Murray Polner: Review of Conor O’Clery’s “Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union" (Public Affairs, 2011)


Murray Polner is the author of numerous books, the former editor of Present Tense, and a book review editor for the History News Network.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin each ate hot cereal for breakfast, had loving and protective wives and children, rose through Communist Party ranks to become quintessential members of the nomenklatura, or bureaucratic elite. Above all, in this lively, stimulating account of the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, Conor O’Clery, the Irish Times’s Moscow-based journalist, offers a mini-John le Carré treatment of constant warfare inside the once-secret walls of the Kremlin. Endemic corruption, ineptitude, and conspiracies, plus the loss of faith in the Soviet’s military-industrial complex, a failed war in Afghanistan, and a crumbling economy helped to destroy the Soviet Union. All it seemed to need was a push from the inside. Who did what to whom and why and its consequences is the heart of O’Clery’s portrayal. Stalin, Beria and the rest of the gang of murderers were gone but what they left in their wake was a predictable quest for power and privilege by those who followed them.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of three of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics—Russia, Ukraine and Belorussia—met in the Belovezh Forest not far from Minsk and agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who came into office in 1985, had softened the face of communism dramatically by introducing his glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) reforms, both hailed by the U.S. and Western Europe and for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. He released the brilliant dissenter Andrei Sakharov from internal exile in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), opened prison doors for political prisoners, loosened religious restrictions, and allowed the restive satellite republics to depart without violence. His Icelandic meeting with Ronald Reagan helped to end the Cold War and turn attention to the vast store of nuclear weapons held by both nations. When he drove down Third Avenue in Manhattan he was greeted by cheering crowds. “Misha,” his loving and supportive wife Raisa once told him, “You are destined for greatness.”

It was not to be. Gorbachev, who brought Yeltsin to Moscow from his provincial post, came to despise Yeltsin, a feeling Yeltsin amply returned. Yet “linked together by history, they [were] consumed with bitterness over real and imagined slights,” writes O’Clery. Gorbachev, ousted in 1991, was ejected from his presidential position by Yeltsin and many of his former friends and allies. He had also once been subjected to a bungled military coup but soon after became a man without power, widely if unfairly detested by many Russians for the ensuing massive increase in poverty and joblessness.  Yeltsin won their power struggle and then gave his predecessor four days to quit his office and presidential dacha, and saw to it that he was persona non grata in “official circles.” Once done, Gorbachev and Yeltsin never met again.

With Gorbachev gone, Yeltsin told his fellow Russians in January 1992 that communism, not Russia, had caused their problems but urged them not to surrender to hopelessness, even though “life is now hard for all of us.” He turned the country into an unfettered free market and opened the door for hundreds of Western experts, multinational corporations, and even fast food chains to teach Russians the benefits of capitalism. While many Muscovites did eventually benefit and allowed lots of Russians to become fabulously wealthy, the country became a veritable Wild West, initiating an era of crime and economic despair.

O’Clery cites the rise of the great plunderers, the so-called oligarchs, who for next to nothing were allowed to buy Russia’s natural resources. “Shock therapy” and “privatization” were the order of the day and ordinary Russians suffered badly. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, back from his Vermont exile, compared “privatization” to “the same blind madness, the same destructive haste as the nationalization of 1917 and the collectivization of 1930.” And historian Stephen F. Cohen wrote that Yeltsin’s moves led to "a profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism…a return to the country’s neo-Bolshevik tradition of imposed change, as many Russians, and even a few Western, writers have characterized it.”

Was Yeltsin or Gorbachev the right person to lead a post-Cold War Russia? If not, who was? As is well-known, Yeltsin was alleged to be trying to kill himself and of course he was a genuine alcoholic. In Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes, Bill Clinton told Branch that while Yeltsin was a guest at Blair House the Secret Service found him drunk and in his underwear trying to hail a taxi on a Washington street. The following night he tried to evade the agents by sneaking out of the Blair basement. A guard mistook him for a burglar until Russian and U.S. agents intervened before a gun was fired.

However, in the end, O’Clery credits both men for introducing the first free elections, permitting a free press, curtailing the supremacy of the Communist Party, freeing the satellite states, and concluding the Cold War—though a rivalry, however subtle, still exists between the two largest nuclear superpowers in potential war zones in the Middle East and East Asia.

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