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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Real, Lethal Morality Play

It is a testimony to the chilly, devastating allure of the grand old superpower myths that this scholarly account of the birth of the Cold War reads like a page-flipping thriller. The modern world's most lethal morality tale has every ingredient necessary for a precipitous narrative: a megalomaniac tyrant in Josef Stalin; viscous toadying bit-players in Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrenty Beria; comic relief in the fool Nikita Khrushchev and a bright new star of unimaginable proportions: the thermonuclear atomic bomb.

For those generations suckled on imminent, apocalyptic destruction, the drama never, for one second, lost its devastating topicality: "We learned to look out for the mushroom cloud," announce the authors of Inside the Kremlin's Cold War, Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov in their preface, "even before we learned to brush our teeth."

And now that the nuclear deadlock has been broken, the whole seductive story has been given an extra dimension: the hazy mist of nostalgia. After a decade of global chaos and international moral paralysis, a book about the Cold War is a plunge into the reassuring terrors of childhood. It is practically an invitation to break open the stockpile of tinned foods, douse yourself in a gallon of white emulsion, curl up in that cozy concrete bunker and get reading.

Drawing heavily on material from newly declassified Soviet archives, the book hopes to introduce what Mikhail Gorbachev was fond of calling "the human factor" into the events of 1945-1962. Much energy is spent detailing the startlingly rapid disintegration of the post-war alliance, destroyed by a combination of Stalin's own morbid suspicions (exacerbated by the American Bomb and the Marshall Plan), growing nervousness in the western camp of the Soviet monolith, and by what the authors have christened "the revolutionary-imperial paradigm."

This, they argue, was the ruling principle of much Soviet decision-making: a mixture of imperial ambitions along the country's borders and terrifying, revolutionary logic. "The first world war pulled one country out of capitalist slavery," was how Stalin explained his belligerent post-war stance to Khrushchev, "the second world war created a socialist system, and the third would put an end to imperialism once and for all."

Of course, by this time, the third world war was not going to leave much on the smoldering, Geiger-busting surface of the globe for either capitalism or communism to pick over, a fact that Khrushchev was one of the first to grasp. In one Sino-Soviet meeting, when Chairman Mao Tse-tung was expounding on the superior ground forces of the People's army, Khrushchev "tried to explain to him that one or two missiles could turn all the divisions of China into dust."

But this realization did not prevent the volatile, shoe-banging clown from a tiny village on the Russian Steppes who was afflicted by "a great lack of elementary culture" from pushing the entire world right to the limit, both during the Berlin Wall Crisis in 1961 and then again during the febrile brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis. The authors dub Khrushchev "the Nuclear Romantic," a designation that conveys his atomic savvy along with his rose-tinted Marxist fervor and his love affair with the youthful Cuban revolutionaries. The book also gives some wonderful examples of Khrushchev's delightfully volatile streak of caprice and confrontation, the primary reason why he was ousted in favor of the more stable and cringing Leonid Brezhnev. Among Khrushchev's many memorable provocations towards the West was his evocative claim that the Soviet Union would turn out missiles "like sausages on an assembly line."

Accounts of the Cold Warriors and their achievements are now bolstered for the first time with firm, enlightening documentary evidence: post-war think-tank reports on the future of the Soviet Union; Stalin's callous correspondence, including comments to Mao in 1951 that the "Koreans lose nothing, except their men."

The narrative tactic employed by Zubok and Pleshakov is simple and effective. First of all, they sketch in a overall outline of the main protagonists: Khrushchev the buffoon, Stalin the lonely "yellow-eyed" tyrant. Then the authors meticulously fill in the details, cataloguing the petty protocols, and the ranks of terrified, kowtowing underlings who kept the whole totalitarian machine running. These include figures like long-standing Soviet foreign minister Molotov, whose Marxist policy consisted of sitting and waiting for "contradictions" to arise in the capitalist camp; or the artistic pit-bull Andrei Zhdanov who was responsible for the half-century of aesthetic tyranny imposed on the Soviet Union which was called socialist realism.

The book focuses closely on KGB-chief Beria, the evil dwarf whose sexual predilections have become part of Soviet lore and who may have played a role in finishing off the ailing, incapacitated Stalin; and also on the baby-faced, inscrutable Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's wily henchman, who could have led the Soviet Union had he had the stomach for a bitter and protracted Kremlin power struggle.

But by far the most outstanding achievement of Zubok and Pleshakov's work is the way it manages to give an absorbing account not only of the "hard power" of political strategy but also the "soft power" of fear, suspicion, cowardice and stasis. Stupidity also had its own special place in the cold war hegemony. Equally remarkable was the penetration of Soviet spies -- Guy Burgess at the British Embassy in Washington, for example, would relay orders to Moscow before they even reached Truman -- and the Soviet leadership's ludicrous habit of ignoring much of the material, believing it to be disinformation from the enemy.

Despite being written in a monotonous, unhurried style which borders on the pedantic, and the author's infuriating tendency of being cursory at moments of high-tension, "Inside the Kremlin's Cold War" offers -- both to historians and to the lay generations who inherited the fear without the facts -- invaluable insights into the pervasive, simmering war that forged the dominant mindset of the latter part of the 20th century.

"Inside the Kremlin's Cold War" by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Harvard University Press, 264 pages, ?18.95 or $28.40.