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Munich, Accra, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam

and Washington, D.C.

He is the author of

Autopsy on an Empire:

The American Ambassador’s Account of

the Collapse of the Soviet Union


House, 1995),

Reagan and Gorbachev: How

the Cold War Ended

(Random House, 2005)


Superpower Illusions: How Myths and

False Ideologies Led America Astray—and

How to Return to Reality

(Yale University

Press, 2010). Comments on his books and

an occasional blog post can be found at


How Dreamers and

Schemers Made Today’s


The Invention of Russia: From

Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War

Arkady Ostrovsky, Viking Press, 2015,

$30/hardcover, $14.99/Kindle, 384


Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise

of Russia’s New Nationalism

Charles Clover, Yale University Press,

2016, $35/hardcover, $16.99/Kindle,

376 pages.

Reviewed By Eric Green

For decades—perhaps centuries—into

the future, historians will debate the

significance of the 1990s in Russia.

Was it a brief, freakish deviation from

Russia’s pattern of having a suffocating

state dominate individual initiative, or

was it a turning point when Russians

decisively embraced Western values of

individual freedom and accountable


While the answers to these questions

are still unknowable, it is indisputable

that the 1990s were a colossal setback,

both economically and spiritually, to

the vast majority of Russians. Liberal

reformers were disap-

pointed by their fail-

ure to leap-frog their

country to Western

levels of prosperity,

civility and stabil-

ity (Sweden wasn’t

built in a day),

while the masses of bureaucrats,

military and intelligence officers and

academics were in a state of shock at

the loss of the Soviet Union’s social

hierarchies at home and great-power

status abroad.

Both books under review recognize

how pivotal the dramas of the 1990s

are to understanding contemporary

Russia. The events are well known:

Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to allow

the Warsaw Pact to disintegrate as Ger-

mans peacefully destroyed the Berlin

Wall; the failed 1991 putsch in Moscow

that backfired so spectacularly that the

USSR’s 15 republics became indepen-

dent countries with less advance notice

than a wedding, while allowing Boris

Yeltsin to punctuate his own coup over

Gorbachev; and then Yeltsin’s Shake-

spearean presidency, which saw bloody

rebellion in Chechnya and in his own

parliament, intrigue among his court-

iers and family members, and epic theft

of state property.

Against this background, Russia’s

foreign policy tried to perpetuate Mos-

cow’s image as a superpower, but failed

to either block the eastern enlargement

of the European Union and NATO or

to reconcile Russia’s strategic interests

with this process.

Though Ostrovsky and Clover are

describing the same events, they choose

opposite points of entry. Clover follows

the defenders of aggressive Russian

nationalism, who rebounded from

the collapse of the USSR to achieve

unprecedented influence under

Putin. Ostrovsky tells the story from

the perspective of the


(1960s) generation who emerged

during the Khrushchev era and, after

being forced underground following

Brezhnev’s crushing of the Prague

Spring, were brought to center stage

by Gorbachev in the late 1980s.

Ostrovsky masterfully describes the

people within this movement, concen-

trating on journalists who employed the

media to propel reformers into power

in large part by using Gorbachev’s


(openness) to discredit the

Soviet regime. It’s difficult to imagine

how dizzying a time this was. In the

space of 10 years, an odd assortment of

men from the society’s margins (where

they sold jeans, wrote for underground

papers or marked time in academic

institutes) assumed leading roles in

Russia. From underdogs, they were now

seen as instruments of an inevitable

wave of change that would end Europe’s

ideological fissures, the “end of history”

in Fukayama’s phrase. What could pos-

sibly go wrong?

The early days of


, the

country’s first private, pro-market

newspaper, was an indication, and

Ostrovsky’s description encapsulates

the complexities of a changing Russia.


’s reformist owners were all

too willing to con investors and manip-

ulate their shares, even as their paper

advocated for free markets and private

property. These million-dollar swindles

were a prelude to the massive manipu-

lations a few years later, when Yeltsin

pawned Russia’s most valuable compa-

nies to seven oligarchs in exchange for

positive media coverage and financial

backing for his 1996 re-election bid.

Ostrovksy points out that this trans-

action was unnecessary and short-