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Reagan and Gorbachev in Moscow: They managed to find a common language (photo: US Government)

As the Cold War recedes into our memories, myths are crystallising. One is that Mikhail Gorbachev, a humane and visionary man, ended it by peacefully dismantling the Soviet empire. Another is that Ronald Reagan, the greatest of freedom-lovers, rolled back Communism through his willpower and inspirational rhetoric.

Reality was a lot more complicated, and Robert Service’s masterly history of the end of the Cold War shows why. The story he depicts is of confusion, fear and misunderstanding, both within and between the two camps. Reagan was not the carefree cowboy of popular caricature, but a sensitive and thoughtful man who was overwhelmed with worry that nuclear war could destroy the planet. His Soviet interlocutors were rivals at the beginning, supplicants by the end. But they never fully realised that the system they were trying to reform was doomed.

The focus of the book is on arms control, and on the relations of the “big four”: Reagan and Gorbachev, and two exceptionally able foreign ministers, George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze. Service — one of Britain’s best historians of Russia — draws on archives, diaries, news accounts and other materials to flesh out their meetings, rows and dilemmas during the last years of the Cold War. Both sides knew the situation was unbearably perilous. Both knew it had to change. Both were constrained by their own propaganda, and the expectations of their own camps.

This creates a neat framework for a sprawling series of events. The Cold War was not just about mutually assured destruction and the division of Europe. It spilled over into every continent. The Soviet Union and the United States fought proxy wars on the ground, and blasted each other with propaganda. Each was convinced that the other was bent on its destruction. Yet in the space of five years, the new Soviet leadership and the Reagan White House found a common language and settled their differences.

I worked as a journalist covering Germany, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during those years and Robert Service’s book fills in many of the gaps in my memories and understanding of events. He portrays vividly the almost erotic relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet leader — both hating to be interrupted, but happily interrupting each other. He gives a powerful sense of the disputes in both the Kremlin and the White House: the scepticism among hardliners, the determination of both leaders to overcome seemingly insuperable difficulties, and the worries of allies. He has a good understanding of the power relationships involved. The United States did not quite realise how weak the Soviet Union had become. For their part the Soviet leadership was only beginning to discover the true failure of the planned economy.

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