Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000

ISBN: 0195168941
ISBN 13: 9780195168945
By: Stephen Kotkin

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About this book

In the Cold War era that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, nobody envisaged that the collapse of the Soviet Union would come from within, still less that it would happen meekly, without global conflagration. In this brilliantly compact, original, engaging book, Stephen Kotkin shows that the Soviet collapse resulted not from military competition but, ironically, from the dynamism of Communist ideology, the long-held dream for "socialism with a human face." The neo-liberal reforms in post-Soviet Russia never took place, nor could they have, given the Soviet-era inheritance in the social, political, and economic landscape. Kotkin takes us deep into post-Stalin Soviet society and institutions, into the everyday hopes and secret political intrigues that affected 285 million people, before and after 1991. He conveys the high drama of a superpower falling apart while armed to the teeth with millions of loyal troops and tens of thousands of weapons of mass destruction. Armageddon Averted vividly demonstrates the overriding importance of history, individual ambition, geopolitics, and institutions, and deftly draws out contemporary Russia's contradictory predicament.

Reader's Thoughts

Frank Stein

Kotkin treats the fall of the Soviet Union as a genuine civilizational collapse, perhaps more akin to the fall of the Roman empire than a typical modern revolution leading merely from one form of government to another. Kotkin thinks this collapse explains why the aftermath of the Cold War was so unsatisfying for all parties involved, and why Russia itself unraveled so definitively after 1991. There are many sketches and anecdotes here, but the most interesting portrait by far is of Mikhail Gorbachev. While often portrayed as a steady reformer committed to a gradual transition to democracy and capitalism, Kotkin shows him to be the last of the true believers in socialism. Gorbachev did roundly repudiated Stalin and Brezhnev, but only to harken back to idealized images Lenin and Khrushchev and their putatively kinder brand of socialism. He believed right up to the end that glasnost was only reviving the older tradition of democratic soviets and that socialism's economy could be reformed through increased decentralization and task force studies of efficiency. (There were actually no real market reforms under Gorbachev, just a movement to give old functionaries some control over their factories and operations. His attempts to roll back military production actually cost the state money since this was its biggest export.) The spiraling consequences of his reforms came as a continual surprise to him and his allies. For instance, Gorbachev's late severing of the union of party and state had the unforeseen consequence of allowing the other Socialist republics that made up the USSR to drift off, since without the unifying party there was almost no constitutional basis for unity. Gorbachev himself dreaded the end of his empire, but his reluctance to use violence (perhaps due to his early exposure to Prague in the aftermath of the 1968 summer) meant he couldn't stomach sending in the troops to hold it all together. Surprisingly, even while republics were breaking away and people were rioting in the streets to overthrow the system, he and his chief ideologue Alexander Yakovlev continued to believe that the main danger to his reforms came from "conservative" (read, traditional communist) reactionaries. He orchestrated an elaborate campaign against Yegor Ligachev, his former protege, to staunch this movement, even as his government was falling apart from "liberal" attacks from the outside. In the end, Gorbachev proved a master strategist at implementing his reforms but woefully short-sighting about their effect. The result was something neither he nor anyone in his coterie would have wanted. The Russian people then suffered from both the lingering effects of communism and the disorganized way in which it unraveled. It still has not recovered.

Ted Hunt

This is not a book for the casual reader interested in current affairs. The author summarizes the thirty year collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of post-Soviet Russia in just two hundred pages, but there is an expectation that the reader is familiar with Russian and Soviet history, especially the institutions of government, as well as the workings of both micro and macro economics. That being said, it is an insightful look at this era of Russian history and if nothing else, further dispels the canard that "Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot." I found the most interesting part of the book to be the author's analysis of how "democracy" and "liberalism" are not the same thing. "Liberalism" with democracy gives us American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, while "democracy" without liberalism gives us Putin. It also led me to believe that the current division in the Ukraine is probably about more than what language people speak.

Jeppe Haarsted

A good overview of the Soviet collapse. Kotkin argues that the Soviet collapse began in the 1970s and that the massive economic problems of the new Russian Federation was an inevitable result of the Soviet economy, in particular the old, obsolete industrial base and equipment. He manages to tell this quite complex story in a short, engaging form. The title is however a bit misleading, as Kotkin barely explains his hypothesis that we were lucky that the Soviet collapse was a relatively one and didn't end in nuclear armageddon.

H Wesselius

excellent concise book on the soviet collapse. inflexible industry, corruption, parallel structures of power (gov't/party), increased power of the republics, increased consumer demands of the masses, and Gorbachev all contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, he traces the origin all the way back to the oil shock of the early 70s. Although the oil shock created economic problems in the west, private industry can lay off employees without repercussion but a socialist state not onlys the factory, it controls the price of bread etc. By assuming all this responsibility they left themselves vulnerable. The rest of the book is about the Soviets attempt at reform needed because of stagnation yet the reform itself led to the implosion of the state.


Wish it went more in-depth on particular policies and definitely on the foreign relations piece in the 70s and 80s. Also, the discussion of the Soviet's fall and the ascension of Yeltsin was a bit convoluted. Overall, an okay read, especially if you want a quick read on later Soviet political and economic history.


I was concerned that this would either be very dry, very dated, or both, but it was neither. One of the more readable analyses of history that I have read, with a common sense approach to the causes and philosophies that drove the actors. Managed to explain so many of the underlying causes of the collapse of the USSR that are not appreciated when it is cast as Democracy vs. Communism. To some extent, the victory over Hitler led to the eventual fall of Communism, just because of the sheer numbers of the casualties -- well over 23 Million Russians died to achieve the victory -- more than all the other combatants lost in WWII! This book also helps explain the Russia of today and the machinations and continued successes of Vladimir Putin. To a large extent, the Big Picture ideas mask the true structure of Russian power even from most Russians and lead to the continued entrenchment of megalomania and corruption.

Aaron Crossen

Loved it when I read it, although it's been awhile. Basically a straightforward analysis of the question of armageddon: why the hell DIDN'T the Soviets blow up the world as the Union was dissipating, if only out of spite? Kotkin tackles the question on fronts, tantalizing us with hints, but never giving us a straight answer. Why? There isn't one. But the drama is real: who knew what madman might push a button? Apparently, no man was mad enough.


Good book for someone unfamiliar with the Soviet Union but considering how many students entering college today were born after the fall of the Union perhaps this should be widely read as to give people a basic overview of the events and actors. The book just is a little too light for anyone that's read something like A history of 20th Century Russia by Robert Service, but I suppose it is fair to say this book is not trying to tell the same story.


I found it largely disappointing. The title is misleading, it fails to explain why the collapse of the Soviet Union would have led to armageddon, or how or why it was averted. It is a good overview of the period with a strong bias. No credit is given given to the democrats for bringing about change and the path to disunion should have been obvious to all as it was simply inevitable. I just took away another star thinking about it.


An interesting and in-depth analysis of the events leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the decline and fall of the Communist utopian dream. Kotkin's writing is refreshingly light and easy to comprehend, uncluttered by the tedium which so often haunts the pages of historically erudite political reviews.Kotkin traverses the historical entity which was the USSR, from its initial formation well into it's post socialist period. He captures well the essence of the idealism as well as the rabid greed that has always been a fundamental aspect of the Russian political ethos.Interesting aspects were the comparative revolutions of China and the former Soviet Union and why one was more successful than the other. The reasoning why there actually was no Armageddon finally, and the differences between political idealism and economic realism and the effects of "reform Socialism."This is a fascinating book, which even for a novice will prove informative and enlightening.

Dee W.

Unfortunately, this book is summed up in its first chapter. Plugging through to the end is worth it, though, there are tidbits and stories that flesh out the experience. What makes this worth the read is that the story doesn’t end with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., it goes forward and explains the troubles Russia still faced in the future. It’s insightful, well written and full of good information.

Chris Davis

Interesting version of what happened and what almost happened. History is replete with turning points.

David Nichols

Perhaps not the most gripping narrative on the fall of the Soviet Union (the author is an academic), Kotkin's book is nonetheless worth reading because it advances an important thesis about the causes of the collapse - namely, that the Soviet Union could probably have survived, albeit as an increasingly poor and dysfunctional nation (cf. North Korea), if it had not been fatally undermined by Gorbachev. The last General Secretary believed, as Kotkin notes - and as Gorbachev himself admitted at the time - in the dream of "socialism with a human face" and undertook a fundamental remaking of the Soviet government (including the creation of a parliament with real power) in the name of this dream. When the various satellite states and soviet republics within the USSR decided to use perestroika as a justification for leaving the Union, Gorbachev's own principles prevented him from sending in the tanks, and the hard-line communists who opposed him were all too old, marginalized, or alcoholic (or all of the above) to overthrow him. The hyperinflation, widespread poverty, and outrageous corruption that beset Russia in the post-Soviet '90s was, Kotkin further argues, a continuation of the institutional breakdown of the 1980s; Vladimir Putin was in a sense the first genuinely post-Soviet ruler of Russia, insofar as he ended the institutional dysfunction of the Russian parliament and began cracking the heads of the most egregiously corrupt oligarchs. Armageddon Averted was published in 2003 and it would be interesting to see an afterward on events since Putin's rise to power.

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