Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

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Revolution 1989 is the first in-depth, authoritative account of a few months that changed the world.

At the start of 1989, six European nations were Soviet vassal states. By year's end, they had all declared national independence and embarked on the road to democracy. How did it happen so quickly? Victor Sebestyen, who was on the scene as a reporter, draws on his firsthand knowledge of the events, on scores of interviews with witnesses and participants, and on newly uncovered archival material. He tells the story through the eyes of ordinary men and women as well as through the strategic moves of world leaders. He shows how the KGB helped bring down former allies; how the United States tried to slow the process; and why the collapse of the Iron Curtain was the catalyst for the fall of the entire Soviet empire.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A sturdy examination of events that led to the collapse of Eastern Europe's communist regimes. The "classic narrative," writes former Evening Standard reporter Sebestyen (Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 2006, etc.), of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War lays huge credit at the door of Ronald Reagan. Humbug, he replies. The United States and its allies won the Cold War because of a policy of containment that had stretched out for four decades. Reagan accomplished nothing toward that end until, in his second term, he relaxed his bellicose attitude and "tried a new, more conciliatory approach" that led to meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. If anything, to judge by Sebestyen's episodic, skillfully narrated account, Gorbachev deserves more acknowledgment than ever for his work in dismantling the Soviet Union. Though that may not have been his intention, his decision not to meet with the faltering leaders of Bulgaria and Romania and to keep Soviet troops off the streets of East Germany and Czechoslovakia made it easier for the revolutions there to gather force. Polish-born pontiff John Paul II was another architect of those great revolutions, as Soviet leader Yuri Andropov presciently warned when he predicted that the pope's election "could foreshadow disaster for the Soviet empire." Indeed it did, and so quickly did those revolutions unfold-ten years in the case of Poland, as it was said at the time, but only ten days for Czechoslovakia-that it was the leaders of the West, notably George H.W. Bush, who found themselves supporting the Soviets and advising Soviet leaders that they would look the other way were the Brezhnev doctrine to beinvoked. Sebestyen's book contains all the familiar cast of characters, including Dick Cheney (who predicted that Gorbachev would be ousted by a strong-arm communist leader), Brent Scowcroft and Condoleezza Rice. A well-crafted, constantly revealing study of the world-altering changes of recent history. Agent: Georgina Capel/Capel & Land
From the Publisher
“A must-have accounting. . . . Sebestyen’s brilliantly written narrative unfolds in brief, gripping episodes.” —Newsweek
“Numerous books have [attempted] 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 . . . throughout the tumultuous 1980s.” —The Daily Beast
“Full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative . . . vivid personal glimpses and striking details.” —The New York Review of Books
“Vivid, panoramic. . . . The writing is taut, the scene-setting dramatic, giving the book an almost cinematic feel.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“A digestible and colourful history of that miraculous year.” —The Economist
“It’s a complex story spanning many countries, but this exciting yet deeply researched work brings it impressively to life. . . . Compelling.” —The Observer

“Sebestyen’s strength is his sharp focus and racy prose. . . . Here is history written like a Greek tragedy.” —The Times (London)

“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.” —The Mail on Sunday
“A rollicking mix of high drama and sordid reality . . . spiced with telling quotations.” —The Independent
“A thrilling read. . . . Sebestyen is good at sketching the leading players but he also succinctly conveys what life was like for ordinary citizens.” —Daily Express
“Sebestyen brilliantly pulls together the events that led to the fall of the Soviet empire.” —The Spectator
“Superbly  written and impressively documented.” —Times Literary Supplement

The Barnes & Noble Review
Why did the Berlin Wall fall? Or is that even the right question? Victor Sebestyen's superb book reminds us that the first breach in the Iron Curtain actually came in March 1989, when Hungary opened its Austrian border, providing an exodus route for East Germans. The first political breakthrough, he observes, came in January at Poland's Round Table negotiations, where the labor union Solidarity came back from its defeat in the strikes of 1980-81 to wrest the free elections of June 1989 in which Poles repudiated Communism and birthed a new government.

Why did Eastern Europe's despotic states collapse? Why did the Soviet Union not send in tanks, as it had in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968? Sebestyen locates the crisis in the inefficiency of bureaucratic economies headed by sclerotic leaders like Leonid Brezhnev, the crushing debt burden of the satellite states to Western banks, the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, and the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mikhail Gorbachev, who after 1985 initiated relaxations meant to revive Communism, refused to defend the satellite regimes of Eastern Europe as they toppled, not wanting another expensive, self-defeating, Afghanistan-style quagmire.

Little sustains the American conceit that Ronald Reagan was responsible. Reagan's successor George Bush, actually the president in 1989, sought to stabilize Eastern Europe, fearing a careening out of control if the Communist regimes fell. The attitude of the Western establishment was typified by a Citibank executive who said of Poland in 1982, "Who knows which political system works? The only test we care about is: can they pay their bills?"

Assiduously researched, Revolution 1989 recreates events in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Sebestyen's triumphant narrative has limits. By hewing to only six countries and the endpoint of 1989, Sebestyen sidesteps Yugoslavia, where blood would flow in Sarajevo and Kosovo, as well as Russia, where authoritarianism is recrudescent. But Revolution 1989 is a riveting volume on events no one could imagine. "I thought it was impossible, it was impossible," said the Polish dissident Jacek Kuron. "I still think it was impossible." --Christopher Phelps

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375425325
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

 Victor Sebestyen is the author of Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He has worked for many British newspapers, including the Evening Standard. Born in Budapest, he lives in England.
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Read an Excerpt

Part One:  COLD WAR


They ran to us shouting,
'Under Socialism
A cut finger doesn't hurt.'
But they felt pain.
They lost faith.
—Adam Wazyk, 'Poem for Adults'

Three years after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 , the German Democratic Republic's ruling regime devised an unorthodox but lucrative business scheme to earn convertible currency from the West. It started trading in human beings. Officials from the East offered to release political prisoners to West Germany in return for a fee. The traffic began on a small scale, a handful at a time. The first few were prominent dissidents, 'troublemakers' whom the East Germans did not mind packing off into exile. Within a few years it became a well oiled business with an infrastructure of its own. A few days before each sale the prisoners were taken to a special, highly secret, jail in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz) run by the GDR's intelligence service, the Stasi. A fleet of buses had been built by a West German contractor just for the purpose of ferrying this precious cargo. The vehicles were fitted with revolving number plates—East German for the return trip from the prison to the border and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) registrations for the time they were in West Germany. Around twice a week groups of ten or so would be driven, early in the morning, to a border post near the city of Jena, where, unusually, they would be waved through by guards without any document searches. They would be in the FRG by lunchtime, on the road to Hanover.

Over the years around 34,000 people were 'sold' in this way and the trade was sensitive to free-market economic laws. In the mid-1960s the price per head was around DM 40,000; by the mid-1980s, inflation and hard bargaining by the East had pushed that up to more than DM 100,000. The GDR soon saw it as away of maximising income. The state made nothing from people who legally applied for visas to see their relatives in the West. So the police arrested thousands of them on trumped-up charges, called them 'political prisoners' and promptly sold them to West Germany. Egon Bahr, for many years the administrator who handled the sensitive business on West Germany's side, said it was clear to him that 'it was part of the GDR's general budget'. Usually payments were made in hard cash, but on occasion the East received bartered goods. In one year, as part of the agreement, the GDR was sent shiploads of bananas, a luxury item in the East at the time, extremely hard to obtain in the shops of Berlin, Leipzigor Dresden. According to one of the most senior East German economists, this 'business venture' netted his massively indebted nation a total of around DM 8 billion. It was the kind of sum without which the country could not survive.

The trade depended on conditions of high secrecy; it depended on a quiescent population in East Germany desperate to leave the country; and it depended on a regime cynical enough to believe it could sell and buy citizens at will. The sales were never officially admitted by the GDR. The Authorities of course recognised that it was not the best advertisement for life in the countries that Erich Honecker, East Germany's supreme leader then and for more than two decades, liked to say operated 'actually existingsocialism'.

It was socialism as the Soviet Union saw it, imposed at gunpoint on a half-dozen states that did not want it. The empire Joseph Stalin built after World War Two extended as far as the Russian armies reached in the final onslaught against the Nazis in the spring of 1945. There was no other logic to it. By agreement with the Allies at Yalta, the Soviets were essentially allowed to do what they liked in their 'sphere of influence'. Stalin treated the entire region as one vast dominion, barely recognising any national identities in countries of extremely diverse cultures. The Red Tsar in Moscow imposed as his consuls in Prague, Warsaw and Sofia his own henchmen, whose prime loyalty was to the USSR and then to a Communist ideology. They were chosen for their unswerving allegiance to him. Most of them had spent fifteen or twenty years in exile in Russia and had taken Soviet citizenship. They had lost contact with the lands of their birth. The Soviet Union had given them shelter and a cause to believe in. Most were from countries where Communist Party membership had been illegal between the wars and they had spent long periods in jail. When they returned on Stalin's instructions after the war, they were not going home. They went to Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland as representatives of a foreign power, to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. They knew what was expected of them: they were to build a socialist imperium in Central and Eastern Europe, with barely any deviation permitted from the Stalinist model. These countries in 1945 had important things in common: they were overrun and occupied by the Red Army and Stalin was about to transform them utterly in his image. Otherwise there were substantial differences, occasionally antagonisms, between them.

The Soviet attempt to turn the region into a stable,reliable and monolithic whole would be a hard task. There was some idealism to begin with. The majority of people who had endured the Nazi occupation were simply relieved the war was over. The experience of the 1920s and 1930s had turned many Central Europeans into socialists, though never anything like as many as the Communists imagined. Only in one country, Hungary, did Stalin permit a genuinely fair election. In November 1945 the Party won 17 per cent of the vote, and the centre right parties received 56 per cent. The Soviets insisted on a coalition government, while the power of the police and 'state security' was placed in the hands of the Communists. In Czechoslovakia there had been a large industrial working class during the 1920s and 1930s; immediately after the war the Communists were supported by about 35 per cent of the voters. But if democracy would not give them power, the Soviets were determined to take it — one way or another. Using a mixture of bribery, intimidation, deceit and, finally, terror, within three years the Soviets had asserted full control over their new colonies. All other political parties were abolished by the end of 1948, or subsumed into the Communist Party and ceased to exist independently.

The occupation had been accompanied by atrocities from Russian troops who had seen some of the most brutal fighting in the war. It will never be known exactly how many women were raped in Germany, Hungary or Poland after the Soviet 'liberation', but the number certainly ran into hundreds of thousands. Desperate, conquered, exhausted, most people were prepared to put up with the new reality as long as a few improvements came along. Some of these countries were massively unjust peasant societies where serfdom had been abolished less than a century earlier. In large parts of Romania, agriculture had barely changed since medieval times. Generally, they lagged behind Western Europe. The Communists promised to transform all this, eradicate the injustices, start from scratch and build a dynamic new commonwealth of equals through rapid development.

For a while it worked. Immediate postwar reconstruction was as fast as in the Western half of Europe. But it started from an extremely low base of devastation and destruction. While in Britain there was still food rationing until the early 1950s, Czechoslovakia and Romania began exporting food fairly soon after the end of the war. The new regimes were given some praise for getting bridges and city centres rebuilt, transport links running again. Initially, at least, peasants were handed small pockets of land taken from the vast latifundia estates that stretched through tracts of Eastern Europe. Then the land was taken away again in a rush to organise great collective farms owned by the state. Any enthusiasm there may once have been did not last beyond the purges of the last insane years of Stalin's life.

The Communists had eliminated or cowed into submission their real enemies soon after the war. Opposition politicians were murdered en masse, Church leaders were intimidated into silence and on occasion collaboration. The bourgeoisie had their homes dispossessed and artists were told by commissars of culture what kind of music or painting or literature would henceforth be permitted. All businesses employing more than a handful of people were nationalised and in some countries — Bulgaria for example — no one other than the state was allowed to be an employer of any kind.

Relations between East and West had reached freezing point soon after the war-accelerated by Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946.Then, in the winter of 1948-9, a Cold War broke out within the socialist bloc. A leader in one of the 'liberated territories' dared to challenge Moscow. During the war Josip Broz Tito had been a partisan leader in Yugoslavia's struggle against the Nazis, earning respect, and material support, from anti-Communists. He established a Marxist dictatorship in Belgrade but resisted Yugoslavia's descent into the slave status of his Central and East European neighbours. He identified various paths towards socialism, declared himself a 'national Communist' and saw the future for his country as 'nonaligned'. All this was heresy in the eyes of Stalin, who once boasted 'I could smash Tito with a snap of my fingers.' It proved to be not quite so easy. Stalin thought he could afford to show no crack in Communist solidarity in case it was exploited by the West. Tito's defiance could not go unpunished. Anyone in the empire inclined to show sympathy with the Yugoslavs had to be crushed. Stalin organised a campaign against the 'nest of Titoist Trotskyite spies' throughout the satellite states which for the next few years convulsed all of Eastern Europe as Communists devoured their own children in an orgy of bloodshed.

Famous names who had been hailed in the Bolshevik pantheon as heroes suddenly faced arrest on bogus charges, terrible tortures, show trials and, after a ritual 'confession', execution. Such was the fate of loyal Communists like Rudolf Slánský, second in command of the Czech Party, László Rajk, the heir apparent in the Hungarian leadership, and the impeccably Stalinist Tchaiko Kostov in Bulgaria. Scores of thousands of lesser-known comrades were shot in the back of the neck, in the classic Bolshevik manner, or rotted away in prison camps. Often Communists who had survived Hitler's camps and came out as faithful believers in socialism, died at the hands of their comrades — for example Slánský's co-defendant Josef Frank, who after three years in Buchenwald returned to Czechoslovakia as an honoured figure in the ruling regime but was murdered four years later in a Communist-run camp. In turn, those same executioners a month or a year later would themselves be executed. This was the method by which' socialist order' was imposed. Who was or was not a traitor did not matter — the argument was semantic. Stalin believed in constant purges as the most effective way of retaining power and, when things were not going well, he required a regular supply of scapegoats. The system as created by him could not be in error: someone had to be responsible for its failures.

 The great monster died in 1953 and his crimes began to be exposed by Nikita Khrushchev three years later. Over time the violent excesses were removed, but essentially the system that Stalin created survived barely reformed for another three and a half decades under various successors. It became less vicious, but through bureaucratic inertia and stagnation just as rigid, inflexible and hungry for control over its subjects. 'Society is the horse and the Party is the rider,' Stalin had said. The horses of Eastern Europe were ridden extra hard and would prefer to have been stabled elsewhere.

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  • Posted January 9, 2010

    Very Interesting But Incomplete

    Overall I was intrigued and at times enthralled by Sebestyen's account. The writing is for the most part very good and the author describes the collapse of the Eastern Bloc dictatorship's in substantial detail.

    However I was disappointed in the almost lackluster ending to the chapter on the fall of the Ceausescu regime. He never bothers to provide any description at all of the "trial" of the dictator and his despised wife, nor of their execution. There are transcripts of the questioning available, and I recall seeing video footage of the couple responding angrily to the prosecutor's examination. There have been accounts that the firing squad did not wait for orders to shoot and opened-up on them as soon as they appeared. Did this happen? Why was the trial and execution not detailed? The only upheavel in the Eastern Bloc that turned bloody in 1989 and Sebestyen doesn't offer a word about the tyrant's final day!

    At least a basic summary of the fates of the other Warsaw Pact despots, I believe, should have been offered. What ultimately happened to Honnecker? Zhivkov? Jakes? Sebestyen gives no insight or analysis of the rapid process of German reunification (perhaps because technically it occurred after 1989?), yet he provides a considerably detailed biography of Brezhnev's reign which ended well before the revolutions of 1989.

    The story seems to "piddle-out" with a rather dull overview of Gorbachev's meeting with Pope John Paul II and a few mundane words of reflection on Havel's victory speech in Prague, almost like the author was tired of the writing and wanted it concluded.

    In these areas the book seems somewhat incomplete, but nevertheless an excellent read and worth the time and price.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

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