By John Helmer, Moscow
In the rest of the world it is known as the cultural cringe. In Russia the wish to be loved by Americans is known as liberal reform.
In the very first paragraph of a new book called “Collapse: the Fall of the Soviet Union”, the author, Vladislav Zubok – the name in Russian means a small tooth — reveals that on the morning of August 19, 1991, when the first coup was attempted against Mikhail Gorbachev, then President of the Soviet Union, Zubok was flying to the US by arrangement with Strobe Talbott, Moscow correspondent for Time and soon to be the Clinton Administration’s principal Russia expert. At the time Zubok describes himself as a “Moscow-based academic intellectual”. By this, he means he was no simple worker with a Moscow university degree. In Soviet class terms, he insists the reader recognise him to be an “intellectual”. That then was upper class, and Zubok wants the reader to know the difference between the Russian upper and lower classes — immediately, on the nineteenth line of his very first page.
Zubok also wants the reader to know he had been hired with money from “the prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts”. What exactly was prestigious about Amherst, or Massachusetts for that matter — and to whom? And why does Zubok think that in a history of Russian politics between 1983 and 1991, such a remote place, with such an adjectival tag, was worth the mention?
The answer, like the other revelations of the first paragraph, reveals what this book turns out to be. It’s an exercise in American-style reconstruction of what a small group of Russians for hire were keen to give their masters, about the circumstances of the years leading up to Boris Yeltsin’s replacement of Mikhail Gorbachev, and Russia of the Soviet Union. But this isn’t Russian history. It’s the history of Russians with cultural cringe – the desire to be loved by Americans, and to tell them what they wanted, paid for, insisted on hearing then, and demand now.
The payoff, reported on the dust jacket of the book, comes from Talbott, Zubok’s original employer. He is quoted as saying: “This is a deeply researched indictment of Mikhail Gorbachev’s timidity and mercurial policies which backfired.” “Instead,” Talbott adds, “Russia at the turn of the 21st century was ripe for the rise of Putin.” Zubok was ripe for what Talbott meant. “In 2008,” according to Zubok’s history, Putin “used military force against Georgia, and in 2014 he annexed Crimea and waged an undeclared war on Ukraine in Donbass.” The blame for that, Zubok means, was Gorbachev’s mistakes. Without them, “had the Kremlin ruler made different choices… the Soviet Union could have gradually made its way into the world economy by a process of trial and error, with a nomenklatura-style state capitalism, and certainly with its institutions of power preserved.”
As for the Russian cultural cringe, Zubok is sure it was one of Gorbachev’s biggest mistakes. During his well-known trips abroad in the 1980s, Gorbachev took with him, Zubok records, “a “huge entourage…of journalists, social scientists, writers, theatre directors, filmmakers and other cultural figures. Most of them shared [Gorbachev’s] fascination, admiration, and envy for things Western.”
Zubok has written a book to prove he doesn’t suffer this cringe. The work proves the opposite. This is the problem with cringers. They are too bent out of shape to recognize the shape they are in.
In the present situation, now that Russia is at war with the US and NATO, there is one crucial question which Zubok’s history ought to be able to answer. It is this: why in 1990, as the condition for German reunification in the negotiations of that year, did Gorbachev agree to withdrawing the Soviet army from east Germany and not insist the US and NATO do the same from west Germany, ensuring the neutrality of the new German state outside NATO?
Finnlandisierung was the German word for it then; finlandizatsia, финляндизация, in Russian; Finlandization in English. The word does not appear in Zubok’s history. Nor neutralitätserklärung — the policy adopted by Austria from 1955, keeping that part of the German-Austrian union (Anschluss) of 1938 out of the European military pacts. Austria is not mentioned by Zubok.
This question, and its answer, have been lost in the debate over NATO’s expansion since the escalation of US and NATO operations in the Ukraine from 2014.The question of mutual and reciprocal troop withdrawals, Soviet and US, Warsaw Pact and NATO alliance, and the effective neutrality of Germany, is even more pressing today, after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has committed €100 billion to rebuilding a blitzkrieg-capable German army for the first time since German expansion into Austria, followed by Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and then the Polish Corridor which started World War II.
Researching what Gorbachev said, did, and intended on the issue of German neutrality, Zubok tells the story that at their summit meeting in Washington on May 31, 1990, “when [President George H.W.] Bush asked him about Germany and NATO, Gorbachev suddenly acknowledged that…Germany should be given the right to choose any alliance it wanted to join. Bush and other Americans could not believe their ears…Gorbachev was giving away something very significant without bargaining or even consulting his advisors…Marshal [Sergei] Akhromeyev and Valentin Falin, a key Soviet expert on on Germany, gesticulated and whispered in evident horror.”
At Camp David, June 2, 1990:
round the table from
left to right: interpreter Peter Afanasenko, Secretary of State James Baker, President George Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, National Security Adviser Lieut-General Brent Scowcroft, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, President Mikhail Gorbachev and Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, military adviser to Gorbachev (back to camera), June 2, 1990: About Akhromeyev, read this.
Transcript of conversation, White House, May 31, 1990.
Zubok identifies no Russian source for his report. He castigates Akhromeyev’s suicide the following year with the allegation that he was a “probable executioner” of a plot to assassinate both Gorbachev and Yeltsin. That, according to Zubok, came from Fritz Ermarth, then a senior CIA official whose hearsay version came to Zubok from Talbott. Zubok never mentions Falin again.
He then reveals not only what explained Gorbachev’s unilateral giveaway, but also Zubok’s sole source – Anatoly Chernayev, then Gorbachev’s principal foreign advisor. Chernayev “was not surprised. Gorbachev, he reflected, was sacrificing diplomacy, but not to keep himself in power – instead, in the name of his vision. The Kremlin leader wanted the United States and its allies to help the USSR become ‘stronger but democratic…progressive, dynamic, free, and turned towards the outside world and the US.’”
Chernayev was Zubok’s most quoted source on Gorbachev. Zubok acknowledges “I was very influenced by my meetings and conversations with him… In 1995 Chernayev introduced me to Gorbachev; a few years later, Chernayev shared with me his remartkable diaries, still unpublished at the time.” Zubok does not report asking Chernayev himself the German question while he was still alive; he died in 2017, leaving his diaries to George Washington University in Washington, DC. Gorbachev, who remains alive, was not asked the German question by Zubok.
Chernayev is also Zubok’s source for his account of Gorbachev’s unilateral decision to side with the US against Saddam Hussein during the Kuwait crisis of August 1990, just weeks after Gorbachev had decided to side with the US on the German question. But first Zubok discredits Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader at the time, as a “megalomaniac”. He also discredits the principal Soviet expert on the Middle East at the time, Yevgeny Primakov. “an ambitious expert” and also “from Georgia and [Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s] rival. (Zubok appears not to know that Primakov was ethnically Jewish and never interested in Georgian politics.)
But from Chernayev on Gorbachev’s motivation during the Kuwait decision-making, Zubok got the reality. Gorbachev believed his personal political survival in the Kremlin depended on raising money for a Soviet economic bailout and favour for himself over Yeltsin’s challenge, from the US. He therefore concluded, in Chernayev’s interpretation, that he would do whatever the Americans wanted, or demanded. In order to get away with that, he ignored everyone in the Soviet government, starting with the Red Army and the Soviet Defense Ministry and the intelligence assessments represented by Falin on Germany, Iraq by Primakov. “We must put America before the Arabs. This is our future and our salvation” – Zubok quotes Chernayev as saying. By “our future” and “our salvation” Chernayev meant Gorbachev’s personal future.
Zubok’s sources of truth, left to right: Anatoly Chernayev, d. March 12, 2017; Gennady Burbulis, d. June 19, 2022; Boris Yeltsin’s autobiography, published on March 1, 1990, by Jonathan Cape in London and Simon & Schuster in New York,. Cape was owned at the time by Random House, the New York publisher which was controlled in turn by the Newhouse family.
On Yeltsin’s rivalry with Gorbachev, his schemes and intentions, Zubok relies on another single source – Gennady Burbulis. Zubok interviewed him (by telephone) five times; he interviewed no one else as often. On Burbulis’s say-so about himself, Zubok concludes that he “assumed a particularly prominent role next to Yeltsin”. Zubok did not check this with Alexander Rutskoy, who became Yeltsin’s vice president, and later one of the leaders of the parliamentary challenge to Yeltsin in 1993. Instead, Zubok diminishes Rutskoy with an innuendo of corruption – his “nationalist views now matched his interests in the RSFR oil business”. Zubok’s source for that was kompromat placed in a Moscow newspaper. For his history, Zubok characterized no other member of Yeltsin’s entourage or his government by his alleged business interests.
Zubok is silent on the money that was paid to Yeltsin for his US and European trips and for his autobiography of March 1990, Against the Grain, which Zubok cites as credible evidence as often as Burbulis. The book was reportedly contracted in June 1989 by a London agent named Andrew Nurnberg; translated into English by Michael Glenny; and published by the New York company, Simon & Schuster. Where the money came from for the book in 1989, how much was paid to Yeltsin, and whether, as Yeltsin claims to have promised, proceeds from the book sales were sent to a Soviet AIDS fund, was investigated with Nurnberg at his London office, and with Misha Glenny, son of the translator who died in Moscow shortly after the book appeared. Nurnberg was asked how the book project was first introduced to him; how many of the books were printed; how many sold; how much money was paid to Yeltsin and how much to the AIDS charity. He refuses to answer. Nurnberg’s website also reports that for Yeltsin as one of its client authors, “there are currently no items!”
Glenny also did not answer for what his father had known about the source of the project.
Zubok’s sources of disinformation, left to right: the “ambitious Georgian”, Yevgeny Primakov; Vladimir Kryuchkov, KGB chief from 1988, whom Zubok calls “this baby-faced man”; Vice President Alexander Rutskoy.
On February 18, 2022, the week before the Russian military operation commenced in the Ukraine, Zubok gave an interview to the Moscow newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, explaining why he has now concluded the Soviet Union had collapsed and fallen, as the title of the book claims. “For a long time, I believed that the reason was only the unresolved nature of some Russian political and economic problems. But in the archives of the administration of US President George W. Bush, I found an interesting recording of a meeting at the White House about possible financial assistance from the West to Gorbachev. Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady spoke, and he spoke clearly and unequivocally: ‘The strategic task of the United States is to see Russia as a third-rate country that will not have a powerful military-industrial complex capable of providing full-scale military operations.’”
In the book Zubok referred to Brady several times, and he quoted several of his remarks in opposition to a financial aid package Gorbachev was asking Bush to provide in 1990. In the book Zubok interpreted Brady as having several different reasons for his position. But Brady’s intention to destroy Russia as a military power is missing from the book – and so is the warfighting meaning which Brady articulated. Why did Zubok suppress it?
This personal endorsement of Brady’s policy by Zubok appears in Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The United States pragmatically and prudently did not want to see Russia as a great power either in the form of the USSR or in the form of an independent federation.”
That Gorbachev failed to understand what was “pragmatic and prudent” in US policy was understood by the Russians whom Zubok has denigrated in his account. That he too accepts what was “practical and prudent” he left out of the book, leaving Chernayev and Burbulis as his sources to fault Gorbachev for following Russian history in the wrong direction.
Gorbachev’s mistake, Zubok concludes, was that his “role model was Vladimir Lenin, the great destroyer of Russian statehood”. As Zubok doesn’t pretend to know much about the history of Russia before or after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the claim about Lenin – repeated several times over in the book – is Zubok’s cringe. He has nothing else to show for it.
To that he adds an irony. “In a major paradox of Soviet history, Gorbachev consistently rejected the methods and features that were at the core of Lenin’s success. He preferred speeches to action, parliamentary consensus to violence, and devolution of power to dictatorship”. Zubok doesn’t mean to say that Gorbachev lacked Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his suspicion of the Anglo-American and European powers which Gorbachev wanted to trust, to cultivate. He does mean to say that Gorbachev lacked Lenin’s understanding of force in politics, and so proved “feckless when the political and economic storm came.”
Exactly what then should Gorbachev have done, according to Zubok’s interpretation? The answer is that he should have done what he had chosen to do in foreign policy – follow the US direction, do what the American leaders, intelligence agents, economists, bankers, and corporate executives told him to do. “Gorbachev was capable of acting resolutely in foreign policy on the German Question and in the Middle East. Had he acted in the same way domestically, the future of the Soviet Union could have taken a different turn.”
Left: Vladislav Zubok. Right, his book, to be published in paperback in September this year, has been endorsed by William Taubman, the US historian Gorbachev authorized to compose his biography; reviewed here. Zubok’s book has also just been authorized by the Pushkin House Book Prize committee of selection.
This is such a bizarre contradiction can Zubok’s cringe have disabled his capacity to see it?
Who cannot see that the way in which Russia is currently acting on the current version of the German Question and the Middle East is diametrically opposed to what the US requires the Kremlin leadership to to follow — German neutrality then, Ukrainian neutrality now; Iraq then, Syria and Libya today. Zubok is sure the “pragmatic and prudent” thing for Putin and the Russian Army to do right now is what the US, the NATO alliance, and the Ukrainian regime in Kiev require.
Zubok’s history concludes on a metaphor of seagoing meteorology. The Soviet Union, he claims, “fell victim to a perfect storm and a hapless captain”. But now that the ship of the Russian state is at war with the US and NATO over what Russians believe to be a fundamental threat to their survival, Zubok’s conviction is that Russians should abandon ship and swim with the US tide. This, his book shows, is exactly what Gorbachev, Chernayev, Burbulis, and Yeltsin all believed. It’s also what every US official from the Bush to the Biden administrations believes they can count on the Russians to do if enough force is employed to threaten them.
This is a conclusion which the careful contrivance of evidence and non-evidence in the history is something to cringe about, though not if you are Russian in these days. Perhaps if you are a historian employed in London to display this cringe in public as if it’s the lesson of the past, and also the guide to the future.