Q&A with robert service - author of 'the end of the cold war: 1985-1991', shortlisted for the 2016 pushkin house prize

Professor Robert Service is a Fellow of the British Academy and of St Anthony's College, Oxford


What made you interested in Russia?

I started as a classicist. A month before I went to Cambridge, I realised that I could not stand reading any more Virgil. I got depressed at the thought of it. They said if I wanted to swap, I had to chose an exotic language. I had studied Esperanto, and my teacher lent me a load of simple Russian texts including Turgenev. I just fell for the Russian classics, for the idea of the country, the sheer beauty of the language. So I studied Russian and ancient Greek. It was an amazing degree: I could study ancient tragedy and Dostoevsky. Afterwards, I felt I couldn’t understand the literature without looking at the history. So I went to Essex to do politics. But while getting to grips with political science, I rejected the growing trend towards the over-compartmentalisation of economics, politics and sociology from history, literature and the arts. The average Russian man and woman would not accept it, and they’d be right. I did my doctorate in Essex on the Bolshevik party in the years immediately after the October 1917 Revolution, gathering a pile of material from contemporary party newspapers in Leningrad while on the British Council exchange.

Why did you decide to write this book?

It started off with the discovery in the Hoover Institution of the diaries of the PA of Shevardnadze, Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze. I found that Hoover also had a lot of the papers of his US counterpart Charles Hill, who worked closely with George Shultz. Plus, there were the papers of Anatoli Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser, at St Antony’s, Oxford. The only missing bit of the jigsaw was Reagan – and for him I did research on National Security Council adviser Jack Matlock’s papers at the Reagan Presidential Library. So this quadrilateral arrangement was the documentary basis of the book. One of the things I was trying to do was get away from a purely American or purely Gorbachev-linked understanding of the end of the Cold War. Even cold wars have to end because of the interaction between two sides. It was ludicrous to look at only Reagan or only Gorbachev. The joy of the research was in checking what the other side was doing on such and such a day. There were several incidents when the US overreacted, and when the Soviets misjudged what the Americans were doing. Human political intercourse as well as objected economic and security pressures are at the heart of the book. Nowadays, half of the doctorates written in this country and the US on Russia are about the 1930s. In my generation we were all writing about 1917. But the end of the Cold is a stupendously important part of world history.  It’s just so important. It’s essential to everything that is happening today.

What is your conclusion?

I think we’ve underestimated how much the Politburo was aware, even before Gorbachev came to power, that it was ruling a country in crisis - economically, politically, ideologically. That explains why Gorbachev got so much slack given to him. He really didn’t have much opposition on foreign policy from 1985 till the end of 1989. The reason was that the Politburo recognised the need for a breathing space to solve the problems, and that it would only get this if it put an end to the arms race. Even the Soviet armed forces supported the plan. It took the Americans to accept that something serious was going on in Moscow. Diplomacy between Gorbachev, Shultz, Reagan and Shevardnadze really pushed this forward. They had to get to know each other. There was a mutual acquaintance campaign, with trust having to be built. It was critical who they were, how well they got on, how far their spouses got on - or at least put up with one another. Nancy and Raisa never did, but Mrs Shultz and Mrs Shevardnadze got on very well. Shultz sang “Georgia on my mind” to Shevardnadze. Contingency and personality is a really big part of the story. There could at any point have been a turning back. 

So what is your assessment of Gorbachev’s role?

Gorbachev was a “holy fool” – he misread the nature of the Soviet system, and didn’t understand that if he undermined some of the wings of the building, the whole thing would start collapsing. I’d also give Reagan and his predecessors credit. The technological embargo applied from the late 1940s and the threat of the Strategic Defensive Initiative broke the confidence of the Politburo that it could respond. It was no coincidence that it had to spend so much energy on the widening technological gap. Stalin was able to buy whatever he wanted abroad. But no longer. Gorbachev could have reacted differently. He could have chosen to clamp down with a view towards prolonging the Soviet system. This was a constant possibility. Gorbachev was a man with a lot of flaws, who was very stubborn and bull-headed. Even when taking advice, he was not always really listening. But he was still a great man. So was Reagan - at least for this aspect of his presidency.

Was there a particular surprise you unearthed in your research?

The thing that really intrigued me was the Politburo after the Reykjavik summit in 1986. Gorbachev said to Reagan that he was offering the best possible deal, but insisted that Reagan had to accept the whole package. Reagan refused because he wanted total freedom to develop SDI. Reagan was soon in trouble because of Iran-Contra, he couldn’t just do what he wanted. Gorbachev went back to Moscow very depressed, but then Shevardnadze and Gromyko told him he had to untie his package if he wanted a deal with Washington, and do it stage by stage. Over the next two months, they bullied Gorbachev to break up his package. That showed that real politics was happening at the top level, with even an arch reactionary like Gromyko seeing a degree of sense. It’s just an amazing story, the only way Gorbachev was ever going to bring Reagan back to the table. 

What continuities do you see today from the Cold War?

I firmly oppose those who say we are living in a full new Cold War. Things are quite bad enough without the need for us to exaggerate. This is not the 1940s-1970s. The amount of ideological overlap between the US and the Russian Federation is enormous. The economic ties are huge. On the other hand, the mindset of Putin is very heavily affected by his Soviet upbringing. I don’t think one can understand Putin without understanding his strong sympathetic feelings for the Soviet past, and especially for the security agencies’ achievements. As the Litvinenko inquiry showed very clearly, Putin gives a freer rein to the security services than Gorbachev or Yeltsin did. This is a man who volunteered to work for the KGB. He returned from his posting in Dresden to a country that he thought was wrecked by democratisation.  

What is your next project?

I’m just finishing a book on Nicholas II, called “Last of the Tsars”. I’ve dug up a lot of new material on Ekaterinburg, and it provides a general picture of the political and economic turmoil in the city as the Bolsheviks moved toward deciding to kill him. I don’t share the romantic image of him. Nicholas was a loving father and a patriot but also a terrible anti-Semite who read the Protocols of Zion to his children. But he also talked seriously and sensibly with his jailers – and he turned to Russian literary classics to inform himself better about the Russia that he once had ruled.  A more complex figure than I’d ever imagined.

Interview by Andrew Jack