Thus do empires end

‘This book is a chronicle of one day in the history of one city.’ As first sentences go, that one is hard to beat — particularly given that the ‘one day’ is the last day of the Soviet Union, the city is Moscow and the author, an Irish journalist, was there and knew most of the principal actors. After reading the preface, I expected alatter-day Rashomon, the end of the USSR told from a dozen different angles: the ‘one day’ as experienced by the lady selling vegetables in the market, the foreign diplomat sending telegrams in the embassy, the KGB man looking for a job.  

In fact, that’s not quite what this book turns out to be. Conor O’Clery’s real interest is in the conflict between the two leading players, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. It’s not hard to see why, since the titanic struggle between the two men was a central factor in the Soviet Union’s demise.Though of course the historians and economists will argue forever about whether the USSR’s economic failures were more or less important than the communist party’s ideological failures, perhaps it takes a journalist to notice something more prosaic. The fact is that Yeltsin really and truly hated Gorbachev, and was willing to break up the Soviet Union in order to spite him.

Though the story of their world-historical spat is well-known, O’Clery’s account is satisfyingly neutral, and includes anecdotes illustrating the pettiness, the self-regard and the bad temper of both men. He goes all the way back to both men’s early careers,  focusing on Yeltsin’s tenure as Party leader of Moscow, when his coarse, rambunctious personality first rubbed up against Gorbachev’s haughtier, cooler, more urbane character.

Particularly gratifying is the story of how, on the last day of the USSR’s existence, the two conducted a petty squabble over the handover of the nuclear ‘suitcase’, the briefcase which contained all of the nuclear codes. Although everything had been agreed the day before, Yeltsin took sudden umbrage at Gorbachev’s final speech, which he interpreted as a personal insult, and the whole procedure had to be renegotiated at the last minute. While all this was happening, Yeltsin sent his minions to evict Gorbachev from his state-owned dacha. Thus do empires end.

In fact, the best bits of this book do take place on 25 December 1991. For if nothing else, the reconstruction of that day evokes a world very different from the one we currently inhabit. One had forgotten (or anyway I had) that the only television team on hand to record Gorbachev’s last day in power was from an American channel, ABC News. The American journalist Ted Koppel had exclusive access to the last Soviet leader throughout his final days (somewhat to the consternation of his family, since the final day was Christmas). Russian journalists simply weren’t interested: knowing which way the wind was blowing, they were fiercely pro-Yeltsin and unmoved by Gorbachev’s fate.

Besides, Gorbachev trusted the Americans. He gave them full access to his entire staff, and even borrowed one of their pens to sign the dissolution documents (his own Soviet pen, naturally, didn’t work). Among other things, Koppel’s team was allowed to record the final conversation between President George Bush — the elder, of course — and Gorbachev. The American president expressed himself in personal terms: he had enjoyed working with Gorbachev, he admired him, he and Barbara were always happy to welcome Gorbachev at their home. Later, Bush was taken aback to discover he’d been recorded. Nobody from the Soviet side had thought to tell him.

In retrospect, it’s extraordinary how close the Soviet and American leaders were at this moment, how much trust the Soviet leaders had in American journalists — as opposed to their own — and how jealously Yeltsin and Gorbachev fought for American attention. Worried by Yeltsin’s alcoholism and his unpredictable behaviour, Bush and his advisers clearly preferred the smoother, more clubbable Gorbachev. Yeltsin knew this — but instead of rejecting the Americans, he competed for their favour, at least at first.

Only later would he, along with his countryman, finally grow suspicious of the United States. Twenty years isn’t very much in the grand scheme of things. But this book is a reminder of how much change a mere two decades can bring.

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