The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991 by David Pryce-Jones

25 October 2007

Lest anyone think that I only review books that I enjoyed reading….

The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991 by David Pryce-Jones

The War That Never Was first came out in 1995, when a book of this nature was more in the line of ‘current events’ than ‘history’. At that point in time, there were quite a lot of people around who were very willing to talk about the part they had played in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Editor and author David Pryce-Jones travelled around the former Soviet Union and its constituent republics, collecting interviews with politicians, bureaucrats, former dissidents, and political commentators who had been in at the end of things, as it were. Through these interviews, Pryce-Jones is attempting to piece together the greater puzzle of how one of the world’s two superpowers simply fell apart in the space of less than a decade.

I wish I had more to say about the book, but to be perfectly truthful I found it incredibly difficult to get through it past the first few chapters. My difficulties started off with bits of Pryce-Jones’ running commentary that made me raise an eyebrow. Take, for instance, this passage:

President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher were unusual among world leaders in their genuine detestation of communism. It was a question of right and wrong. Moral outlook of the sort troubled neither post-war French Presidents nor German Chancellors.

In my opinion, I would say that it’s remarkably easy to make moral judgments when you’re not facing either immediate internal (French) or external (German) pressure from native communist movements — and that Reagan and Thatcher seemed to have few moral qualms about supporting some other regimes that may not have been communist but were certainly nowhere near democratic. I could keep quoting passages in a similarly conservative vein, ones where that damn the Helsinki Accords or snipe at George H.W. Bush for not being more aggressive to act in support of the nationalist movements in the Baltic countries. In essence, Pryce-Jones seems to think that if the Soviet Union was on its last legs by the late 1980s, the West would’ve been better off getting out the knives and finishing the job with more than a bit of relish. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was more than tempted to get out some knives of my own to hack and slash my way to the end.

I did finish this book, but it’s no longer on my bookshelf. I’ve no problem with debating the different choices that might have been made by Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and others — but Pryce-Jones seemed to keep repeating a few pet ideas and picking only the interviews to support his views. It might be moderately useful to read The War That Never Was as a representation of a particular kind of ideological mindset that shouldn’t be ignored outright, but I can’t imagine rereading except to pull quotations from it. And as far as that goes, I simply ended up copying out the quotes that I thought I might find useful and consigning this polemic masquerading as history to a used book store.


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