Current tensions between Russia and the West have struck echoes of the Cold War, reminding us both how distant the era has become and how substantially it continues to shape our world. Three books comprise a miniature study of this vexed and fascinating period in modern history.

Readers seeking to understand Russia and Ukraine will find plenty to enlighten them in Serkhii Plokhii’s The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (Basic Books, $32, 520 pp.). Plokhii, professor of history at Harvard, has already written extensively about the long and difficult history of relations between Russia and Ukraine. But Plokhii believes the sources of the current crisis lie nearer at hand, in the dissolution of the USSR. He begins his book with the August 1991 coup attempted by military, Communist Party, and KGB officials seeking to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev. Though the coup failed, subsequent events brought down not only Gorbachev, but the Soviet Union itself. Against the wishes of both Gorbachev and the leader of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence in a December 1991 referendum. Following many months in which the USSR had endeavored to persist via a looser association of its republics, the departure of its second largest member spelled the end of the Soviet state.

Anyone who has followed the news in the past year knows that Vladimir Putin has called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.” As Plokhii reminds us, a quarter-century ago no one was more unhappy to see the end of the “evil empire” than President George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker. The two had worked out important agreements with Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, on nuclear weapons and other issues; they liked and trusted their Soviet counterparts and hoped to conclude more such agreements. In one of those ironies of history, they would have preferred to see the Soviet Union continue to exist indefinitely, and did what they could—in vain—toward that end.

Few Americans know more about the behind-the-scenes realities of the Cold War’s endgame than Robert Gates. Most visible as secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates had a prior and less visible career in the Central Intelligence Agency, where he rose from his entry-level job as a Soviet analyst in 1969 to become director in 1991. Published eight years ago, Gates’s From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (Simon & Shuster, $18.99, 608 pp.) lays out his insider’s view of the agency’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. He defends himself against charges that his CIA overestimated Soviet military power and the threat it posed. He does concede that agency intelligence overstated the size of the Soviet economy and its ability to carry the burden of colossal military expenditures. The CIA was correspondingly slow to perceive imminent Soviet collapse, though Gates asserts that the agency was planning for such a contingency two years before it happened—considerably more warning than Mikhail Gorbachev got.

From the Shadows dishes out enjoyable insights into public figures of the era. Of Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Gates notes that “he wore his ego lighter than most,” though on the same page he tells an amusing story about trying to shield Brzezinski from prying journalists during a free hour on a trip to Egypt, sensing that the NSA boss “wanted to be alone with his thoughts”—only to have Brzezinski smilingly rebuke him for having “got between him and a TV news crew.” As for Carter, Gates describes him as the most intelligent president he served, and credits him with initiating the arms buildup that ultimately brought the Soviets to their knees.

Much of the book is devoted to Gates’s time in the Reagan White House and the menagerie of characters who competed for the president’s ear. Of these the most reckless was CIA Director William Casey, the no-holds-barred Cold Warrior who promoted the arms-for-hostages deal that nearly brought down the administration. In the end, it was Secretary of State George Shultz—whom Gates somewhat sourly describes as the best bureaucratic infighter he ever saw—who, along with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, managed to convince a reluctant Reagan that the Iran-Contra affair had been “extra-Constitutional.” By persuading Reagan to utter those words publicly, Gates and Weinberger probably saved his presidency.

Moving from the political to the cultural arm of the Cold War, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s The Zhivago Affair (Pantheon, $26.95, 358 pp.) takes us back to the Moscow of 1958, when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago. In the Soviet view, Pasternak had sinned doubly—first by showing a lack of enthusiasm for the revolution in his novel, and second by illegally sending it to Italy for publication. As Finn and Couvee tell the dramatic story, Pasternak had been subjected to crude pressure from the Soviet literary establishment to recall the novel, which he had sent by courier to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a wealthy publisher and Communist Party member, in Milan. So certain was Pasternak that he might be forced to recall the book that he instructed Feltrinelli through an intermediary not to believe any message from him unless it was written in French. (Pablo Mancuso’s Inside the Zhivago Storm: The Editorial Adventures of Pasternak’s Masterpiece, published last year, provides the most complete account to date of the novel’s publication in the West, and includes all the correspondence between Pasternak and the steadfast Feltrinelli.)

Initially thrilled by the Nobel award, Pasternak sent a telegram of acceptance to the Swedish Academy, describing himself as “immensely grateful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.” But the hyenas were already circling. Following angry meetings, one of them attended by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the author was expelled from the Union of Writers and threatened with expulsion from the country; attacks on him filled newspapers and radio, and nearly all his old friends, including some of the most famous writers in Russia, fearfully turned their backs on him. Demoralized, Pasternak renounced the Nobel Prize. He considered suicide; he wrote to Khrushchev, begging to be spared deportation. He died less than two years later.

The authors of this book, one a former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post and the other a teacher at St. Petersburg State University, seem to have interviewed every living witness to the Pasternak affair. As a correspondent in Moscow who attended Pasternak’s 1960 funeral, I can attest that they have faithfully evoked the frightening atmosphere of those days. Access to long-classified material has helped them tell the story of how the CIA covertly published softbound Russian-language copies of Doctor Zhivago, sized to fit into a jacket pocket, and smuggled them into the USSR. Thanks in no small part to Soviet bungling, the novel became a huge bestseller in the West—and precisely the Cold War artifact the Russians had feared all along. 

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Priscilla McMillan is the author of The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Viking) and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard.

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Published in the December 5, 2014 issue: View Contents
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