Evil Empire nostalgia: The Soviet Union is no phoenix Communism: failed of its inherent weaknesses

The Argument

November 05, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

On the evening of Dec. 25, 1991, in a small Moscow apartment, friends of mine drank the night away. Stoked by vodka and herring and pickled mushrooms, they cried and sang old songs and indulged themselves in heart-broken nostalgia. That night had brought the anti-climactic end of the Soviet Union. The big hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin, and all across their worn and ragged country, millions of Russians were, like my friends, giving a thought to the country that had been theirs.

They weren't demonstrating and they weren't shooting at each other, because, frankly, not many of them thought the old Soviet empire was really worth trying to save at that point. They were, simply and most Russianly, drinking, lifting a last glass (or bottle) to the memory of some of the good times they had known.

And then they got over it.

A couple of years later, a Russian general named Alexander Lebed, running a miserable outpost of the contracting empire in the muddy garrison town of Tiraspol in the by-then independent country of Moldova, caught the prevailing Russian mood exactly (and in so doing showed why he is a formidable candidate to succeed President Boris N. Yeltsin).

"Anyone," he said, "who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks it can be put back together has no brain."

By that measure, Jack F. Matlock Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has shown in "Autopsy on an Empire" (Random House. 836 pages. $35) that he has plenty of heart (and plenty of brains, too, for sure). Four years after the Soviet Union passed into history, he has written a book that just flows over with regret. The "if only" school of Soviet history has found a champion in Mr. Matlock.

And how peculiar that is. It's one thing for ordinary Russians to reflect on what they and their country have lost, to weigh the good and the bad, to recognize that for all its flaws and iniquities the Soviet Union afforded them a measure of stability and standing in the world. But for a former Reagan White House aide, for the man who served as George Bush's ambassador to Moscow - to argue that the world would have been better off if the Soviet Union had been kept intact is just so fascinatingly wrong-headed that you have to be glad events in the end outstripped Washington's ability to influence them.

Mr. Matlock is a career Soviet expert who did several tours in Moscow as a foreign service officer and is widely respected for his knowledge of Soviet society and his fluency at Russian (although I eventually lost count of the number of times he boasts about that in the book).

Yet the reader of "Autopsy on an Empire" realizes with growing astonishment that Mr. Matlock and his superiors, for all their conservative credentials, were just more comfortable dealing with a Communist system they knew than with the messy jumble that succeeded it. Communism represented stability, order, predictability and one man - the general secretary of the Communist Party - to deal with.

Brighter future

Astonishingly, Mr. Matlock writes that the Reagan and Bush administrations believed they were guiding Mr. Gorbachev into accepting their agendas, that they were helping to steer events in the Soviet Union toward a brighter future.

What's wrong with that notion? Just this:

It ignores reality. A lot of people within the Soviet Union wanted Communism to fail. They weren't interested in making it better; they wanted to replace it. (And they won, in the end.) Moreover, it's hard to imagine any way in which the Soviet Union could have survived the "contradictions" (to use a Marxist term) that were inherent in the system in the first place.

Mr. Matlock's book is full of big guys: Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, Yeltsin; Reagan, Baker, Bush. He admits to believing that important individuals make the decisions that make history. So we learn an awful lot about the important men who made the important decisions in Washington and Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In itself, of course, that's not uninteresting. But what was life like in the army, or at the peasants' markets, or in the Baltics, or in the factories during those years? Mightn't that give us some sense, as well, of the state of the Soviet Union in its last days?

Mr. Matlock complains that Russian democrats were pushing Mr. Gorbachev too hard in 1990. He writes, with a certain sense of I-told-you-so, that the Lithuanian declaration of independence sealed the doom of perestroika. Those damn Lithuanians - putting their own freedom ahead of the promise of reform in Moscow. And, finally, he goes on at some length defending President Bush's address to the Ukrainian parliament in early August 1991 - an address that the conservative columnist William Safire quickly and stingingly dubbed the "Chicken Kiev" speech.

Mr. Bush called on Ukrainian nationalists to hold their fire, to put their faith in Mr. Gorbachev, to remember that independence doesn't necessarily mean democracy.

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