H-Diplo Roundtable XVI, 22 on Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War

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H-Diplo Roundtable Review
Volume XVI, No. 22 (2015)
6 April 2015

Roundtable Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor:  George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas R. Maddux
Introduction by Thomas Maddux

Sergey Radchenko.  Unwanted Visionaries:  The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold WarNew York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  ISBN:  9780199938773 (hardcover, $34.95).

URL:  http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XVI-22


© 2015 The Authors.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Sergey Radchenko’s Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War does not have as a sub-title ‘An International History,’ which is a fairly common term in recent historically oriented studies on international relations.  Although the term is not particularly new, since the journal International History Review is in its thirty-seventh year of publication and the London School of Economics has departments in both International History and International Relations, an increasing number of centers and programs have emerged that focus on international studies.[1]  Radchenko’s focus differs from most of the studies of Soviet diplomacy in the 1980s in which in the main emphasis has been on the breakdown of détente and Moscow’s efforts to deal with President Ronald Reagan’s revival of cold-war diplomacy and Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt at the same time to revive the Soviet economy and reduce the burdens of the Cold War.[2]  Radchenko examines the failure of Gorbachev to achieve all of his most important objectives in Asia, most notably to end the long-term conflict with China and develop a new triangular relationship between the Soviet Union, India, and China in order to offset the United States’ position in Asia.  Without proclaiming his study as an international history, Radchenko has nevertheless produced animpressive example of the rewards of this type of study.  Despite the Soviet focus, the research is multi-archival, multi-lingual, and the major powers in Asia receive careful consideration with respect to their interaction from 1982 to 1991 with the greatest attention on the period after 1985.  China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and South Korea receive one or more chapters of analysis, and Afghanistan features in many of the chapters.  Asian leaders are not portrayed as ‘wooden figures’ serving as background actors as Gorbachev pursued his various initiatives.  Instead, Radchenko presents the perspectives of the policymakers who engaged with Gorbachev, such as Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, various Afghan and Vietnamese allies of Moscow, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and several South Korean leaders.  Chinese Communist party leader Deng Xiaoping receives extensive treatment since Deng was a major participant on almost every issue that Gorbachev dealt with in an effort to counteract the U.S. Radchenko covers the proposed triangle with India and China, Soviet efforts to resolve the conflict over the Vietnamese military domination of Cambodia, and the  negotiations of Soviet leaders to end the conflict with Japan over the contested Kurile islands, an issue extending back to the Soviet occupation of the islands in 1945. Gorbachev’s attempt to walk the tightrope between opening relations with South Korea without abandoning Moscow’s long-term relationship with North Korea highlights the difficulties hefaced in reorienting relationships without abandoning long-term cold-war ties.


The reviewers agree on the overall quality of Radchenko’s study and his impressive research.  As Nobuo Shimotomai notes, Radchenko makes use of his “multi-language skills” to explore the limited archival documents that are available, along with memoirs, published documents, and studies as well as interviews with some of the participants.  Gilbert Rozman points to Radchenko’s “superior scholarship” in “answering questions that have largely been left unsettled.  The most basic of these is one that few have asked:  Why did the Soviet Union not prioritize Asia and succeed in transforming relations there.”  David Wolff emphasizes that “insights abound for historians of China, India, Indochina, Japan, and Korea, but especially for those who want to understand how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a small team of advisors tried to change the USSR’s place in the world, starting from Asia, and ultimately failed.”  For Artemy Kalinovsky, Radchenko exhibits a superior ability to “flesh out the politics behind foreign policy initiatives as well as the complicated choreography and improvisation that goes into maintaining relations with allies and reaching out to adversaries.”


Radchenko’s development of Gorbachev’s reorientation of Soviet policy in Asia to achieve a new triangular relationship with India and China receives a very positive assessment from the reviewers.  He devotes the first chapter to the pre-Gorbachev beginnings of the Soviet effort to restore relations with China and more effectively compete with the U.S. in Asia, and two subsequent chapters detail Gorbachev’s unsuccessful effort to develop the triangular relationship although he did achieve normalization of relations with Deng Xiaoping in 1989.  Kalinovsky finds the chapter on India and its projected role in Gorbachev’s strategy “fascinating,” as Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi had a very warm personal relationship but the “Soviet Union had little to offer that India wanted, aside from being a counter weight to Pakistan.  Gorbachev wanted economic engagement, but New Delhi was interested primarily in arms.”  As Wolff stresses in his review, the Sino-Soviet relationship that engaged with all of the other countries covered by Radchenko is a most important core of the study.  The maneuvering by Gorbachev with Deng over the three conditions established by Deng for a normalization of Sino-Soviet relations -- Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s persuasion of the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia, and Gorbachev’s reduction of the Soviet military threat on the northern border-- plays out through the center of the book.  The reviewers agree with Radchenko that the normalization represented Gorbachev’s most impressive achievement in Asia and they also endorse Radchenko’s analysis of the manner in which Gorbachev abandoned the long-term treatment of China as a junior partner that was expected to follow Soviet leadership in the Cold War and in domestic policies.  Yet Radchenko also notes that cultural perspectives and biases are as important in the Sino-Soviet relationship as they are elsewhere in Asian power interactions.  As Rozman emphasizes, Radchenko’s explanations center on “national identity—at the time closely associated with ideology in the Soviet case.  We learn of moral superiority, great power obsessions, superpower delusions, failure to recognize another country as an equal, inflated expectations, and even national dignity.”  Deng and other Chinese leaders watched and discussed Gorbachev’s domestic reforms with increasing concern but, as Radchenko points out, Gorbachev did not pay close attention to Deng’s reforms and instead criticized Deng for his failure to carry out political reforms.  Why did Gorbachev and his advisers dismiss the Chinese example?  Radchenko notes a sense of Soviet exceptionalism and an attitude of lingering superiority as well as the belief that Gorbachev’s perestroika would transform not only the Soviet Union but also other nations. (177-179).  Kalinovsky also addresses this issue, noting that China had already initiated serious economic reforms in the late 1970s, and that Gorbachev dismissed the Chinese example.  “One wonders whether Gorbachev was soothing his own feelings when he said that the Chinese economy had run out of steam,” Kalinovsky suggests, “or whether it was the limits of Gorbachev’s own imagination that made him scoff at the idea of learning from the Chinese.”


The reviewers do express some reservations concerning Radchenko’s analysis.  Shimotomai notes new finds in Radchenko’s evaluation of the Soviet approach to Japan from Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s effort to negotiate a compromise on the disputed Northwest islands but also suggests that further analysis is needed on Soviet-Japanese discussions during 1988-90.  Wolff finds contradictions in Radchenko’s analysis of the role of the Vietnamese Cambodian situation in the Sino-Soviet relationship.  Why did Deng insist that Vietnamese evacuation from Cambodia be one of the requirements for an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations?  Wolff notes that Radchenko has Chinese security concerns about Vietnam and a desire to discipline “a revolutionary appendage and a vassal in the traditional East Asian tributary system” sitting “together on the same page”.  Did Deng really think Gorbachev could persuade the Vietnamese to withdraw or was Deng “just driving Sino-Soviet relations into an impasses until he was ready for the next step?” asksWolff.[3]  Although recognizing that he is asking too much for an already extensive international study, Kalinovsky concludes that a broader context that moves beyond “showing how individuals played their cards or lobbied their positions” would be informative.  What were the sources of the views of Soviet officials and did they understand the dynamics of the economic advances of the Asian countries and how ideas on development were shifting away from the “state-led models pursued by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan?”  Kalinovsky suggests that Gorbachev’s approaches seem more haphazard than contradictory—”a combination of trying to keep China at safe distance and draw on the economic successes of Japan and South Korea.  It makes his views on Europe look marvelously coherent, if still naïve.  Perhaps the Soviets did not know how to approach Asia as anything other than visionaries, elder brothers, or conquerors.”


Rozman raises questions about Radchenko’s title, “Unwanted Visionaries,” suggesting that Gorbachev, Deng, and President George H.W. Bush were “leaders short of vision … who often did not visualize Asia as it was and as it might have become.”  Instead, Rozman suggests that all leaders, including those in Japan and Korea, “appear unprepared for new vistas looming in front of them” and either over-confident “or striving for narrow advantage without a long-term, wide-ranging perspective.”  Rozman’s reference to Bush and his reservations about whether Radchenko “gets the United States right” suggests that U.S. specialists might question some aspects of this study.  Although the U.S. does not play a major role in the negotiations on which Radchenko focuses, Washington under the Reagan and Bush administrations was a major factor in Gorbachev’s strategy to normalize relations with China, South Korea, and Japan and weaken the United States’ cold-war alliances in Asia and its exploitation of the Sino-Soviet conflict.  Gorbachev initially was not attempting to end the Cold War in Asia; instead he was clearly trying to enhance the Soviet Union’s strategic position.  Japanese and South Korean leaders recognized this and along with Deng in China they maneuvered between the two cold-war competitors to advance their own interests.  Radchenko’s suggestive references to U.S. policy in Asia leave the field open for an international study of the U.S in Asia during the end of the Cold War.





Sergey Radchenko is reader in international politics at Aberystwyth University, Wales. His research interests include the Cold War and the history of Chinese and Soviet foreign relations. He is the author of Two Suns in the Heavens: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2009) and Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is currently working on a history of Chinese foreign relations since 1949. 


Artemy M. Kalinovsky is Assistant Professor of East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam and the author of A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the editor, with Sergey Radchenko, of The End of the Cold War and the Third World (Routledge, 2011) and with Craig Daigle of the Routledge Handbook of Cold War Studies (Routledge, June 2014). His current research focuses on Soviet development and modernization projects in Tajikistan.


Gilbert Rozman is the Emeritus Musgrave Professor of Sociology, Princeton University, and the editor of The Asan Forum. He received his BA from Carleton College, majoring in Chinese and Russian studies after spending a junior year at Princeton in the Critical Languages Program, and his Ph.D. from Princeton. His newest book is The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East vs. West in the 2010s (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014).


David Wolff is the author of To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914 (Stanford, 1999) / (Kodansha, 2014); He is also a former director of the Cold War International History Project and the author / co-author of two CWIHP working papers, one on Sino-Soviet relations in the 1940s-60s and the other on the 1960s-1980s. He is working on a monograph on Stalin’s postwar foreign policy to the East.


"In Europe we were hangers on and slaves, whereas we shall go to Asia as masters,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky – “In Europe we were Tartars, whereas in Asia we, too are Europeans.”[4] The great writer was talking about Russia’s growing empire in Central Asia, but the words came back to me as I read Sergey Radchenko’s excellent new book. At several points in Soviet history, leaders looked to the ‘east’, including China and India but also the colonial world more generally, to revitalize their own revolution. In the 1920s, Joseph Stalin looked to potential allies like Turkey, revolutionaries from India, and, of course, the Nationalists and Communists in China.[5] In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev looked again to India, Burma, and Afghanistan, hoping to bring a wider range of allies into the Soviet embrace by deemphasizing doctrinal purity and underlining a common cause in anti-imperialism and commitment to development. All of these attempts had a pragmatic as well as an ideological side – shoring up alliances and forming trade partnerships while spreading the revolution or at least building an anti-imperialist front. The Soviet Union approached these relationships from the vantage point of an ‘elder brother,’ an experienced European with wisdom and experience to impart. More often than not this attitude would breed resentment.


Unwanted Visionaries is the story of Moscow’s attempts in the 1980s to establish relationships in east and South Asia that would help end the USSR’s post-1979 isolation and pursue domestic reform. It is an ambitious book that only someone with Radchenko’s unique linguistic abilities and tireless capacity for research would even attempt. Although using Russian archival sources as the book’s foundation, Radchenko makes good use of Chinese, Indian, and other published and unpublished sources, as well as interviews with former officials to flesh out the politics behind foreign policy initiatives as well as the complicated choreography and improvisation that goes into maintaining relations with allies and reaching out to adversaries. This allows him to tease out fascinating, almost ethnographic detail from what might otherwise have been dry accounts of diplomatic meetings. While Radchenko does not make a concerted attempt to analyze diplomacy in cultural terms, he is clearly sensitive to the way that long-held biases and perceptions help shape foreign policy. Finally, without setting out to write about ‘cultural diplomacy’ he nevertheless weaves a number of fascinating episodes into his narrative – as when the Soviets made use of Soviet Koreans as part of their outreach to the Republic of Korea during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, recalling earlier efforts to use the ‘Sons of Muslims’ to advance Moscow’s policies in the Middle East.[6]


Among the most fascinating chapters for me was the one on India and its place in Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s vision for Asia. As Radchenko explains, India had leaned towards the Soviet Union many times during the Cold War. In the early 1980s, it was one of the few major countries whose relationship with Moscow did not deteriorate as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gorbachev sought to capitalize on this by expanding economic and military ties and trying to formulate a ‘USSR-China-India’ triangle. The camaraderie between Gorbachev and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi belied a bigger problem: the Soviet Union had little to offer that India wanted, aside from being a counterweight to Pakistan. Gorbachev wanted economic engagement, but New Delhi was interested primarily in arms. The idea of a strategic triangle seemed to convince no one. With Moscow pulling out of Afghanistan, Rajiv Gandhi was left desperately looking for ways to keep the Soviets militarily engaged in the region. India had been among the first countries with which Nikita Khrushchev engaged when he ‘discovered’ the Third World, and there is something almost pathetic about the way this relationship fizzled out.


If the book finds a publisher in Russia (and I hope it will), readers there may well turn straight to the sections on Soviet-Chinese relations. Debating the reasons that the USSR did not follow the Chinese path to reform, either from the point of view of lamentation or rejoicing, is a frequent past-time in Russia. Radchenko shows quite clearly that the reform-minded Gorbachev seemed to feel little reason to learn from the Chinese experience. Instead, he thought the Chinese would instead learn from him. This may have been a case of maintaining his status as a ‘visionary reformer’ among his political constituency first and foremost, but in any case it warrants further examination. Considering that China had embarked on serious economic reforms already in the late 1970s, one wonders whether Gorbachev was soothing his own feelings when he said that the Chinese economy had run out of steam or whether it was the limits of Gorbachev’s own imagination that made him scoff at the idea of learning from the Chinese.


Indeed, this brings me to one of the few things I really missed in the book. Radchenko is at his best in showing how individuals played their cards or lobbied their positions, but I often found myself wishing for broader context. How were ideas about these countries and regions formed? Did the various institutes that had been set up or expanded to study these regions play a role in officials’ worldview? Did particular groups within the foreign policy elite have a particular way of looking at the parts of the world that the book engages? Similarly, it is not always clear how Soviet leaders who went to South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan understood the source of those countries’ economic achievements and technological innovations.  Finally, it would have been useful to place this history in a broader context of how ideas about development were changing in the 1980s. It was not just the Soviet developmental model that had lost its cachet (as the relationship with India showed) - the state-led models pursued by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in earlier years were also being edged out by the ‘Washington consensus.’ This kind of exploration would also have given us more of a sense of how these different cases are tied together. For all the lofty rhetoric, Gorbachev’s approaches to the different Asias seem not so much contradictory but haphazard – a combination of trying to keep China at safe distance and draw on the economic successes of Japan and South Korea. It makes his views on Europe look marvelously coherent, if still naïve. Perhaps the Soviets did not know how to approach Asia as anything other than visionaries, elder brothers, or conquerors. If that is the case it goes a long way to explaining the difference between the way policy towards Europe and the U.S. developed and what we see in Radchenko’s account.


It is probably asking too much of one book to take on all these issues, however. Ultimately, Radchenko broke much new ground with his research. Anyone interested in the way Soviet and Russian relations with South and East Asia evolved in the 1980s and 1990s will be obliged to turn first to this fine book for years to come.



Sergey Radchenko’s book is a groundbreaking contribution to international relations no less than to historical scholarship. Its methods are exemplary. Its findings are significant in filling vital gaps in knowledge, and it has far-reaching relevance to issues that resonate deeply today as well as to our understanding of how the twentieth century ended in Asia. Whether or not one agrees with an implicit argument about how the Cold War could have ended differently, leading to a more positive international environment today, this volume will be of undeniable value in what is likely to be a deepening debate over that question.


The book is constructed on a foundation unusual in studies of international relations in the Asia-Pacific region: 1) in-depth understanding of internal thinking in the countries of the region, while excluding the United States as a primary subject; 2) parallel analysis of how both sides in a bilateral relationship kept responding to each other; and 3) clear-eyed recognition of the frequently shifting context as the two sides experienced ups and downs in their pursuit of a breakthrough. Taking momentous developments centered on General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s impact as the starting point, this book clarifies what occurred and, more importantly, why it occurred, enabling not only rethinking of this critical period in recent history but also fresh insights into how we continue to wrestle with the unfinished agenda of the period.


Of eight chapters, two cover Sino-Soviet ties, three more center on Soviet-Japanese ties, and one is devoted to Soviet-South Korean relations. The others treat Gorbachev’s vision for Asia with India given a prominent place, and present an analysis of Vietnam’s policy toward Cambodia with the Soviet Union in the background. In assessing the contributions of this book, I draw on my own research on Sino-Soviet and Soviet-Japanese relations in the 1980s, mostly conducted during that period. Also, I reflect on Soviet-South Korean relations, which I have been examining since the 2000s. In this review, I lack space to go through each of these bilateral relations and identify   any new contributions that have been made, but my general comments are informed by awareness of how valuable material can be found throughout this book by those who are prepared to dig deeply. I conclude with broader reflections on the book, omitting Vietnam, which I have not researched. My principal objective is to identify what Radchenko has contributed that is new and discuss its likely impact on scholarship, especially for those who recognize bilateral ties to be the building blocks of international relations studies. For those who do not, this may be an eye-opener.


Radchenko starts from what many who study international relations might consider a radical proposition: scholarship should be based on maximum access to potentially useful sources (archival, secondary, interview, etc.) in all relevant languages. This principle was particularly missing in the study of Sino-Soviet relations, in part due to the difficulty of gaining access to information as well as frequent dissemination of misinformation. Given Radchenko’s success in overcoming obstacles that had seemed insurmountable to others without his dogged determination, readers interested in any of the bilateral relations he covers will find it remarkable how much new information and insight he has presented. One sees little of the deductive, assumption-driven analysis common in the literature.


Another indication of superior scholarship is the analytic thrust for answering questions that have largely been left unsettled. The most basic of these is one that few have asked: Why did the Soviet Union not prioritize Asia and succeed in transforming relations there during the decade following Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s April 1982 Tashkent speech? Responses that charge Gorbachev with not appreciating the importance of Asia are refuted in this book. Simplistic answers will not be found here, as the Introduction demonstrates with a well-rounded overview of how a great many factors came together to foil his intentions.


The title is rather misleading, since it refers to visionaries who failed to be appreciated, whereas in chapter after chapter we learn of leaders who were short of vision, including Gorbachev, who often did not visualize Asia as it was and as it might have become. Falling far short in this coverage too is President George H.W. Bush, who is viewed as blinded by his way of thinking about Asia. When juxtaposed with North Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and even South Korean leaders, whose nordpolitik likewise does not rate as a vision, all leaders appear unprepared for new vistas looming in front of them, either allowing their ‘G-2’ overconfidence to impair their judgment, or striving for narrow advantage without a long-term, wide-ranging perspective. Although the book does not often explicitly weigh the success of different international relations theories, its emphasis on the consciousness of leaders and those who advised them supports a constructivist approach. Indeed, critiques of illusions (of grandeur?) point to the impact of national identities. Gorbachev’s illusion that rapid convergence was possible through radical democratization led to chaos in Russia’s national identity as well as impotence in international relations, we are told. 


Chapter one is the most convincing analysis available on what the Sino-Soviet-U.S. strategic triangle really was, including domestic struggles over strategic adjustments, bilateral ups and downs in a triangular context, and novel explanations for why things turned out the way they did. Few have approached the mid-80s, after normalization talks began between Moscow and Beijing, as the heyday of triangularity, but Radchenko shows readers that this period deserves much closer scrutiny for its dynamism and also missed opportunities. This first chapter sets the tone for subsequent chapters that probe internal discussions of bilateral relations as new policies were being considered in the context of the other side’s initiatives and responses, which Radchenko frames in a broader context of later results.


Chapter eight is a reminder that ongoing negotiations under Russian President Vladimir Putin and Shintaro Abe, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, have striking parallels not only with the ‘countdown to 2000’ in 1997-2000, when there was much Japanese hype about the breakthrough to normalization within sight, but also to the run-up to the ‘cherry blossom summit’ in 1991, when Gorbachev went to Japan almost empty-handed after rampant speculation of a deal for four islands. I drew heavily at the time on Japanese newspapers and journals that exaggerated the prospects to show what a ‘rising superpower’ wanted from a ‘declining’ one. Writing a book of lost opportunities, Kazuhiko Togo later detailed the inside story of diplomacy during and beyond the 1990-91 period, noting repeated disconnects between officials handling the talks and politicians.[7] Radchenko tells a familiar story of avoidance of diplomats, reliance on back channels, competition over who would get credit for an illusory one-sided success, trade-offs between financial clout in Japan and urgent Russian needs, and, ultimately, bulldozer tactics that ignored Russian pride and were met with prolonged procrastination. He fills a gap, using Russian archives, to reveal the inside story of procrastination while capturing the back-and-forth of what turned out to be just one rendition of a refrain heard repeatedly over a quarter century.


Looking at Chapters two through ten as a group, we find explanations centered on national identity--at the time closely associated with ideology in the Soviet case. We learn of moral superiority, great power obsessions, superpower delusions, failure to recognize another country as an equal, inflated expectations, and even national dignity. Under Radchenko’s microscope of careful documentation, policies masquerading as realist emerge instead as old thinking slow to respond to the contradictions that increasingly overwhelmed them. We also learn of the difficulty for many countries of conceptualizing an emerging region in Asia, with Russia in the forefront as a country that overvalued its place in Asia just as Gorbachev sought to reinvent his country as an Asian power. In the epilogue parallels are discussed between the 2010s and 1980s, as Putin repeated some of Gorbachev’s errors in Asia even as many suppose that he was revolting against them. A common thread runs through this volume.


Gorbachev’s leadership shortcoming in keeping with Russian leaders of other times is to have repeatedly overestimated his country’s role in Asia. Big gestures were soon exposed as having only marginal impact. The result in the 2010s is a Russia with an insignificant and receding presence and still no suitable vision of its place in Asia, geographically rooted in the vast Russian Far East that is invisible in its population and economy. Indeed, the economic shadow of Russia in Asia is dwarfed by tiny Hong Kong’s shadow. This is one message of the book centered on Russia, but there are many others with much wider significance.


The bulk of the analysis is specific to developments in a narrow time span, but there is a subtext apparent especially in the concluding sections of chapters implying a broader argument. It starts with short-sighted and indecisive leadership, notably Gorbachev who could not make up his mind but also t George H.W. Bush, who is faulted for not being willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Il-song. The implication is that the Cold War could have ended differently with a greater likelihood of resolving lingering tensions. The argument leads to the suggestion that the sprouts of a new Cold War can be found in the way the old one culminated.


Radchenko sees normalization with China as Gorbachev’s No. 1 achievement in Asia. If it was overshadowed by the breakthrough in Soviet-U.S. relations, its momentum proved to be much greater into the twenty-first century. By not stopping with the early 1990s, and therefore not artificially separating one decade from the longer term trends, he is able to show that the immediate outcome of the end of the Cold War gave many a misleading impression of the import of developments during the Gorbachev era. As other bilateral breakthroughs proved to be ephemeral or illusionary, the seeming breakdown of Beijing-Moscow normalization in the first part of the 1990s turned into a gathering force for far-reaching coordination and mutual understanding on how to reconstruct the international order. Eschewing realist analysis, which is often heavily deductive on the basis of unsubstantiated thinking about a country’s national interests, Radchenko delves into the frustration of dashed expectations in showing how Russia, above all, would continue its quest for satisfaction in searching for a place in Asia. Japan, South Korea, and India were all found wanting. That left only China as the partner of choice, although the delays he documents in the 1980s in finding a way to consummate this natural marriage between two countries steeped in the logic of communist great power national identities are a critical part of the story of the 1980s.


The implicit framework of the book for interpreting what might have been in the 1980s, and suggesting parallels in the 2010s with worrisome consequences, remains too vague to evaluate carefully, although it is too conspicuous to overlook as one soaks up the nuggets of new information throughout the book. The absence of the United States from most of the coverage has the virtue of keeping the spotlight on the intense diplomatic interactions between the states in the region, but when Radchenko shifts to the big picture he leaves doubt, at least in my mind, that he gets the United States right. While he provides an apt corrective to realist deductions, there are at times, as in treatment of North Korea, when a clearer realist perspective would have deepened the analysis. Even more of an issue is the challenge of reaching beyond numerous pithy observations linked to national identity to a systematic framework for incorporating identity in more than an ad hoc manner. Yet, readers are unlikely to be much concerned about these tangential elements when before them stands an imposing record of the evolution of inter-Asian bilateralism in a pivotal decade. This is more than a careful chronicle of the times. It is a balanced explanation of how these bilateral diplomatic exchanges proceeded and why they ended as they did. In essence, considering the decisive role of Gorbachev in launching the transformation of geopolitics in Asia in the late twentieth century, this book serves as the starting point for grasping how international relations in Asia turned from narrow bilateral diplomacy to the search for a regional framework in which multilateralism had risen to the fore.



Sergey Radchenko’s Unwanted Visionaries is one of the best books on the history of perestroika and the Cold War in East Asia. Russian political scientist Andranik Migranyan said that for Russians it is not easy to be European when pro-Atlantic and European-oriented policy was pursued in 1989.[8] This author at that time commented that it is all the more difficult for Russians to be ‘Asian.’ In retrospect, there was optimism in the beginning of the perestroika period that the new Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) leader Mikhail Gorbachev would approach Asia, especially Japan, to give momentum to his efforts to renovate the Soviet Union. Professor Archie Brown of Oxford was vocal on this point by 1985.[9] The appointments of such reformers such as Aleksandr Yakovlev to the Central Committee Department and then to the Politburo were regarded as symptomatic of such a tendency, when the 26th Congress of the CPSU took place. At that time some analysts also noticed that innovative Oriental experts like Nodali Simonia and Evgenii Primakov who was Director of IMEMO (the Institute of World Economy and International Relations) had moved into leadership roles. Without a conceptual revolution on the changing global tendencies, reform of the Soviet system was impossible. Without taking into account Asian changes like the rise of ‘Asian tigers,’ emerging economic powers like Singapore, and increasing role of Japan, Soviet reform would have failed in 1980s. Gorbachev’s new CPSU program characterized ‘three centers of imperialism,’ referring to the rise of Japan at that time.


However, following six years of Perestroika, all the hopes of changing relations with Asian countries from China, Korea, and Japan turned to be half-illusions. On the contrary, the Soviet Union collapsed, in its wake leaving intact the poor and peripheral Russian Far East intact. As Radchenko puts it, Russia now is a dwarf in Asia even to this day, though Russian leader Vladimir Putin wants to drastically shift to the east. Why it has this happened yet?


With his multi-language skills, Radchenko has significant advantages in addressing the tragic end of Gorbachev’s eastern drive, by conducting interviews and using the multi archival documents and memoirs that became available after the end of the USSR. Researchers of Asian cold-war history have been handicapped, compared with the European cold-war historians, by reluctant, tardy, and even hostile openings of the national archives of the related countries. To say nothing of the Chinese Communist Party documents; even Japanese and South Korean official archives have limited access, because of the still ongoing Korean-War or Peace-Treaty negotiations. The Soviet documents were abundantly used for research of the western cold war sphere, especially in the 1990s. Russian archives became difficult to use for Asian experts, especially following the Putinist restrictions in 2000s. Still, some important documents emerged, especially on the Korean War and Chinese communist documents from the former Soviet archives. Memoirs of such prominent persons like Gorbachev’s aides like Georgii Shakhnazarov, Anatolii Chernyaev, Karen Brutents, and Mikhail Kapitsa and other diplomats and experts became available. Even Bulgarian or East German archives are of use. Thus, the time was ripe for Asian cold war experts to write comparative analyses of the success and failure of Gorbachev on the Asian fronts.


Rather than beginning his narrative from 1985, the conventional starting point, Radchenko begins in1982, when the CPSU leader Leonid Brezhnev began a shift to reconcile with post-Mao Chinese leaders, hoping to end another Asian cold-war confrontation at Tashkent. The Asian cold war configuration had been multi polarized from the 1970s, when the US Nixon-Kissinger team had reconciled with Maoist China. This marked sharp contrast with European theater where bipolarity was salient. Thus it was natural for the Soviet Union to begin with China. This multi-polarity, especially the rise of China, along with Japanese economic rise, was the core of the Asian cold war in 1970s, and was a specific space in which Moscow could cultivate new relationships with Beijing and Tokyo (310). Still Deng Xiaoping, leader of China’s Communist Party (CCP) was also a rival with Mikhail Gorbachev for innovative leadership among the Communist world. Gorbachev began his reformist approach with political reforms, whilst Deng, though innovative on economic modernization, was conservative on politics and stuck to communist hegemony. This difference between the two approaches was exacerbated and culminated in the tragic Tiananmen Incident in China in 1989, just after the official visit of the leader of perestroika to Beijing.


Another finding of Radchenko includes a new Soviet approach to Japan before the start of perestroika. Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko had wanted to change Soviet policy towards Japan in May 1983, to counter President Ronald Reagan’s policy, by compromising on the dispute over offshore islands in what Japan calls the ‘Northwest Territories,’ a dispute that had persisted since the end of World War II.  Gromyko proposed to return to Japan Habomai and Kunashir and other ‘trivial islands’ (60). This may have led to a reappraisal of the role of the Andropov-Gromyko period, though the episode ends with the KAL 007 incident, the downing of the Korean airliner by a Soviet jet in 1983, which sharply froze the Asian political climate. Still it was Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone who wanted to break the ice, by attending the funeral ceremony of CPSU leader Konstantin Chernenko. Newly appointed Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze also tried to open issues. Still the long-awaited Vladivostok speech by Gorbachev in August 1986 was global and grandiose, but rather pointless with respect to Japan. Thus Radchenko writes that the results of Gorbachev’s and Shevardnadze’s initial approach turned out to be minimal. The Toshiba incident (79-85) which involved the illegal sale of robotic milling machines to make extra quiet ship screws by Toshiba Machine to Moscow, and the ensuing tension between Tokyo and Washington, “had very damaging ripple effects for Soviet-Japanese relations” (84). The stalemate between Tokyo and Moscow continued.


The Korean peninsula was an awkward place for the Russians; it had originated in a hot Korean war and eventual odd alliances. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung also wanted to exploit a new chance during the initial stages of perestroika (200), but soon turned hostile to Gorbachev’s perestroika project as it challenged traditional communist authoritarianism. South Koreans, in its turn, genuinely benefited from Gorbachev’s project, especially during the Seoul Olympic of 1988 and eventual recognition by Moscow. This marks a sharp contrast with Japanese relations, where the tardy Liberal Democratic Party politicians, Shintaro Abe and Ichiro Ozawa among others, tried to use the chance for a settlement with Moscow, though the time for negotiation had passed by 1990. Some reservations remain, however, on Radchenko’s understanding of the Japanese domestic side of the story. Famous plan by economists Stanislav Shatalin and Grigorii Yavlinskii to turn the Soviet Union into a capitalist economy in 500 days and the role of Japan in the discussions needs further illustration (274-285), but this does not detract from overall failure of Tokyo-Moscow exchanges.


Radchenko’s book deserves reading, especially when Moscow again seeks a new pivot to Asia, following the crisis in Ukraine. It was not easy for them to be ‘European,’ but it remaines to be seen how the Russians will cope with being ‘Asian’ again.



Sergey Radchenko’s Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (Oxford, 2014) soars above the competition, delivering the first regional history of the ‘end of the Cold War’ in East Asia, from early 1980s to 1991. The multiple international perspectives, the insider atmosphere from a dozen Cold War capitals, and the mastery of the available late Soviet materials make this monograph a must-read for all with an interest in the history of Soviet relations with Asia as well as those who wish to understand the limits of the possible for contemporary Russia on the Pacific. Insights abound for historians of China, India, Indochina, Japan, and Korea, but especially for those who want to understand how Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a small team of advisors tried to change the USSR’s place in the world, starting from Asia, and ultimately failed. The way in which they failed created the means for their own removal from power. Since then they have had much time and ample opportunity to present their views on how it all happened and to submit their evidence in diaries and documents to the court of history. Radchenko has labeled them somewhat sympathetically as the “unwanted visionaries,” but it should be noted that everyone who shared even a moment of Gorbymania partook of their opium.


Chapters on Japan, Vietnam, China, and Korea do for all of them what has not been done in English for even one up to now, tracing the ups and downs of the Gorbachev team’s dealings with Asia. Starting from the late 1970s, Radchenko colorfully spends five chapters to tell the regional pre-history of Sino-Soviet normalization, clarifying how Gorbachev’s summit with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in May 1989 built on the initiatives taken by his immediate three predecessors in the previous decade to complete a Soviet ‘pivot to Asia’ in the hope of changing the whole Eurasian balance of power in Russia’s favor.  This issue remains live, ‘Foggy Bottom’s’ worst nightmare, as Soviet leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping continue to perform the dance steps first traced by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. In Radchenko’s book it is Deng and Gorbachev on stage.


Of all the countries covered in this book, it is only China that has existential meaning for Russia (and vice versa), so I want to say something about their leaders’ mutual (mis)perceptions as here portrayed. I am hesitant to accept Deng’s evaluation of Gorbachev as an “idiot” (177) at face value. More likely, as Radchenko indicates, Deng realized presciently (like a trained Marxist) that only one of them could be proven right by history (174, 179). After all, Gorbachev had risen to the position where Deng would receive him in Beijing to normalize relations, although he had not considered doing this with any of Gorbachev’s predecessors. For a brief moment they could stand together, but the judgment of socialist history would only leave one of the reformist contenders standing.


Furthermore, the “idiot” evaluation can be questioned on evidentiary grounds, since the fact that Deng’s son let ‘slip’ his father’s derogatory opinion in a late-1990 casual conversation with a high-ranking American Embassy official (Ezra Vogel, Deng, 802fn.1) suggests more of an attempt to calm American fears aboutSino-Soviet rapprochement than an actual evaluation of the ideological rival. By 1990, as Radchenko points out, the Chinese leadership was uniformly negative on Gorbachev’s “stupid” policies. (182-187) Deng, we know, was also concerned about backsliding on Chinese economic reforms in 1990-1991, but did not move decisively against it until the 1992 Southern Tour of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai. In short, the “idiot” comment seems to be more appropriate for a discussion of 1990 (187) than 1987 (177). We must await the availability of additional Chinese materials to settle this debate.


As for Gorbachev’s astounding inability to appreciate Deng’s/China’s reforms, Radchenko seems to blame megalomania and stereotyping (179). Of course, once we consider racism as a reason for Soviet failures in China, the blackening brushstroke can be broadened to cover all of the USSR’s East Asian foreign policy, providing an all-too-easy explanation for any and all missteps. As a historian, I am uncomfortable with psychologizing as a substitute for documentary evidence, even when dealing with the complexities of leaders from non-democratic countries where one is not required to make explicit one’s foreign policy reasoning. But Radchenko’s evidence is damning: Gorbachev gives only one line to China buried deep in the middle of his 1987 blockbuster Perestroika and New Thinking. (177)


The final three chapters of Radchenko’s book cover the secretive steps towards Soviet-Korean normalization and the failed last-minute attempt by Japanese politicians to get around their own Foreign Ministry to complete a deal to recover the disputed ‘Northern Territories,’ while Gorbachev was broke enough to need the Japanese billions, but still strong enough to stomach the nationalistic reaction to ‘selling’ territory. Ironically, it may have been the distraction of Korean normalization that delayed the Japanese initiative until it was too late. In hindsight, we can see that the last opportunity for a deal had ticked away in spring 1990, dooming the ultimate bearer of the Japanese offer, Ozawa Ichiro, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, to failure.


The book is empirically too rich to cover blow-by-blow, but let me give a sense of both its strengths and weaknesses with two illustrations. The first chapter, covering the late 1970s and early 1980s, has many fly-on-the-wall memorable moments from all over the Soviet bloc: Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko warning the West against cozying with the Chinese; Hungarian reports on the Soviet export control regime vis a vis China, a whole second front in the Cold War; Leonid Brezhnev remembering that elder Soviet statesman Anastas Mikoyan was least liked by the Chinese leaders and would be “boiled alive” (13) if caught; Mikhail Kapitsa, Gromyko’s Deputy, warning the Mongolians away from the Chinese path, evoking the image of tanks in the streets, either Prague revisited or Tiananmen to come; Oleg Rakhmanin using the Moscow Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party clout to make Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany, follow Soviet policy towards China until Gorbachev’s adviser Anatolii Cherniaev’s back-corridors victory over the veteran China-hand Rakhmanin. Such aides as Cherniaev and Aleksandr Iakovlev, whose papers also figure importantly in this story, are the very ‘unwanted visionaries’ of which the title speaks and the twenty years during which the Gorbachev team has told and retold their successes and failures is the core of this book that goes much further than ever before to illuminate the most recent history of a dozen countries.


That said, on some of the trickier issues, Radchenko’s thinking seems to embrace contradictions. Elements of Chapters 4 and 5 provide examples. These are probably the core chapters of the book, covering the Sino-Soviet relationship and the role the continuing Indochina conflicts played in it. Americans tend to assume that that war ended in 1975 when the last American left Saigon on those photogenic helicopters lifting off from the U.S. Embassy roof. But actually there were still millions of casualties to be reaped in that sad corner of the world, even without American participation. Sino-Soviet proxy wars and Kampuchea’s Khmer Rouge with leader Pol Pot’s virulent anti-urban bias was enough for that. Radchenko, with only minor exaggeration, describes the Cambodian situation as “infinitely complicated,” (129) but seems less sure about Chinese motivations in insisting that Vietnamese evacuation from Cambodia must be a condition of Sino-Soviet relations. Did the Chinese have “good reason for their security concerns” or was tension escalating to conflict more a matter of disciplining “a revolutionary appendage and a vassal in the traditional East Asian tributary system.” The ideological and security explanations sit uncomfortably together on the same page. (127)


And did Deng, who was quite experienced in dealing with the war-hardened Vietnamese (see Cold War International History Project Working Paper #22 on “77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the War in Indochina, 1964-1977”[10]), really think that the Soviets could have decisive political influence regarding the occupation of Cambodia by wielding aid as a weapon? Or was he just driving Sino-Soviet relations into an impasse until he was ready for the next steps?  In any case, Soviet politicians, whether visionaries or not, understood that the Vietnamese would do what they wished. Radchenko takes us inside Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s entourage through the diary of Shevardnadze’s aide Teimuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze, now available at the Hoover Institution Archive, to expose the contradiction: “The logic is elementary. If we feed and clothe the Vietnamese, then it must obey us. And if it obeys us, why can’t we tell it: leave Cambodia?... It turns out we can’t. It turns out, it does not obey us that much after all. It turns out that our aid does not weigh so much on the scales of its security” (138).  In the end, we are left with the impression that it was the Soviets who were frustrated rather than Deng being overcome by his daunting regional security challenges. The Vietnamese had proven to Gorbachev, as they had earlier to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, that they had their own ‘rationality’ to follow to victory.


What emerges from this tangle is the suggestion that maybe it was not Afghanistan that was the USSR’s Vietnam, as often claimed, but Vietnam itself? At times, as we see, it is hard to make complete sense of this ‘first cut’ of history, where many of the documents, especially in document-shy Asia, are still unavailable, but there are exciting discoveries to be made on every page of this 383-page book, not least in the 54 pages of illuminating endnotes. Radchenko is to be congratulated on this achievement that will not be surpassed for a long time to come, although we can expect hundreds of articles to build on the insights he has generously provided. This will be a much-cited volume.


Oxford University Press has done a very solid job with the editing and printing, but, and it is a big but, it is indefensible that there are no parenthetical expressions of the nature “Notes to Pages xxx to yyy” at the top of the endnote pages guiding the reader back and forth between the text and its supporting notes. This practice should be standard by now, as it is a boon for serious scholars. Perhaps this oversight can be corrected in the paperback edition.



I would like to thank the distinguished reviewers, Artemy Kalinovsky, Gilbert Rozman, Nobuo Shimotomai, and David Wolff, both for their praise of my humble contribution to scholarship, and for their insightful and thought-provoking comments. This brief rejoinder will not do justice to the complexity of the questions raised by the reviewers; the book itself raises more questions than answers. David Wolff kindly notes that it soars above the competition but the fact is that there is no competition. For all the historiography on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War, there is practically nothing – apart from a few country case-studies – that would closely scrutinize his policy towards Asia. Gilbert Rozman’s earlier work provided a useful reference point, as did studies by Elizabeth Wishnick, Nobuo Shimotomai, Togo Kazuhiko, and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, among others.[11] On the whole, though, I felt like a speleologist in a gigantic cave, attempting to shed a bit of light on a forest of mighty stalagmites with a 3-volt flashlight.


The blessing of the exercise is that anything that sparkled under scrutiny appeared new, tantalizing, and mystifying. The downside is that the overall picture remains hazy, uncertain, and, in some respects contradictory. Some of these contradictions were spotted by the reviewers; others remain buried in what I promise is a rewarding, and very engaging story of high political drama, diplomacy, and espionage. Before I consider the reviewers’ points in the detail, let me restate the basic message of the book.


For the Soviet Union – as for the Russian Empire before it – being seen as an Asian, as well as a European, power was central to the notion of being recognized (by the West, of course) as a ‘great power.’ In the nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia sought to compensate for its weakness in Europe by projecting its imperial might in Asia. The Bolsheviks, too, saw Asia as an important area for the exercise of global leadership, and, after the Second World War, a target of competition with imperialism. The Soviet leaders from Joseph Stalin to Gorbachev did not just see the Soviet Union as an Asian power but as the leading Asian power, equal to none, an agenda setter. This mode of engagement with Asia – perhaps not as a ‘master’ as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had put it, but as something of an ‘elder brother’ – underpinned the Soviet approach to Asia and to the entire developing world all the way through the 1980s.


One would expect Gorbachev to have taken exception to this view, and he did – to some extent. The book shows that it was precisely his willingness to treat China as a ‘great power’ that served as the key precondition for Sino-Soviet rapprochement, even though the foundation of this rapprochement was laid in the late Brezhnev years, and it was mainly related to perceptions in Beijing and Moscow of the policies of the Reagan Administration. Nevertheless, Gorbachev still saw Asia mainly as an arena of superpower competition and strove to seize leadership by advancing sweeping initiatives that would align Asian players behind the Soviet Union in the global Cold War. Central to his approach was the notion of the Soviet Union-China-India triangle, which he unsuccessfully but presciently pursued until practically the end of his tenure.


The reality, however, was that by the 1980s the Soviet Union had very little to offer Asia. The Soviet developmental model – as tested in client states like Vietnam and Mongolia – did not work. Chronic underdevelopment of Soviet Siberia and the Far East stood in sharp contrast with glitter and prosperity of some of Asia’s most advanced economies. For generations, Moscow perceived itself as a prophet of modernity for the developing world. By the 1980s, this Soviet modernity was hopelessly outdated – not only in Europe but, as Dostoevsky would have been horrified to learn – in Asia as well. The only thing that helped Moscow maintain a semblance of great power status in Asia was its overstretched military presence. Once Gorbachev moved to disengage the Soviet Union from various regional wars and cut armaments, ‘greatness’ was gone overnight, leaving Moscow very much on the sidelines of the Asian century. 


Artemy Kalinovsky broaches a very important question: where did Gorbachev pick up his ideas about Asia and about the developing world? Scholars who have looked at this period, including Kalinovsky, have highlighted the crucial role of the broader policy community, in particular the academic thank tanks, in influencing Gorbachev who was more open to such outside advice than his predecessors had been. My book generally confirms this impression. In particular, it highlights the crucial role played by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) whose onetime director, Evgenii Primakov, had considerable influence on policy making, encouraging Soviet engagement with Japan. The other institute of importance for Moscow’s Asia policy was, ironically, the Institute of USA and Canada Studies (ISKAN), whose head, Georgii Arbatov, was Gorbachev’s confidant. Arbatov was influential in bringing about Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and normalization with China. The Oriental Institute, de facto headed by an ethnic Korean Georgii Kim, was critical in the establishment of the secret backchannel between the Kremlin and South Korea. Gorbachev was fairly open-minded, and his liberal advisors, including people like Georgii Shakhnazarov and, most importantly, Anatolii Chernyev, were even more so. These advisers were connected by bonds of friendship and professional ties to a wide community of academics, journalists and intelligence operatives who, through these ties, could speak in Gorbachev’s ear. But I also found – and I discuss this in depth in the book – how institutional-bureaucratic interests put huge obstacles in the way of new ideas. This was especially true in the case of the Sino-Soviet rapprochement, sabotaged for years by a handful of apparatchiks in the Central Committee, and in the case of the Soviet recognition of South Korea, which was bitterly opposed by Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.


Gilbert Rozman finds this book to be broadly supportive of the “constructivist” stand of literature in IR. While not explicitly theoretical, the book does attach great importance to perceptions and misperceptions, to forces of nationalism, cultural influences, ideological considerations and even personality traits. It goes beyond simplistic and mechanical definitions of ‘national interests,’ showing how these alleged interests were in fact a product of particular circumstances. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s readiness to give away some of the disputed islands to the Japanese (which, as Nobuo Shimotomai notes, is one of the revelations of the book) may be considered a case to point. This ostensible ‘national interest’ was deemed negotiable in a particular set of circumstances – in this case, as a tool for pulling Japan away from the U.S. orbit – and not by anyone in particular but by the very personification of hardline Soviet diplomacy. By the same token, Soviet interests in places like Vietnam or Mongolia or North Korea could be reimagined as liabilities in a different political context and bargained away or surrendered altogether. Whereas for most of the Cold War, Moscow perceived its national interests as mandating support of North Korea, this interest was clearly jettisoned by 1988 (for a combination of ideological and financial reasons), as Gorbachev embraced rapprochement with Seoul. I argue in the book that whereas the Soviet-South Korean rapprochement was generally a good thing, the haphazard way it happened fed directly into the North Korean nuclear crisis.


While I stop short of blaming Gorbachev for the North Korean problem, which was more than anything a function of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s fantasies and insecurities, I do highlight the importance of the regional – and global – contexts. It is in this connection that in the book I take an aim at the George H.W. Bush Administration for its singular lack of imagination with respect to North Korea, disagreeing here somewhat with Rozman’s assessment. This is something of only secondary interest for me – more than anything, a reflection of my sympathy for Gorbachev’s reasonable sense of frustration: while he was going out of his way to engage with South Korea, Washington did very little to develop dialogue with Kim Il-sung, preferring to leave matters in the hands of the assertive South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, whose nordpolitik was never much more than a tool for isolating North Korea. My reading of the U.S. policy towards the two Koreas, based on limited work with U.S. archival sources, tends to support the view that Bush failed to exercise leadership on this important regional issue, probably because he thought that North Korea’s days were numbered. Needless to say, this question requires more in-depth investigation.


Nobuo Shimotomai notes his disagreement with my depiction of Japan’s domestic political context. In the book I generally tried to stay clear of blaming this or that politician for foreign policy failures. There is enough of that already in the Japanese scholarship. The question of relations with Russia is heavily politicized in Japan, and I am glad that I personally do not have to take sides in this debate. My major point about Soviet-Japanese relations is that both Moscow and Tokyo thought that the other side needed rapprochement more than they themselves needed it, and so would have to make all the concessions. For the Soviet side, the origin of this thinking is clear – the great power mentality that I have already remarked upon. Japanese overconfidence was probably borne of the sense of economic prowess, of ‘Japan as No. 1’ to quote the title of a once popular book.[12] The result of this clash of egos was that neither side got what it wanted, and the promising relationship stagnated and withered. Both sides saw this relationship as of secondary importance. Japan was often all too willing to sacrifice prospects of improving relations with Moscow in the name of standing firm by the U.S. in the Cold War. The Soviets, too, relegated Japan far down the list of priorities. Gorbachev, for instance, did not seriously commit himself to engaging the Japanese until about 1988-89.


David Wolff raises important questions about the Chinese side of the story. China, as the reviewers note, is central to the book, and for a good reason: Gorbachev’s policy in Asia was from the outset his China policy, with other bilateral relationships either often being perceived or interpreted through what Gorbachev sought to accomplish with the Chinese (true, this overall picture changed by about 1990-91, but it did so for reasons that had little to do with strategic planning). But whereas Soviet policy making with regard to China can be explored in minute detail due to the availability of the archival record, I found it a lot more difficult to account for Chinese policies, in particular, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s perceptions, motivations, and goals. In this respect, the early 1980s received better coverage (and I was pleased to see Gilbert Rozman’s positive assessment of my exploration of this period). Thus, I was fortunate to have had access to a large collection of Deng Xiaoping’s memoranda of conversations with foreign leaders (up to 1982), which have now been closed to researchers. This was a pivotal moment, for it was precisely then, in 1982, that Deng made first steps towards rapprochement with the USSR.


If we consider why he did that, the American factor looms large. Deng was frustrated with the Sino-American relationship since the time that relations were normalized in 1979. He wasn’t getting the sort of partnership he had counted on, particularly in view of U.S. sale of weapons to Taiwan and restrictions on the export of sensitive technologies to the mainland. In all probability, his move to open the dialogue with Moscow (or, rather, to reciprocate Soviet feelers) was a tactical ploy in the best tradition of triangular diplomacy. But what began as tactics gradually gave way to strategy, in part, it seems, because of the influence of party elders like Chen Yun who were wary of overreliance on the West and hoped to restore productive relations with Moscow.


It is in this context that one must consider the complicated issue of Sino-Vietnamese relations. One theme I struggled with in the book was whether Deng perceived Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia as a threat in its own right or as a regional manifestation of the global Cold War. It was clearly both, but which factor was more important? In the early 1980s Deng was obsessed – to use a strong word – with the threat of the Soviet strategic encirclement of China. He saw Vietnam as a part of the Soviet southward push along a line that stretched from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia. And it was therefore natural that he wanted to see the Soviets easing up on that strategy as a precondition to Sino-Soviet normalization, hence his famous ‘three obstacles’ to normalization, which included Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia. But when, for reasons indicated above, normalization began to happen anyhow in the absence of serious movement on Indochina, Deng tried to use improving relations with Moscow to force Vietnam to make concessions. Rather than being a part of a global problem of Soviet strategic encirclement, Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia became a regional problem: still important but not existential.


The point here is that Deng’s policy could – and did – evolve over time, whether it was in relation to the Soviet Union, or to Vietnam. Similar observations could be made in relation to Deng’s assessment of Soviet reforms. We still know too little on this score to give a definitive assessment. Part of the problem here is that much of what we know is based on post-1989 accounts. Tiananmen became the turning point that retrospectively reordered elite perceptions, casting some in the role of consistent advocates of political reforms, and others as defenders of the orthodoxy. But these roles were not yet set in stone in the run-up to 1989. Moreover, in 1989 it was yet far from certain that China’s road was better than the Soviet one. As I recount in the book, Gorbachev who witnessed the student demonstrations firsthand in May 1989, was shocked by what he saw and stated confidently that his road – political reforms – was much better. And in May 1989 many in the Chinese leadership would have agreed. So I would echo Wolff’s caution: perhaps the question of the Chinese elite perceptions of perestroika was even more complex than what I claim in the book. The poignancy of 1989 was that the crackdown bulldozed the more nuanced approach, teaching the Chinese leadership the wrong lesson: that all political reform would lead to chaos and collapse, that any attempt at reform would challenge the very legitimacy of the party rule. This is a lesson that the party leadership will not easily unlearn.



[1] Yale University’s international history program has one of the most inclusive approaches to the subject: “Scholars at Yale pursue a uniquely comprehensive approach to international history. Spread literally across the whole globe, faculty explore international, transnational, regional and global perspectives. We are interested in every aspect of these interrelationships including not only diplomatic and security questions, but also cultural, social, political and economic dimensions. Our interests range from Thucydides to late-twentieth-century critics of empire, from classic questions of war and peace to the long-term processes that have shaped the modern world. We seek to shed new light both on the high politics of international diplomacy and the global history of transnational encounter.”  http://internationalhistory.yale.edu/

[2] For example, Jonathan Haslam’s Russia’s Cold War War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2011), 349-392, and Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire:  The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 278-335 evaluate the European dimension of Gorbachev’s diplomacy.  Radchenko does recognize and make use of a number of studies dealing with aspects of Soviet relations in Asia during the 1980s, such as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s The Northern Territories Dispute and Russo-Japanese Relations Vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) and Zubok’s “Gorbachev’s policy toward East Asia, 1985-1991” in Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, (ed.) The Cold War in East Asia, 1945-1991 (Stanford University Press/Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Stanford, CA, 2011).

[3] See Radchenko, Chapter 4 “Vietnam’s Vietnam: Ending the Cambodian Quagmire, 1979-89,” 124-158.

[4] Quoted in Bruce Grant, ‪The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 91.

[5] See, for example, “Anti-Westernism on the European Periphery: The Meaning of Soviet-Turkish Convergence in the 1930s,” Slavic Review, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 32-53.

[6] Masha Kirasirova “‘Sons of Muslims’ in Moscow: Soviet Central Asian Mediators to the Foreign East, 1955–1962.” Ab Imperio 2011.4 (2011): 106-132

[7] Togo Kazuhiko, Hoppo ryodo kosho hiroku: ushinawareta gotabi no kikai [The Inside Story of the Negotiations on the Northern Territory: Five Lost Windows of Opportunity] (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2007; rev. expanded paper edit. 2011).

[8] «Novyi Mir (New World)» № 7, 1989

[9] Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism,Japanese translation by Nobuo Shimotomai and others, Especially preface to the Japanese edition, Chuuokouronn-sinsya,p.1.

[10] Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, Stein Tønnesson, Nguyen Vu Tung, and James G. Hershberg, eds., “77 Conversations Between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-77” (Cold War International History Project Working Paper 22), Wilson Center, Washington DC, May 1998, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/77-conversations-between-chinese-and-foreign-leaders-the-wars-indochina-1964-77, accessed 5 April 2015.

[11] See, for example, Gilbert Rozman, A Mirror for Socialism: Soviet Criticisms of China (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985); Rozman (ed.), Japan and Russia: The Tortuous Path to Normalization, 1949-1999 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The Northern Territories Sispute and Russo-Japanese Relations, Vols. 1 & 2 (Berkeley, CA: University of California, International and Area Studies, 1998); J.E. Goodby, V.I Ivanov, Nobuo Shimotomai, “Northern Territories” and beyond: Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1995); Elizabeth Wishnick, Mending Fences: The Evolution of Moscow’s China Policy, from Brezhnev to Yeltsin (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2001); Kazuhiko Tōgō, Hoppō ryōdo kōshō hiroku: Ushinawareta gotabi no kikai (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2007).

[12] Ezra Vogel, Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (New York: Harper & Row 1980).