First, a small confession: I opened "Down With Big Brother" with considerable trepidation. After all, even aficionados of the Cold War may entertain doubts about how much more there is to say about the fall of the Soviet empire. Although Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs is a colleague and our paths have crossed many times in the Soviet Union and Poland as we raced to cover many of the breathtaking events he describes in his book, I wondered what more he could contribute to a subject that has already generated an outpouring of new volumes from journalists, diplomats and scholars.
I needn't have worried. Dobbs has produced a riveting, panoramic narrative, one of the best first drafts of history currently available. By drawing upon his own reporting, myriad memoirs of key participants and the rich documentation now available from previously secret files, he weaves this complex story together with the kind of fascinating details and snippets of conversations that constantly offer new insights into seemingly familiar events.
The book spans the period from the first Solidarity strikes in Poland in 1980 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, covering everything from the seismic tremors on the periphery of the empire to the political battles inside the Kremlin. Through it all, Dobbs demonstrates that he possesses all the acute senses needed by a good reporter--keen eyes and ears and, yes, a good nose. In describing the "distinctly socialist smell" of the Soviet bloc, he writes: "The blend of odors varied slightly from country to country, but the basic ingredients were always the same: low-octane gasoline, body odor, unwashed frying pans, cheap perfume, brown coal, cabbage, dried urine and musty newsprint." It is the kind of description that sparks instant recognition by anyone who spent time there.
The same attention to small details provides revealing glimpses into just how far gone the Soviet system really was in its final decade. The day before Leonid Brezhnev died, his barber was too drunk to give him his regular shave. The leader of the world's second superpower found nothing unusual in this. "What a useless fellow," he shrugged. "He's smashed again." After the shooting-down of South Korean airline flight 007 in 1983, Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov assured another dying Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, that there was nothing to worry about since "nobody will be able to prove anything." At the U.N. Security Council, the Americans promptly played the tape of the conversation between Sakhalin ground control and the fighter pilot who shot the plane down.
Dobbs argues that plenty of people and factors contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system. He gives credit where credit is due: to Solidarity activists, Afghan resistance fighters and Andrei Sakharov; to Pope John Paul II and former President Reagan; to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Nonetheless, he insists that the most important element was the peculiar nature of the system itself. Or, to put it in Marxist terms, the system carried the seeds of its own destruction. "In the last resort communism defeated itself," he writes.
In describing that process, he sweeps aside old Western myths with refreshing bluntness. "In its language and rituals the Politburo resembled a group of Mafia dons who have clawed their way to the top of a gigantic protection racket," he writes. "Contrary to the cherished notion of some Kremlinologists, the Politburo was not divided into hawks and doves. Under both Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, all Politburo members were hawks by definition." His gripping accounts of the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 and the Armenian earthquake in 1988 leave no doubt why there was a revolt not only of workers, intellectuals and national movements but also, as he puts it elsewhere, of machines and even of nature.
When he examines the pivotal role of Gorbachev, Dobbs avoids both of the extremes so common in the United States. He neither lionizes him, as some liberals do, nor demonizes him, as some conservatives do. The portrait that emerges is far more nuanced. Gorbachev did play a vital role in opening up the system and, particularly, in allowing Soviet citizens to examine their own massively falsified history. He did so, Dobbs explains, to try to save the Communist system, not to destroy it--and, not incidentally, to hold on to power.
But Dobbs appears to stray a bit from this sensible analysis when he discusses Gorbachev's penchant to deploy "verbal smoke screens" or "clouds of obfuscation" to confuse more reactionary rivals about his true intentions. There may be a simpler explanation: Gorbachev's rhetorical haze was an accurate reflection of the confusion in his own mind, which is still apparent. Dobbs sometimes credits him with too much cunning. The last Soviet leader played a major role in the disintegration of his empire precisely because he never understood what his role was. If he had, he would never have followed the path he did.
With a book of such scope, there is plenty of room for other disagreements. By trying to capture the major events all across the Soviet empire, Dobbs has to offer highly selective snapshots, inevitably shortchanging many subjects. The Yugoslav conflict is a particular case in point, although his brief account is admirable given the limitations. By throwing in Yugoslavia as the only post-Communist chapter, he leaves a misleading impression that this is emblematic of post-Communist Eastern Europe, where real success stories abound.
In stylistic terms, I wish Dobbs the narrator had allowed Dobbs the journalist to appear more often in this drama. As someone who reported so much of it directly, he was a part of it, too. On the rare occasion that he does so--for example, when he finds himself caught in an ambush in Bosnia--the effect can be electrifying. But all those are relatively minor quibbles. There is no doubt that "Down With Big Brother" is just the kind of sprawling epic that is needed to tell a story that deserves to be told and told again.