Thursday, February 12, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ALEKSANDR FURSENKO'S AND TIMOTHY NAFTALI'S KHRUSCHEV'S COLD WAR

This book is a gripping read, and it contains new insights into the Cold War, and the authors add some interesting brushstrokes to our historical portrait of Krushchev.

Khrushchev has always been a minor hero of mine. I call him a minor hero because one cannot talk about heroism in an unqualified way with a major figure of an absolute government. Beethoven angrily re-titled the dedication of the Eroica symphony, and I agree with his sentiments in doing it, yet it remains possible to admire some aspects of Napoleon's career.

All individuals must be judged with an appreciation for the constraints under which they operated, and Khrushchev did some very important things and maintained a kind of idealism, despite its rough peasant expression. Khrushchev did want his people to achieve a better life; he cared a great deal about improving agriculture; he was a sincere believer in the ultimate benefits of socialism; he did not want war; and he did want peaceful coexistence with the West before that phrase became commonplace. Above all, Khrushchev was and remains a very human figure, something that cannot be said of a great many absolute leaders.

Khrushchev's role in changing the operations of the Soviet government after decades of Stalin - perhaps the most terrifying dictator of the modern era - was heroic, something I believe he has never been adequately recognized for in the West.

But the same man was ready to crush revolt in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The title of the book is absolutely accurate: this is Khrushchev's Cold War. Other actors enter and leave the stage, but Khrushchev shapes the story. In that sense, it is necessarily incomplete as a history of the Cold War.

The new insights in the book come from Soviet archives not opened until well into the 21st century. They include who knew what when; the impact of certain events on the Soviet leadership; the real reasons for certain Soviet positions in international affairs; and some of the misunderstandings of American analysts and leaders at the time.

In a few cases, the authors indicate that materials are missing yet, so the book cannot be taken as definitive.

But the book is indispensable to understanding the Cold War, aspects of how the Soviet Union worked, and the Cuban Missile crisis. It is recommended to all with interest in these subjects and to anyone just wanting a good historical read.

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