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I bought this book to try to understand the events that lead to the fall of the Soviet Empire. I lived through the period as an adult and thought I knew what happened, but also thought that an actual history might help me understand the underlying events that caused the fall. I expected to be slightly bored by a retelling of events that I thought I knew, but expected to learn enough new to be worth the time. What I found was a fascinating book that kept me entralled as much as any suspense novel. I also found that much that I thought I knew was either wrong or incomplete.
Mr Sebestyen's book follows the events in Eastern Europe chronologically so the book is constantly switching from what is happening in one country to the events in another country. I thought at first that this was going to be a distraction, but in the end it helped me understand why things happened because events in one country were often affected by those in another. Further, because Mr Sebestyen's writing is so good, the change of context from one country to another seems perfectly natural and helps the flow of the narrative.
Because the events are so recent and because the revolutions were, for the most part, so peaceful, many of the participants are still alive and willing to talk candidly. Their honesty and openness in explaining what happened and why is exemplified by one East German official who, in discussing the government's unwillingness to remove Erich Honecker to try to save the situation, said that they were idiots (although is use of idiom was somewhat more colorful).
I learned many things through this book and am reluctant to spoil the journey of discovery for others. Still some things are clear. Central to the story is the character of Mikhail Gorbachev without whom these events would have been very different. Also clear was that many of the people responsible for the fall of the Soviet sponsored Eastern European governments were part of those governments, people who were committed communists but were unwilling to stay in power if the only way they could do so was through the spilling of the blood of their own citizens. Also it must not be forgotten that without the citizens of the country, many of whom put their lives at risk, none of this could have happened.
The events in this book cover all of Eastern Europe except Yugoslavia, Albania (which is never even mentioned) and the Baltic Republics. These countries are all free today and this book describes why. The writing is wonderful, the narration is flawless and I not only learned much I did not know, but found myself reluctant, at times, to stop listening. I have seldom read history books as informative and enjoyable as this one. I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in the turn history took in the late 20th century.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
With the labels "Communist," "Marxist" and "Socialist" being thrown around so much in contemporary politics that they start to lose their meaning, it is refreshing to hear an account of what "really existing socialism" was like and how the oppressive systems that used socialist ideals to legitimize power ultimately collapsed.
"Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire" does an excellent job of describing the decline and ultimate fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the turbulent 1980s. Because there were events happening in multiple countries at different times, Sebestyen jumps each chapter from location to location and crisis to crisis. In doing so, Sebestyen highlights the common problems that Soviet puppets shared both politically and economically while also preserving the unique nature of each country's path to democratization. I found this strategy compelling as it gives the reader the sense of what was happening across Eastern Europe.
Regardless of one's economic views, the one thing that this book drives home is just how broken the Soviet system was throughout much of the Cold War period. While it is common knowledge the USSR propped up Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, this book discusses how these countries were also indebted to Western governments and banks, which would often extend credit to Soviet satellites to keep, among other things, food prices low.
Two words of caution, though: first, this book is about the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and does not address to great extent the fall of the Soviet Union itself. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.
Second, if you're either a Reagan Mythologizer or Reagan Demonizer you will find this book frustrating. In terms of the former, the book discounts the popular myth that Reagan's military spending and hardline stance brought down communism—a position that I felt was, for what it's worth, disrespectful to opposition figures likes Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and others. If anything, this book highlights Gorbachev's policies and willingness to withhold Soviet military power as anti-Communist opposition grew as the more crucial reasons to why the Soviet empire fell.
If you are a Reagan demonizer, you may find irritating the description of Reagan moderation and pragmatism towards the "Evil Empire" as he reached his second term, especially after the Able Archer '83 scare. For example, aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons, he worked with Gorbachev on arms reduction.
If you're interested in the Cold War, especially its last stages, I highly recommend this book.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful