Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav M.Zubok (Yale University Press), £25.

It is 1998, and the snow is falling in Moscow. The collapse of the USSR, just seven years before, left millions unemployed and on the breadlines. One family, however, has enough cash for a meal out at an American fast-food chain on the corner of Red Square. The food is delicious, the atmosphere welcoming. Until that is, someone spots former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at a neighbouring table.

“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” the father declares.

“Thanks to him, we have new opportunities!” his son hits back.

“Political chaos!”


From out of nowhere, the elderly grandmother suddenly settles the argument. “It’s down to him that we have Pizza Hut!” At once, everyone is raising a slice to the man who inadvertently brought more than 70 years of Communist rule to an end.

The minute-long vignette, shot by the US chain and starring the man who less than a decade earlier was in charge of the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal, became one of the most iconic moments in advertising history. For some, it was a sign that Russia was modernising far faster than ever thought possible. For others, it was yet another humiliation to be inflicted on the losers of the Cold War.

It is also the essence of a new chronicle of the final days of the Soviet UnionCollapse, by Vladislav M. Zubok, a professor of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE). Whether the years that followed were defined by political chaos or freedom, the confusion and the opportunities that came about after the collapse of the USSR can be squarely blamed on Gorbachev and his inner circle, Zubok argues.

On 18 August 1991, just months after introducing liberal economic reforms that allowed private chains like Pizza Hut to begin buying into the USSR, communist hardliners began a coup. Gorbachev, they believed, was allowing the fruits of the workers to slip through his hands and, with growing discontent in the Baltics, risking the breakup of everything they had fought for.

After confining the Soviet premiere to his dacha in Crimea, the plotters took to the airwaves to reassure a growing number of concerned citizens that there was no putsch underway. “He simply needs to rest,” Gennady Yanayev, Gorbachev’s deputy and one of the lead plotters, insisted during a press conference, his hands shaking and appearing drunk. 

The plan failed, Gorbachev was flown back to Moscow, and, as Soviet Republics declared their independence from crisis-stricken Moscow, the Union had collapsed altogether by the winter.

The events reshaped the face of the world. But could they have been avoided? Zubok’s answer is an unabashed yes. The problem, he argues, was not so much that Gorbachev – intent on saving communism through modernisation – wanted to reform the USSR’s flagging economy or its diminished, but resilient political institutions, but that he got the timing wrong. 

For a decade and a half, the largest nation on earth had thrashed and bucked against any prospect of fundamental change until Gorbachev, overcoming the objections of its elite, took office. He was the man, he believed, who could save the Soviet Union.

Except he wasn’t. Instead of healing the disease at the heart of the Communist project, the “hapless captain’s” proposals were based on the wrong diagnosis. Some, like the partial prohibition of alcohol, made him deeply unpopular. Others sowed chaos in the vast, crystallised state-directed economy. 

And, all the while, he handed more and more power to regional officials – and even to the people themselves – with talk of devolution and democracy, enabling them to take action over this mismanagement from Moscow.

Nobody thanked Gorbachev for these new freedoms, and Zubok isn’t inclined to buck that trend. Had he pursued the same kind of authoritarianism and refusal to tolerate dissent that characterised the rule of many of his predecessors, he probably would have gotten away with making the liberalising economic reforms that were so sorely needed. 

By disrupting the basis of Soviet society – and then broadly tolerating the resulting dissent – Gorbachev inadvertently sealed the fate of the world’s largest political experiment once and for all.

It is hard to see how Zubok could be wrong on this front. And yet, it is only really half the truth. This is the history of great men, and some not-so-great, of personal ambitions and individual victories, where world-changing decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms. 

Little is said, however, of the shifts taking place in Soviet society at the time, save for how they influenced the new generation of leaders and dignitaries. Like the Pizza Hut patrons, he blames Gorbachev for it all and doesn’t for a second wonder if those around the table in the restaurant played any part.

The countless millions of people who had toiled for the Soviet dream learned to live with and adjust to its dysfunctionalities and its joys, who rang in the New Year in 1991 in a different nation to the one they started it in, they too all played a role in the collapse.

Yes, Gorbachev failed in his bid to star in the revitalisation of Communism, Yanayev fluffed his lines, and Boris Yeltsin pulled the curtain down on them all. But it was the audience who set the stage and, more often than not, drove the main actors to do what they did.

For this, though, other accounts are needed. Zubok, who watched the events unfold from afar at a liberal arts college in the US, has cutting insights on the “who” and the “what” and the “where” and the “when”. And yet, he sometimes struggles to explain the “why”.

Not in terms of which party official said what, or whose nose was put out of joint by which reform, but the undercurrents, the cultural shifts, the hopes, the shattered aspirations. The Soviet leadership was, in almost every way, very distant from the Soviet people. But they weren’t as distant from them as Zubok’s history is at times.