Why did the Soviet Empire begin imploding in 1989? The question has many answers. But most amount to pet theories. For example, one respected Harvard academic asserts Soviets were better at blackboard theory than practical results like plenty of consumer goods and so increasingly unhappy citizens revolted. Sure.
No, I think Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire has it right: His focus is on key players in a saga that culminated with one calendar year witnessing six European nations--Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslavkia, and Romania--break free of the Russian bear hug and embark on democratic rule.
Sebestyen, though born in Budapest, has been a hard-working British journalist based in London. He's got the on-the-scene savvy to give us riveting portraits of who made Revolution 1989 happen.
Sebestyen's sets the stage with his first key player: Karol Wojtyla of Poland, who in 1978 becomes Pope John Paul II. Yuri Andropov, then head of the Russian KGB prophetically said, "Wojtyla represents a menace to Soviet security." Although behind the Iron Curtain, Poland was never communist and atheist. The Catholic Church still mattered in Poland. Two years after the pope hails from Poland, an unemployed electrician, Lech Walesa, organizes Solidarity in Poland and eventually leads "the first real workers' revolution in history."
Although there are many key players--too numerous to list meaningfully--one undeniable prime mover was Mikhail Gorbachev who saw the tide running out for communist hard-liners. A relatively young Kremlin leader, he instinctively knew Russia had to let Warsaw Pact countries find their own futures.
We Americans find many of us misunderstood President Reagan. Sebestyen convincingly shows any idea Reagan forced the "Evil Empire" into bankruptcy defending against Star Wars is bunkum. Reagan would become American's leading dove and freely offer Gorbachev our Star Wars technology, no strings attached, as we developed it. Reagan was convinced Star Wars would end the mutual suicide pact of Cold War nuclear arms. Both leaders could not bring themselves to push the red button, even in training. They ended the Cold War.
In a fitting finale, Revolution 1989 ends with a scene in December 1989 when Pope John II becomes the second pope in history to receive a Russian leader at the Vatican: Mikhail Gorbachev. Sebestyen concludes that such a meeting took place showed things had profoundly changed.
Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen, Pantheon Books, 2009, 451 pp., ISBN-10: 0375425322
story collection, The Cat
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