A chronicle of the final years of the Cold War and its lingering aftermath.
In his rich and readable history, Sell (Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, 2002) opens with a personal story about his travels to the Soviet Union in 1967 for spring break. He describes a visit to a dorm room in Moscow, where the students seemed obsessed with American pastimes and daily life. “Discussion of politics,” writes the author, “was abandoned in favor of pop music, film, and life ‘over there.’ ” Though Sell delves into the era of his visit, in the late 1960s, he focuses mostly on the U.S.–Soviet relationship after the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972. A veteran Foreign Service officer, Sell has written knowledgeably about Eastern European politics, and he solicited the “kindness of librarians” to obtain documents in both English and Russian. Still, the book’s tone remains distinctly Western. Each chapter echoes a well-worn Cold War narrative: Leonid Brezhnev’s presidency led to “stagnation,” Jimmy Carter’s presidency was “unhappy,” and the Ronald Reagan administration managed to outmaneuver Mikhail Gorbachev in the end game. What distinguishes Sell’s book are the chapters on Gorbachev himself, who seems by turns tragic and heroic. The story slows down toward the end, as the author illustrates in minute detail how the Soviet Union’s last leader attempted to negotiate with the Americans while still keeping the Kremlin from falling apart. Sell notes that the actual collapse of the Soviet Union was not as clean-cut as many believe, and the August coup of 1991 would have repercussions until the present day, with the seemingly inevitable rise of Vladimir Putin. Many readers may find themselves skimming the chapters on Nixon and Brezhnev in favor of this epic denouement.
A rare and intimate look at Gorbachev and the events leading up to his presidency, this is a minor but thoughtful addition to the long shelf of Cold War books.