Good Books About the Fall of the Soviet Empire:

I read and enjoyed David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, but I was wondering if there were other good ones, especially ones that covered slightly different territory (such as what happened in Eastern Europe). If you have some recommendations, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

NoVa Prof:
You must check out Stephen Kotkin's Armageddon Averted. Not so much about Eastern Europe, but fascinating in looking at the fall from the 1970s and well into the post-Soviet era. Not too long. Great read for students by one of the most prominent scholars in Soviet history.
5.12.2006 12:20am
John Burgess (mail) (www):
I'd recommend both volumes of "The Mitrokhin Archives". They're a publication of KGB (and early incarnation) archives that cover the entire range of Soviet influence. Eastern Europe is primarily in the first volume (as is most of the West). The second volume covers mostly the third world (though Japan is included).

The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB

The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World
5.12.2006 12:37am
Ditto to the KGB archive books.

The Fall of the House of Usher.
5.12.2006 1:13am
A. Zarkov (mail):
I suggest the prophetic work: Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984 by Andrei Amalrik. He correctly analyzed the forces tearing it apart, and why it must ultimately collapse. Not a popular position to have taken in 1969 when he wrote the original essay. While the war with China he predicted never happened, the essentials of his basic argument were right. For example:

"There is another powerful factor which works against the chance of any kind of peaceful reconstruction and which is equally negative for all levels of society: this is the extreme isolation in which the regime has placed both society and itself. This isolation has not only separated the regime from society, and all sectors of society from each other, but also put the country in extreme isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation has created for all—from the bureaucratic elite to the lowest social levels—an almost surrealistic picture of the world and of their place in it. Yet the longer this state of affairs helps to perpetuate the status quo, the more rapid and decisive will be its collapse when confrontation with reality becomes inevitable."

While the book is out of print, you can easily get it used.
5.12.2006 2:05am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
In Thatcher's "Statecraft," the chapters discussing Soviet collapse are worth reading, as, for that matter, is the rest of the book.
5.12.2006 2:06am
John Ford (mail) (www):
Something simple and light but VERY informative was Useful Idiots by Mona Charen.

This stuff may be old hat to many of you but it was an eye opener to me!

5.12.2006 2:17am
The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berline and Prague by Timothy Garton Ash. It's a relatively light book written by a journalist who was in Eastern Europe during the fall of the Soviet Union.
5.12.2006 4:09am
The River Temoc (mail):
I would recommend the following:


POWER AND PURPOSE: AMERICAN POLICY TOWARD RUSSIA AFTER THE COLD WAR, also by Mike McFaul and James Goldgeier, for an overview of U.S. policy towards Russia in the 1990s.

Prof. McFaul has also written very good analyses of the Russian elections in 1996 and 1999/2000. I am a big fan of his. ;)


AFTER THE SOVIET UNION, an anthology edited by Tim Colton. (This one is probably a bit dated, but it was a good summary of how people were thinking about the fall of the Soviet Union as it happened.)

THE FALL OF THE SOVIET UNION, by Geoffrey Hosking (same comment).

There was an excellent article by Janos Kornai, a Hungarian economist at Harvard, in an anthology published around 1989. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title, but it's probably google-able. The article presented a game-theoretic model of how revolutions can occur unexpectedly. In light of the color revolution phenomenon, it is worth a re-read.

THE MAGIC LANTERN, by Timothy Garten Ash, which focuses more on Eastern Europe

DEMOCRACY DERAILED IN RUSSIA, by Steven Fish. (This one focuses less on the fall of the Soviet Union and more on the rise of Putin, but it is the best recent book on Russia that I've read.)

INSIDE PUTIN'S RUSSIA, by Andrew Jack, while it is more journalistic and lacks cutting-edge analysis, offers a good summary of the ascendency of Putin and the "twilight of the oligarchs," as he colorfully puts it.

There are a bunch of interesting books about Central Asia, too, which I personally find more interesting given that it, along with the Caucasus, is where the post-Soviet space clashes with political Islam. If people are interested, I'd be happy to post a separate list of books on Central Asia.
5.12.2006 4:21am
The River Temoc (mail):
Also, in the political biography arena, THE RUSSIA HAND by Strobe Talbott is quite interesting if you're interested in diplomatic history, as opposed to grand strategery.
5.12.2006 4:25am
Michael B (mail):
A brief but intriguing Reagan era episode of spycraft, directly related to the downfall, can be found by searching on The Farewell Dossier.
5.12.2006 4:53am
Anderson (mail) (www):
The relevant chapters of Tony Judt's Postwar are good on Eastern Europe; if anything, it's a defect of his book that it seems to assume that Russia isn't part of Europe, and thus he spends very little time on Russia except as directly relevant to the rest of Europe.

(I realize Judt is a bugbear to some at the VC, but there is always something to be said for ideological diversity.)
5.12.2006 10:44am
M (mail):
For South Eastern Europe Slavenka Drakulic's _How we survived Communism and Even Laughed_ is excellent. Her _Cafe Europa_ is als very good though it's more about the immediate post-communist era in South and Central Europe. Both are books of essays, not scholarly work, but have great insight and value.
5.12.2006 10:56am
Bruno (mail):
Tatanya Tolstaya, Puskin's Children. This is a collection of essays by a journalist and novelist. Her critical beam approaches Naipaul's. Plus, she's *very* funny. This is an invaluable window into Russian society, post-communism.
5.12.2006 11:04am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Thank you. Even though my high school senior social studies elective (hey, I'm an engineer, except for economics that's as far as I went) was on US-Soviet relation, WWII to present (1979), I blinked and missed what happened those years: one minute I was single and there was an evil communist empire, next I was engaged to be married and there wasn't. (I obviously had other things going on in my life.)

Since merely putting the books on my "to read" list won't actually teach me anything, how is it that the Soviet Union so relatively neatly fell apart into the component republics? Why those borders and not others? Why, during the building of the empire, did so much, especially the east, become part of Russia, and remains so today, while other parts were added as separate bits? And why is Kaliningrad part of Russia?
5.12.2006 11:26am
The River Temoc (mail):
Since merely putting the books on my "to read" list won't actually teach me anything, how is it that the Soviet Union so relatively neatly fell apart into the component republics? Why those borders and not others?

The short answer is that the then-presidents of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian SSRs got together at Belovezhskaya Puscha in December 1991 and declared the Soviet Union dead. The Central Asian countries did not want this, because their leaders were highly Sovietized (and still are; their tactics in avoiding "color revolutions" involve cozying up to Moscow), but it was presented to them as a fait accompli.

Why did people respect these borders? I basically think that at the time, people were defining their national identies in cultural terms. Thus, the Slavic republics did not particularly care that the Central Asians went their own way, and in fact they wanted them to.

There were three instances of significant violent conflict in the post-Soviet space, and fortunately, all three were essentially on the periphery. These were the Azerbaijan-Armenia war; Tajikistan; and the Transdniestr region of Moldova. Two of these easily fit the model of people wanting to define their identities in cultural terms. The Armenian-Azeri clash was a pure cultural clash; the pro-Russia Transdniestr Republic was about nervousness over a possible unification between Moldova and Rumania. Tajikistan was essentially a failed state with a lot of local clan-based politics that erupted into civil war and became a protectorate of Russia.

What is more interesting are the dogs that didn't bark -- why didn't northern Kazakhstan try to split away and join the Russian Federation, or Tajik-speaking Uzbekistanis try to join Tajikistan?
5.12.2006 1:26pm
The River Temoc (mail):
By the way, although most people on this blog probably know Cathy Young either through her blog or her presence on the Federalist Society talk circuit, she actually wrote a fascinating book about what it was like to attend secondary school in the Soviet Union. It's not directly related to geopolitical events, of course, but definitely an interesting read.
5.12.2006 1:29pm
Cisco (mail) (www):
Anything by Garton Ash, especially if you are interested in non-comprehensive but highly intelligent books on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. You've probably read those, though.
5.12.2006 1:52pm
I second the nod to Timothy Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern. Great first-person account of the final days of the Eastern European regimes.
5.12.2006 1:53pm
jdp (mail):
At the risk of sounding biased, let me suggest "A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End" by Peter Kenez, a former professor of mine. I have not actually read the book, but I took Professor Kenez's course on Soviet History at UC Santa Cruz, which is based on the same material. Though not dedicated solely to the fall of the USSR, Professor Kenez documents the flaws inherent in the Soviet system which prevented it from creating an enduring political system.
5.12.2006 3:26pm
Bleepless (mail):
Try The Collapse of the Soviet Military by General William E. Odom.
5.12.2006 3:36pm
Perestroika, by Mikhail Sergevich Gorbachev
5.12.2006 5:33pm
Henryk Sienkiewicz (mail):

As a reader who has done graduate work in Russian and Polish history at Columbia and Harvard, I have to tell you that much of what has been recommended, excluding the Hosking and Kenez books, are questionable, somewhat amateurish histories often focused on the international relations or espionage aspects. If you want a real history written by a serious historian, you'd do better by looking at Martin Malia's "The Soviet Tragedy."

Be aware that there are strong agendas still in Soviet-Russian studies. Malia, a late professor at UC Berkeley was from a centrist school and played a role himself in the collapse of the Soviet Union under the pseudonym Z.

From the right-wing camp, Richard Pipes' work is the gold standard, although I can't think of a book of his that deals specifically with the collapse of the Soviet Union other than his astounding 1954 doctral disseratation, The Formation of the Soviet Union, Communism and Nationalism, 1917-1923 (Harvard UP), which was the first work to look at the National question in the Soviet Union (at a time when Soviet studies often involved analyzing who was standing where on the podium in Red Square on May Day). Simply put, Pipes called the break up of the Soviet Union on national lines almost four decades in advance, when the ideological differences between Beria and Molotov were thought to matter.

I won't bother listing any of the leftist, Stalin-apologist works by J. Arch Getty, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Moshe Lewin and the like.
5.12.2006 8:57pm
MJS (mail):
For eerily on target prognostication, check out "The Moscow Club" by Joseph Finder, published right before Yeltsin came to power.
5.13.2006 3:10am
Thames (mail):
I can't believe no one has mentioned Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Failure, or Bush &Scowcroft's A World Transformed yet.
5.16.2006 4:37pm