“History,” a wise man once told me, “is bad people doing good things and good people doing bad things.” When I look back on the political careers of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, as chronicled in Conor O’Clery’s 2011 book Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union I can see that wise man was knew what he was talking about.
Moscow, December 25, 1991 is a detailed and intelligent look back on the collapse of the USSR. The book alternates between the lead-up to Gorbachev’s resignation on Christmas night and decades that preceded it. However, in essence the book is a study in contrasts between Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
O’Clery depicts the two leaders as complete polar opposites. Gorbachev, admired in the West comes off in Moscow December 25, 1991 as charming, urbane and intelligent. Yeltsin, on the other hand is portrayed as a buffoonish, backwoods, impulsive drunk. (Immediately upon arrival during his first visit the United States he was so drunk he had to take a piss behind the airplane as it rested on the runway. During a later visit he was caught by US Secret Service agents late one evening drunk while hailing a taxi in his underwear. Asked where he was going at that hour Yeltsin told the Secret Service he was going out for a pizza.) Possible due to a combination of his drunkenness, impulsiveness and the intense political and personal pressure he was under, according to O’Clery, Yeltsin attempted suicide at least three times during his political career.
Yet it was Gorbachev who made disastrous political appointments to his inner circle. These appointees would go on to feed the Soviet leader bogus and inaccurate information. Misinformed and deceived, eventually the Soviet Union under his command entered a state of crises and decline. Later, after being overthrown by many of those same trusted leaders Gorbachev never recovered politically. Yeltsin on the other hand, in spite of his legion of shortcomings, was nevertheless perceived by many Russians as a reformer and an outsider. With key allies and sympathizers (especially in the military) he was able to take control of the political chaos and position himself as leader of a non-Communist Russia.
What blew me away the most about O’Clery’s book is the staggering volume of inside information. The book is filled with detailed accounts of secretive high-level meetings, many of them involving either Yeltsin, Gorbachev or both. Somehow, O’Clery was able to pull off this impressive piece of journalism without interviewing either former leader.
Due to the impressive amount of detail crammed into an average-length book, naturally it’s not a lightning fast read. However, thanks to O’Clery’s attention to detail, especially when it comes to all the pivotal behind the scenes stuff, this ends up being an impressive and illuminating book. It’s also fired me up to read other books about the former Soviet Union including Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster and When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Inspired by Moscow, December 25, 1991 hopefully I will.