Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen

But they were tired old men who lacked the energy, will and imagination to deal with a crisis they knew was upon them. The decision-makers in the Kremlin were all in their late sixties or seventies and mostly in poor health. The Boss – more capo di capi than Tsar – was still Leonid Brezhnev, now seventy-six. The others all deferred to him, even when he was in his dotage and unable to work more than an hour or so a day. No major decisions were taken without his approval as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Towards the end of his life he appeared a ludicrous figure to be in charge of one of the world’s two superpowers. But he had not always been so. For more than a decade after he took power in 1964 from Nikita Khrushchev, he was a vigorous and impressive man, gifted in many ways. He may not have been much of an intellectual but he understood intuitively the nature of power and nobody knew better than he how the Soviet system worked.


The Russians seemed unconcerned about trampling over delicate national feelings and symbols. National flags were changed, always with Communist hammer and sickle or steel and hammer emblems replacing old, traditional ones which had existed before. Public holidays conformed with those in the USSR. Children were taught Russian at school as the only foreign language offered. A new constitution in Hungary was introduced, with gross insensitivity, on 20 August 1949 – the traditional Feast Day of St Stephen honouring the country’s first king and patron saint. The first line of the constitution contained profuse thanks to ‘the glorious Soviet Union for its historic role in liberating our country’. All these slights rankled deeply. 

After the Able Archer 83 exercise Reagan began a profound re-examination of his entire strategy towards the Soviet Union. A key moment was a week after the drill when he met the ultra-hawkish Defense Secretary Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General John Vessey in the ‘situation room’ at the White House to review the exercise. Unusually for him, Reagan was deeply gloomy afterwards. He realised, as he said later, that ‘there were some people in the Pentagon who actually thought a nuclear war was winnable. I thought they were crazy.’ Reagan knew that he would run for re-election the following year and was sure he would beat whatever candidate the Democrats chose to oppose him. He now believed that the harsh rhetoric and his tough line against the Soviets were producing few results. They were not making the Russians more responsive and reasonable. They had led to increased paranoia and a more aggressive response. ‘The impact of Reagan’s hard-line policy on the internal debates in the Kremlin . . . was exactly the opposite of the one intended by Washington,’ Anatoli Dobrynin said. ‘It strengthened those in the [leadership] and the security apparatus who had been pressing for a mirror image of Reagan’s policy.


That left Bush uncertain. So did the sceptics who warned Bush about Soviet intentions. His National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, thought Gorbachev was the ‘clever bear’ who followed the Brezhnev practice of pursuing expansionist goals while lulling the West into a false sense of security. Gorbachev was a threat precisely because he appeared so reassuring. ‘Gorbachev’s goal was to restore dynamism to the Socialist system and to revitalise the Soviet Union domestically and internationally to compete with the West,’ Scowcroft said.


The high point of the celebrations was a huge torchlight procession through Berlin. Tanks and weaponry and military bands passed the dignitaries on a raised podium, followed by column after column of strapping members of the Communist Youth group, the Frei Deutsche Jugend (FDJ), in blue shirts and red scarves. These were supposed to be the most obedient sons and daughters of the nomenklatura, born and raised in the bosom of the Party. Now many were heard to shout ‘Gorby, help us. Gorby, help us.’ The Polish Communist Party boss, Mieczysław Rakowksi, was sitting next to Gorbachev. He asked the Soviet leader whether he understood what they were saying. Gorbachev said he did not know German well but he thought so. ‘They are demanding Gorbachev, rescue us,’ Rakowski said. ‘And these are supposed to be the cream of Party activists. This is the end.’ Honecker was plainly nonplussed at first, but then began to grasp what was happening. Then he looked hurt rather than angry at the humiliating public insult.


Sycophancy is a vital ingredient of success in all bureaucracies, but never was it as important as during the latter years of the USSR.There are some grotesque examples of Gorbachev ingratiating himself with his superiors in the Kremlin. In May 1978 he wrote a review of a turgid, almost unreadable book produced by Brezhnev’s ghostwriters. Only those with hearts of stone could fail to snigger: ‘L.I. Brezhnev has revealed a talent for leadership of the Leninist type,’ Gorbachev gushed…


Václav Havel did not look the part of a charismatic leader. He was short of stature, with an awkward gait, and gave the air of a slightly diffident and absent-minded professor. He was a man who could not conceal his insecurities and self-doubts. He made a good living by writing about them with wit, charm and searing honesty. Yet when the time came he could act with certainty, boldness and speed. In many ways he was the archetypal Central European intellectual, at his happiest talking about philosophy, drama and politics late into the night in a bar with fellow writers. He spent, by his own admission, many months of his life at his favourite pub near the Vltava River in Prague’s Old Town. By inclination he was a philosopher, but he loved the theatre and actors. Circumstances and accident turned him into a political leader, a man of action, but he found he had an aptitude for it almost as great as his skill as a writer.



An excellent, fast-paced history of the collapse of the Soviet Empire

I was a senior in high school the year the Berlin Wall came down, a memory solidified still in my electric pink and teal yearbook. Jumping from date to date and country to country, Sebestyen exposes the contradictions and weaknesses of the Soviet client states in interesting detail. He also manages to explore and explain the thinking that led Gorbachev to believe that a Leninist system could survive with the openness he initiated and ultimately failed to control.