Anne Applebaum

Thus do empires end

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

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