Review: They Built Proper Shelters

A People’s History of the Cold War: Stories from East and West by Colin Turbett (Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2023)

Colin Turbett’s new book gives us a different angle on the Cold War, focusing on the stories of the people impacted by the events of the period. This is a refreshing change from the political rants, from left and right, that tend to dominate the historiography. Turbett helpfully looks at many of the books of the period, highlighting just how biased much of the writing was.

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 Smile at a Crocodile!). However, unlike Colin, my radio listening never got as far as Radio Tirana, the Albanian-based station which broadcast internationally throughout the Cold War. But, like Turbett, I do recall the nuclear fallout training. As a young organiser with NALGO, one of UNISON’s precursors, we were put in the nuclear bunker under the council HQ when our office was being refurbished. On his return from holiday, the Emergency Planning Officer had a fit to find us there, with CND posters on the wall!

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

After the introduction, we get a history of the Cold War from its post-war beginnings to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were many Allied plans on what to do with Germany after WW2, and it was not the Soviet Union that argued for dividing it. The Soviets under Stalin had long abandoned ideas about spreading revolution, preferring to consolidate their power at home. In the USA, the military-industrial complex (MIC) was incentivised 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. Moreover, the Soviet Union had its own ruling class known as the ‘nomenklatura’, who often acted out of self-interest in collusion with one another. 

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. There is more nostalgia in the account of the nuclear arms race for those who remember the absurd UK Protect and Survive civil defence booklet and the CND counter Protest and Survive. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, they built proper shelters.

While there was dissent in the West and in 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. Membership of the Communist Party in the UK also never recovered from those events, although high-profile Left figures like Jimmy Reid remained  members, probably because they supported the ideology rather than the Soviet Union. Communist Party membership also has to be seen in the context of Suez, which happened simultaneously with the start of the Vietnam War and the Hungarian uprising, and which Jimmy also opposed. In 1968, the CPGB publicly opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The most original chapters in the book are the people’s stories, which are preceded by a look at the propaganda that both societies were bombarded with. These give a fascinating insight into how ordinary folk lived and sometimes bridged the Cold War divide. 

Turbett concludes that the Cold War ended in the Gorbachev era primarily because keeping up with the USA became unaffordable for the Soviet Union. There were other social and political factors, not to mention the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl in 1986. Nevertheless, the legacy of the break-up persists today, not least in the Ukraine War.

You may not enjoy this book if you are an old Cold War warrior on either side. Turbett makes a particular effort correcting his primarily Western audiences’ misconceptions of the period. However, he certainly doesn’t let the Soviet Union off the hook. I would recommend the book, and not just for the nostalgia trip.

Dave Watson is the Interim Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.