According to Michael Dobbs, the longtime Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, the Soviet Union died not with a bang, but a whimper, expiring from what he describes as a "massive sclerotic hardening of the bureaucratic arteries." Happily, Dobbs' eyewitness chronicle of the fall of the Soviet Empire ù from Leonid Brezhnev's heyday in the 1970s to Boris Yeltsin's rise in the early 1990s ù doesn't suffer from hardened arteries itself. Down with Big Brother has an alert, episodic quality that keeps you turning the pages.
Dobbs provides detailed and colorful accounts of all the major public uprisings in the Soviet loc during the '80s: Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. There's also an absorbing history of the war in Afghanistan, and a deft play-by-play of the Machiavellian machinations between old-line Communist Party bureaucrats, the KGB, the Soviet military and the Gorbachevian "reformers." For all of this intrinsic drama, however, Dobbs' emphasis is on the larger, less visible, bureaucratic "Soviet disease," which he believes helped spawn these events. He dissects this in longer, analytic sections on the inefficiency of the Soviet "command economy," the corruption of the Soviet military-industrial complex and, above all, the obduracy of the labyrinthine Soviet bureaucracy. He provides telling, comic examples along the way, such as the Kremlin's decades-long funding of nonexistent factories and railway lines.
There is nothing startlingly new in Dobbs' interpretation of the Cold War, or his focus on the roles of major players like Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan. Down With Big Brother does, however, add a great deal to our understanding of the Soviet Bloc liberation movements. Dobbs provides fascinating portraits of little-known "secondary" historical characters such as Jacek Kuron ù an eccentric Polish Trotskyite journalist and intellectual mentor to many in Solidarity ù and Vytautas Landsbergis, "a pedantic music professor with a little goatee" who inadvertently became a leader of the Lithuanian independence movement.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 inspired a classic of Western reportage, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World. Where Reed's account of the birth of the Soviet Union was imbued with epic literary romanticism, Dobbs' sober tale oddly and ironically evokes its predecessor. Dobbs himself notes the parallels, recalling Reed's description of Revolutionary Russia where "every street corner was a public tribune, filled with lectures, debates, orations." Dobbs observes that "I was to witness such scenes myself many times as the Poles, Balts, Czechs, Ukrainians, Germans and finally Russians unmade the revolution Reed had chronicled." -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Washington Post correspondent Dobbs's firsthand account of the unraveling of the Soviet monolith is a remarkable tour de force, a pulsating human drama that resembles a Russian novel, full of biting ironies, driven personalities, momentous confrontations. The author, Moscow bureau chief from 1988 to 1993, was the first Western journalist admitted to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk during the 1980 strike led by Lech Walesa; eyewitness to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre, he covered a beat stretching from the brutal hothouse of Kremlin politics to freezing Romanian orphanages to labor camps in the Urals. Drawing on primary Soviet sources, including interviews and declassified archival documents, he unearths phenomena often overlooked by Western journalists, for example, the leaderless drift of the U.S.S.R. between 1974 and 1982 as Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev suffered a series of nervous breakdowns caused by arteriosclerosis of the brain, or how Gorbachev, "a master obfuscator and manipulator," used the state-run television network to establish a power base among the masses. Unfolding as a series of vignettes extending from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan through Chernobyl to the wild scramble for property and riches following the collapse of Soviet communism, his epic chronicle charts the breakdown of a system that sidetracked the nation into decades of self-imposed isolation, waste and ideological conditioning. (Jan.)
Written by an experienced journalist observer of the Soviet collapse, this study naturally invites comparison with two recent works on the same theme: David Pryce-Jones's The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire (LJ 7/95) and Fred Coleman's The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire (LJ 5/1/96). Dobbs has been able to draw upon materials perhaps not available to the two others, and he has certainly read and interviewed more extensively. His account is thorough and overwhelming in its sheer mass, as he slowly assembles the giant jigsaw puzzle. Events and personalities great and small follow in relentless profusion: Afghanistan, the Armenian earthquake, Chernobyl, Nancy Reagan's astrologer, Mathias Rust, Sakharov, Walesa, and many, many more. Some details might well have been omitted-Yugoslav events, for example-but the reader must be impressed by Dobbs sheer industry and breadth of research. His final verdict seems ambivalent as to whether "communism defeated itself" or was destroyed by its would-be savior, Gorbachev. As with the two previous accounts, one is struck by how ramshackle the mighty USSR in fact was. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert H. Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Canada
Theodore White's you-are-there journalism makes its Soviet debut in this gripping account of the last years of the Soviet Union.
Dobbs, Washington Post bureau chief in Moscow from 1988 to 1993, turns his own experiences as well as interviews with some of the major participants and the increasingly frank memoirs flooding out of Moscow to good account in reconstructing almost novelistic scenes from the decline. These include his own experience as the first US newsman allowed into the Gdansk shipyard and his presence on the scene when Yeltsin made his famous speech from a tank. He has a novelist's eye for telling detail: the table designed for negotiations in Warsaw "providing a safety margin of three feet over and above the world's longest-recorded spitting distance"; the carpet to the Central Committee headquarters in Moscow as a guide to power, gliding past the offices of ordinary apparatchiks but making right-angle detours into the suites of top leaders; the supermarket in Houston that amazed and depressed Yeltsinthe Soviet group had scarcely recovered from the shock of the cheese section when they were "literally shaken" by the quality of produce in the vegetable section. "They had to fool the people," Yeltsin told an aide, "It is now clear why they made it so difficult for the average Soviet citizen to go abroad." Dobbs's epilogue is an excellent summation of Gorbachev's importance as "the Communist who dismantled Communism, the reformer who is overtaken by his won reforms, the emperor who allows the world's last great multinational empire to break apart." The paradox is, he concludes, that by seeking to reinvigorate the Communist system, Gorbachev succeeded in destroying it.
Dobbs succumbs to the temptation of using material derived from his time in Yugoslavia, which does not really fit into his overall theme, and his book is not as profound as David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, but is well written and highly illuminating.