Revolution 1989

Revolution 1989

The Fall of the Soviet Empire

Book - 2009
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From the author ofTwelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolutioncomes a revealing new account of the collapse of the Soviet Union's European empire during months of largely peaceful revolution that profoundly changed the world. At the start of 1989, six European nations were Soviet vassal states. By year's end, they had all declared national independence, embarking on the road to democracy. How did it happen so quickly? Why did the USSR capitulate so readily? Victor Sebestyen, who was on the scene reporting for the LondonEvening Standardat the time, draws on his firsthand knowledge of the events of 1989, on scores of interviews with other witnesses and participants, and on newly uncovered archival material to answer these questions in unprecedented depth. Sebestyen tells the story through the eyes of ordinary men and women, some of whom found themselves almost miraculously transformed: the furnace stoker who became the Czech foreign minister; the Romanian poet who, just freed from jail, was made vice president of the newly liberated nation. He shows how power was wielded or ceded by Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush, Lech Walesa, Václav Havel, and Margaret Thatcher, among others; how the KGB helped bring down former allied regimes; how the United States tried to slow the process; and why the collapse of the Iron Curtain was the catalyst for the fall of the entire Soviet empire. Authoritative, riveting in both its broad political sweep and its abundance of personal detail, this is an essential addition to the annals of contemporary history.
Publisher: New York : Pantheon Books, c2009.
ISBN: 9780375425325
0375425322
Characteristics: p. cm.

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dnk
Feb 04, 2018

The West was had. For decades, we believed that the USSR and it's Communist bloc countries were a powerful behemoth that could crush its enemies at will. 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia only heightened that belief. Certainly, the satellite states were ruled by dictators who shared ruthlessness (if not competence). But what we didn't know- and what only select Party members knew- was that their economies were propped up by loans from Western banks. Without them, the "empire" would have been insolvent in the 1970s, if not before. The USSR's economy was not as weak, but they were plagued with leaders who, as Reagan famously quipped, kept dying on us. By the time Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, he was desperate to improve relations with the West. Why? Because the military and defense budget were draining the Soviet economy.

As feted as glasnost and perestroika were, there was, shockingly, no plan covering how they should be implemented. Many in the West and bloc countries did not at first take him seriously; Gorbachev was the last in a long line of Soviet dictators who called for "reforms" before continuing the same policies of his predecessors.

As important as those policies were, they alone did not signal the beginning of the end of Communist dictatorships in Europe. Poland and Afghanistan were the first two fatal challenges to the regime. Poland had always been more difficult to control than the rest of the bloc, and the charismatic labor leader Lech Walesa began making trouble for the Party as early as 1980. Even earlier than that, the appointment of the Polish Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, energized the Polish population and encouraged hopes of reform.

The war in Afghanistan, initiated the same year as the Pope's election, was the real drain on the USSR's economy. In fairness, the Soviets did not start the war; however, they did nothing to prevent it. Even though the leadership received advice from their military that victory would be difficult, they entered anyway. The shame is that they stayed, despite the high cost to their troops. Had they not been fighting that war, they might have been willing to send troops into Poland to crush the Solidarity movement.

It is shocking, even decades later, to read how long it took for the bloc countries to take advantage of Gorbachev's policies and exploit them to their fullest potential. However, it becomes understandable as the author paints a picture of millions of people battered not only by low standards of living- for example, the elderly in Romania frequently died of hypothermia in their own homes because they had no heat- but the sense that they had all collaborated with farcical regimes merely to survive. While we in the 21st century may wonder why more people didn't more openly resist earlier, when we read about the resources the governments were willing to spend to follow and track the activities of "dissidents"- and the brutality with which they would crack down on them- it is easier to understand the culture of fear that was perpetuated in the Soviet empire. (It's also easy to understand why they were so bankrupt when they spent so much money on the surveillance of their own people.)

Sebestyen does an excellent job of capturing the mood of the countries, the empire and the world while at the same time providing brief biographies of the important players which put their actions into context. Sebesteyen does provide a balanced view of what was happening and when, but you can still practically see him shaking his head as he describes certain events, particularly the strange tale of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the convoluted role played by Martin Smid aka Ludvik Zifcak. The truth is stranger than fiction, especially when people are desperate to hold onto power.

h
hewhite2003
Jan 11, 2015

This book gives a nice readable overview of each Soviet Satellite as the Cold War comes to a close.

I highly recommend it.

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