The Fall of the Soviet Empire

It is rare to read an historical study that is unalloyed good news. Victor Sebestyen, a journalist specialising in East European affairs, whose own family fled Hungary when he was a boy, has provided the reader with a dramatic account of the death throes of Communism in the six Soviet satellite countries comprising the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania and Bulgaria. (Yugoslavia is not included as the author rightly judges that it requires a book on its own.) Of course it is a complex story; but still a story in which "good" -- the right of a country to govern itself -- triumphs over "evil" -- a tyrannous empire determined to control it. In the democratic West we have belatedly discovered the greedy shadow side of capitalism; learning here of daily life under Communism is still a salutary reminder of our own good fortune.

The author begins with an arresting quote from Lenin: "It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws. But when it comes, it moves irresistibly." Lenin was more right than he could have known and in a way that he would never have foreseen: in a fine irony it was his own vaunted "proletariat", the ordinary working people of Eastern Europe, who voted with their feet and in mass peaceable demonstrations, to throw off the intolerable yoke that the Communist system had imposed on them. The puzzle is that what to western observers looked like a permanent monolithic structure finally folded up in a matter of months.

Sebestyen divides his book into three sections: the Cold War, the Thaw and Revolution. He begins by describing how the post-war Yalta conference affected the six countries unwillingly positioned within the Russian sphere of influence. What characterised the Soviet Empire was not so much viciousness (after the death of Stalin) as a Byzantine bureaucracy, the dead weight of central planning and the consequent economic stagnation. Corruption was rife, helped by the system of patronage and sycophancy known as nomenklatura. Spies, secret police and surveillance helped to keep the citizenry from fleeing the socialist paradise forced on them.

The six countries here discussed had very different cultures, languages and traditions. The Soviet system, wedded to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and run by hard-line, hated, local placemen, was indifferent to these differences. Sebestyen provides fascinating details to show how Communism was enforced by these cynical apparatchiks. Under Erich Honecker, East Germany, the jewel in the Empire’s crown was effectively run by the Stasi (secret police). Their files ran to 125 miles of shelf space, each mile containing 17 million sheets of paper. In Poland, such was the rigidity of the Soviet market, that there were no hairpins available throughout the 1970s. Theft was the workplace was common. A well-worn East European joke was, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

In the section on "the Thaw", the author details the various elements that came into play during the 1970s onwards. There were new personalities on the world stage, in particular Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. Each, in different ways, wanted an end to the Cold War. Reagan stated this explicitly when asked why he wanted to run for a second term; the Pope, well aware that a direct confrontation with the Communists had to be avoided, visited Poland after his election, declaring "I have come to talk about the dignity of man"; Margaret Thatcher, meeting Gorbachev for the first time, announced "We can do business together". Gorbachev was the greatest mystery of all. The first Communist leader who could "walk, talk and think on his own", he believed, in a massive miscalculation of human nature, that the satellite countries, if allowed to govern themselves (the "Sinatra Doctrine"), would choose to join a "socialist commonwealth". When he realised he was wrong it was much too late to turn the clock back, and in any case he was instinctively a man of compromise, flexibility and imagination, with no stomach for violence and a wish to be popular -- not obvious characteristics of his predecessors.

Behind the personalities Sebestyen emphasises a more profound feature: "The USSR had lost its will to run an empire." The satellites, propped up by subsidies, were a constant drain on its own resources; the age of sending in the tanks, as in Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968, was over. There was also the long, botched war in Afghanistan, where 100,000 troops were deployed and which the Russians knew they could not win. The Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, had remarked at the beginning, with some understatement: "The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates and nearly all the rural population is illiterate. This is not a revolutionary situation." (One might now ask: is it a democratic situation?)

Finally, we come to "Revolution" -- the year 1989. The author goes through each of the six countries, showing the widening cracks: the increased demonstrations, jailing of dissidents, flight of refugees and quarrelling among the Communist leaders. As the Western observer, Timothy Garton Ash, commented on what has come to be known as the "Velvet Revolution", "In Poland it took ten years, in East Germany ten weeks, in Czechoslovakia ten days." Hungary began the process by taking the momentous decision to tear down the barbed wire and to open its borders with Austria; this immediately led to the "Trabant Trail" -- thousands of East Germans in their cheap, toxic little Trabants driving to Hungary for their supposed summer holidays - and thence to the border.

Watching the Berlin Wall being demolished was an extraordinary moment for western spectators; as East Germans flooded into West Berlin the joke was, "Will the last one left please turn out the light." Romania, along with Bulgaria the poorest of the satellites, made destitute by the grandiose building schemes of its loathed leader Ceausescu, delivered summary justice on him and his wife. Sebestyen, with a journalist’s flair for a vivid scene, begins his book with their rigged trial and execution by firing squad on Christmas Day that year.

The author makes no pretence of impartiality in this fascinating -- and heart-warming -- book. Like Ronald Reagan, he believes Communism was an "evil empire" and that it deserved to collapse under the weight of its own folly and mismanagement. It is the speed of this collapse that fires his account. At the end of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice in Wonderland, Alice declares of the topsy-turvy world into which she has tumbled, with its memorable and menacing characters, "You’re nothing but a pack of cards!" This metaphor came into my mind as I read the comment of Jerzy Wiatr, a leading Communist and political scientist at Warsaw University, on the rise of Solidarity, the free trade-union movement: "When we found ourselves in conflict with the workers, the whole mental house of cards began falling apart."

The many photos -- such as Lech Walesa addressing the shipyard workers at Gdansk, Brezhnev and Honecker in a geriatric embrace, the corpse of Ceausescu, the Pope greeting Gorbachev at the Vatican, Havel and Dubcek sharing celebratory champagne, dancing at the Brandenburg Gate, a weeping mother embracing her soldier son -- tell their own visual story.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK


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