Friday 15 December 2017

Review: Politics: Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day Of The Soviet Union by Conor O'Clery

Transworld Ireland, €15.99

Moscow, December 25, 1991 grips you from first to last. Hour by hour, minute by minute, we follow the movements of the two protagonists of this book, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin -- one knowing his time is up, the other hungry to assume control of the new Russia -- as they play out their final duel on the last day of the Soviet Union.

Combining the analytical skills of the historian sifting through masses of data, and the doggedness of a reporter after a big story, O'Clery's minutely researched and riveting history is likely to become the standard account of what happened on that momentous day.

Using an array of sources, including interviews with key players, memoirs of contemporaries, newspaper reports, academic accounts and, above all, his own experience as Ireland's first Soviet correspondent, O'Clery succeeds brilliantly in recreating the febrile atmosphere of Kremlin intrigue, rivalry and plain nastiness -- from both sides -- that led not only to the acrimonious sundering of personal relations between Gorbachev and his erstwhile protégé Yeltsin, but arguably to the break-up of the world's first socialist state -- an event described by Vladimir Putin as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".

Wherever you open this book, arresting details jump out at you. The two adversaries, on the last occasion they would meet, hammering out Gorbachev's retirement package in the Kremlin Walnut Room, Gorbachev drinking his favourite Jubilee cognac, Yeltsin sticking to vodka. After the deal is struck, Gorbachev's friend and the 'father of glasnost', Alexander Yakovlev, finds his erstwhile boss "lying on the sofa with tears in his eyes".

Cut to the small courtyard outside the Senate Building in the Kremlin complex and a triumphant Yeltsin clinking glasses with his acolytes, boasting that he will never again have to go and see his nemesis. "You mean from now on, Gorbachev will have to come and see you?" one of them asks. "What for?" Yeltsin replies. " ... Well, maybe to pick up the pension."

Such vivid images bring this story of rivalry between two vainglorious politicians alive. But interwoven with O'Clery's minute-by-minute chronicle is a detailed and sophisticated analysis of the six years leading up to December 25, 1991. Read this book and you will understand what Gorbachev's revolution was, and why, depending on how you look at things, it either succeeded or failed.

O'Clery skilfully takes readers though all the main events that marked one of the most exhilarating periods in Russia's history: Gorbachev's own rise to become Party General Secretary, his policies of glasnost and perestroika; the failed August 1991 coup; Yeltsin's humiliating fall and ascent again; and, finally, the secret meeting in a forest near Minsk that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union and made its first and last president, Gorbachev, redundant.

For those who have some experience of the Soviet Union in its dying days it seems clear that the country ran itself into the ground. Neither the "barrack room socialism" of Gorbachev's predecessor, Brezhnev, nor Gorbachev's own reformed socialism worked.

According to Yakovlev, Gorbachev's mistake was that he didn't go far enough. "He couldn't understand that if you took a sword to a monster like the system, you had to go all the way ... but he was an evolutionist ... " Perhaps.

Some Russia-watchers speculate that if Gorbachev had handled things more skilfully, like the Chinese now, maintaining an oppressive, Stalinist discipline while encouraging economic liberalism, everything might have worked out differently and the Soviet Union would still be around. Others argue Russia has been moving in this very direction over the last decade. Certainly, as a result of the unholy mess left behind by Yeltsin, there has been a strong and not entirely healthy desire for "order" in the country.

For all the human foibles shared by both protagonists -- ambition, envy, vanity, pettiness, the desire for power -- one is left with the feeling that history will judge Gorbachev more kindly than Yeltsin.

Dr John Murray lectures in the Department of Russian Studies at Trinity College Dublin

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