Down With Big Brother

Phil Leggiere reviews "Down With Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire" by Michael Dobbs.

Published January 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

According to Michael Dobbs, the longtime Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, the Soviet Union died not with a bang, but a whimper, expiring from what he describes as a "massive sclerotic hardening of the bureaucratic arteries." Happily, Dobbs' eyewitness chronicle of the fall of the Soviet Empire -- from Leonid Brezhnev's heyday in the 1970s to Boris Yeltsin's rise in the early 1990s -- doesn't suffer from hardened arteries itself. "Down With Big Brother" has an alert, episodic quality that keeps you turning the pages.

Dobbs provides detailed and colorful accounts of all the major public uprisings in the Soviet Bloc during the '80s: Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. There's also an absorbing history of the war in Afghanistan, and a deft play-by-play of the Machiavellian machinations between old-line Communist Party bureaucrats, the KGB, the Soviet military and the Gorbachevian "reformers." For all of this intrinsic drama, however, Dobbs' emphasis is on the larger, less visible, bureaucratic "Soviet disease," which he believes helped spawn these events. He dissects this in longer, analytic sections on the inefficiency of the Soviet "command economy," the corruption of the Soviet military-industrial complex and, above all, the obduracy of the labyrinthine Soviet bureaucracy. He provides telling, comic examples along the way, such as the Kremlin's decades-long funding of nonexistent factories and railway lines.

There is nothing startlingly new in Dobbs' interpretation of the Cold War, or his focus on the roles of major players like Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan. "Down With Big Brother" does, however, add a great deal to our understanding of the Soviet Bloc liberation movements. Dobbs provides fascinating portraits of little-known "secondary" historical characters such as Jacek Kuron -- an eccentric Polish Trotskyite journalist and intellectual mentor to many in Solidarity -- and Vytautas Landsbergis, "a pedantic music professor with a little goatee" who inadvertently became a leader of the Lithuanian independence movement.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 inspired a classic of Western reportage, John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World." Where Reed's account of the birth of the Soviet Union was imbued with epic literary romanticism, Dobbs' sober tale oddly and ironically evokes its predecessor. Dobbs himself notes the parallels, recalling Reed's description of Revolutionary Russia where "every street corner was a public tribune, filled with lectures, debates, orations." Dobbs observes that "I was to witness such scenes myself many times as the Poles, Balts, Czechs, Ukrainians, Germans and finally Russians unmade the revolution Reed had chronicled."

By Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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