By James Brown
The history of the Cold War has a rich scholarship. The field encompasses International Relations studies, economic history, and, increasingly, cultural approaches, exploring the imprint of the conflict on art, film, and everyday life. Interest in books on the Cold War will likely increase this year as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And while narrative histories of high politics and culture no doubt assist in improving our understanding of the Cold War, the works which will be most important as we reflect on the conflict’s legacy are those dealing explicitly with the psychology and human impact of the Cold War. With the rise of China and continuing instability following the COVID-19 pandemic leading to repeated suggestions of the potential for a Second Cold War, most important in our engagement with the Cold War is appreciating the human mindsets which created that conflict, and those which it created amongst people in turn. We need to ask ourselves what led the world to be so divided for nearly half a century, and then how to avoid the same happening again.
Interrogating this aspect of Cold War history is indeed difficult and few authors truly succeed in illustrating the psychology of the era without resorting to cliche. The Cold War was a conflict defined by high politics and domineering ideologies of capitalism versus communism. Writers, especially academics, have found it hard to move beyond these abstractions to capture the human experience of the Cold War.
In this regard, it has been authors of fiction who have often been more successful. The works of the late great John le Carré endure in the popular imagination as among the most defining portraits of the moral compromises forced on individuals by the ideological restraints of the Cold War. Meanwhile, Francis Spufford’s fact-based novel, Red Plenty, gives insight into how Soviet citizens genuinely began to believe that communism’s material promises would be realised under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev (1956-64). In writing Red Plenty, Spufford, himself acknowledged the difficulties non-fiction authors face in trying to capture the essence of the Cold War’s ideas and their impact on people. He explains how his initial attempts to tell the tale of Red Plenty as a piece of non-fiction fell short and demanded he shift the book to the ‘border between fiction and non-fiction.’
Other Cold War authors, meanwhile, have successfully managed to bridge this gap between storytelling and fact while remaining truer to the latter. Among the most significant are Anna Funder, principally for her renowned book Stasiland, and the 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich. These two authors are already widely acclaimed but it feels necessary to revisit their work as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the USSR, as they capture better than most the human impact of the Cold War, especially east of the Iron Curtain.
Funder’s brilliant Stasiland has been described variously as a personal history and a ‘journalist’s first-person narrative’ that can ‘read like a novel’. The book, through a series interviews intertwined with Funder’s own narrative, captures how the state ideology of the German Democratic Republic created an alternate, corrupt moral reality for its subjects and those who defended it: the notorious Ministry for State Security or Stasi. Funder, however, is not exclusively condemnatory of the former watchmen of state socialism. Her interviews are occasionally sympathetic with former Stasi employees, though without ever failing to address the violations they committed. On the other hand, Funder gives voice to those who resisted the regime and put themselves in extreme danger in desperate attempts to escape to the West. Funder’s main achievement is to shine a light on a society where ideology reigned supreme in a way it rarely does now, while still keeping the human experience firmly at the forefront of her prose.
Alexievich’s works, meanwhile, are less about how people were driven to extremes by ideology, and more about the everyday lives continuing in spite of or in accommodation with ideology. Alexievich’s method sees her conduct interviews with hundreds of witnesses to life in the USSR, focusing on formative events like the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), the Chernobyl Disaster (1986), and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991). Her excellent Secondhand Time tells the story of the end of communism in the USSR and the responses of its citizens. Alexievich lets her subjects speak for themselves, sympathising with them. What emerges is a portrait of how the Soviet people inhabited a distinct culture of their own in the USSR and that while the political reality of the Soviet Union may have ended in 1991, left behind were millions of Homo-Sovieticus traumatised by the sudden collapse of their generations-old everyday reality.
If history is about authentically recreating the unique conditions of an era or culture, both Funder’s and Alexievich’s books stand as among the most accomplished studies of the Cold War, even though neither author may be exclusively considered a historian; two other worthy examples are Donald J. Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers and Bridgett Kendall’s The Cold War. Furthermore, both women’s books hold relevance in understanding pertinent contemporary issues in international politics, especially Putin’s Russia and the historical factors which drive Russian foreign policy.
Modern Russia cannot be understood without an appreciation of the impact on Russian leaders of the loss of superpower status conferred by the USSR’s collapse. Nor can the contemporary rise of the far-right in the east of Germany be understood without knowledge of East German history. Throughout the 2010s, and now in the first years of the 2020s, observers have continued to speculate whether we have entered a new Cold War-style period of international relations. Understanding the human experience of the original Cold War seems a more important exercise than ever as we prepare ourselves for the new era, whatever it brings, and Funder and Alexievich offer the best place to start.
James Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Northumbria University. His focus is on Soviet dissidents and their use in the politics and international relations of the Cold War. He previously studied at Glasgow University, doing a Master’s in East European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. During this time he studied Russian and wrote his thesis, ‘Returning to Machiavelli: Giving Belarus-Russia relations the Original Realist Treatment’, which received the prize for best dissertation from the Centre for East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Glasgow.