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…

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