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Période soviétique et postsoviétique

Vladislav ZUBOK, Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union

Carolina de Stefano
p. 852-855
Référence(s) :

Vladislav ZUBOK, Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2021, 576 p.

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1Vladislav Zubok’s book Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union is an engaging and beautifully written account of the crisis and dissolution of the USSR. The reader follows the unfolding of events through Mikhail Gorbachev’s and other key actors’ dilemmas and initiatives, as well as the daily management of the crisis that perestroika reforms unleashed and accelerated.

  • 1 Анатолий Черняев, Вадим Медведев, А. Вебер, В Политбюро ЦК КПСС По Записям Анатолия Черняева, Вадим (...)

2The work results from the author’s many-year research on the topic and dozens of interviews with direct participants in the events, from politicians to KGB officers and U.S. diplomats. As for archival documents, the bulk of primary sources come from central archives in Moscow (RGANI, GARF), the Gorbachev Foundation, the El´tsin Presidential Center in Ekaterinburg, the Hoover Archives and the George Bush Presidential Library in the United States. Also, the book extensively uses the collection of notes of Politburo meetings taken by its members Anatolii Cherniaev, Georgii Shakhnazarov, and Vadim Medvedev and published in V Politburo1 to compensate for the lack of declassified Politburo transcripts of the perestroika period. In addition, the book builds on many memoirs of Soviet and foreign politicians and diplomats. The book is made of two parts. The first one, “Hope and Hubris, 1983-90,” sketches the premises and development of the perestroika reforms from the Andropov years until late 1990. The second part, “Decline and Downfall, 1991,” follows, almost day by day, the events and political discussions that took place in Moscow in 1991 (the very last year of the Union’s existence).

  • 2 See Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire : The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Hachette UK, 2015; Chris M (...)
  • 3 See, among many, the works by M. Kramer, (2011), “The demise of the Soviet bloc,” Europe-Asia Studi (...)

3Zubok’s book adds to the relatively recent yet vibrant scholarship looking back at the Union’s collapse. As such, it deepens the existing knowledge and understanding of the ideas, decisions, and dynamics—especially in the economic field—that led to the rapid disappearance of the Soviet imperial polity and geopolitical superpower.2 The author’s main aim—the one he makes explicit to the reader in the introduction—is to show that the Union’s collapse was not inevitable, contrary to “the dominant narrative created in the West and within anti-communist circles inside the Soviet Union” (7). On this point the book somehow puts aside the lively scholarly debate on the subject. Yet, the argument on the non-inevitability of the Union’s disappearance (or, more broadly, of empires’ collapses) is the starting point of prominent research, which also detailed how Gorbachev’s contradictory economic reforms and the decision to dismantle the Party dramatically exacerbated existing problems.3

4The book argues that Mikhail Gorbachev and the group of reformers around him (and later Boris El´tsin) are foremost responsible for the fatal crisis of the Union. Zubok sees in Gorbachev’s personality an essential driving factor. Gorbachev was a “hapless captain” (427) who “convinced himself that he had a historic mission to guide the Soviet Union towards its social-democratic renewal” (67). Also, the “hubris” he “began to show” in 1988 (37) and for “prestige among the liberal-minded intelligentsia and Western public” (62) misguided him. Besides, the book stresses how the responsibilities of the Union leaders become apparent when looking closer at how they proved dramatically unfit to pursue, assess, and even acknowledge (126) the disastrous consequences of the economic initiatives they put forward to reform the country.

5More generally, one of the key points the book makes is that, while there was a tendency in the United States and Europe to celebrate Gorbachev and El´tsin for accelerating and contributing to the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the detailed analysis of their political initiatives in those years lead to a far more severe evaluation with regard to their ability to run and guarantee the interests of their own country.

6Next to “corrections” of prevalent ideas in the “West” (in its own a tricky concept) about the Soviet Union, the book contains many considerations on what the Soviet leader could/should have done to prevent or at least mitigate the damages: “had he read” Alexis de Tocqueville, Gorbachev would have learned about “the perils of a sudden release of mass emotion after decades of communist dictatorship” (68); “had he acted instead of talking” and implemented the program of his economic advisor Nikolai Petrakov, “this could have led to chaos, but at least it would be a chaos that Gorbachev […] had the powers to control” (142). Also, and crucially, Zubok openly criticizes Gorbachev for the decision not to repress national movements in a systematic way. He notably writes that, while “an admirable moral quality,” the General secretary’s “visceral aversion to the use of force” (though there were important cases where military force was used to crush protests and hundreds of people lost their lives, such as in the Baltics, Tbilisi and Baku) was a “huge political flaw in the leader of a country with a tragic history and facing a rising wave of toxic nationalism.” (105).

7As a result, the book is not only a historical work but an essay on politics which could easily be turned into a drama screenplay. Discussions in the corridors of power (like in the days of the attempted coup of August 1991) are vivid and tragic. They enable the reader to see how the situations gradually and rapidly deteriorated through the acts and voices of the plethora of characters populating the book. A turning point is Boris Yeltsin’s election as President of the Russian (RSFSR) Congress of People’s Deputies and the idea of a sovereign Russian republic in 1990, which soon became the direct and most significant threat to the Union’s existence. Zubok describes the dilemmas of the Union leaders in front of the Russian question and the personal and growing tensions between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, building on Yeltsin’s notes and the memoirs of the economists who tried and failed to find a compromise solution between the two.

8The work has little-known and juicy anecdotes, such as one of the private luncheons of Politburo member Evgeny Primakov with U.S. President George Bush in Washington, D.C., in May 1991 (237). More generally, the sources and memories of U.S.-Moscow relations—the U.S. changing attitudes towards Gorbachev and El´tsin, the first discussions on a potential Russian interest in joining NATO (182, 410)—help grasp the volatility of the bilateral relations in that political phase as well as the roots of unfulfilled reciprocal expectations after the Union collapse.

9The focus on and research devoted to high politics in Moscow have led to lesser attention on the crisis’s social and local dimensions. In the first part, the economic flaws and fragilities of the Soviet system in the late ’70s and early ’80s, or the lack of reliable statistical data available to the reformers, called for greater elaboration. Also, the author frequently refers to the deterioration of the situation and living conditions of Soviet citizens across the country. However, the reader does not get a full sense of developments on the ground and how control over the republics was dramatically lost well before the Union disintegration. On nationalities policy, the book says that Gorbachev wanted to return to Leninist policies but does not address how the specific Leninist principles impacted the proposed and thoroughly debated initiatives on the issue.

10The book describes how negotiations for a new Union Treaty went on before and after the coup, with crucial moments in which Gorbachev tried desperately to convince Ukraine to join. For example, in September 1991 Gorbachev promised Leonid Kravchuk that “after the Treaty,” the Union would provide Ukraine with construction material needed to prevent the mines of the Donbas region from shutting down. But Kravchuk’s answer proved that Ukraine was already gone: “I wish, Mikhail Sergeevich, I could say that everything will be fixed tomorrow… it will not happen, nothing will happen.” (352)

  • 4 See Plokhy, The Last Empire.

11Contrary to the historian Serhii Plokhy4, Zubok does not think that the Ukraine’s factor and the republic’s referendum of independence were the coup de grace of the Union but only a “reflection of the Soviet collapse”: “The Soviet Union was already a carcass, destroyed first by Gorbachev’s reforms and then by the implacable separatism of El´tsin’s course of action” (397).

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1 Анатолий Черняев, Вадим Медведев, А. Вебер, В Политбюро ЦК КПСС По Записям Анатолия Черняева, Вадима Медведева, Георгия Шахназарова (1985-1991) [The Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU… According to the records of Anatolii Chernaev, Vadim Medvedev, Georgii Shakhnazarov (М.: Горбачев-Фонд, 2008).

2 See Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire : The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Hachette UK, 2015; Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy : Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR, UNC Press Books, 2016.

3 See, among many, the works by M. Kramer, (2011), “The demise of the Soviet bloc,” Europe-Asia Studies, 63 (9), 1535-1590; Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon averted : The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, Oxford University Press, 2008; M.R. Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State, Cambridge University Press, 2002

4 See Plokhy, The Last Empire.

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Carolina de Stefano, « Vladislav ZUBOK, Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 852-855.

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Carolina de Stefano, « Vladislav ZUBOK, Collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Carolina de Stefano

Luiss Guido Carli

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