“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.”
Matlock accepted the logic of these observations but his anxieties were not greatly assuaged. He felt that there were more dangers than Gorbachev seemed to realize in any attempt to collaborate with the hard-liners in question.
In all of this, Matlock’s fears were indeed vindicated by the further course of events. But after recounting these deficiencies in Gorbachev’s statesmanship, he makes up for it with some very fine and thoughtful comments on the more positive sides of Gorbachev’s career.
…Gorbachev’s initiatives in 1988, 1989, and early 1990 made it possible for independent political forces to undermine and eventually destroy the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. His support for political openness and democratic changes was not always unqualified and was at times self-serving, but the fact remains that no fundamental change would have been possible as long as the Communist Party’s grip on power remained. Unlike most of his colleagues in the Politburo, from 1988 Gorbachev usually backed democratic change rather than the Communist Party’s narrow interests. When he failed to do so, it was to avoid being swept from power before he could implement his programs.
His judgment, of course, was not always above reproach, and many of his errors…were probably avoidable. But the fact remains that, despite his temporary alliance with the enemies of reform in the winter of 1990–1991, he consistently refused to authorize the use of force to keep himself in power. He was, in fact, the first Russian leader in history who used force not as a first but a last resort. As he pointed out in his Munich speech, all his predecessors who had come to power with visions of reform had abandoned the effort when they perceived threats to their own position. Gorbachev could have declared presidential rule at any one of several points in 1990 or 1991 and rallied the repressive forces in Soviet society to his side, but even though he may have come perilously close to doing so at times, in the end he refused to crush the embryonic democratic institutions and practices. For that service and for that precedent, Russia owes him a homage he has yet to receive….
I am convinced that Russia will eventually regard Mikhail Gorbachev as the person who led it out of bondage. The fact that he was unable to reach the Promised Land is secondary.
Nowhere did the negative features of Gorbachev’s personality come more strikingly and unfortunately to the fore than in his relations with Yeltsin. The conflict between these two men is a unifying thread through the entirety of the book. It was not, of course, the sole reason for Gorbachev’s ultimate failure. But it was a central, and perhaps the leading factor, in Matlock’s view. “The only real hope,” he wrote, “that the Soviet Union could transform itself peacefully (or relatively peacefully) into a democratic state was that, before it was too late, Gorbachev and Yeltsin would realize they must cooperate.” That they love each other was, of course, not to be expected. These were two very different men. They had come to prominence in different ways. Yeltsin would never have been a comfortable bedfellow for anyone in Russian politics. But politics (probably fortunately) does not require close personal friendship for useful collaboration.
And for the fact that they failed to collaborate Matlock puts the primary blame on Gorbachev. His behavior toward Yeltsin had not only been marked from the start by a bitter vindictiveness but was, as with other aspects of that behavior, ultimately self-defeating. Yeltsin, too, was of course not without blame for the unhappy relationship. His actions were uniformly designed, Matlock says, “to show Gorbachev in the worst possible light.” Yeltsin knew “what psychological buttons to push to get a rise out of Gorbachev, and he was crafty in his timing.” Gorbachev, for his part,
seemed never to grasp the obvious fact that it was his opposition to Yeltsin, more than any other factor, that made Yeltsin popular with the public…. But any politician who is misguided enough to humiliate and embitter a potential rival and then adopt tactics that enhance his rival’s popularity is unlikely to possess the keen judgment required to lead a country through a difficulty crisis.
At times, as the sensitive reader will observe, the Gorbachev-Yeltsin rivalry seemed to contain all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: the initial setting, the delineation of character and ambition, the mounting complication and discord, and finally, the open conflict and the tragic denouement. One feels sorry for the leading participants in this drama, but even more so for the innocent onlookers, who were also the victims: the Russian public.
And the issues of this conflict were more than personal. Behind it were differences of outlook and policy that were destined to play a crucial role in the final demise of the Gorbachev regime.
It was evidently the view of Gorbachev and a number of those around him that the restlessness and demands for independence among the non-Russian components of the Soviet empire flowed primarily from longstanding resentment of the harshness of the regime over all the years of Communist dominance. It was easy then to jump from this view to the expectation that the demands for complete independence could be largely disarmed by the liberalization of the Soviet Union generally. In a Soviet Union which understood the problems of these national minorities, it was argued, and which met them halfway in their desire for a greater degree of local autonomy, the idea of a total detachment from membership in the empire would lose its charms, and some sort of a permanent modus vivendi between center and periphery could then be worked out.
Matlock, with all due sympathy for the feelings of the various nations that had been, as he put it, “trapped within the Soviet empire,” seems to have shared much of this hope. “A voluntary union of limited powers, with democratic institutions and the checks and balances essential to an effective democracy, could have provided,” he thought, “freedom and a framework for more effective economic development.” Elaborations of his thinking on this subject in later parts of the work make it clear that what he had in mind at the time was not any modified version of Moscow’s central authority over the nations in question, but rather a federative or confederative arrangement of some sort, giving the respective peoples the advantages of extensive domestic autonomy without breaking entirely the traditional tie to the Moscow center. (“Union” is the word used to denote such a solution throughout most of the book.)
But it soon became apparent, preferable as this alternative might have been, that the Baltic peoples and the leaders of the movement for an independent Ukraine were having none of it. Such was their resolve, their courage, and their persistence that by the middle of the 1990s their respective demands for total independence had been conceded by Moscow; and it was clear that there could thereafter be no turning back on this concession.
The recognition that this was so split opinions in the entourage of Gorbachev. Some believed that a rump “union,” lacking these territories, would have poor chances of survival. It would be, they thought, too oddly constituted geographically. But Gorbachev clung to the belief that some sort of a federation or confederation would still be possible, and Matlock, if I read him correctly, had some sympathy with these increasingly faint hopes. Yeltsin, on the other hand, seems never to have entertained them. He evidently did not believe that a union of such dimensions could be successfully maintained, and one suspects that he did not greatly care. He had, as the future was to show, personal as well as more objective reasons for adopting this position.
By the outset of the year 1991 the political situation in Russia was beginning to heat up to dangerous levels. One of Gorbachev’s finest and most able partners, Eduard Shevardnadze, had bowed out in the last weeks of 1990, with the intention of removing to his native Georgia. In January 1991 came the Lithuanian crisis. Then, in February, came Yeltsin’s demand, put forward over national television, for Gorbachev’s retirement from the presidency of the USSR. Although Gorbachev found support for his refusal to accept this demand, the break between him and Yeltsin was now irreparable.
This is not the place to describe the sad events of the remaining months of Gorbachev’s political career. They included Yeltsin’s brilliant chess move in securing the leadership of the long-moribund but now reviving Russian Republic (in theory only one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union). They also included the crisis of August 1991, marked by the bizarre effort of a group of highly confused and partially inebriate reactionary personalities to stage a putsch against Gorbachev during his vacation in the Crimea. They ended with the almost incredible sleight of hand by which Yeltsin, at the end of December 1991, succeeded in putting an end to the Soviet Union itself as a member of the world community of sovereign states, and, by the same token, to Gorbachev’s official position and (at least for some years) his active participation in political life.
By long prior understanding, Matlock’s tour of duty as ambassador in Russia came to an end in August 1991, on the very eve of the putsch against Gorbachev. In completing his account, Matlock naturally covers, with his usual narrative verve, the dramatic final weeks before the denouement, even though he was no longer a close witness to them. They serve as a fitting climax to much of the experience the book so richly describes. They complete, in fact, the answer to the question with which the book begins.
Yeltsin appeared only late in the day as a major factor in the events Matlock describes. Matlock knew him, of course, and talked with him on a number of occasions, but the most significant comments about him are reserved for the concluding chapter. Pointing to the differences of opinion among contemporaries about Yeltsin’s political record, he goes on to say that Yeltsin and Gorbachev had contrasting personalities.
Gorbachev was the more thoughtful, the more calculating, Yeltsin the more instinctive and impulsive. Gorbachev’s formal education was superior; the country’s premier university offered many advantages over the provincial construction institute Yeltsin attended. But both shared the professional experience of long and successful service in the Communist Party apparatus; both had made their names initially as provincial first secretaries.
And even here, Matlock noted, there was a contrast. Gorbachev’s family background was a modest one. He had been lucky to be able to study at Moscow University. His record there both as a student and as a Komsomol leader placed him “on the fast track for Party leadership.” Yeltsin, on the other hand,
…did not benefit from such an initial advantage: he had to claw his way into the nomenklatura by wit and will—and liberal use of his elbows. As a consequence, the two viewed power differently: to Gorbachev it was his due, while to Yeltsin it was something to fight for and win.
And fight he did. But he fought by the rules. His election campaigns and his tactics in parliament, up through his election as president of Russia in June 1991, would be considered normal in any democracy. Of course he attacked his opponents’ vulnerabilities, took advantage of their mistakes, and sometimes made campaign promises that he could not fulfill, but only people still wedded to the idea of a one-party dictatorship would find such practices abnormal.
It was Yeltsin’s firm position, Matlock observes, that restrained Gorbachev from making the “tragic and bloody mistake” of authorizing the use of force in the Baltic states. In general, Yeltsin’s support for the independence of the Baltic countries “required both political and physical courage, as did his immediate and unequivocal condemnation of the coup attempt in August.” And Matlock credits him with preserving the possibility of further democratic development in Russia in the first months of 1991, “when that cause was under mortal threat.”
On the other hand, Matlock points out, the way in which Yeltsin carried out his final political triumph undermined respect for the rule of law. In particular, when bringing Russia into the status of a new and independent state, he did so “without an unequivocal mandate from its citizens and with an unworkable constitution.” These are of course very serious charges. But the verdict, in his view, is not yet in. Much will depend on the way the country will now develop. If things go well, Matlock thinks, Yeltsin’s faults and mistakes will probably be largely forgiven.
But if the country disintegrates further, drifts into a morass of crime and corruption, and is riven by demagogic appeals to revive the empire, he would be put down as a tragic Tsar Boris II, whose reign of questionable legitimacy brought on the Time of Troubles and of national shame.
There were of course deeper reasons, reaching back over all the decades of Communist power in Russia, for this sudden and miserable ending of the Soviet Union. But it is evident that at the heart of the immediate causes of the collapse there lay the inability of the Soviet regime to deal effectively with what was usually called “the national question,” meaning the unhappiness of a number of the non-Russian national components of the union, and their demands for greater autonomy or independence.
Neither in his activity as ambassador nor in the composition of his book could Matlock be charged with any neglect of this problem. He had visited most of these outlying national entities. He had met their leaders, listened to their complaints, and taken full note of the many complexities of their respective situations. He did not underestimate the gravity of the problem.
But with all due respect and sometimes even admiration for the attentions he gave to this subject, I found myself wondering whether he fully recognized the intractability of the problem in question. There was from the very start—from Lenin’s time—a basic incompatibility between the radical Marxist ideology of the Lenin variety and the demands of the small dependent peoples in Russia, as elsewhere, for self-government and independence in the name of national identity. Lenin was well aware of this incompatibility, but he found it politically expedient to retain within the confines of the Soviet Union those of the peoples in question that had been included in the tsarist empire, conceding to them the outward façades of their national identity while preserving for the Communist Party and the Soviet secret police the real levers of authority, and applying those levers with relentless and crushing severity.
So matters stood, generally speaking, over all the seven decades of Communist rule. But in the meantime, and particularly in the years following the Second World War, this arrangement was being increasingly undermined by developments both in Russia and elsewhere. The unrelenting harshness of Soviet rule was continuing to inflame among the subject peoples the very dissatisfactions it was designed to repress. Developments in the rest of the world—the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination, the idealization of the nation-state, the disintegration of other great empires under anti-colonial pressures—were now becoming widely known within the Soviet Union, where they were stimulating and hardening the demands in the peripheral nations for separation and independence. And when there then occurred that general relaxation of Moscow’s previously oppressive authority which marked the Gorbachev era, the demands for independence broke through with great violence, primarily among the peoples along the western and southwestern borders of the Soviet state; and it soon became evident that there was no stopping them, particularly in the Baltic region and Ukraine, other than by means that would have compromised the great process of change now overtaking the Russian heartland itself.
I would not like to be misunderstood. I have, personally, no enthusiasm for the concept of one nation-one state that has now been accepted, in the UN and elsewhere, as the basis for the emerging structure of international society. I have particularly deplored the absence of any formally recognized intermediate stages between total dependence as a national minority within the body of a larger and more powerful state, and an unlimited and often unreal independence as a full-fledged “sovereign” member of the international community. I can therefore have nothing but sympathy for the preference of Gorbachev and Matlock for the creation of just such an intermediate status to govern the relationship between center and periphery in the traditional Russian region. I can well see that in a number of instances (not in all) such a solution might have been preferable, in the interest of both parties, to the total break that finally took place.
But in the confused interrelationships of the world community what is desirable is not always practicable; and I would suggest that if there was ever a possibility of creating such an intermediate status in the Russian realm, it was by the 1990s probably too late. The old rigidities had been maintained too long and could not now be easily bent. At the beginning of the 1990s neither the center nor the periphery was capable of the quality of statesmanship that would have been required to put forward, and to gain acceptance for, the sort of arrangement, whether of federation or confederation, that both Gorbachev and Matlock, each in his own way, would seem to have thought possible.
At the heart of this problem lay, in particular, the action of the Russian Republic in declaring, or at least dramatically reaffirming (no doubt under Yeltsin’s prompting), in the spring of 1991, its own “sovereignty.” It was not the first of the constituent Soviet republics to take this step. Some, headed by the Baltic states, had already done so; others were shortly to follow. For some of the others, this was only a pathetic gesture: a hasty self-association with the abuse of the word “sovereignty” that had by that time become a fad for ambitious political leaders of smaller political entities across the globe. But in the case of the Russian Republic, the gesture was far more serious. In the formal sense it ranked the Russian nation with the various other peripheral entities in the former Soviet Union, the status of which was now coming increasingly into question. For the Russian Republic to assume this position was to pose a mortal threat to the Soviet Union itself. For if the Russian nation were to go ahead and declare its own full independence, or even if it were to become a member of some sort of a federal or confederal “union” on an equal basis with all the others, what, beyond the name, would be left of the Soviet Union? It would have become an empty shell, without people, without territory, and with no more than a theoretical identity.
This specter hovered in the background of events over the entire year and a half before the final denouement. It would, I suspect, have thrust itself into the foreground at some point, even if Yeltsin had not deliberately propelled it in that direction. And when it did, it would in any case have posed an insoluble dilemma for everyone. For if Russia could not separate itself from the Soviet Union, neither would it, by 1991, have been able to find any other acceptable relationship to it.
The attention Matlock gave, as a diplomatic observer, to the spectacular dramas of the passing political scene was only the larger part of his activity in this ambassadorial position. Another part, scarcely less a claim on his time and energies, was composed of his responsibilities as the senior representative of the United States government to that of another great country in a very troubled time. One might have thought that his burden might, at least in the Reagan period, have been lighter than that borne by many other ambassadors; for he had served for several years as a member of the National Security Council staff before taking up these duties in Moscow, and in this capacity had been a senior advisor to President Reagan on Russian matters and plainly enjoyed the President’s confidence. Although known in the Cold War period as a hard-liner (a charge he did not deny), he had, among other things, taken a prominent part in persuading Mr. Reagan to relax his attitude toward Russia in the final months of his presidency.
But George Bush, upon taking over as president in January 1989, had followed tradition in making a clean sweep of Reagan’s advisors (Matlock being a rare exception), thus eliminating from the White House entourage just about everybody who knew or had learned anything about Russia. Matlock was then left to compete for the President’s attention with more than a few Washington characters whose understanding of Russian matters was as small as his own was large. The result was that in several instances he was in disagreement with Washington attitudes and decisions, for example, over the forms that American aid to Russia might take, the degree to which Washington should commit its words and actions to the personal support of Gorbachev, and what attitude Washington should take toward Yeltsin while Gorbachev was still in office.
In trying to gain a hearing for his views on these and other issues, Matlock had it borne in upon him (though he probably knew it before) that in considering relations with another country, the last voice listened to in Washington (if listened to at all) by the bureaucracy and political establishment is normally that of the American ambassador on the spot. Had his views prevailed, there is reason to suppose that America’s role in the fortunes of the Gorbachev regime would have been a somewhat more useful one, and the view of this country held by large sections of the Russian public would be less bitter, and marked by greater confidence. But Matlock bore this burden with a patience and understanding that few other ambassadors, myself included, would have been able to muster. And for this, too, he has no doubt to be given his fair share of credit.
There is one further aspect of Matlock’s diplomatic activity as a representative of his own government and as the central go-between for that government and the Soviet one that must, after all, be mentioned here, for its omission would do Matlock a real disservice. This is the severity of the personal strains that his mission imposed upon him, and the strenuousness of the life that it required. One has to read the entire book in order to understand what these duties meant in interviews, travels, confusions, nocturnal instructions from Washington, contacts with Russian officials and other personalities, and support for prominent visiting American dignitaries. And all of this against the background of the myriad of minor harassments and complications which were inherent in the Russian life of his day and which only someone who had personally experienced them could understand.
That anyone could survive this life, as did Matlock, for an entire tour of duty of some four years’ duration is itself a wonder. And this discussion may well be concluded by the observation that if there are still Americans who entertain the fond belief that the profession of diplomacy is somehow an idly luxurious one, they have only to read this book attentively in order to see how far from the truth such assumptions have been.
In the volume under review Matlock’s account of his observations of the four-year period of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is followed by an epilogue of some fifty-six pages addressed to the aftermath, in the period from 1992 to 1994, of the events to which the body of the book is devoted. This is a straightforward account, from a highly competent pen, of the developments of these later years. It is literature of a somewhat different order from the preceding account; and this is scarcely the place to discuss it in detail. Not everyone will be entirely in agreement, nor is this reviewer, with all of the analysis of the contemporary situation with which this epilogue concludes. But the principal two conclusions, concerning the possible future of Russia, deserve respectful attention, for they are the summary expression of a unique body of experience. They are as follows:
- The Soviet system cannot be rebuilt. The circumstances that made it possible in the first place no longer prevail, and even at its height it was not competitive with free economies. Attempts to revert to the past, which may well occur, will fail and ultimately generate pressures to move ahead.
- The Russian empire cannot be reassembled, even if the Russian people nurse an emotional attachment for an ill-understood past and are periodically victimized by demagogues. Only a healthy Russian economy could bear the cost, but the economy cannot be cured if Russia embarks on an imperialist course.
Were these judgments to be accepted as the point of departure for further discussion of the situation of Russia as of late 1995, the usefulness of that discussion might be significantly heightened.
November 16, 1995
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.” ↩