By Patricia H Kushlis
Louis Sell’s From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR is at the top of my must read books published in 2016. Part memoir and part analytical history, this analysis of US-Soviet relations deserves far more publicity than it has received thus far.
Sell was a veteran Soviet specialist in the US Foreign Service. As such, he served at the US Embassy Moscow in the late 1970s and again in the 1990s. He also worked on the Soviet desk in Washington, as an advisor on the START II negotiations in Geneva prior to the break up of the Soviet Union and as head of the Russian office in State’s Intelligence and Research - its analytical arm. Although he also served in Yugoslavia, most of his career was devoted to US-Soviet, then Russian relations. (Photo left: Red Square, May Day 1979 by WJ Kushlis)
Basically, I agree with much of Sell’s characterization of the events during the years leading up to the breakup of the Soviet Union and identification of the straws that broke that camel’s back although I think he underplays the catalytic role of the three Baltic Republics as they sprinted to the exit. In contrast, Sell tells us that the first signs of troubles on the nationalities front came in December 1986 when Gorbachev replaced an ethnic Kazakh with an ethnic Russian as head of the Republic of Kazakhstan which led to several days of ethnic riots. Then he points out that two years later the conflict between the Azeris and Armenians broke out over Nagorno-Karabakh (p 244) and that the first nationalist demonstrations took place in the Baltics summers 1987 and 1988.
The records show, however, that the first anti-government demonstrations began in Northeast Estonia in spring 1987 over environmental degradation of the environment in reaction to phosporite mining and Moscow’s decision to establish a new shale oil plant in the region. The environmental movement morphed quickly into a nationalist one. These peaceful movements then spread like wildfires throughout the Baltic Republics where anti-Soviet sentiment rested never far beneath the surface. (Photo right: Tallinn, Estonia September 1990 by PHKushlis)
The creation of anti-Soviet national front movements in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became models for similar anti-Communist resistance organizations throughout the country especially in Europe and the Caucasus as well as Russia itself.
But what makes this book a stand out is that Sell intertwines his own personal experiences and expertise with research and analysis. His chapters on human rights and the dissidents as well as on nuclear arms control - both topics he knows personally especially well - are the strongest but that should not detract from his overall work or conclusions.
Sell is careful to give credit where credit is due but he doesn’t try to tell us that Reagan and his first term hard line policies and rhetoric caused the country’s dissolution; rather Sell argues that the Soviet Union fell apart of its own accord: no outside power had the ability to make that happen.
In his exploration of the roots of the dissolution he makes it very clear that internal weaknesses of the state, its leadership and the failures of Communist ideology were at the heart of the problem. At the core was its untenable command economic system that was, as today, far too dependent on the profits from a single product - oil and gas - and their prices abroad. As Sell put it: “Reagan played an important role in putting the Soviet Union on the defensive, but his policies were not a major factor in the disintegration of the country, which occurred through a combination of systemic weaknesses and mistakes by Gorbachev and his team.”(p. 335)
Sell persuasively argues that General Secretary and then President Mikhail Gorbachev never understood market economics and as a result made fundamental mistakes that torpedoed an already faltering system. Gorbachev realized rightly that the country could not sustain itself with its ever expanding military expenditures and contracting economy but he never understood that the implementation of Communism with a human face was also doomed to failure because the system was built on fear. By removing the fear factor via glasnost, the system crumbled of its own weight.
Sell also argues that the increasingly bitter personal feud between Gorbachev and Yeltsin which had first broken into the open in October 1987 played a crucial part in the final stages of the union’s dissolution and Gorbachev’s fall from power.
When Sell went to Moscow in 1977 as a junior officer in the science section and then as a political officer handling contacts with Soviet dissidents, he certainly never expected to be a witness to the incredible events that followed just a few years later. None of us who worked there at the time did. The 60 year old behemoth seemed all but invincible then: the Communist police state effectively controlled the population through fear. Yet by 1990 when Sell returned to Moscow to head the political section - just five years after Gorbachev had taken the reins, the strains that led to the break up had become increasingly pronounced.
Sell’s final chapters contain descriptions of the major leaders involved in ending the Cold War and his own reflections on what went wrong thereafter by pointing to mistakes made on both sides resulting in the anointment of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor and the tragedy that has ensued.
Louis Sell, From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR, Duke University Press, 2016.