Rethinking New Thinking

Russia and the Idea of the Westby By Robert D. EnglishColumbia Univ. Press. 401p $18.50 (paper).

Historians and political scientists endlessly debate the sources of change in human societies. What is more important in epochal transformation: ideas or institutions, personalities or power structures, material or intellectual motives? In the field of Russian studies, the end of the cold war and, in particular, the factors that led to Gorbachev’s foreign policy revolution (New Thinking) have been the subject of rigorous debate over these very questions. Much of the literature, however, has focused primarily on institutional or power-centered approaches that stress the impact of economic decline and the burden of the burgeoning arms race. Gorbachev’s New Thinking and his domestic reforms appear in these analyses as an improvised response to external problems.

In his recent work, Russia and the Idea of the West, Robert D. English, a professor of international relations at the Bologna Center of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, takes a refreshingly different approach by stressing the intellectual and ideological origins of Gorbachev’s New Thinking. English disagrees with interpretations that view New Thinking as primarily a reaction to crisis. According to his compelling analysis, Gorbachev’s foreign policy was the product of a transforming intellectual revolution that occurred within a community of reform-minded Westernizing élites after the death of Stalin. Working within new research institutes founded in the 1950’s and 1960’s, these embryonic New Thinkers would exert a profound influence on Gorbachev and the policies of the perestroika period.


Thus, for English, the key to understanding the end of the cold war lies in the critical interaction between ideas and leadership—the coexistence of specific conceptualizations of change and individual leaders ready to implement them. The Gorbachev Revolution, he argues, was not inevitable, nor was it inherently necessary. The Soviet Union was not in danger of immediate collapse, nor was there a popular revolution brewing on the horizon. According to English, it was the individual personality of Gorbachev as a leader, and his particular intellectual formation, that made the course of reform happen. Ideas, not material factors, shaped his particular response to the problems facing the U.S.S.R.

The aim of English’s study is to trace the roots of the ideas that influenced Gorbachev. Though the work is focused on political analysis, it is also a valuable study of Soviet intellectual and cultural history. English convincingly demonstrates the intricate connections between political change and human consciousness. He describes the structural changes that made knowledge about the West more accessible after the death of Stalin in 1953, and then shows the consequent intellectual transformation. The author focuses on academic and policy-making élites who were transformed by the intellectual and cultural thaw. Permitted new opportunities to gain information and insight into the West, these élites began to revise traditional Soviet conceptions of Europe and of national identity. They emphasized the necessity of cooperation rather than confrontation with the West, and the priority of universal human values. Above all, they developed a new sense of national identity that viewed the U.S.S.R, not as the leader of world Communist revolution, but as a member of the international community.

Begun in the wake of Khrushchev’s secret speech against Stalin in 1956, this critical rethinking of Soviet foreign policy continued through 1985, despite the reactionism of the Brezhnev period. English’s detailed examination of the intellectual ferment of the mid- to late-Brezhnev era powerfully refutes the widely accepted view of this period as one of “stagnation.” English argues that the 1960’s and 1970’s was the great period of fruition in New Thinking, for détente brought broader opportunities for international contacts and revisionist studies. Perestroika was the culmination of the reformist research and scholarship that détente fueled. Significantly, as English clearly demonstrates, since 1979 Gorbachev had been forging ties with Westernizing élites and conducting his own inquiries into various currents of reformist thought, particularly European social democracy. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he brought these liberal ideas and forces into the mainstream of Soviet policymaking and administration. The élites he promoted helped push Gorbachev during 1985-86 to commit himself fully to the goal of integration into the world community, which in turn led him to radicalize his domestic agenda toward democratization.

The research that went into this work is exhaustive. English’s study is well grounded in Western political science and history. Even more valuable is his extensive use of Russian sources, including the voluminous writings of the Soviet élites who stand at the center of his analysis. He personally conducted nearly 400 interviews with many of the key figures of the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras. Nonspecialists will particularly appreciate his interpretations of memoir literature—much of which has never been translated into English—in which he vividly and poignantly recreates the thoughts and experiences of Soviet élites as they achieved intellectual liberation from Stalinist views of the outside world.

The book’s main shortcoming lies in the failure to prove concretely that particular ideas or individuals had direct influence on the policies adopted. It is regrettable that the author devoted only one chapter to the perestroika period and covered in depth only the period from 1985 to 1986. Consequently he does not spend adequate time showing how specific steps in foreign policy stemmed from the arguments of the intellectuals discussed in earlier chapters. There is very little effort to demonstrate or document the exact connection between various élites and specific policies. Also, an over-reliance on memoir literature can be problematic in terms of historical verity and validity.

Despite such weaknesses, the work is highly commendable. Robert English takes a complex issue and makes it accessible to nonspecialists without sacrificing theoretical and empirical rigor. His rich and detailed account of Soviet intellectual development is fascinating and enjoyable to read, while his analysis makes a valuable contribution to debates over the origins of the Gorbachev Revolution. He convincingly refutes notions that Soviet society stopped rethinking its past, present and future after the end of the thaw in the mid-60’s. In addition, his book is evidence that any study of international relations and historical change cannot ignore the role of ideas and individual leaders. English’s work will, it is hoped, induce scholars to blend multiple analytical approaches—structuralist, materialist, intellectual, cultural—into a comprehensive study that reflects the true complexity of human nature and human society. Too often in the analysis of political change, human beings themselves get left out of the picture. English has done a masterful job of reinserting them, at least in the case of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.

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