1991, refracted — the next in the series of Russian history books I’m reading is David Pryce-Jones’s The War That Never Was, covering the last years of the Soviet Union. The author’s a combative and discursive sort, not quite to the point of condemning anything left to the dustbin, but eager (and rightly so, I think) to point out the extent to which wishful thinking and more contributed to a willful blindness to the horrors of the Soviet regime in its entirety, or even to its sheer grinding inefficiency and venality. He is no sparer of the right either, though — in fact is quite at ease excoriating many of those leaders and thinkers in the West during the Gorbachev years for short-sightedness, a tendency to jump to conclusions, failures to live up to rhetoric and more besides. Though written only four years after the collapse of the country in 1991, the book aims to see through a certain distance, a history that flows in several paths and in strange fits and starts, from the all-encompassing to the personal miniature, regarding so many of the chief actors as either unaware or unwilling to be aware of what might be happening, whether it was Gorbachev completely unable to see what his plans would result in or Bush’s hesistance in coming out in support of the Baltic republic’s revolts which led some in those countries to warn of ‘another Munich.’ The sense of artificial distance for a time I lived through, and saw only through the vein of Western media reports, makes it perversely more real to me, a chance to see things from a perspective I would not have had otherwise.

Two moments, so far at least, also make me think of the now. The first is the book’s opening paragraph:

What the whole world used to know as the Soviet Union died in 1991, and the fears and hopes of mankind accordingly shifted. The Soviet Union was Russia on the march, the last great empire with several hundred nationalities and a dozen once independent states in its grip. It was also a dictatorship, a secret police state, and finally an ideological construct as convinced of its truth as any religion. Communism, in the view of those who promoted it, was destined by nothing less than history to remodel human society everywhere in its image.

It would be stupid to draw exact parallels between the American imperium and a country where Stalin alone was ultimately responsible for something close to 100 million deaths, of course. But substitute a few words here and there and something close to a potential nightmare suggests itself — and lord knows the last sentence has had its own twist given by those now or recently up to follies over in the Middle East.

Which leads me to the other random discovery — the brief interview section with Richard Perle, one of the arch-constructors of the hollow edifice on which Iraq intervention had to base itself. In his role as Assistant Secretary of Defense during most of the eighties in America, though, he was involved in discussions with the USSR on questions of nuclear disarmament, or the lack thereof. Pryce-Jones had already been contemptuous elsewhere of the inability of the CIA to figure out the true state of things in the USSR, and clearly the question had been brought up to Perle in the interview for the book, leading among other things to this comment from Perle:

We now know from Russian testimony that we are seriously underestimated the total number of nuclear weapons in the country.

Did Perle try and communicate the lessons learned here to his compatriots in the White House and Pentagon here this time around, I wonder? And did he always assume that an enemy of America would be underestimating rather than overestimating the amount of such weapons? Did it occur to him that intelligence information is as prone to inflation as reduction?

A subject, perhaps, for another interview in another book.