‘The Return’ delves into the enigma of Russia

Explores nation’s rise since the fall of communism

Mikhail Gorbachev (left), general secretary of the Soviet Union with President Reagan at the White House in 1987, oversaw many of the reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev (left), general secretary of the Soviet Union with President Reagan at the White House in 1987, oversaw many of the reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters/File)
By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2011

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Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’’

Although that country has undergone a massive political and economic transformation in the 71 years since Churchill made that statement in a radio address, the West continues to struggle to understand that important country.

In “The Return,’’ Daniel Treisman has made an important contribution to narrowing the knowledge gap. It is an opinionated primer and valuable tour d’horizon of recent Russian history.

Treisman, a political science professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, provides thumbnail sketches of all the Russian leaders during that period and also discusses the details of key domestic and foreign policy changes.

Unlike some scholars and observers, he doesn’t see the collapse of communism as having been inevitable. “Scholars have been criticized for failing to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union before 1985, but they were right not to predict its collapse. Before [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power it was not collapsing,’’ he writes.

However, he doesn’t acknowledge that many Western observers, ranging from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to President Reagan, predicted the demise of the Soviet system. In 1984, Moynihan wrote that “the Soviet idea is spent. History is moving away from it at astounding speed.’’

Treisman’s book is more helpful when discussing those leaders at the helm when communism collapsed and in the years since. He’s generally balanced in his assessments but isn’t so evenhanded that you would mistake the book for an encyclopedia.

He has a decidedly mixed assessment of Gorbachev, who was the catalyst for many key changes in the country. While he praises Gorbachev for implementing many reforms, he criticizes the leader’s political tin ear and notes that his departure from office after four years was caused by his having alienated those on both the left and right.

“Gorbachev may come to be seen as history’s most successful failure,’’ he writes.

Treisman’s writing style is generally bland, though he has occasional moments when he is actually fun to read. When describing Gorbachev’s policy of withdrawing his country’s troops from former Soviet satellites, Treisman writes that “(T)o the delight of Western observers and the horror of some of his own generals, Gorbachev launched into an elaborate geostrategic striptease.’’

He tends to give most of the other recent Russian leaders more of the benefit of the doubt. Readers familiar with the Western media’s depictions of Vladimir Putin as a thug will see a different side of the former Russian president.

Treisman sees the corruption and non-democratic actions under Putin, and his successor Dmitry Medvedev, as typical of countries in Russia’s state of development.

One of the best parts of the book is Treisman’s chapter on the state of Russian-Western relations. In that section, he spends half of the time giving Russia’s critique of the West’s mistakes and half of the time seeing things from the other side of the geographical divide.

The Russians believed the Americans didn’t take them seriously and handled relations in a condescending manner. He notes that many officials of the US government believed that Russians hadn’t handled their recent political and economic transformations very effectively.

Some American policymakers believe that “(E)specially in the last decade, Moscow had never missed an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot.’’

Treisman’s ability to present all sides of a complicated subject makes “The Return’’ a first-rate book.

Claude R. Marx can be reached at

THE RETURN: Russia’s Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev

By Daniel Treisman

Free Press, 523 pp., illustrated, $30