Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union

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Overview

The implosion of the Soviet Union was the culmination of a gripping game played out between two men who intensely disliked each other and had different concepts for the future. Mikhail Gorbachev, a sophisticated and urbane reformer, sought to modernize and preserve the USSR; Boris Yeltsin, a coarse and a hard drinking “bulldozer,” wished to destroy the union and create a capitalist Russia. The defeat of the August 1991 coup attempt, carried out by hardline communists, shook Gorbachev’s authority and was a triumph...

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Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union

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Overview

The implosion of the Soviet Union was the culmination of a gripping game played out between two men who intensely disliked each other and had different concepts for the future. Mikhail Gorbachev, a sophisticated and urbane reformer, sought to modernize and preserve the USSR; Boris Yeltsin, a coarse and a hard drinking “bulldozer,” wished to destroy the union and create a capitalist Russia. The defeat of the August 1991 coup attempt, carried out by hardline communists, shook Gorbachev’s authority and was a triumph for Yeltsin. But it took four months of intrigue and double-dealing before the Soviet Union collapsed and the day arrived when Yeltsin could hustle Gorbachev out of the Kremlin, and move in as ruler of Russia.

Conor O’Clery has written a unique and truly suspenseful thriller of the day the Soviet Union died. The internal power plays, the shifting alliances, the betrayals, the mysterious three colonels carrying the briefcase with the nuclear codes, and the jockeying to exploit the future are worthy of John Le Carré or Alan Furst. The Cold War’s last act was a magnificent dark drama played out in the shadows of the Kremlin.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly, June 15, 2011
“Shrewd political history…. O’Clery presents a colorful human-scale saga, full of pathos and pettiness. (As Gorbachev was preparing his farewell address, Yeltsin sent minions to evict his family from their dacha.) But he also illuminates larger historical forces: the revival of nationalist politics in the breakaway Soviet republics; the desperate food shortages as the command economy lost its authority; the social enervation that left no one willing to defend the Soviet system by force. The result is a revealing portrait of one of history's greatest upheavals.”

Library Journal, June 15, 2011
“With a journalist’s flair for detail, O’Clery offers a well-researched look at the last day of the Soviet Union and provides a balanced portrait of the characters involved…. Academics and lay readers alike will find this book a revealing addition to the history of modern Russia, as well as an engrossing journalistic study of two of Russia’s most intriguing political leaders.”
 
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 20, 2011
“[A] gripping account of the Soviet Union's final day…. Here are the personalities, the drama, the betrayals, the bickering and maneuvering, the threats and entreaties behind an event that virtually no one in the West saw coming. Told with authority and narrative grace, O'Clery's book provides a keen understanding and unique perspective on what was one of the most important events in world history.”
 
Sunday Times (UK), August 21, 2011
“[A] superb account.”
 
Daily Mail (UK), August 21, 2011
"A clear and exciting account of these momentous times…. Crammed with fascinating and telling detail, it describes Mikhail Gorbachev’s final evening as President of the USSR, with a series of flashbacks to the events that led to the hauling down of the Red Flag from the Kremlin. It also explores and illuminates the bristling personal rivalry and loathing that crackled between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. It is a marvelous read and would make an unmissable TV docu-drama.”
 

Independent (Ireland), August 27, 2011
Moscow, December 25, 1991 grips you from first to last. Hour by hour, minute by minute, we follow the movements of the two protagonists of this book, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin -- one knowing his time is up, the other hungry to assume control of the new Russia—as they play out their final duel on the last day of the Soviet Union. Combining the analytical skills of the historian sifting through masses of data, and the doggedness of a reporter after a big story, O’Clery’s minutely researched and riveting history is likely to become the standard account of what happened on that momentous day.”
 

Current History, October 2011
“[Moscow, December 25, 1991] is up close and personal, a tightly focused narrative that captures vividly the personalities of the two men and the processes through which they came to their respective views…. A compelling narrative.”
 
The New Republic
"O'Clery shows how history can sometimes have a Tolstoyan quality of individual drama played out with consequence for millions."

History News Network
"In this lively, stimulating account of the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union, Conor O'Clery offers a mini-John le Carre treatment of constant warfare inside the once-secret walls of the Kremlin."

Democracy
“Vividly written…. O’Clery excels in the art of sketching one- or two-sentence portraits of his various actors and the role they played in the collapse of communism.”

Library Journal
Writing with a journalist's flair for detail, O'Clery (The Billionaire Who Wasn't), Moscow correspondent for the Irish Times during the breakup of the Soviet Union, here offers a well-researched look at the last day of the Soviet Union and provides a balanced portrait of the characters involved. He is careful to consider the myriad factors that affected President Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, in their struggle to bring their conflicting views of the future of their country into reality, including how international opinion and support reinforced their respective mindsets. O'Clery keeps his lens trained on the interaction and rivalry between these two personalities and discusses how their conflicts directed their decision making and how their tumultuous relationship drew others into action. Rather than stopping at that fateful Christmas day in 1991—the dissolution of the Soviet Union—O'Clery also provides a succinct history of the major events afterward, tracing Russia's rocky conversion to a market economy and the reemergence of communist ideology in the period following Yeltsin's election that year. VERDICT Academics and lay readers alike will find this book a revealing addition to the history of modern Russia, as well as an engrossing journalistic study of two of Russia's most intriguing political leaders.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
Kirkus Reviews

Former Irish Times Moscow correspondent O'Clery (May You Live In Interesting Times,2008,etc.) chronicles the last of day of the Soviet Union and pulls together the threads which lead to its dissolution.

The author gives microscopic attention to the telling details: whose pen was used to sign documents, how CNN got to broadcast Gorbachev's speech and much more. Shaping the day, writes O'Clery, were the successive effects of the bitterness, resentments and grudges of the five-year rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Nothing went as agreed, not even the ceremony designed to transfer the Russian nuclear suitcase containing the weapons' launch codes. The nuclear suitcase remained a constant, before and after, but so too were the petty rivalries that prompted Yeltsin to refuse to meet Gorbachev ever again because his final speech was an unacceptable insult. O'Clery presents Gorbachev as a kind of communist's communist to the end—a safe in his office contained Stalin's own file about the Katyn massacre and the Hitler-Stalin pact, even though Gorbachev had insisted these documents no longer existed. It was Yeltsin who helped win independence for Russia, got himself elected president against Gorbachev's candidate, outlawed the Communist party, took over its property and organized the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev managed to keep the support of his Western admirers up to and even beyond the attempted coup in 1991.

A compelling story about how sometimes the little everyday things can shape the broad sweep of history more powerfully than ideologies or competitive economic systems.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586487966
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 8/23/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,411,701
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Conor O'Clery lived and worked in Russia during the final years of the Soviet Union as Moscow correspondent for the Irish Times. He won journalist of the year in Ireland for his reporting from the Soviet Union, and again in 2002 for his first-hand accounts of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In 30 years with the Irish Times he also served as correspondent in London, Beijing, New York, and Washington. He is GlobalPost’s Ireland correspondent and is the author of several books, including The Billionaire Who Wasn’t, a biography of the American philanthropist Chuck Feeney, named a 2007 best book of the year by the Economist and BusinessWeek.

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Table of Contents

Russian/Soviet Dramatis Personae ix

Preface xiii

Introduction xvii

1 December 25: Before the Dawn 1

2 December 25: Sunrise 5

3 Hiring the Bulldozer 15

4 December 25: Morning 23

5 The Storming of Moscow 31

6 December 25: Midmorning 39

7 A Bucketful of Filth 45

8 December 25: Late Morning 55

9 Back from the Dead 59

10 December 25: Midday 69

11 Knee Deep in Kerosene 77

12 December 25: Early Afternoon 89

13 Dictatorship on the Offensive 93

14 December 25: Midafternoon 107

15 Hijacking Barbara Bush 115

16 December 25: Late Afternoon 127

17 Perfidiousness, Lawlessness, and Infamy 137

18 December 25: Dusk 153

19 Things Fall Apart 161

20 December 25: Early Evening 173

21 The Center Cannot Hold 181

22 December 25: Evening 199

23 The Deal in the Walnut Room 205

24 December 25: Late Evening 219

25 December 25: Night 229

26 December 25: Late Night 239

27 December 26: The Day After 249

28 December 27: Triumph of the Plunderers 259

29 The Integrity of the Quarrel 267

Notes 287

Bibliography 297

Index 305

Photo insert follows page 152

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2012

    Good Read

    This book was a fairly easy read, but I enjoyed it a lot.

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    Posted December 16, 2011

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    Posted March 29, 2012

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