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

Hoist by his own petard.

Moscow, December 25 1991: the Last Day of the Soviet Union
Conor O'Clery
Bantam Press, 448pp, £25

In early December 1991, a Russian secretary named Evgenia Pateychuk was called in to work out of hours to type a memo dictated by her boss. Thereafter, she would be known in her village as the woman who wound up the Soviet Union - with a little help from Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin later recorded having a "feeling of freedom and lightness". Others, including the economic reformer Yegor Gaidar, felt "a heavy burden in [their] hearts".

Gorbachev, the man who allowed eastern Europe its freedom and became the west's pet Soviet leader, ended his period in power outmanoeuvred by the wily Russian president. Yeltsin even contrived to tell George Bush (the elder) that the Soviet Union was about to be buried on Christmas Day before the man who was still its head of state got round to it. "He took it well," observed Belarus's president Stanislav Shushkevich. Gorby's foreign policy adviser worried how to tell both his wife and his mistress that the country was about to shrink. Dr Strangelove no longer seems so odd after reading this book.

Curiously, of all the weird and wonderful tales of the end of the cold war, that of the Soviet Union in its death throes is among the least well explored. Twenty years on, Conor O'Clery, an Irish journalist in Moscow at the time, seeks to fill in the gaps with this fascinating depiction of a historic moment dogged by accident, intrigue and comedy pratfalls.

Why did the Soviet Union dissolve? The Star Wars programme under the Strategic Defence Initiative, much derided on the left in the 1980s, is now widely agreed, even in Russia, to have sapped morale in the military-industrial complex that underpinned the USSR's control of its satellite states. Living standards in the east were falling further behind those in the west, undermining the fundamental claim of communism to ensure a better life for its citizens. Glasnost and perestroika were staging posts, not destinations, and few believed that the Soviet Union was reformable. Corruption, incompetence and bone-headed flexibility did the rest.

Still, very few observers predicted that the reforms would lead to the collapse of the USSR in such a short time. At that point, the independence movements, outside the Baltic states and Georgia, were not particularly strong. O'Clery sets out to answer a deceptively simple question: what happened? This quickly branches out into an exploration of the tormented internal politics of Moscow in the early 1990s. Pretty soon, we are into a full-scale clash between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, enemies divided by interests and personality.

At times, O'Clery takes rather too much of his evidence directly from Yeltsin's men and offers overly sympathetic descriptions of his bizarre behaviour - not least Yeltsin's fit of alleged self-harm with a pair of paper scissors after one skirmish with Gorbachev. (Like the author, I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent shortly after Yeltsin had seized his moment in the days after the anti-Gorbachev coup of 1991, and the mood of poisonous intrigue and instability comes across perfectly in this re-creation of the power battles that saw off the USSR.) In August that year, Gorbachev became a prisoner in his luxury dacha at Foros, Ukraine, in a coup organised by his own appointees. Yeltsin's response in parliament glowed with vengeance: "Who chose the officials? He did. He was betrayed by his closest people." The system had turned on itself and Mikhail Sergeyevich was its ultimate victim.

Not that this version of the story does Gorby many favours. The Soviet leader's best moment was 1989, when he decided to let eastern Europe secede from Moscow's sphere of influence without violence. After that, he havered and procrastinated his way through the ensuing crises. Few political circles have been as treacherous as the upper reaches of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in decline. There wasn't much socialist brotherly love - pretty much everyone hated or distrusted everyone else.

O'Clery's ability to keep tabs on a vast array of interchangeable apparatchiks is as impressive as his taut descriptions: Gorbachev's defence minister Dmitry Yazov is "a corpulent and salty-tongued veteran with a florid complexion, ham-like hands and a bent for English poetry". Sometimes, the non-specialist may feel that the myriad hard-drinking, cursing Russian bureaucrats with ham-like hands are merging into one - but O'Clery's narrative line does not falter.

Somehow, amid the palace intrigue, the leaders of the former Soviet states had to concoct a response to the yearning for independence in Georgia and Ukraine. The final act of clumsy geopolitical butchery took place just before the year's end. As Gorbachev wrote his farewell address, Yeltsin sent guards to evict his family from the government dacha and two men were sent up on to the roof to take down the Soviet flag, "like waiters clearing away a tablecloth". By chance, a CNN crew witnessed the transfer of a black Samsonite case containing the nuclear codes from Gorbachev's team to Yeltsin's. By then, the two men hated each other so much, they couldn't even do that in person.

Anne McElvoy writes for the Economist

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires