The dominant narrative of modern Middle East history emphasizes the depredations visited upon the region by European colonization and accepts as a truism that the former colonial powers prioritized the protection of their material interests—in oil, above all—above the dignity and self-determination of the region’s inhabitants. Thus did botched decolonization result in endless instability. The most intractable of the regional conflicts to which this gave rise, that between the Arabs and Israelis, is attributed in this narrative to Israel’s unwillingness to accede to Palestinian national aspirations. Thus did the region become a breeding ground for radicalism, intensified by Cold War rivalry between the superpowers, who replaced the European colonizers as the region’s meddling overlords. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev—a Westernizing reformer. At last, the Cold War was over. A new world order was at hand.
What if this conventional wisdom is nonsense? Russian exile Pavel Stroilov argues just this in his forthcoming book, Behind the Desert Storm. “Not a word of it is true,” he writes. “It was the Soviet Empire—not the British Empire—that was responsible for the instability in the Middle East.”
Stroilov, a historian now living in London, fled Russia in 2003 after stealing 50,000 top-secret Kremlin documents from the Gorbachev Foundation archives, where he was working as a researcher. He was given access to the archive in 1999, but Gorbachev refused him permission to copy its most significant documents. Having observed the network administrator entering the password into the system, Stroilov reproduced the archive and sent it to secure locations around the world.
Stroilov’s cache includes hundreds of transcripts of discussions between Gorbachev and foreign leaders, politicians, and diplomats. (The originals are still sealed under Kremlin pressure.) There are notes from Politburo and other top decision-making meetings, notes written by Gorbachev’s aides Anatoly Chernyaev and Georgy Shakhnazarov and by Politburo member Vadim Medvedev. None were ever available to independent researchers, although some were published by the Gorbachev Foundation in a heavily censored version. Stroilov also stole the 1972-1986 diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, deputy chief of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union International Department and Gorbachev’s principal aide on international affairs from 1986 to 1991. He stole reports dating from the 1960s by Vadim Zagladin, who was deputy chief of the International Department until 1987 and Gorbachev’s adviser from 1987 to 1991. (Stroilov also draws upon Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky’s vast, stolen collection of documents, as well as the Mitrokhin Archive, a collection of notes taken secretly by the defector Vasili Mitrokhin during his 30 years as a KGB archivist in the foreign intelligence service and the First Chief Directorate.)
Stroilov’s book about these documents, many only now translated into English, challenges the conventional wisdom that Western colonialists are to blame for the chaos in the region. All of its major conflicts, he argues, were caused by Soviet expansionism. Terrorism and the rabid anti-Israeli animus of the Arab world were Soviet inspirations. And the revolutions we are seeing now were inevitable, for the Soviet client states were socialist regimes, and sooner or later socialism exhausts economies and thus the patience of the people who live in them.