Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In This Review

Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War
By Stephen F. Cohen
Columbia University Press, 2009
328 pp. $28.50

Cohen has an advantage over other scholars: he writes very well, and his fluid, unencumbered prose heightens the strong case he is making. Never, he stresses, was the Soviet Union the historically predetermined tragedy that so many in the West have come to assume. At each critical juncture, plausible alternatives existed, and, to the end, the system remained reformable. An early alternative was the liberal Leninism of the Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin, whose elegant 1980 biography Cohen wrote. The moment of reform, anticipated under Nikita Khrushchev, came with Mikhail Gorbachev. Cohen's vigorous and careful critique of the many, often contradictory arguments for why the system had to fail is the book's most stimulating part. Its less compelling part arrives with the claim that the United States never stopped prosecuting the Cold War, even after Russia was gutted, and, therefore, bears full responsibility for the bad state of the relationship today. This point stands in curious juxtaposition to the argument in the rest of this book and, indeed, to the distinguishing quality of Cohen's other work on Soviet history and politics -- namely, a deep respect for the complexity of political life.