Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union Hardcover – October 24, 1995
"Devoted" by Dean Koontz
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About the Author
- Item Weight : 2.75 pounds
- Hardcover : 836 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0679413766
- ISBN-13 : 978-0679413769
- Product Dimensions : 6.75 x 2.5 x 9.75 inches
- Publisher : Random House; 1st Edition (October 24, 1995)
- Language: : English
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#631,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #32,426 in Politics & Government (Books)
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Ambassador Matlock covers the collapse of Soviet Union starting from Mikhail Gorbachev's appointment as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985 through the early travails of the Russian Republic under Boris Yeltsin in 1992-92. He provides a detailed chronology of the events in this story and vivid descriptions of the multitude of personalities who played significant roles in them. Rather than attempt to describe or summarize these events and personalities, I hope in this review to provide a high level overview of the situation, conflicts, and strategies underlying the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was not a normal country. It was founded on the Marxist theory of the class struggle. The existence of non-Marxist states abroad or non-Marxist parties domestically were considered direct threats to the USSR and the CPSU. To counter the threats abroad, the early foreign policy of the USSR was based on supporting world-wide revolution by local communist movements. Following World War II, this policy evolved into support of wars of national liberation by communist forces in the developing countries and the Cold War with the US and its allies. To counter domestic threats, Article VI of the Soviet Constitution gave the CPSU a "Leading Role" in setting and executing the policies of the Soviet government. Every unit in the Soviet military and every office in the civilian government contained a Party Cell to insure that local policies and personnel adhered to Party doctrine as handed down from the CPSU central hierarchy, the Central Committee, Politburo, and General Secretary. Herein lay the seeds of destruction of the CPSU and USSR. Lenin and his successors used Marxist theory of class struggle to justify rule by force domestically. Soviet foreign policy was based on the premise that non-Marxist states or societies were, by their existence, threats to the USSR. The one party Soviet state and the Cold War could not end until the Soviet Union dropped the concept of the class struggle as its defining concept. If it did so, the Soviet system would have no arguable rationale. The Soviet system was therefore frozen by its ideology.
The system described above provided no mechanism for corrective feedback to the central hierarchy. Workers and party members were judged and promoted for their rigorous support of Party doctrine. By 1985, six decades of rigorous support of Party doctrine had all but eliminated any possibility of change. This static situation was then overlaid by corruption that became endemic during Leonid Brezhnev's tenure as General Secretary - production reports were forged, resources were diverted for personal benefit, and anyone who complained was demoted and punished.
And then a miracle occurred. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was selected to become the new General Secretary of the CPSU following the death of Konstantin Chernenko.
Gorbachev was intelligent, well educated, and on a very fast track to power. To rise to the position of General Secretary, he had to have established his loyalty of the Party and its doctrine. Once there, like all his predecessors, he held vast, but not absolute power over both the Party and the State. The only effective limit on the power of the General Secretary was demonstrated in 1964 when a faction of the CPSU Central Committee led by Leonid Brezhnev removed Nikita Khrushchev as General Secretary.
3. Gorbachev, Reagan and the End of the Cold War
However, at some point, Gorbachev realized that the Soviet system was stagnant, the economy was failing to keep up with the West, and that if nothing was done, the Soviet Union would fall behind its rivals economically and militarily. This situation was compounded by President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Gorbachev realized that he could not afford to fund a Soviet counter to SDI and desperately sought to eliminate it by negotiation a treaty with the US that froze or reduced strategic arms, including SDI. The first two summit meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan (1985 in Geneva and 1986 in Reykjavik) served to establish a dialog between the two leaders, convincing each of the sincerity of the other, but producing no treaty. (Note: During these events, Jack Matlock was the lead Soviet analyst on the National Security Council (NSC) and a key player on Reagan's negotiating team. He held that position from 1983 when he replaced Richard Pipes at the NSC until 1987 when he was appointed ambassador to Moscow.)
Gorbachev initially sought to limit negotiations to the topic of strategic arms and (naturally) tried to get something for nothing: Limit both US development of SDI and deployment of intermediate range Pershing missiles in Western Europe (the Soviets had already deployed their intermediate range SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe). Reagan (naturally) refused this one-sided bargain and sought to tie arms limitations with three other areas of conflict, resulting in his Four Point agenda that became the basis for US-Soviet negotiations:
* Reduce stockpiles of arms, especially nuclear weapons
* Reduce the threat of force in solving international disputes¸ especially Soviet support of conflict in third countries (Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, etc)
* Reduce Soviet restrictions on human rights, especially limits on emigration from the Soviet Union
* Establish a free exchange of information and ideas between peoples of Soviet Union and the West
Reagan and his advisors recognized that the Soviet Union was inching toward economic collapse due to its inefficiency and the enormous cost of the Cold War. They also recognized that Gorbachev could not afford to reach any agreement with the West that his rivals in the Soviet bureaucracy could portray as a Western victory over the Soviet Union - to do so would almost certainly result in his removal from power and the rejection of his agreement by his successors. Reagan's strategy was to present the first two items in his Four Point agenda as mutually beneficial for the Soviets and the West and the last two as issues he needed to address in order to persuade the Senate to ratify any treaty. The strategy worked. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in Washington in December 1987, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
4. The End of the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Berlin Wall
In addition to its fifteen constituent republics, the USSR controlled the countries of Eastern Europe which it occupied at the end of WWII: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungry, Romania, and Bulgaria. (The communist governments of Yugoslavia and Albania previously had broken with Moscow.) Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, formulated to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union claimed to have a "fraternal socialist obligation" to protect "socialist" (i.e., Soviet controlled) rule wherever it existed. This was another manifestation of the Marxist doctrine of class struggle which Lenin used to declare any non-Marxist state or party to be a threat to the Soviet Union.
In 1989, Gorbachev initiated actions that effectively ended the Brezhnev Doctrine and Soviet control of the six countries of Eastern Europe. His motivation was probably some combination of economic necessity and commitment to the Reagan Four Point Agenda. Regardless of his motivation, events moved exceedingly rapidly and these countries were free seven months later:
* April: Gorbachev withdraws Soviet troops from Hungry
* June: The anti-communist party Solidarity wins the first free elections in Poland
* July: Gorbachev announces that the Soviet Union will not block reforms in Eastern
* August: Non-communist government formed in Poland
* September: Hungry announces it will not block East Germans from crossing through Hungry to Austria and on to West Germany
* October: East Germany removes its communist party leader, Erich Honecker
Hungry declares itself a republic and schedules free elections
The foreign Ministers of the Warsaw Pact renounce the Brezhnev Doctrine
* November: East Germany abolishes travel restrictions and populace tears down the
5. Domestic Restructuring (Perestroika)
The Soviet state, though an empire, rested on the legal fiction that it was a voluntary union of fifteen sovereign republics. Gorbachev sought to liberalize the Soviet Union politically and to improve its economic performance while retaining the essentials of communist economics: central planning and state control industry, agriculture, and commerce. This strategy was the reverse of the Chinese reform model under which the Chinese Communist Party retained complete control of government while opening the economy limited private ownership and decision making.
Political liberalization took the cork out of the genie's bottle and allowed ideas counter to the Class Struggle to escape. Recall that the Baltic Republics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union under a secret protocol the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty (negotiated by the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). The US and its allies never recognized the Baltic Republics as part of the Soviet Union.
Ambassador Matlock suggests that at some point Gorbachev realized that any solution to either his foreign or domestic problems required the elimination of the "Leading Role" of the CPSU in Article VI of the soviet Constitution. The Marxist doctrine of class struggle blocked both any permanent accommodation with the West and any opening to Western information and ideas domestically. (I suspect that the suppression of information on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster by the Soviet bureaucracy and subsequent exposure of large numbers of the Soviet population to radiation may have been the tipping point in Gorbachev's thinking.)
Gorbachev's political strategy was to change the Soviet Constitution by eliminating the Leading Role of the CPSU. His first step was to create an elected parliament, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies for which contested elections were held in March 1989. In May 1989, the first session of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies elected Gorbachev Chairman of the Supreme Soviet and chief of state. In February 1990, the Central committee of the CPSU approved the elimination of Article VI of the Soviet Constitution, thereby eliminating the Party's monopoly on power.
This change was approved by the Central Committee in 1990. To remain in control of the government, Gorbachev then sought to establish the new office of President. The first president was to be elected by the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, subsequent presidents by popular votes. Gorbachev was duly elected as the first president.
When the draft constitutional change to create the presidential office was published, the provision for the popular elections required the winning candidate to obtain a majority of all votes and a majority vote in a majority of the republics of the USSR. Of the 15 Soviet Republics, seven (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia) were in varying degrees of open revolt with Lithuania having already declared independence.
6. The August 1991 Coup Against Gorbachev
During his tenure at the peak of Soviet power, 1985-91, Gorbachev was surrounded by what I will characterize as four groups of politically influential subordinates. These groups vacillated between supporting and opposing Gorbachev who also vacillated in his policies and strategies. Simply put, these four groups were:
* The hard core Communist Party apparatchiks and often opponents to Gorbachev, represented by Vladimir Kryuchkov, (Chairman of the KGB, 1988-91) and Dimitri Yazov (Soviet Army General and USSR Minister of Defense, 1987-91)
* The more moderate Communist traditional politicians and sometimes supporters of Gorbachev, represented by Yegor Ligachev (member of the Poiliburo and Central committee, CPSU) and Anatoly Lukyanov (Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Soviet)
* Liberal supporters of Gorbachev and Perestroika, represented by Alexander Yakovlev (Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, 1985-90) and Eduard Shevardnadze (Foreign Minister, 1985-90)
* Radical reformers and sometimes supporters of Gorbachev, represented by Boris Yeltsin, (member of CPSU Politburo, USSR Congress of Peoples' Deputies, Russian Congress of Peoples' Deputies, and President, Russian Republic)
By the spring of 1990, the Interregional Group of radical reformers loosely led by Boris Yeltsin, had come to distrust Gorbachev's motives. The radical reformers and Gorbachev's liberal supporters generally supported Stanislav Shatalin's plan to dramatically reform the Soviet economy over a period of 500 days. When Gorbachev rejected the Plan, Shatalin and other radical reformers coalesced around Yeltsin in opposition to Gorbachev. Gorbachev's liberal supporters generally dropped out of the picture about this time, led by Shevardnadze's resignation as Foreign Minister in December 1990.
In the fall of 1990, Gorbachev started turning to the Communist traditionalists and hard core Communists for support and named members of these groups into powerful positions (Boris Pugo as Interior Minister, Valentin Pavlov as Prime Minister).
Yeltsin was by this time the elected Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet which in June 1990 declared that it was a sovereign republic within the USSR and that Russian laws took precedence over Soviet laws. In July Ukraine declared its sovereignty and elected Leonid Kravchuk as Chairman of its Supreme Soviet. The stage was set for a confrontation between Gorbachev, as leader of the Soviet Union, and the leaders of the constituent republics, led by Yeltsin.
Meanwhile, in March 1990, Lithuania had declared itself not only sovereign but independent of the Soviet Union based on the invalidity of its incorporation under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty of 1939. Latvia and Estonia followed. In January 1991, Gorbachev ordered the Lithuanian government to restore "constitutional order" or face the consequences. Three days later, a KGB detachment took control of the television broadcast tower in Vilnius with considerable loss of life. It appears that this action was taken without Gorbachev's authorization or knowledge.
In an attempt to peaceably halt the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev proposes a new Union Treaty under which the constituent republics would agree to the formation of a new Union with specific rights and procedures for the republics to withdraw and become independent states. The Union Treaty was approved in principle by the USSR Supreme Soviet in July 1991. Gorbachev informed Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev, leader of Kazakhstan, that he would remove the most hard-core Communist members of the Soviet government (KGB Chairman Kryuchkov and Interior Minister Pavlov) after the Union Treaty is signed on August 20, 1991.
That last sentence contains the two factors that led to the August 18, 1991, coup to remove Gorbachev:
* If the Union Treaty were signed and became law, there would be a clear legal path for any of the constituent republics to withdraw from the new Union. Since most of the republics had already declared sovereignty or outright independence, the old Soviet Union was certain to be drastically reduced if the Union Treaty went into effect.
* KGB Chairman Kryuchkov had bugged the meeting between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and Nazarbayev and knew that he and P were about to be fired. KGB transcripts of Gorbachev's meeting were later found in the safe of one of the coup plotters.
These factors led Kryuchkov to assemble the other hard-core Communist members of the Soviet Government and persuade them to mount the coup to remove Gorbachev. Happily, the plotters were as inept as they were malignant and the coup collapsed within a few days. Yeltsin, who was flying back to Moscow after a meeting with Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, narrowly escaped having his plane shot down and survived to become the leader and hero of the opposition to the coup.
7. The Post Coup Collapse
The failure of the August Coup did not guarantee the collapse of the Soviet Union, but certainly set the stage for it. Key factors in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 were:
* The illegitimate nature of the Soviet Union from its very founding: Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 from Kerensky's Provisional Russian Government in a coup, fought a bloody civil war against all other political and social elements, staged coups similar to the one executed in Russia in eleven other republics, and then absorbed the three Baltic states in a secret pact with Hitler.
* The discredit Gorbachev brought on himself in handling the KGB attack on Lithuania, even if he did not order it.
* The republic leaders desire for power: As the USSR collapsed, the desire to control economic assets in the republics united republic nationalists and party apparatchiks in an unhealthy alliance against both the Soviet center and emerging market forces.
* The failure of the August 1991 Coup demonstrated the incompetence of the hard-core Communist plotters and the vulnerability of the Soviet system to its tradition of political intrigue.
* The dysfunctional central government prevented any movement or resolution of the chaotic situation after the coup.
* The fall of the Berlin Wall and liberation of Eastern Europe demonstrated a new vitality of freedom and the impotence of the old Soviet power.
On November 6, 1991, Russia abolished all Soviet ministries except Defense, Foreign Affairs, Rail, Electric Power, Nuclear Power. Yeltsin decreed that the Russian government would henceforth control of all Soviet assets on Russian soil except for the Soviet Central Bank which came under the control of the Russian Parliament.
On December 1, 1991, the citizens of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for total independence rather than membership in any restructured union. Without Ukraine, the remaining republics, if they chose to associate in a union, would have been so dominated by the population, and economic and political weight of Russia, that they would have had little say in the union government and would essentially be absorbed by Russia. A restructured union became impossible at that point.
On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet flag was permanently lowered at the Kremlin.
Besides having odd biases, the writer's tone is generally unclear. His narrative is something of a blend between biography and history, and he hops around a lot from talking about Russians, Americans, and his own personal activities. Someone as politically influential as he was at the time definitely has a good perspective on things, but it would have been better if he simply stuck to his own story. It frequently feels like he's talking about things he doesn't understand, or else talking about his own perceptions. It also seems pretty odd that an American would have such insight into the activities of Gorbachev and other Russian politicians. An author with more of a historical and less of a political background would be preferable.
While there are things to learn from this book, particularly about Soviet politics, the author does not feel reliable. Better books on Communism are Life and Death in Shanghai, The Gulag Archipelago, and Mao: the Unknown Story. The Red Flag is also good for the history of Communism and its origins.