In This Review
Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse
Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin
Whereas some books explain the Soviet collapse and others address Russia's troubled effort to reinvent itself, these two books merge the subjects. Kotkin poses the larger questions of why the Soviet Union collapsed without massive violence and bloodshed, and why Russia's unsteady, unsavory slog toward democracy and markets confounded experts and advisers of all stripes. He begins with a one-word answer: Gorbachev. The way the last Soviet ruler tried to reform the system, argues Kotkin, brought the whole thing down. To make the Communist Party (the sinews of the system) "both the instrument and the object of perestroika" was folly. Mikhail Gorbachev was also insensitive to the rise of the republics in reform's flickering shadow. But he was not alone to blame. Kotkin attributes Russia's continuing illiberalism and impotence to an administrative class absorbed in plundering and a leadership whose inept recipes vastly underestimated the Soviet Union's economic and political residue.
McFaul, in an elaborately researched volume, asks why the effort to create new and stable political institutions initially failed -- first under Gorbachev and then during Boris Yeltsin's first term -- only to succeed under the "Second Russian Republic" (1993 to the present). He also starts with Gorbachev. But in contrast to Kotkin, he argues that Gorbachev was responsible for preventing the Soviet Union's overhaul rather than for its demise. Once change was underway, too many fundamental and indivisible issues came to divide protagonists. In the haze of events, these actors easily miscalculated the real balance of power. Only after 1993 -- when the rules were settled (or rather imposed) by Yeltsin, primal questions over capitalism and communism were removed from the agenda, and the balance of power clearly tilted toward the president -- did the situation stabilize. But Russia's democracy remains partial. Lacking the rule of law, McFaul warns, Russia is still capable of sliding back toward autocracy. Although both are rewarding books, McFaul's is especially noteworthy for its rich detail, greatly enhanced by interviews with almost all the key players.