Magazine article The Spectator

Thus Do Empires End

Magazine article The Spectator

Thus Do Empires End

Article excerpt

Moscow: 25 December 1991

by Conor O'Clery

Transworld, £25, pp. 423,

ISBN 9781848271135

'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 a latter-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. …

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