Conor O'Clery's Moscow, December 25, 1991 Captures End of Soviet Union

09/13/2011 11:54 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011

No great historical event of our era was less understood at the time and less understood in the aftermath than the end of the Soviet Union, which officially took place when Mikhail Gorbachev hastily scratched out his signature on the appropriate documents just before addressing the world live via CNN on Christmas Day 1991, a day memorably brought to life in this book from Irish journalist Conor O'Clery.

It used to startle me a few years ago when the late Senator Robert Byrd would turn to me in his Senate offices when we were working together on a book and call out, like someone remembering a dream, "To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child!" The great line from Cicero is too seldom heeded.

The dissolution of the Soviet empire -- and the resulting end of the Cold War -- is the single most decisive development of recent decades and yet we remain ignorant of what happened -- and why. The conventional wisdom among many in the U.S. is that Ronald Reagan was single-handedly responsible for "winning" the Cold War by coming to Berlin and saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Those with a somewhat deeper perspective shrug this absurdity off with the wry grin such foolishness demands and instead believe that Mikhail Gorbachev, he of the strange splotch on his forehead and media-savvy ways, deserves the nod as the individual most responsible. Reading O'Clery's account of that last day, which unfolds in the kind of amazing detail that makes many scenes both delicious and fortifying, many readers will be struck with the thought: What if Boris Yeltsin was every bit as decisive a figure as Gorbachev?

Gorbachev was a communist who hoped to extend the life of the Soviet Union by introducing his much vaunted reforms. Yeltsin was at first a reforming communist as well but, alive to the moment and alert to the mood of the people in a way Gorbachev forever failed to match, Yeltsin evolved into a democrat -- and pushed Gorbachev toward democracy even as, for example during the "Bloody Sunday" crackdowns in Vilnius and Riga in January 1991, Gorbachev was at least flirting with a hard veer to the right.

The disconnect between how Gorbachev's own people saw him and how he was idealized in the West comes through in a jarring quote O'Clery gives us from Soviet apparatchik turned Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, who mocks Gorbachev openly in the period soon after the Soviet Union has ended for not understanding his time has passed, saying, "That is the misfortune of that man, his sickness. Everybody is laughing at him, and he does not understand this."

We in the West were charmed by Gorbachev. We swooned. It's somewhat disturbing to realize just how much of our vision of the man was based on stagecraft and good (energetic) media management. One of the absurdities of Gorbachev's life captured by O'Clery is the fact that throughout his last days as the leader of the Soviet Union, he is forever trailed by Western media, now CNN, now a visiting reporter from Italy, and ignored by Russians. The pen Gorbachev uses to abolish the Soviet Union was handed to him by CNN president Tom Johnson -- a German-made Montblanc.

One has to admire Gorbachev for having the imagination to make bold reforms, but he comes across as a pathetic figure who fails utterly to grasp what is happening in 1991. There is a strong whiff here of Nixon, with Gorbachev nursing grudges against those who failed to see his towering greatness, increasingly referring to himself as "Gorbachev" in the third person the way Nixon did.

As for Yeltsin, the western media loved Gorbachev -- as the western media always loves a figure who consistently cooperates and gives them good stories -- and spurned and despised Yeltsin, making much of his clownish excess with the bottle, his lack of polish, his crudeness and impulsiveness, without ever seeming to notice that all of these qualities established a bond between Yeltsin and ordinary Russians who recognized him as one of their own.

I remember my first visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the early '90s, swooning over Gorbachev in talks with Russian friends, and being startled to hear them explain that in his Russian remarks, the man tended to mangle the language -- and his translators made him look good. Contrary to the myth-making, between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, it was Gorby who loved to swear a blue streak and Yeltsin who was offended by such language.

The issue of vanity has to be mentioned with regard to Gorbachev as well. He fell in love with history, pumping himself with the idea that history would be kind to him without facing the central irony that if his claim to fame was as a man who steered a world superpower toward democracy, he needed to be aware of -- and respond to -- what the people thought and felt. Gorbachev saw Yeltsin as a rude rival, an uncouth and unwelcome party-crasher (in more ways than one) who dared to believe he was an equal to Gorbachev, but in treating Yeltsin with scorn and contempt, even when the Russian people were voting for him in large numbers, Gorbachev betrayed a fatal lack of understanding of the realities of democracy.

On a more trivial note, it is breathtaking to behold the extent to which Mikhail and his wife Raisa embraced luxury. Boris and Naina Yeltsin are astonished when the Gorbachevs are booted out of their Moscow living quarters and the new Russian president and his wife get a look around inside. "At 2,700 square feet, the living space is big even by the standards of the Soviet elite," O'Clery writes. Yeltsin's security chief Alexander Korzhakov "professes himself shocked by the splendor of the interior. He notes how 'the refinement and riches of the quarters of a French queen would pale in comparison with Raisa Maximovna's boudoir (and) bathroom with Jacuzzi in precious stones, onyx and yashma.'"

Raisa Gorbachev had many good qualities and did charitable work -- even Yeltsin roused himself to send a warm telegram in 1999 when Raisa was dying of leukemia -- but such glimpses offer a much needed corrective to the glowing press the Gorbachevs so often received in the West.

O'Clery was Moscow correspondent for the Irish Times during the decisive period of 1991 he chronicles here in a manner recalling the work of his fellow Irishman, James Joyce, whose masterpiece Ulysses also chronicles a single day. O'Clery's reporting background serves him well in his meticulous accretion of detail, and amazements pop up steadily through the entire account, such as the detail that during a crucial 1991 meeting at the Kremlin, Gorbachev left Yeltsin waiting so he could chat with British Prime Minister John Major -- "Gorbachev seemed in no hurry to return to Yeltsin's company and kept Major on the phone for half an hour," he writes.

The research is nothing if not thorough and the writing is brisk and compelling for the most part. Here and there, O'Clery seems to tilt too much toward Gorbachev, falling into the familiar Western trap of preferring Gorbachev and underestimating Yeltsin, but overall, the detail is so rich that a reader has more than enough information to come to his or her own conclusions.

Near the end of this fascinating book, O'Clery offers this telling summary: "In their interaction, Gorbachev and Yeltsin broke the Communist Party's monopoly of power, introduced Russia's first democratic elections, provided a free press, set free the Warsaw Pact states of Eastern Europe, gave independence to once powerless Soviet republics, and ended the Cold War. That is their legacy."

This I think is getting it exactly right: All these things occurred "in their interaction." The soap opera of their rivalry and myriad moves against one another fades, but that legacy remains.