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.
The Communist superpower ended in a whimper of personal rivalries, according to this shrewd political history. Former Irish Times correspondent O'Clery (The Billionaire Who Wasn't) alternates vignettes from the day Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation brought the U.S.S.R. to a formal end with a chronicle of its collapse under his rule. He frames the story as a duel between Gorbachev, the principled but vain and haughty statesman who lost control of the reforms he initiated, and Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic a crude, drunken bully and something the Soviet Union had not seen before: a real politician, capable of translating popular sentiment into a democratic power base. 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.