At the TLS: Stephen Kotkin reviews four books on the former Soviet Union, and Russia.

Rootless Cosmopolitan comments.

In the March 11, 2022 TLS Stephen Kotkin reviews four books:


The making of a statesman
Translated by John Heath
512pp. I. B. Tauris. £30.

Susanne Schattenberg



The fall of the Soviet Union
560pp. Yale University Press. £25 (US $35).

Vladislav M. Zubok



America, Russia, and the making of post-Cold War stalemate
568pp. Yale University Press. £25 (US $35).

M. E. Sarotte



Inside the Cold War mind
592pp. Wellcome Collection. £25.

Martin Sixsmith


The first paragraph of Mr. Kotkin’s review begins :

At Munich in 1938, Adolf Hitler succeeded in his extortion. He had menaced Czechoslovakia with subversion, border provocations and imminent invasion, charging that the Czechoslovak state was a sham, in violation of the principle of self-determination, and accusing its mild-mannered president of plotting to exterminate the ethnic German minority. Neville Chamberlain for the United Kingdom and Edouard Daladier for France, with Benito Mussolini presiding as dishonest broker, handed the predominately ethnic German Sudetenland territory of sovereign Czechoslovakia to the Reich. Germany gained possession of some 70 per cent of the industrialized country’s iron and steel production, as well as the famed Škoda Works, among Europe’s top defence plants, without having to pay compensation. Nonetheless, the Führer went home furious – the British and the French had cheated him of the victorious war he craved. He soon invaded the rest of democratic Czechoslovakia.

And in is his next paragraph:

Vladimir Putin is no Hitler. True, he forcibly annexed his Sudetenland equivalent, the predominantly ethnic Russian Crimea, and depicted this action as an exercise in self-determination. And he continued to rail against Ukraine as an artificial state, asserting that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people”, even as he baselessly charged Ukraine with genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s Donbas, where he sponsored armed separatists. He backed cyberattacks and other subversion and, beginning in late 2021, surrounded Ukraine with an immense invasion force, stationing troops in Belarus, and consolidating his hold over that country, too. He had his foreign ministry publish two draft treaties – ultimatums, for Washington and for NATO – to codify his demands, beginning with his most important one – “no more NATO expansion eastwards and especially not for Ukraine” – and extending to a total rollback of NATO deployments to all members admitted after 1997. He also called for a ban on certain weapons in Europe that he deemed a threat to Russia’s heartland. Unlike Hitler, however, Putin does not aim for conquest of the continent, and he would have been over the moon if the West had granted his demands without him having to wage war.

As a Reader, I would note, that rhetorical proximity reveals, that the Hitler reference and his denial ‘that Putin is no Hitler’ is central to Prof. Kotkin’s front page propaganda, in the TLS. That he is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution should alert The Reader to Prof. Kotkin’s politics. Not to ignore this review, in Jacobin, of Prof. Kotkin’s ‘Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928’ by John Marot that is instructive as to Kotkin’s politics.

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928, is the first of a projected three-volume biography of the Soviet despot written by Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund Professor of History and International Studies at Princeton University, and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Kotkin dedicates his Stalin to John P. Birkelund — “businessman, benefactor, fellow historian.” I had never heard of Mr Birkelund before, so I looked him up.

A Princeton ’52 graduate, Mr Birkelund was Chairman of the Wall Street investment firm Dillon, Read & Co. between 1986 and 1998; sat on more than a dozen Company Boards, including Barings Bank and the New York Stock Exchange; and was a trustee for a similar number of public organizations, notably the Frick Collection and the New York Public Library.

A standard-bearer of free-market politics, Birkelund was active in the Republican Party, contributing financially to the Senate electoral campaign of Pete Coors (the beer tycoon) in 2004 and the presidential runs of Bush/Cheney in 2004 and McCain/Palin in 2008. Mr Birkelund is a class act.

Prof. Kotkin again employs the proximity to Hitler:

Western leaders – this time – refused to capitulate to the extortion. And Putin rolled the iron dice. Somehow, the Russian president’s extensively telegraphed invasion stunned almost all Western capitals, Asian capitals, much of the American political establishment, and many members of Russia’s loyalist establishment. He did not shock US and UK intelligence, however.

Prof. Kotkin then writes a History Made To Measure:

Before the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was out of the Kremlin, Russian president Boris Yeltsin was demanding the return of Crimea from Ukraine to the Russian republic, and throughout the 1990s Russian officials bitterly complained about the new international arrangements following the Soviet collapse. A Russia flat on its back could not prevent the United States and its allies from doggedly enlarging the West’s voluntary sphere of influence to former Warsaw Pact countries and some Soviet republics that requested inclusion, but Putin openly, methodically rebuilt the wherewithal to push back. He made it clear that he wanted a deal for spheres of influence whereby Ukraine was in a non-voluntary Russian sphere, or he would act. Again and again he said: this is about Ukraine and NATO. “We have nowhere to retreat”, he announced on state television on January 22. “They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them: ‘Stop!’” Were there alternatives that were missed, and that even now could be reclaimed?

What escapes Prof . Kotkin’s attention, in thrall to his academic arrogance, on the Post- Soviet Russia: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin. The link below from the National Security Archive is an antidote to Prof. Kotkin’s propaganda.

Headline: Weekend Read: Critical Resources on Russia’s War in Ukraine: Documents on NATO Expansion, Putin’s Rise to Power, and Russian Cyber Tactics

Also this essay is essential reading, which is linked to, in the above collection , but deserves The Readers special attention;

Headline: NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard

Sub-headline: Declassified documents show security assurances against NATO expansion to Soviet leaders from Baker, Bush, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher, Hurd, Major, and Woerner… Slavic Studies Panel Addresses “Who Promised What to Whom on NATO Expansion?”

Prof. Kotkin and The Times are political fellow travelers, not to forget The Hoover Institution, as another well established, indeed sclerotic, member of that coterie. But the moment has come for the actual book reviews, still framed in that History Made to Measure:

This Susanne Schattenberg quote is the purest kind of political kitsch:

“I expected to be working on a Stalinist, a hardliner, an architect of domestic and foreign policies of repression”, she confesses. “To my surprise, I quickly realized that this was too simplistic a picture. Brezhnev left the dissidents to the KGB chiefs, [Alexander] Dubček was his protégé, not his enemy.” She adds: “Instead of a dogmatic ideologue, a heart-throb who loved fast cars and liked to crack jokes. I will not escape accusations of being something of a Brezhnev apologist”.

After this Prof. Kotkin spends 424 words on Schattenberg’s book e. g. :

The prose in Brezhnev: The making of a statesman doesn’t sparkle, but its protagonist does.

Vladislav M. Zubok’s book garners 1,038 words of praise, the first paragraph:

Vladislav M. Zubok, author of Collapse: The fall of the Soviet Union, positions himself as a still more ambitious revisionist, arguing not only that the Soviet Union was nowhere near breakdown under Brezhnev, but that almost to the very end it could have been preserved. He offers an excruciatingly paced yet remarkably reliable narrative, effectively covering two years, 1990 and 1991. His exactitude punctures many a myth, especially on the economy, as he sifts an immense body of research to discover, among other things, that egregious financial mismanagement, not excessive defence outlays, proved fatal. He also slices through the prattle about the ineluctable forces of nationalism, showing that it was not Ukraine but Yeltsin’s Russia which opportunistically drove the stake through the Soviet Union’s heart. “A former Russian peasant from the village of Butka in the Urals had just disbanded the realm that Peter the Great and Catherine the Great had built, and which Lenin and Stalin had resurrected”, Zubok writes. “It was the Soviet Union that had defeated Hitler’s armies, the country with which Yeltsin had identified until only very recently. And how would those tens of millions of people, who had voted for him and for Russia’s sovereignty, feel when they learnt that their common home had been taken away from them?” Zubok grew up there. It’s personal.

Freedom at stake

After the the unrelenting propaganda Prof. Kotkin’s essay comes alive. In the next paragraph Kotkin mentions Alexander Zinoviev’s Katastroika –I had readThe Yawing Heights in the 1980’s, but can’t seem to find an English language copy of Katastroika!

The Reader can explore this 1, 038 word excerpt of his review, for herself. Yet ‘Voices of Glasnost: Gorbachev’s Reformers Speak’, by Stephen F. Cohn and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, offer something quite valuable to The Reader, a set of interviews with the very architects of Glasnost!

The next review is of M. E. Sarotte’s ‘Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the making of post-Cold War stalemate’:

Enter M. E. Sarotte. Her engaging book, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the making of post-Cold War stalemate, draws its title from a conversation between Baker and Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, about German unification, and superficially appears to corroborate Putin’s case. “Baker uttered the words as a hypothetical bargain”, Sarotte recounts. “What if you let your part of Germany go, and we agree that NATO will ‘not shift one inch eastward from its present position?’” Gorbachev did not fix the verbal offer in a signed agreement, and, in his meeting the next day with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he bestowed an unconditional commitment to the Germans to decide their fate. Later, writes Sarotte, Gorbachev lied about these episodes because he had messed up, while Baker falsified his own memoir, drafted by his aide Andrew Carpendale, who objected to the rewriting of the record. Sarotte, along with the private National Security Archive in Washington, helped declassify many of the key documents that show a parade of Western officials suggesting, for a brief moment, limits on NATO enlargement. Despite its title, however, these vague vows are not the book’s subject. Sarotte reminds us that, in 1997, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act, fixing in writing the absence of restrictions on NATO expansion to former Warsaw Pact countries or former Soviet republics. Yeltsin had tried to secure a Russian veto over expansion but failed, although he announced at a press conference that he had succeeded.

Here is a link to an essay by Mary Sarotte, adapted from her book, published in The Financial Times of February 24, 2022. Which can give The Reader a version, that is a more easily accessible sample of her thesis:

Headline: Russia, Ukraine and the 30-year quest for a post-Soviet order

Sub-headline: Historian Mary Elise Sarotte tells the inside story of the west’s efforts to secure a post-cold-war settlement — and how Putin seized on missteps and Russian grievances to destroy it

I have read and commented on this essay.

New York Times March 1, 2022, by Mary Elise Sarotte

Headline: I’m a Cold War Historian. We’re in a Frightening New Era.

I have not read the whole of this essay, but it seems germane to the issues, and is an even more brief, and accessible version of Mary Sarotte thesis.

Next in this parade is Martin Sixsmith book:

Martin Martin Sixsmith, a lifelong Russia hand and a BBC correspondent in Moscow, Brussels and Warsaw during the fateful years (1980–97), admits to having been convinced that 1991 meant “autocracy was dead in Russia, that centuries of repression would be thrown off and replaced with freedom and democracy. But I was wrong”. Like Sarotte, albeit without her sophistication, he partly blames the West, and, to underscore the point, offers a psychological take in The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War mind. Sixsmith observes, in his characteristic style of marshalling opinions rather than evidence, that “Vladimir Pechatnov, the head of the State Institute of International Relations of the Russian Foreign Ministry, says conflict might have been avoided if the West had paid more attention to Soviet sensitivities”.

Prof. Kotkin attacks Mr. Sixsmith: ‘Like Sarotte, albeit without her sophistication, he partly blames the West, and, to underscore the point, offers a psychological take in The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War mind. Sixsmith observes, in his characteristic style of marshalling opinions rather than evidence,’ The Reader must look at Mr. Sixsmith as a Deviationist, to borrow a term!

There is more: ‘American leaders had their own psychological needs, Sixsmith avers, and “the bogeyman of a fearsome enemy can unite people as effectively as an inspirational leader”. Yes, it can.’

It is time to insert John Mearsheimer’s video on the Ukraine Question :

Here is Prof. Kotkin’s final paragraph, steeped in the bathos of Munich1938Hitler’s aggressiongangster kleptocracy in Russia, and ‘the fate of the international order’: the place holder for American Hegemony, that given recent History…

Failing to understand the history of how the West defended freedom goes hand in hand with all too many analysts being willing to give away other peoples’ freedom now. At Munich in 1938, the alternative to appeasement was war or genuine deterrence, meaning the credible threat of a military response and other strong measures to inhibit and, if necessary, punish and reverse Hitler’s aggression. Even as rogue leaders of powerful states are being dealt with resolutely, whether in the case of genocidal or today’s gangster kleptocracy in Russia, their wider elites need to feel they have a stake in the international order, which means engaging in concerted, realistic diplomacy, too.

Rootless Cosmopolitan

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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