[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Diplo]: English on Sell, 'From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sat Mar 11 13:07:26 MST 2017

Best regards,
Andrew Stewart 

Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
> Date: March 11, 2017 at 12:54:24 PM EST
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Diplo]:  English on Sell, 'From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR'
> Reply-To: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
> Louis Sell.  From Washington to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the
> Collapse of the USSR.  Durham  Duke University Press Books, 2016.
> 416 pp.  $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-6179-4; $27.95 (paper), ISBN
> 978-0-8223-6195-4.
> Reviewed by Robert D. English (University of Southern California)
> Published on H-Diplo (March, 2017)
> Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
> Louis Sell is a retired foreign service officer with twenty-seven
> years' diplomatic experience in Soviet-Russian and Balkan affairs.
> Some will recall his fine earlier book, _Slobodan Milosevic and the
> Destruction of Yugoslavia_ (2002). His senior postings--in addition
> to years in the US embassies in both Belgrade and Moscow--range from
> member of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) delegation to
> deputy high representative for Bosnia to Kosovo director for the
> International Crisis Group. But it is Sell's earlier experience as a
> junior diplomat in Moscow, dating back to the 1970s, that provided
> the insights and perspective that make this new book on the Cold
> War's end so interesting.
> It should be admitted first that the book also suffers from the main
> but hardly crippling defect of most histories of great
> transformations that an author lived firsthand--namely, a diary-like
> organization, often a chronicle of events that Sell himself
> participated in, that leaves readers wondering in early chapters just
> what it is he will be arguing, what he thinks were the main causes of
> the USSR's collapse or Yeltsin's failures or Putin's hostility. That
> is, until the event have passed and Sell pauses in reflection. But
> the good side to this is a story that is extremely vivid, lively in
> its detail and persuasive in its assessments, that engagingly
> recreates what is now a bygone era for many readers and so a world
> they have difficulty imagining through dry, academic analysis.
> Nearly half of the book is devoted to the pre-_perestroika_ years,
> that is, more or less the mid-to-late Cold War, the years of Leonid
> Brezhnev and his two brief successors. These corresponded to the
> Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan presidencies, a useful periodization
> because as a US diplomat Sell's experience was strongly shaped by the
> different policies--and often assignments--that came under each
> president. After a useful summary of the essentials of Brezhnev's
> rule--the economy, society, the Communist Party, foreign
> relations--Sell focuses on the Soviet dissident and human-rights
> movements. Because he spent a great deal of time in these circles,
> whether passing _samizdat _literature for publication abroad or
> mingling with Moscow's _refusenik_ community on Saturday afternoons,
> Sell knows the saga of these individuals (Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly
> Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov et al.) very well. He vividly recounts the
> bravery, integrity, drama, and anguish of their struggles, and it is
> no surprise that he later assesses the moral-ethical failings of the
> Soviet Union as key to the country's eventual collapse.
> The same is true for other aspects of Russian domestic life in the
> 1970s and early 1980s, though less so when it comes to some political
> and especially military affairs. Sell is good on the detail of the
> Nixon-Kissinger approach to the USSR, but then with respect to Gerald
> Ford mentions "revelations about real and imagined intelligence
> abuses [that] called into question the US ability to use covert
> operations which had been a fixture on both sides of the Cold War
> struggle" (p. 83). The student reading Sell's account as a general
> history of this period in US-Soviet relations will have no idea that
> he is referring to the Church Committee hearings, the US
> congressional investigation into the CIA's history of coups,
> assassinations, and other clandestine operations. But Sell's lament
> for the supposed hobbling of such operations is belied just a few
> chapters later when he recounts the saga of the disastrous Soviet
> invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979. Sell nicely captures the
> confusion that attended Moscow's decision--essentially taken by just
> three Politburo members, none of them General Secretary Brezhnev--but
> mocks the Soviets' fear of US incursions into their putatively
> socialist neighbor as "otherworldly" (p. 101). This seems odd when,
> just a few pages later, Sell acknowledges that nearly six months
> _before_ the Soviets invaded, President Carter authorized covert US
> aid to the mujahideen rebels fighting the socialist Afghan government
> (p. 103). This came when ties with Moscow had already worsened over
> Angola and Ethiopia, three years after the new Carter
> administration--with its contradictory goals and feuding
> personalities--had already "wrestled itself to the ground over
> US-Soviet relations"  (p. 87).
> The first years of the Ronald Reagan administration--and its
> counterpart Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko general
> secretaryships--are vividly and accurately described in setting the
> stage for the epoch of Mikhail Gorbachev's sweeping reforms. One
> might wish for better and clearer sourcing--sometimes two or more
> detail-filled pages pass with no citations, though Sell's
> bibliography is full of valuable memoirs and documents--but the story
> of the corruption scandals and political intrigue that churned under
> Andropov is nevertheless excellent. The rise of Gorbachev is nicely
> summarized too, but by this point in the chronicle it becomes evident
> that Sell was no longer "on the scene." Gorbachev's accession and
> first years in power are told mainly through secondary sources. The
> story becomes dry and somewhat distant, the judgments conventional,
> and the only personal observations are from afar--Washington, DC, or
> Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Thus the critical Chernobyl tragedy of 1986 is
> recounted with the standard condemnation of the USSR's (and
> Gorbachev's own) secrecy, with little sense of the actual drama of
> the event and the fierce opposition that liberals faced. The rise of
> _glasnost_ over 1986-87 is dealt with surprisingly briefly, with the
> usual milestones noted and little sense of how it felt and unfolded
> at the time--rather, a fairly standard and low-key hindsight
> appraisal again reflecting mostly secondary sources. The difference
> between this and Sell's telling of earlier years, when he was on the
> scene, reminds one of the stark difference between Dusko Doder's two
> books on the Soviet Union--_Shadows and Whispers_ (1986), based on
> his own residence and reporting, and _Heretic in the Kremlin_ (1990),
> researched and written mainly from afar. These weaknesses of the
> latter are perhaps seen most starkly in Sell's brief treatment of
> _perestroika_'s economic woes. Key reform initiatives and legal
> changes are barely mentioned, problems in their implementation and
> functioning are omitted, and there is certainly no up-close depiction
> of the obstacles workers and managers faced in attempting their
> implementation. In all, both _glasnost_ and economic reform over
> 1985-87 take up just five pages (pp. 185-189).
> The drama and detail return when Sell turns to back foreign policy.
> The insider's perspective, combined with digging into the latest
> memoir and documentary sources, lends his discussion of the origins
> of arms control proposals, the early summitry, and the negotiations
> between (and within) the Soviet and American sides vividness and
> insight. So too his wide-ranging research makes Sell's account of
> accelerating domestic change--leading up to the climactic Congress of
> People's Deputies in 1989--a thorough and lively chronicle.
> Unfortunately, as before, the economy is a weak point and this vital
> realm is dispatched superficially with the familiar--but basically
> useless--references to "timidity" and "half measures" (p. 347). As
> with Gorbachev's much-criticized failures to run for president of the
> USSR as early as 1989 or 1990, or to break with the hardliners and
> create two Communist Parties (p. 250), there is virtually no analysis
> devoted to which "bolder" economic reforms might have worked and how
> they would have been implemented. Yet this is vital, for even as
> Sell, like so many other authors, finds that key underlying causes of
> the USSR's collapse included political polarization and nationalist
> separatism, he pays relatively little attention to the economic
> discontent that underlay these movements.
> The unasked questions include: Exactly what bolder economic reforms
> might have worked? How could they have been implemented against
> fierce party-bureaucratic resistance? And had they worked, how might
> a stronger economy have weakened radical currents of all sorts and
> strengthened Gorbachev's hand in preserving the USSR? Sell does not
> really ask the latter question at all, but implies instead that it
> was the legacy of decades of Soviet repression of national
> aspirations--frustrations that burst forth when publicized by
> _glasnost_ and then given voice by democratization--that seemingly
> made secession of various non-Russian peoples from the USSR
> inevitable. That is certainly how it looked from the aspirations and
> appeals of many nationalist politicians. But this may be "the
> inevitably of hindsight" at work, and in fact successful economic
> reforms might have undercut many separatist movements and also
> reduced the appeal of populist politicians such as Boris Yeltsin.
> Sell's telling of the "annus mirabilis" of 1989, the chain of events
> in Eastern Europe that saw rapid dissolution of the Soviet bloc and
> stoked conservatives' anger back in Moscow, is strong. The
> contentious issue of German reunification--and the place of NATO in a
> new Europe--is dealt with largely conventionally. Sell argues the
> mainstream position, that there was no real agreement to limit
> subsequent NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. So it is dismissed as
> a direct or justifiable cause of subsequent Russian resentment, with
> Sell offering a different explanation for the souring of relations
> with the United States and the West in general: "the inability of
> Moscow after the Soviet collapse to come to grips with its
> necessarily reduced role in the world; the failure of Russia's
> post-Communist leadership to create a vibrant and prosperous new
> domestic system, which had the effect of undermining support for
> every aspect of the post-Soviet settlement; and the failure of
> theWest to find a way to include Russia as an equal partner in the
> creation of the new, post-Cold War European order" (p. 278).
> Readers will immediately note the tensions, particularly Russia's
> "inability ... to come to grips with its necessarily reduced role in
> the world" side by side with "the failure of the West to ... include
> Russia as an equal partner." This same dualism is woven through
> Sell's vivid, heartfelt postscript on post-Soviet Russia. Russian
> leaders failed to manage economic transition well, but the West is
> guilty of giving little aid and lots of questionable advice. The
> United States was correct to back the courageous Yeltsin, even in his
> violent suppression of hardline opposition, but maybe winking at his
> falsification of elections and passage of a new constitution was not
> such a good idea after all. NATO expansion was key to integrating
> former Soviet-bloc states into a "united and democratic" Europe, but
> also caused an understandable "sense of humiliation" that fueled the
> anti-Western turn of Vladimir, Putin who now threatens those same
> former Soviet-bloc states. This final section of his book is written
> with renewed detail and passion, and the reader is not surprised to
> learn that Sell returned for another posting in Russia from 1991 to
> 1994. And this experience gave him fascinating insight--but still no
> easy answers--into the questions of what has gone wrong in Russia's
> transition and where Russia is headed in the future.
> Citation: Robert D. English. Review of Sell, Louis, _From Washington
> to Moscow: US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR_.
> H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48315
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
> License.
> --

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