Twenty-five years ago this week, the Soviet Union came to an abrupt an uneventful end. Six years earlier, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated a series of reforms across the USSR designed to end the economic and political stranglehold that made it the lesser of the two great world powers. By Christmas Day, 1991, the government whose former leader had promised the United States that “we will crush you” slipped into a quiet nonexistence.
The events of that fateful December day are carefully documented in Moscow: December 25, 1991, by Irish Times correspondent Conor O’Clery. As the story of “The Last Day of the Soviet Union” unfolds, the chapters tie each passing hour to the events that led up to the collapse of the biggest Communist nation on earth. Those events are sometimes dramatic, sometimes even violent: Gorbachev’s 1985 speech announcing the policies of glasnost and perestroika; the rise of the blustery Siberian politician Boris Yeltsin, first as mayor of Moscow, and then as president of Russia; and the attempted coup by Communist party leaders in August 1991, where both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were halfheartedly arrested.
The book bills itself as “a chronicle of one day in the history of one city. The day is Wednesday, December 25, 1991. The city is Moscow.” Yet by the time the final day arrives, the focus is no longer on Moscow, but instead on the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin—or rather, on the lack of any cordial relationship at all. Through personal first-hand interviews and deep coverage of the documentation from the closing Soviet era, O’Clery tells the true yet sad tale of two reformers doomed to despise each other.
Gorbachev comes to power in 1985, a breath of reformist fresh air after the sudden deaths of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the two previous status quo Communist Party General Secretaries. He inherits a broken union, where “corruption and alcoholism were a way of life.” His reforms are met with suspicion by party leaders, but with a bit of hope by the Soviet republics, and by the reform-minded Yeltsin, “the hard-drinking, backwoods Siberian.” When Gorbachev seats Yeltsin as Moscow’s mayor nine months after his own promotion to national leader, he calls Yeltsin “a fresh strong wind,” a wind that eventually blows the Soviet system away.
Throughout the book, Gorbachev is portrayed as enlightened as to the failings of Communism, but completely unaware of its Capitalist counterpart, or of the upheaval that a sudden change from one system to the other will bring, including the loss of his own power. Until the bitter end, even as every vestige of authority is taken from him, he insists that he has a role to play in a top-down, managed system, one where the economy, politicians, and “independent” republics will fall into line. But within 24 hours of his resignation, he is forced out of his state-supplied home, and has to beg for a car to take him and his wife Raisa to their next apartment.
Yeltsin seems equally unsure of the future, presented by O’Clery as an angry, drunk oaf, simultaneous heroic and pathetic. His desire to bring the Communist regime to an end is driven in part by his concerns for Russia, and also for his bitter hatred of Gorbachev. In the final month of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin, along with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, decide the fate of the continent without much input from the official national leader. When Yeltsin and Gorbachev do meet on December 23, 1991, to discuss the transition of power, Yeltsin can barely contain his contempt. After that planning session, the two leaders never meet again. Even the final transfer of the chemodanchik—the nuclear football—takes place through military intermediaries.
Like William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960, O’Clery’s book excels due to its extensive research, its use of primary sources, and its direct interviews between the author and key figures in the Soviet Union’s downfall. For the typical westerner, most of the names are unfamiliar. But the author makes them familiar to the reader, in part because they are familiar to him. (Vladimir Putin, the current Prime Minister of Russia and Yeltsin’s replacement as President, appears in a minor role, first as a mid-grade KGB operative, and later as a bureaucrat in the St. Petersburg mayoral office.)
From the initial rise of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to the sad end when the first and last president of the Soviet Union had to borrow a pen from CNN president Tom Johnson to sign his resignation letter, Moscow: December 25, 1991 does at great job at making a major historical event personal.