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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Sunday 2 April 2023

A People's History of the Cold War

 This is Colin Turbett's new book that seeks to give us a new angle on the Cold War, focusing on the stories of the people who were impacted by the events of the period. This is a refreshing change from the political diatribes, from left and right, that tend to dominate the historiography. Colin helpfully looks at many of the books of the period highlighting just how biased much of the writing was, sadly sometimes from authors whose work is widely admired today. Interpretation bias has always figured in the political dialogue between contending parties but is questionable when presented as academic objectivity.

Being of a similar age to the author, I felt a warm glow of nostalgia when reading the introduction. As a child in Liverpool, the Beatles song, Back in the USSR, was one of my first record purchases (we will pass on Never Mind a Crocodile!). However, unlike Colin, my radio listening never got quite as far as Radio Tirana with its distinctive call sign, the voice of besieged (i.e. no friends). 

He reminds us how large the UK armed forces were in the 1950s. National Service was still going, and over half a million troops were still in the Army. The Royal Navy still had 200 fighting ships and submarines in 1960. Although depleted from their wartime heights, the armed forces still played a major societal role. In my day job, I have recently written a paper for a client on defence procurement, and even I was surprised at how small our current armed forces have shrunk in comparison.

It is often argued that the nuclear deterrent resulted in proxy wars across the globe. However, as Colin highlights, such conflicts have continued since the fall of the Soviet Union, suggesting they were never perhaps about the Cold War in the first place but about the aspirations of local people versus global interest.

After the introduction, we are presented with a history of the Cold War from its post-war beginnings, which builds on one of the author's earlier works, The Anglo-Soviet Alliance: Comrades and Allies during WW2. There were many Allied plans on what to do with Germany after WW2, and it wasn't the Soviet Union that argued for dividing it. The iron curtain certainly did come down, but the Soviet threat was limited by the need to rebuild the country after the Nazi devastation. The Soviets under Stalin had
long abandoned ideas about spreading revolution in favour of consolidating their power at home. While there was dissent in the West and the Soviet Union, it was limited. The exception was opposition to the Vietnam War in the west and the Hungarian uprising and Prague Spring in eastern Europe.

The US, in contrast, had no such pressure. In fact, the military-industrial complex (MIC) had every incentive to promote military expenditure by emphasising the communist threat. Politically it was also valuable in pushing the Soviet Union to wreck its economy by playing catch-up. As there was little need to replace lost weapons, technology provided the answer to replace obsolete weapon systems. The Soviet Union had its own ruling class known as the ‘nomenklatura’, who often acted out of self-interest in collusion with one another. By the end of the Cold War, it was almost beyond political control, with possibly one in five adults working in the Soviet version of the MIC. Millions of AK-47s were produced, becoming symbolic of armed struggles across the world.

The Cold War is associated with nuclear weapons and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. By 1980, stockpiles of nuclear weapons for potential use in a nuclear war amounted to enough to destroy humanity thirty times over. Colin takes us through both the concept and the practice, along with many efforts to limit the provision of weapons through treaties and several near misses. There is more nostalgia here for those who remember the absurd UK Protect and Survive civil defence booklet. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, they built proper shelters.

The most original chapters in the book are the people's stories, which are preceded by a look at the propaganda both societies were bombarded with. This is more of a social history, which may be less interesting to readers here, but give a fascinating insight into how ordinary folk lived and, in some cases, bridged the Cold War divide. Unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed the stories from Albania, which I suspect not only sounded like another planet but was! The second chapter on stories covers the military. There is an excellent story about the selection of crew roles in a Soviet tank, which was decided on who could do the most push-ups.

The author argues that the Cold War ended in the Gorbachev era primarily because keeping became unaffordable for the Soviet Union. It cost up to 30 per cent of the USSR’s entire GDP, compared to the USA's more affordable but still astronomical 7 per cent. There were other social and political factors, not to mention Chernobyl. Nevertheless, the legacy of the break-up remains today, not least in the Ukraine War.

You won't enjoy this book if you are an old Cold War warrior on either side. Colin probably spends more effort correcting his primarily western audiences' misconceptions of the period. However, he certainly doesn't let the Soviet Union off the hook. I enjoyed the book, and not just for the nostalgia trip.

For wargamers, the Cold War is enjoying a bit of a revival with Team Yankee and Corps Commander, to mention just two rule systems. Personally, I have never been attracted to hypothetical battles through the Fulda Gap, although I recall playing the board game. The fringe actions in the Balkans are another matter!

A particular favourite of mine is the T55. This is in 20mm from my collection.


  1. Great review... one for mew to get... for a few reasons.



  2. Nice review but this book & period isn’t really my area of interest, so I’ll save my £££’s for now. Doubtless you will review something else shortly that will be more my “cup of tea”. 😉