China’s role in Soviet policy-making

Why should we want to read yet another thumping great book about the collapse of the Soviet empire? Sergey Radchenko attempts an answer in his well-constructed new work. Based on recently opened Soviet archives and on extensive work in the Chinese archives, it places particular weight on China’s role in Soviet policy-making. The details are colourful. It is fun to know that Mao Tse-Tung sent Stalin a present of spices, and that the mouse on which the Russians tested it promptly died. But the new material forces no major revision of previous interpretations. Perhaps the book is best seen as a meditation on the limitations of political power. Stalin and

Will Russians soon realise how remarkable Mikhail Gorbachev was?

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final president of the Soviet Union who died last night, was remarkable both as an international politician and as a domestic reformer. I first met him when he came to London in December 1984, when Mrs Thatcher said that she liked him and could do business with him. He was open, friendly, and spoke without notes: the opposite of his predecessors. Some of Thatcher’s own officials suspected that he was merely an old-fashioned communist who had learned new tricks, and that his charm was seducing her from her clear view of the Soviet threat. Thatcher was right, and the sceptics were wrong. By that time, the Soviet

Gorbachev was no saint. But he was a kind of hero

Mikhail Gorbachev is dead at the age of 91, and in a way I feel orphaned. I became fascinated by what was still then the Soviet Union in its late years of sclerosis, when one moribund geriatric at the top of the system succeeded another (the dark joke at the time went as follows: a KGB guard stopped someone at one of the state funerals and asked him if he had a pass – ‘oh,’ came the reply, ‘I’ve got a season ticket’). But my early years as a Russia-watcher were during his time as General Secretary, and if my seniors had become used to the idea that the USSR was a

An innocent abroad: a Dutch tour operator in 1980s Russia

‘One morning in late October 1988,’ begins The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street, ‘this dapper-looking guy from Leiden asked me if I might be able to deliver 7,000-odd Bibles to the Soviet Union.’ It’s the kind of line you might hear in a bar when you accidentally catch the eye of the resident storyteller — a tale so implausible it could just be true. Where on the scale between fact and fiction Pieter Waterdrinker’s memoir lies is impossible to tell, and beside the point: his engrossing 400-page account of post-Soviet disorder grips you and doesn’t let go. We meet the author — who may be the successful Dutch novelist himself,