Lessons of History: World loses a fearful stability: The Cold War is studied by Gabriel Partos, who had the first interviews with some of its key figures

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'WE LIVED in an era of confrontation with the West; the entire globe was the arena of this confrontation,' according to Leonid Shebarshin, who crowned 30 years of service as a Soviet spy by becoming chairman of the KGB - for a mere 27 hours - in the immediate aftermath of the failed hardline Communist coup in Moscow in August 1991.

Mr Shebarshin continues: 'We stepped back - our opponents immediately occupied the vacated space. Wherever we could, we would try to occupy the space ourselves.'

Today, as the United States and Russia work together to try to stop the fighting in Bosnia while doing their utmost not to get actively involved, it is becoming difficult to imagine that a little more than half a decade ago there was barely a conflict anywhere in the world without the active interference or intervention of one or the other, if not both, of the superpowers.

But for more than four decades the Cold War held sway and the confrontation between East and West, led by the Soviet Union and the US respectively, determined the course of events. From divided Berlin to the jungles of Vietnam and the Angolan bush, no part of the world escaped the impact of that confrontation. The entire armoury of the Cold War was employed in the bitter struggle to defeat the adversary: the nuclear arms race, direct intervention in regional conflicts, wars by proxy, trade embargoes, espionage and the propaganda war were the weapons in this conflict.

'As regards foreign policy,' says Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, 'the way people's thinking had been formed over decades was that there was a traditional enemy with whom you had to be ready to fight. If you were not ready, he would destroy you. Overcoming these stereotypes, coming to the conclusion that this wasn't your enemy but your partner, was extremely difficult.'

In their relentless confrontation the two sides drew back from only one form of combat, that of a direct military conflict. With the superpowers in possession of more than 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, the prospect of a nuclear conflagration represented an awesome deterrent to open warfare between the two sides.

Even on the few occasions when Soviet military 'advisers' were actually fighting the Americans - operating anti-aircraft missile batteries in the Korean and Vietnam wars - they went to great lengths to disguise their involvement. It is only now that the extent of the Soviet military presence is being revealed. General Vladimir Abramov, who commanded the Soviet units in North Vietnam, in 1967-78, says he had a force of 3,300 under him.

The US's intervention in Vietnam was aimed at preventing countries in South-east Asia falling like dominoes to Communism. 'It was the Kennedy administration which really started the major involvement,' says Henry Kissinger, who as Secretary of State was later to extricate the US from Vietnam.

'They thought that they and their predecessors knew how to stop general war and limited war. They thought that the opening that existed was for a guerrilla war and Vietnam was a test case in which they could demonstrate that a guerrilla war would also not succeed.'

Moscow provided massive military aid to North Vietnam, which helped frustrate the objectives of the US fighting machine. The US repaid this by supporting the Afghan mujahedin resistance following the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. 'When the Soviets entered Afghanistan, my point of view was accepted,' says Zbigniew Brzezinski who was President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser. 'And we engaged ourselves, for the first time ever in the entire history of the Cold War, in actively supporting military resistance against the Soviets, which means lethality directed against the Red Army. If we hadn't committed ourselves to support the mujahedin, the Soviets might well have worn them down at some stage.'

Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated the limits of superpower strength. Both sides failed to achieve their objectives. In fact, the Soviet Union collapsed a few months before the Kabul regime that it had supported for 13 years was finally defeated by the mujahedin.

The US was seriously weakened by the Vietnam fiasco. For a time in the Seventies it scaled down its commitments around the world. Even today the 'Vietnam syndrome' is among the most powerful motives behind Washington's reluctance to become involved in Bosnia. While President Bill Clinton has kept many options open, he has repeatedly ruled out sending US ground forces to Bosnia.

Apart from the global nature of the Soviet-US confrontation and the menacing presence of the nuclear bomb, what made the Cold War a distinct period in history was the bitter ideological struggle between the two sides. Each proclaimed the superiority of their social and economic systems and confidently predicted the collapse of their adversary.

The US policy of containing Communist expansionism, first formulated by the diplomat and scholar George Kennan in 1946 and adopted in the Truman doctrine the next year, was based on the belief that the Soviet system was inherently defective and sooner or later would collapse.

Following the demise of the Soviet state and the failure of Communism, it is all too tempting to consider Kennan's argument as an expression of common sense. But in the Forties and Fifties the balance of forces looked very different.

Stalin had transformed the East European countries into small-scale replicas of the Soviet Union; Mao Tse-tung had triumphed in China and the two Communist giants were still close allies; and many Third World liberation movements and newly independent ex-colonial states in Asia and Africa looked to the Kremlin for inspiration and aid.

Never at a loss when it came to boasting, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, told Western ambassadors in Moscow in the autumn of 1956, shortly after Suez and the Hungarian uprising: 'We will bury you'. No one doubted that he meant what he said. The next year the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite; in 1961 came Yuri Gagarin's pioneering space flight.

Soviet scientific and technological advance seemed to confirm for many that the future belonged to Communism. Moscow and its allies were eager to exploit the space race for political advantage. Roald Sagdeev, director of the Soviet Space Research Institute in the Seventies and Eighties, says: 'Leaders of foreign Communist parties would from time to time ask Khrushchev to launch something into space on the eve of their national parliamentary elections in order to get a few thousand, maybe even in some cases, millions more votes.' Until the Sixties, Soviet economic growth appeared to out-perform that of the US by a wide margin. Khrushchev even predicted that the Soviet gross domestic product would overtake that of the US by 1970. In fact, the Soviet economy never reached half of its rival's output.

But statistics were a misleading guide to Soviet economic performance. Local managers often 'improved' output indicators; the statistical methods employed were inherently erroneous because they ignored inflation, and negative results did not get published. Besides, the inefficiency of the command economy meant the growth achieved had enormous cost in materials, energy and labour. Farmers regularly fed subsidised bread to livestock because it was cheaper than animal feedstuff.

One of the overriding reasons for the Soviet Union's economic failure was its concentration on military production. The Cold War imposed a heavy defence burden on the US; at the height of the Korean war in the early Fifties, US defence spending reached its peak since the Second World War with nearly 14 per cent of gross national product. Thereafter, it declined to 4-5 per cent, although the military-industrial complex, against whose importance President Eisenhower warned in his 1961 valedictory speech, remained a powerful lobby.

No one knows the size of the Soviet Union's military and defence-related production during the Cold War. Estimates vary between 14 and 50 per cent of the economy. Such was the price it had to pay to achieve military parity with the economically much more developed United States.

The person who came to embody the Soviet military-industrial complex was Marshal Dmitri Ustinov. Appointed the people's commissar of the armaments industry in 1941 at the time of the Nazi invasion, Ustinov - who later became defence minister - served every Soviet leader from Stalin to Chernenko until his death in 1984.

'Even if certain weapons were not required for the needs of the army, Ustinov would accept them,' says Colonel-General Nikolai Chervov, who served on the Soviet General Staff in the Seventies and Eighties. 'Sometimes it happened that newly manufactured weapons were immediately taken to stores where they were quickly forgotten about.'

The East lost the economic contest with the West. East Germany, the showcase of the Soviet-style economic system, collapsed when its citizens abandoned it in their hundreds of thousands in the autumn of 1989, seeking not only freedom but also a higher standard of living in the West.

Back in the late Forties, West Germany, along with the rest of Western Europe, had been rebuilt with the help of the Marshall Plan. In 1947 Stalin turned down the offer of US aid, fearing that it would increase US influence in his newly extended empire in Eastern Europe. Now Russia and the other former Communist countries are pleading for more outside aid and find that the West is not as generous to them as the US was to Western Europe when it was afraid that Communism might expand across Europe.

The economy was not the only arena in which the West defeated the East. In the propaganda war, the Soviet bloc countries, with their repressive regimes, were constantly on the defensive.

Nothing symbolised the Cold War better than the Berlin Wall - part of the Iron Curtain which the Communist governments had installed to prevent their people from escaping to the West. Before Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of glasnost, or openness, Soviet leaders remained allergic to criticism of their human rights record. Alexander Bessmertnykh, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, recalls how his predecessor, Andrei Gromyko, reacted when the issue of human rights cropped up at Soviet-US talks: 'There would be an explosion - or dead silence on the Soviet side. Gromyko wouldn't even take the list of persons the US administration would be talking about - political prisoners or refuseniks. If the secretary (of State) presented that list, it would drop on the table and then one of Gromyko's assistants would pick it up. He would never touch it.'

Long before the revolutions of 1989 swept Communism from Eastern Europe, the ideology these regimes had espoused had become completely discredited. Their failure to match Western living standards and provide basic human rights undermined their claims of superiority. The idea of Communism taking over large parts of the world - so widely feared in the West in the early phase of the Cold War - lost its force as a threat.

'Early on, the idea was that the world revolution was just outside the door,' Oleg Troyanovsky, whose career as a Soviet diplomat spanned more than four decades, says. 'But, little by little, it became a more or less theoretical thing, just like the second coming of Christ. You preach it, you are supposed to believe in it but no one takes it seriously.'

The end of the Cold War has largely removed the danger, however distant, of a nuclear holocaust because the US and Russia - not now claiming the superpower status of the Soviet Union - are no longer locked in relentless confrontation. But other dangers still lurk on the international stage. With the break-up of the Soviet Union and of its nuclear arsenal, nuclear weapons are more likely to fall into unauthorised hands.

Many of the regional conflicts associated with the Cold War - Afghanistan and Angola among them - continue to rage and new sources of conflict have emerged, largely as a result of the end of an era in which the US and the Soviet Union policed the world. The fighting in Croatia and Bosnia and in parts of the former Soviet Union would have been unimaginable during the Cold War.

Governments around the world are trying to find new ways of establishing international stability, but what has emerged so far from the ruins of the Cold War fails to resemble the new world order envisaged by President George Bush.

'Global stability of the kind that we were used to throughout the Cold War is simply a thing of the past,' says Lawrence Eagleburger, the former US Secretary of State. 'Now that may have been the stability of the graveyard and was clearly dominated by the fear of both superpowers and their client states that, if something got out of hand, the consequences could lead you to a nuclear war and that caused a kind of conservatism on both sides that maintained a certain balance and stability.'

The predictability and certainties of the Cold War are gone. But the victory of liberal democracy over Communism has not brought about 'the end of history'. Nationalism and religious fundamentalism pose a challenge to Western interests and these are in some ways more difficult to combat than Communism was over the past four decades.

Gabriel Partos is an Eastern Europe analyst with BBC World Service. His book, The World that Came in from the Cold: perspectives from East and West on the Cold War, was published last month by the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It accompanies a BBC World Service series, broadcast on Monday evenings and repeated on Fridays.

(Photographs omitted)