The Fall of
the Soviet Empire
(Pantheon)Back when I was at university, there at the beginning of the Cold War, some of us history buffs were fascinated by the Soviet Union. It was a sure thing that any information coming in on radio or television was vastly skewed. Those were the days of Joseph McCarthy and Pat McCarren; it was impossible to visit Russia or indeed, any of the Soviet bloc; one could be suspected of disloyalty by just asking questions about those places.
A professor at my school, Dr. Schulke, was considered one of the leading experts, but his classes were sparsely attended. The first day I signed up, I found out why. He had a speech impediment, a fairly big one. For "Soviet" he said "Thoviet." For Russia he said "Ruthea." For "said" he said "thaid."
Once, a few weeks later, when I was in conference with him, he said to me, "I don't know how you can thand it." And I said, "Thand what?"
No, I didn't: I said, "I don't know what you mean." "The clath," he said. "It's a great class," I said. And I meant it. He was such a good teacher, pulling together strands here and there --- Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin; the peasants and American slaves; the Boyars and the Tsars --- he was so good that within a week most of us, his prize students, I swear, were beginning to talk like him. I tell you, he was that inspiring.
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Good teaching like good writing is a matter of life, facts and rhythm. Schulke's classes began gently, soared in the middle, and by the end, came to an artistic close.
And that is just the way that Victor Sebestyen handles the last days of the Soviet Empire. He knows his stuff. His facts --- many obtained by personal interview --- are impeccable. The pacing is compelling, jumping, as he must, from Moscow to Warsaw to Gdansk to the Kremlin ... going as far as Pripyat in the Ukraine, to Washington D. C., and back again.
He can be devilishly funny. The awful Nicolae Ceausescu, Party leader of Romania, decided that the women of the country weren't having enough babies, so women "were forced to undergo compulsory medical examinations every three months to be sure they were not having abortions."
They were rounded up from their work places and taken to clinics by armed squads of officials --- dubbed the menstrual police.
The Czech Communist Milos Jakes was known as "Dumpling Face" because of "his heavy build." In the early eighties, Ronald Reagan said that he wanted to talk to the Russian leaders, but, "They kept dying on me." (They did: three of them died in quick succession.) The Russian Ambassador to Portugal had a phrase for Gorbachev's policy regarding the satellite states. "The Brezhnev Doctrine, he said, was dead. Now the Soviets proceeded on the Sinatra Doctrine."
"You know the song, 'My Way.' Well ... these countries --- they can all do it Their Way."
There are some surprises here, and not all of them are pleasant. In November of 1983, all of us who were alive at the time almost didn't make it. The reason: Yuri Andropov, the Russian leader, was convinced that the United States and NATO "were about to mount a surprise nuclear attack against them and ordered the Soviet military to begin a countdown." It was just as bad --- maybe worse --- than the Cuban Missile Crisis (worse because hardly anyone knew it was happening; thus, there were no countervailing forces inside or outside the Russia and the U. S.).
It started with the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and a heavier than usual series of NATO maneuvers --- called the Able Archer exercise --- and included the unwillingness of Reagan and his advisers to believe or accept the fact that the Russians had gone into full red alert. Sebestyen says convincingly that "through a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations, Armageddon was averted more by luck than sound judgment towards the end of 1983."
He also believes that the crisis "radically" changed Ronald Reagan into a covert peacenik, that many of his efforts in his second term in office were aimed at dousing the nuclear fuse. "The realization turned him from a harsh Cold Warrior into a far more emollient statesman."
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Revolution 1989 is not only well written, and a model of pacing, it contains some moments so moving as to bring a chill: the Velvet Revolution, accomplished with "music, wit, humour, laughter and a little absurdity." (One of the music groups that inadvertently caused the fall of the Communists was named "The Society for a Merrier Present.")
We also find out that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not caused by a conscious decision in the hard-core East Berlin Communist leadership. It was a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Jager who decided that the crowds at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint simply could not be controlled (or murdered ... as they had been so often in the past). Said Jager,
There were so many people and they didn't have space to move. If a panic started, people would have been crushed. We had pistols. I had given instructions not to use them, but what if one of the men had lost his nerve? Even a shot in the air ... I cannot imagine what reactions that would have provoked. I told my superiors that I couldn't hold the checkpoint any longer.
"He ordered two of his men to lift the red and white gate --- and waved the crowds through, to rapturous applause."
And if you ever have doubts about the CIA, Revolution 1989 will redouble them: this on the events in the late fall of 1989 East Germany, from the senior analyst on the Soviet bloc, Milt Bearden: "The harsh fact is that we didn't have any spies in place who could give us much insight ... into plans in East Germany, or, for that matter, in the Kremlin." It was
CNN rather than the CIA that would keep Washington informed of the events in Berlin --- The CIA had no human intelligence on events ... none of our assets in the capitals of Eastern Europe, and in the Soviet Union, were in a position to tell us what was going on.
Your tax dollars at work.--- Richard Saturday