliott Brown is a Canadian writer, based in London, who has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Guardian and the National Post.

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