“Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall” by Jonathan Haslam – Fascinating subject – often confusing read

This is my review of Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall by Jonathan Haslam.

This deeply serious history, unadorned by any photographs, even on the cover, is distinctive for presenting the Cold War from a Soviet perspective, and for making use of “previously inaccessible” archives. It increased my understanding of, say the level of US ignorance of European geopolitics during and just after World War II, and of Stalin’s machinations, largely based on fear of the intentions of any person or state that might threaten his power. It contains many pithy and revealing quotations. The extent of leakage of British and US correspondence and plans via Russian spies is also intriguing.

However, I found this a hard read. The author makes little attempt to consider the needs of his readers. Some of the main events, such as the terms of the Yalta Agreement are referred to as if one is already familiar with them. This rather begs the question as to why one would need to read the book. Space which could have been used for brief explanations is instead taken up with a string of “minor characters” who, when they prove hard to recall on an unforseeable reappearance, sometimes cannot be found in the rather inadequate index. I also found a few distracting typos e.g. 1939 instead of 1919. I formed the impression that this book has been culled rapidly from copious notes by a busy academic, with the result that some paragraphs seem full of non sequiturs, which even after several readings may remain fairly unclear. For instance, on page 72 a paragraph begins:

“In March 1946 London and Washington finally cemented intelligence cooperation with the UK-USA agreement which updated its predecessor, BRUSA, concluded in 1943. Kennan’s long telegram relaunched his idling career. It arrived just as the White House had to make sense of continued failure to redress Truman’s attention.” Why is this section separated by a good deal of digression from that on page 71 which explains some of the contents of the telegram?

Likewise, on page 82, a section headed “The Truman Doctrine”, does not clearly explain what this is. “The Truman doctrine was thus proclaimed in a ‘panic move’. Addressing Congress on March 12, Truman anathematized communism in general on the false assumption that it was entirely directed from the Kremlin as it had been before 1941.” Very interesting, but what exactly was the Doctrine, and why should communism be condemned on the above grounds?

Worse than this, on page 95, a section headed, “No more communist uprisings for now” launches into references to the PCF and PCI policy (whatever they are) and references to Thorez, without making the context at all clear, even after the reader has struggled to work it out using the index. It all makes for a confusing read.

Owing to the need to cover systematically the period from 1917 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, this boils down to a rather dense poitical history of modern Russia, often jumping from one sub-section to another with a very different theme, rather than a succinct analysis of the “Cold War”.

With better editing, this could be an excellent book. As it stands, it calls for a reader with a good deal of time and patience. Perhaps its value is mainly as a reference book for students. I have made a note to return to it after I have tried a few other takes on Soviet Russia, and the “Cold War” to see what it may add at that stage of my understanding

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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