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Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire Hardcover – October 27, 2009
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Victor Sebestyen on Revolution 1989
- The principal reasons the Soviet empire fell was the USSR's disastrous decade-long war in Afghanistan, which is eerily reminiscent of the conflict the West is involved in now. Soviet generals of 20 or 25 years ago were saying almost identical things about their war against the Mujahideen (The Army of God) as NATO soldiers are saying now fighting the Taleban. Just substitute the names and it would be hard to spot the difference. Even more topically, many of the places where battles are being fought now are the same as then.
- Almost nobody predicted the sudden and speedy collapse of Communism--and its defeat was the last war that the West won. Almost nobody in politics, diplomacy, the military, the media or academia saw it coming. Least of all was it predicted by the intelligence agencies.
- Despite trillions of dollars and rubles spent on spying in forty years of Cold War--as well as a vast industry in espionage books and movies--the spooks in the East and West were hopelessly ill informed. The CIA consistently over-emphasized the strength of the Soviet bloc. Even in the Spring of 1989 the then Director of the CIA, Robert Gates, said the Soviets would use force to keep their hold on the East Europe states and, amongst other wrong calls, said the Kremlin would "never" let the Berlin Wall come down. Robert Gates is now US Secretary for Defense.
- Ronald Reagan was a great President, but he is admired for the wrong reasons. The classsic explanation for the collapse of Communism is that Reagan's tough rhetoric against the "Evil Empire" and his arms build-up defeated the Soviets. Quite the opposite is true. We can now take a more nuanced view. When he took a hard line Reagan got nowhere. In fact, it nearly led to a nuclear war by accident. He was successful when he took a soft line and began negotiating with the Russians, in particular with Mikhail Gorbachev. His greatness was in seizing that opportunity--not by ideology. It is hard to see why Reagan is a hero amongst conservatives at all.
- Western bankers did more to bring down Communism than did Presidents or Prime Ministers. Foreign debt forced a crisis in countries like Poland and East Germany and Hungary, which were spending three quarters of their income on paying the interest on loans from the West. The debt crisis--another topical theme now--was a vital factor in the story of 1989.
- The book reveals new information about how the first President Bush tried to slow down the process of change in 1989. He was worried the revolutions were happening so quickly that "global security" was at risk and that some of the East European dissidents were not ready to take power. There is a dramatic scene in the book when George Bush goes to Poland in the summer of '89 to plead with the Communist general in charge of the country to cling on to office for a while longer. —Victor Sebestyen
(Photo © Stacey Mutkin)
U.S. Praise for Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire
“Vivid personal glimpses and striking details . . . Victor Sebestyen’s book is full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative.”
—Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books
“A sturdy examination of events that led to the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. . . Sebestyen’s episodic, skillfully narrated account . . . [is] a well-crafted, constantly revealing study of the world-altering changes of recent history.”
“Sebestyen’s brilliantly written narrative unfolds in brief, gripping episodes . . . A must-have accounting.”
—Andrew Bast, Newsweek
“In the last few months, numerous books have come out that attempt to synthesize the compelling story of the fall of communism, but Revolution 1989 comes closest to being the essential volume. Sebestyen’s elegant narrative lays out in crisp episodes what was happening in Russia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan throughout the tumultuous 1980s. His portrait of Gorbachev is particularly sharp—and asks us to reconsider the Soviet leader’s surprising role 20 years ago. As a refugee from Hungary in 1956, Sebestyen brings a personal touch to these historic moments.”
—The Daily Beast
. . . and from the UK:
“Sebestyen’s strength is his sharp focus and racy prose . . . Here is history written like a Greek tragedy . . .”
—Michael Binyon, The Times (London)
“Victor Sebestyen’s vivid, panoramic work is a fine account . . . The writing is taut, the scene-setting dramatic, giving the book an almost cinematic feel.”
—Adam LeBor, The Sunday Times (London)
“Pacy and vivid . . . [Sebestyen] is a thoroughly professional writer with a gift not only for exposition but also evocation.”
—Anthony Howard, The Daily Telegraph
“A compelling and illuminating account of a great drama in the history of our times which showed once again that ordinary men and women really can change the world.”
—Jonathan Dimbleby, The Mail on Sunday
“Revolution 1989 is a lucid primer on the background to, and events of, that magical year. Sebestyen’s narrative is clear, entertaining, and sure-footed.”
—Angus Macqueen, The Guardian
“It’s a complex story spanning many countries, but this exciting yet deeply researched work brings it impressively to life . . . Compelling.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Observer
“A rollicking mix of high drama and sordid reality . . . spiced with telling quotations.”
“A thrilling read . . . Sebestyen is good at sketching the leading players but he also succinctly conveys what life was like for ordinary citizens.”
—Christopher Sylvester, Daily Express
“Victor Sebestyen brilliantly pulls together the events that led to the fall of the Soviet empire . . .”
—Richard Beeston, The Spectator
“The tale fair rips along . . . A solid piece of storytelling of an exhilarating and enspiriting moment of history.”
—Misha Glenny, Evening Standard
“Revolution 1989 is a superbly written and impressively documented chronicle of the year John Paul II described as an annus mirabilis . . . A vivid portrait.”
—Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Times Literary Supplement
“Sharp focus and racy prose capture the events and decisions that fed into the growing turmoil across Eastern Europe as the East German regime crumbled.”
—The Times (London) “We’re Reading” section
“Sebestyen has made an excellent job of organising his disparate material, so that the reader can recapture, with the same sense of bafflement and elation, the events that made the Europe we live in—and after twenty years he can add understanding too.”
—Michael Fry, Scotland on Sunday
“Sebestyen has got the pace and the balance just right.”
“Sebestyen’s record of the 1980s is a compelling, page-turning read . . . a precise, step-by-step account of the high politics and the big-name political players in the years between the August 1980 strikes in Gdansk and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall nine years later.”
—Denis MacShane, Tribune
“A digestible and colourful history of that miraculous year.”
and for Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
“A small masterpiece that should be read and treasured by all who value mankind’s eternal quest for freedom.”
–New York Post
“Excellent . . . A gripping, detailed reconstruction.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“A fast-paced journalistic narrative built scene by scene, moving deftly among the key players . . . Steeped in detail.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“Sebestyen is excellent at bringing to life the revolutionary movement. Personalities leap from his pages.”
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In this book, Viktor Sebestyen, known from the acclaimed "Twelve Days" about the Hungarian uprising of 1956, takes us through the decade and a half preceding the year 1989. Chapter by chapter the book moves back and forth through the six countries under Sovjet dominion: Eastern Germany, Poland, Chechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, providing us glimpses of those countries' unique histories and the manner in which they ended up being Sovjet vassals, the pivotal events in each of these countries that would have major repercussions - sometimes years later - such as the election of Polish pope John Paul II, and up until when, finally, the actual mostly peaceful overthrow of the communists' reign took place. Naturally, there is attention for the events in the Sovjet Union, where the succession of Leonid Brezhnev by Mikail Gorbachov (with two other leaders briefly in-between) led to sweeping changes in its policies and goals. However, that is not the focus of this particular book (I rather suspect Mr. Sebestyen is working on a separate book on that story) and here it is only given to the extent it helps us understand the events in the six East-block countries. The book does not describe paralel events in Yugoslavia or Albania, either.
Mr. Sebestyen is a very good writer in the tradition of British journalism, and this book is an easy and pleasant read. The chapters are all rather short and infuse the story with excitement and not rarely a cliff-hanger of sorts. As best I can tell the facts are presented in a balanced way and the research seems to have been done well - although I am sure some may find details that are incorrect (I found one: the Nobel prize for peace is given out in Oslo, not in Stockholm). There are some photographs in the book that illustrate and enliven the story - but more would have been better.
In some places Mr. Sebestyen provides us with a glimpse of how history research can discover only later what dramatic events were taking place without most of us realizing. One example of that, described in this book, is how in December of 1983 the world came closer to nuclear war than ever before. This is chilling reading, a reminder how differently things could have turned out... And, unexpectedly, Mr. Sebestyen provides us with a view of then-president Reagan that casts him in a more favorable light than many other sources have done.
The book is not edited well. There are sometimes gaps in the story lines, and some things are left hanging in the air. In some instances it is impossible to figure out when a specific event was supposed to have happened. But those are minor flaws in an otherwise impressive book.
All in all, this is a very good book on events that for many of us occurred during own lifetimes but we may nonetheless have missed some of the key ingredients. For those who were not around or too small to remember, this book is an absolute must-read. And maybe this book, or one similar in scope, should be required reading for all, lest we should forget how only very recently a major change in our world took place, in mostly a peaceful manner, forever changing the course of history.
Sebestyen goes into detail about the basic failures and flaws of these totalitarian states and that the events played out in 1989 just didn't happen. The Author summarizes the life and times of Mikhail Gorbachev and his rise to leadership and his introduction of glasnost and perestroika. In essence he shows the USSR at an economic and political crossroads. The old regime of Leonid Brezhnev et al was tired, ineffective and no longer could "sell the big lie". It took three generations, but when Gorbachev came into power the USSR was totally bankrupt economically and politically.
With this in mind Sebestyen weaves an excellent historical perspective of all the iron curtain countries and shows their similarities and also their differences. His narrative explains these events that seem spontaneous but in reality were actions which were bottled up for decades within these countries which have experienced a "long hard winter".
This study will enlighten all who read it. I would highly recommend this as a general outline study for these historical events. One thing I was surprised about in this scholarly study was that the editing was not good. Sebestyen's writing is very good, however on more than one instance words were missing and sentences were fragmentized.
In all this was a remarkable read. Hopefully the editing will be better for future editions