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Reconstruction and Collapse

Conor O'Clery

Conor O’Clery is working on a new book about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here he considers the literature that has gone before, from the most immediate reports of the journalists who were there at the time

A great mass of books and articles has been written about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The basic narrative is well known. Mikhail Gorbachev emerged from the stagnation of the early 1980s, tried to revive socialism through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction), opened up to the West, ended the Cold War, survived an attempted coup, was usurped by Boris Yeltsin and exited stage left as his empire disintegrated. The entire process involved a titanic power struggle, combining elements of ideology, tragedy, farce, personal antagonisms, betrayal and bloodshed ̵̶̶ though in the circumstances not so much of the latter.


The consigning to history of a great superpower has become one of the most written about episodes of the twentieth century; as a subject it is surpassed in the volume of works it has given rise to only by the two world wars. The first books to appear in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union were those written by journalists intent on cashing in on heightened public interest and on their own fleeting fame as chroniclers of history on the move. Almost every correspondent I knew in Moscow when based there for The Irish Times during the Gorbachev years wrote a memoir. These included my own effort, Melting Snow, published by Appletree Press in 1992, the title being both a metaphor for the disintegration of an empire seemingly frozen in place and – presciently – a reference to global warming, in that the last few winters of the Soviet Union were among the mildest on record. The gold standard for reporters’ works was Lenin’s Tomb, by David Remnick of the Washington Post, published in 1993, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Remnick had the good fortune to be there not just for the Gorbachev years but for the denouement (some of us left for other posts just before the August 1991 coup), and was able to seize the moment and get his book out when the topic was still red hot. Not so fortunate was his great rival, the correspondent (and now editor) of the New York Times, Bill Keller, who left Moscow a few months before the end and, having received a large advance to write the definitive account of perestroika and glasnost, retreated to a friend’s cottage in Tipperary to work in tranquil surroundings, only to find events moving too swiftly for him: in the end he abandoned the effort.

Some Moscow correspondents put their experiences into broad historical context, most notably Newsweek’s long-serving Russian expert Fred Coleman, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire, while others, like the Baltimore Sun’s Scott Shane, who produced Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union, confined themselves to one aspect of the story. At least we knew the outcome when we wrote our accounts and thus were able to avoid the blunders of those who attempted to call the game before it was over. One American author (whose name I don’t recall) concluded in the final chapter of his book, published near the end of the Gorbachev years, that glasnost would lead nowhere, while Martin Walker of the Guardian, in The Waking Giant, published in 1986, confidently anticipated that Gorbachev would be leading the Soviet union into the twenty-first century.


However authoritative, colourful and prescient (or otherwise) these journalists’ books were, they all suffered from the same problem. They were first drafts of history, written on the run, without access to archives or to the later biographies of the main figures in the drama, and with one or two exceptions now seem quite dated. In any event they soon found themselves competing on the bookshop shelves with a second tranche of post-Soviet books, which one might perhaps describe as the second draft of history. These were written by the top diplomats of their day. One of the most comprehensive accounts of the high-level diplomatic manoeuvrings, Autopsy of an Empire (836 pages), was written by US ambassador Jack Matlock, whose criticisms of Gorbachev are a useful antidote to the adulation in which he is now held in America. It was matched by Across the Moscow River, written by his British counterpart, Rodric Braithwaite, (the book was so called because his embassy looked over the river to the Kremlin). The long-serving Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, also found a market in the West for his account of representing the Kremlin in his memoir In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents.


Soon a third draft of Soviet history began appearing in bookstores. These were memoirs written by the players themselves, from political leaders to apparatchiks. The two most anticipated were those by the chief protagonists in the struggle for power as the USSR disintegrated, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, whose personal enmity was a factor in how things turned out. Yeltsin got his retaliation in first, in 1994, with a lively and self-justifying autobiography, The Struggle for Russia. We had to wait another two years for Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1,000-page (and almost impenetrable) blockbuster, entitled Memoirs. Other former members of the politburo, including conservative Yegor Ligachev and his nemesis in the reform camp, Eduard Shevardnadze, and several aides and lower-ranking party members, also wrote their own biographies. Gorbachev’s senior and most loyal foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, produced a detailed and perceptive account of the last years at the top in My Six Years with Gorbachev, and the Soviet leader’s political adviser, Andrei Grachev, followed with Gorbachev’s Gamble, an account of Soviet foreign policy in the waning years, though he waited until 2008 to do so. Gorbachev’s translator, Pavel Palazchenko, got in on the act with a positive and detailed account of his role in changing the world in My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze.

Like practically all political memoirs these volumes are self-serving. None can fully be trusted and some are tainted by personal grudges. Possibly the most bitter of all is Ten Years That Shook The World, by Gorbachev’s former chief of staff, Valery Boldin, who betrayed his master in joining the coup plotters in August 1991 and who portrays him as a preening, indecisive blunderer and his wife, Raisa, as haughty and controlling. Raisa Gorbachev produced her own slim, self-promoting volume, called I Hope, a series of interviews conducted by a sycophantic admirer, Georgi Pryakhin. Many Soviet-era intellectual and dissident figures also weighed in with first-hand accounts of their experiences in the twilight of communism, most prominently the once-exiled cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, who published a joint memoir in 1995.


A number of books by Western political figures also emerged to shed more light on what factors had led to the end of the USSR, at least through the prism of their own self-serving motives. Ronald Reagan’s closest aides made papers and files available to his biographer, Lou Cannon, who revealed much of the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship in his 1991 book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. President George HW Bush co-wrote A World Transformed with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, in large part an insider account of how he and Gorbachev presided over the end of the Cold War. Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz put in his halfpenny’s worth in a massive volume, Turmoil and Triumph: Diplomacy, Power, and the Victory of the American Ideal, as did his successor, James Baker, in The Politics of Diplomacy. John Major in John Major: The Autobiography and Margaret Thatcher in The Downing Street Years, made their own disclosures about their interaction with Moscow’s leaders.


The most comprehensive books on the fall of the Soviet Union will inevitably be those produced by historians, who write the fourth and final drafts of history, tinged of course by their own theories of how things come about and their assessments of the personalities involved and their motives, which will always involve some degree of subjectivity. Historians of the Soviet Union today have the benefit of access to first person accounts by the actors and chroniclers of the times, and above all, to original documentation. They have a treasure trove of paper extracted from Soviet files after 1991, when Yeltsin temporarily opened up secret archives for future analysts to pore over. American universities sent teams to Moscow to acquire files by the yard while the going was good, and they secured important documents, such as the transcripts of key meetings of the politburo, before the archive doors slammed shut again. The documents are dispersed around the academic world, and many have ended up in American institutions such as the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University in California, Harvard University’s Lamont Library and the Yale University Press.


Among the most respected of the historians who have made full use of these files is British political scientist Archie Brown, whose best known works are The Gorbachev Factor, an analysis published in 1996 of Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective, published in the spring of 2007. The fact that almost two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union such retrospective works are still being published indicates a continuing appetite for information about what was, in political terms, the biggest voluntary liquidation in history. Despite the tsunami of words about the Soviet collapse that has already flooded the market, not just in English but in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and dozens of other languages, there is clearly room for more.


The problem for today’s readers is that many of the books out there are too dated, too limited in content and scope, too tendentious, too academic or too boring. Who wants to read now such volumes as Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, the Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism, by Mikhail Gorbachev, Zdenek Mlynar, Archie Brown, and George Shriver? The twentieth anniversary in 2011 will be an apt and timely occasion for a new account of the fall of the Soviet Union, especially for people who have only a vague notion of who Gorbachev and Yeltsin were but who would like to know more in a fairly straightforward dramatic narrative about how a superpower was simply there one day and gone the next.

Conor O’Clery is a journalist and author. He is currently working on a new account of the fall of the Soviet Union, to be published on the twentieth anniversary in 2011.



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