Former Irish Times Moscow correspondent O’Clery (May You Live In Interesting Times, 2008, etc.) chronicles the last of day of the Soviet Union and pulls together the threads which lead to its dissolution.
The author gives microscopic attention to the telling details: whose pen was used to sign documents, how CNN got to broadcast Gorbachev’s speech and much more. Shaping the day, writes O’Clery, were the successive effects of the bitterness, resentments and grudges of the five-year rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Nothing went as agreed, not even the ceremony designed to transfer the Russian nuclear suitcase containing the weapons’ launch codes. The nuclear suitcase remained a constant, before and after, but so too were the petty rivalries that prompted Yeltsin to refuse to meet Gorbachev ever again because his final speech was an unacceptable insult. O’Clery presents Gorbachev as a kind of communist’s communist to the end—a safe in his office contained Stalin’s own file about the Katyn massacre and the Hitler-Stalin pact, even though Gorbachev had insisted these documents no longer existed. It was Yeltsin who helped win independence for Russia, got himself elected president against Gorbachev’s candidate, outlawed the Communist party, took over its property and organized the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev managed to keep the support of his Western admirers up to and even beyond the attempted coup in 1991.
A compelling story about how sometimes the little everyday things can shape the broad sweep of history more powerfully than ideologies or competitive economic systems.