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Witness to the Fall

Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of The Soviet Union

by Jack F Matlock Jr.
Random House, 836 pp., $35.00

Blest is the man who has visited this world
in its fateful moments…”
—F.I. Tyutchev (1803–1873)

Reviewing the history of international affairs in the modern era, which might be considered to extend from the middle of the seventeenth century to the present, I find it hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance more inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance from the international scene, primarily in the years 1987 through 1991, of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. History has recorded the decline and final collapse of a number of great empires of the past, and there has been no small number of scholarly and literary efforts to describe the circumstances and analyze the causes of these great developments. But in all these earlier instances the declines had been gradual, and the final collapses consisted normally only of prolonged and dismal trailings off of vitality into the realms of historical insignificance and ultimate oblivion. How then to explain the extreme abruptness, the sharp quick ending, and not least the relative bloodlessness with which the great Soviet Empire came to an end in the four years in question, bearing with it those attributes of the earlier Russian Empire which it had contrived to incorporate into itself?

These were the questions that preoccupied the author of Autopsy on an Empire as he looked back on his service as American ambassador in Russia from 1987 to 1991; and the book offers and explains the best answers he can give to them in retrospect. It did not, the author explains, fall within his intentions, as he undertook this task, to write a definitive history of the Soviet collapse. His focus was to be on those events that were germane to these fundamental questions. He tried to avoid involvement with matters that did not answer to that description. His task was plainly complicated by the fact that he was not only an observer of the course of events he describes but was from time to time actively and not insignificantly involved in them. Such involvement is normally not the best of recommendations for what might be called a book of political observation; but it must be said, to the author’s credit, that he firmly resisted the temptation to be carried off into autobiography, and brought his own experiences into the picture only when they were indeed relevant to the inquiry at hand.

It is hard to think of anyone who would or could have been better prepared to conduct this inquiry than Jack Matlock. In his youth, he plunged extensively into Russian studies as an undergraduate at Duke University and as a student at Columbia’s Russian Institute. He then taught for a time at Dartmouth in the field of Russian history and culture. After entering the American Foreign Service, he had, among other assignments, served three times at the Moscow embassy in more junior (but not very junior) capacities before entering on his fourth and final tour of duty there as ambassador. He thus brought to his ambassadorial duties the advantages of extensive academic training, including a wide familiarity with Russian history and culture, an impressive fluency in the Russian language, and a thorough training in the situation and problems of the particular diplomatic mission he was now to head. And all these qualities found reflection in the book at hand.

This is, let it be said at once, a serious and in many respects masterful work, well-written, interesting throughout, unique in both concept and execution, and of high historical importance. As already noted, it could not, and does not, purport to be a definitive history of the Soviet collapse; the author specifically disclaims any such ambition. But it is unique as an answer to the problems it confronts. It will be a long time before it is overtaken by the more detached and specifically historical scholarly studies that must eventually follow. For the present the book may stand, therefore, for what it is: a running and very useful account of the events of the decisive four-year period (1987–1991), as seen and commented upon by one who was not only uniquely prepared but also uniquely positioned for the task of understanding and judging them.

The body of the work leads the reader through the major developments of the period just mentioned, recording his reactions of the moment, and recounting, wherever justified, the circumstances of his involvement. Wider and more retrospective conclusions are reserved for the final chapter; but the narrative account—most of the book—is always enlivened by the author’s immediate observations and reactions, sometimes as recorded in his personal diaries of the time.

The book concentrates strictly on the political aspects of the passing scene. The author was, of course, fully aware of what was happening in the economic and social realms: of the rapidly developing economic distress, of the nature and fate of the various reform programs, of the problems of inflation, corruption, and economic crime. He occasionally reminds the reader of this significant and essential background of the political life of the time. But he evidently considered that enough had been written, and was continuing to be written, on these subjects by other people, whereas the political aspect of the developing scene, particularly in its relation to the pending dissolution and disappearance of the Soviet Union, had lacked the sort of sustained portrayal and analysis that he was in a position to give it.

The period of Matlock’s service as ambassador in Moscow, between 1987 and 1991, was very nearly coterminous with the ascendancy of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, first in the Party and then in the government of the Soviet Union. When, in the first months of Matlock’s service, Gorbachev began to make statements that pointed in the direction of a greater liberality in Party and government, Matlock was initially skeptical. He recalled instances in both tsarist and Soviet history when statesmen (one of them, Khrushchev) who had started off with liberal impulses were eventually taken in hand by the reactionaries and forced to shift over to the hard line. But when it became evident, by the middle of 1987, that Gorbachev was not only serious in his liberal intentions but was consolidating his leadership and demonstrating the ability to carry the regime with him on a liberal course, things changed; Matlock was obliged to recognize that what his own government was now confronted with on the Soviet side was something new and highly interesting, with important implications not just for the nature of Soviet power but also for the improvement of Soviet-American relations. From that time on, until the dramatic events of 1991, Matlock’s hopes, and those of official Washington, centered on the person of Gorbachev, and were predicated on the success of the leadership he was assuming.

There were good reasons, rare to the point of uniqueness, for these hopes and expectations. Not only was Gorbachev continuing, as mentioned above, to master both Party and government, but he was steadily gaining the respect and confidence of other Western governments. He knew how to conduct himself in the international arena. He was well-educated, urbane, intelligent, and persuasive. He recognized the need for compromise in international problems. He was once said to have said that the other fellow’s interests deserved your respect and were, in a sense, your own. He was, above all, sincere in the pursuit of the views he had put forward.

But with the advent of the 1990s it began to become evident that these positive qualities of Gorbachev were being disconcertingly overbalanced by negative ones. Some of these latter were personal. Matlock describes them very well in this book. Gorbachev, he says, was a very “private” person. He seemed to have no real friends—none, at least, in his Russian entourage. This meant in effect that he would never find himself surrounded by a circle of people upon whose loyalty he could depend and from whose advice he could profit. He was in general a bad listener, at least to Russians.1 He preferred to lecture others on his own views rather than to inquire about theirs. He resented criticism, even when it was put forward with the utmost good will. He surrounded himself with second- and third-rate people, and not unsurprisingly found difficulty in keeping them in the positions they came to occupy. (Matlock might, I think, have added a reference to Gorbachev’s habit of announcing decisions but failing to follow up on their execution.)

And the deficiencies, as Matlock saw them, were not only personal; they carried into the realms of political habit and choice, where Matlock found them increasingly disturbing. He deplored the swing to the right in Gorbachev’s political behavior that began in 1990. He deplored the frequent vacillation between reform and reaction—between the liberals and the hard-liners—and the obvious effort to appease the latter. Particularly disturbing in Matlock’s eyes was Gorbachev’s uncertain and evasive conduct in relation to the unsuccessful attempt of Soviet military units to crack down on Lithuania by force of arms in January 1991. Increasingly, Matlock was obliged to recognize that Gorbachev was pursuing what were really self-defeating policies—policies that were bound to play into the hands of the unreconstructed right-wing extremists who were still clinging to powerful positions in certain parts of the governmental establishment. He feared, and again with good reason, that these elements would try first to use Gorbachev for their own purposes, with a view to eventually overthrowing and replacing him with one of their own number when they had got what they wanted out of him.

On one occasion in January 1991, when transmitting personally to Gorbachev a private message from President Bush warning that the use of violence against Lithuania and the other Baltic countries would be bound to damage Soviet-American relations, Matlock ventured to reinforce the President’s warning by offering a few observations of his own about the difficulty he was having in understanding the direction Gorbachev’s policies were taking. He did this with some trepidation, fearing that it would evoke only one of those explosions of anger of which Gorbachev was capable when some of his Russian associates tried to give him similar warnings. To Matlock’s surprise Gorbachev, instead of blowing up, “thanked me for my candor” and replied seriously and quietly to the various reproaches involved. “Try to help your president understand,” he said, “that we are on the brink of a civil war. As president, my main task is to prevent it.” He might, he said, feel obliged to do things at times that would be hard for others to understand. (“We suffer from a low political culture,” Matlock quotes him as saying.) He went on to defend his hard-line policy toward Lithuania. He described the difficulty he had in dealing with Yeltsin, who (in Matlock’s words) “would make agreements, then renege, and he often promised more than he could deliver.”

  1. 1

    Matlock quotes a senior Soviet official as saying to him about Gorbachev on one occasion: “He is closer to President Bush, Secretary Baker, and you than he is to any of us. You can have a franker conversation with him than we can. He really has no close friends here.”

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