A sturdy examination of events that led to the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes.
The “classic narrative,” writes former Evening Standard reporter Sebestyen (Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 2006, etc.), of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War lays huge credit at the door of Ronald Reagan. Humbug, he replies. The United States and its allies won the Cold War because of a policy of containment that had stretched out for four decades. Reagan accomplished nothing toward that end until, in his second term, he relaxed his bellicose attitude and “tried a new, more conciliatory approach” that led to meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. If anything, to judge by Sebestyen’s episodic, skillfully narrated account, Gorbachev deserves more acknowledgment than ever for his work in dismantling the Soviet Union. Though that may not have been his intention, his decision not to meet with the faltering leaders of Bulgaria and Romania and to keep Soviet troops off the streets of East Germany and Czechoslovakia made it easier for the revolutions there to gather force. Polish-born pontiff John Paul II was another architect of those great revolutions, as Soviet leader Yuri Andropov presciently warned when he predicted that the pope’s election “could foreshadow disaster for the Soviet empire.” Indeed it did, and so quickly did those revolutions unfold—ten years in the case of Poland, as it was said at the time, but only ten days for Czechoslovakia—that it was the leaders of the West, notably George H.W. Bush, who found themselves supporting the Soviets and advising Soviet leaders that they would look the other way were the Brezhnev doctrine to be invoked. Sebestyen’s book contains all the familiar cast of characters, including Dick Cheney (who predicted that Gorbachev would be ousted by a strong-arm communist leader), Brent Scowcroft and Condoleezza Rice.
A well-crafted, constantly revealing study of the world-altering changes of recent history.