Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
On December 25th, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. With the stoke of a pen the totalitarian regime founded by Lenin and enforced by Stalin came to an end. In a new book, award winning journalist and writer Conor O’Clery offers a minute by minute account of this dramatic day. He also details many of the tumultuous events in the years leading up to the end of the Soviet Union, the bitter rivalry between Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin, and the defiance of once passive Soviet republics. Join us for a discussion on the end of the Soviet Union.
- Conor O'Clery GlobalPost's Ireland correspondent, former international correspondent for the Irish Times and author of several books, including "The Billionaire Who Wasn't."
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from “Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union.” Copyright 2011 by Connor O’Clery. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs press:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. On December 25, 1991, as tearful aides looked on, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. The Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. In a new book, journalist and writer Conor O'Clery details that momentous day and the critical events leading up to it. His new book is titled "Moscow, December 25, 1991."
MS. DIANE REHMConor O'Clery is here in the studio with me. He has written many books, in fact, three since I last saw him six years ago. And if you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. It's so good to see you again.
MR. CONOR O'CLERYIt's nice to see you again, Diane.
REHMThank you. You really had a front-row seat to this drama, how so?
O'CLERYWell, in 1986, The Irish Times decided to open its first ever bureau in Moscow and I was with The Irish Times. Well, I was a staffer at the time and I was sent to open the bureau. And I was there for most of the last four and a half years of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's perestroika and all the upheavals that went on coming up right up to the end of the Soviet Union.
REHMAnd of course, Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are the two main players here. Talk about each of them and how they came to power.
O'CLERYWell, when Gorbachev was made first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, he was regarded by the old man of Padampur as somebody who would bring the Soviet Union out of the doldrums. It was a failing society really and he put a new team around him and one of the members of this new team was Boris Yeltsin, who was the head of the Sverdlovsk region of the Soviet Union and had a reputation as a stormer, which in old Soviet times, meant somebody who really got things done by pushing people very hard.
O'CLERYAnd Gorbachev gave him the job of reviving Moscow, which was very corrupt and the guy in charge of Moscow was not doing a good job. Yeltsin began to stir things up in Moscow, but he also began -- he was a candidate member of the Polit bureau, which was the small group of people who decided everything around Gorbachev. And he began to complain, behind closed doors, that Gorbachev wasn't going fast enough and he complained in a very insulting way, as far as Gorbachev was concerned. And in the end, he said, I can't stay on in the Polit bureau. I've got to resign because you're not doing these reforms quickly enough.
O'CLERYThis resulted in a very unpleasant scene between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev had Yeltsin brought to a party meeting and for four hours, party members were instructed to denigrate him and insult him. And he took it so badly he tried to commit suicide and he ended up in hospital. Then Gorbachev took him out of his hospital bed for another dressing down at -- to sack him as leader of the Moscow party and Yeltsin never forgave Gorbachev for that. He was subjected to another four hours of abuse. He was drugged by doctors so he could come from the hospital.
O'CLERYAnd that's the thing that one must always remember is the hatred that Yeltsin developed for Gorbachev. And just to take it one step further, part of Gorbachev's reforms was to allow elections in every one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin became very popular with the people who saw that and word leaked out that he was opposing the slow pace of reforms. And he won an early -- in 1991, he won the election as president of Russia. He had no power as president of Russia, but he was now one of the 15 presidents of the Soviet Union. And he then set out to get rid of Gorbachev and carve Russia out of the Soviet Union.
REHMWe never saw that kind of hatred visible on television. Did we? They both behaved in a statesmanlike manner, but you're saying it was behind those doors that this kind of hatred came out?
O'CLERYOn the very last day of the Soviet Union, the 25th of December, 1991, there was a handover of power when Gorbachev handed over the nuclear suitcase, which was the very essence of power because whoever had the nuclear suitcase, which was a communications device, a Samsonite case weighing three pounds, that you could communicate with the nuclear command bunker and instruct them to send off missiles.
O'CLERYThat was the essence of power and as long as Gorbachev had that, he was president of the Soviet Union and he was in control of a superpower. Once he handed that over to Yeltsin, the superpower ended. And on that day, it's so important because the chemodanchik, as the little suitcase was called, changed hands. Now, as you say, in front of the cameras, both were acting in a statesmanlike manner. Yeltsin gave one interview that day to CNN and he expressed a desire that Gorbachev would retire in a graceful manner and he refused to criticize him. And then, Gorbachev resigned on television later that day.
O'CLERYBut behind the scenes, Yeltsin was extracting petty revenge for the perceived slights that Gorbachev gave him.
O'CLERYWell, for one thing, two days earlier, he had agreed on the terms of handover with Gorbachev at a nine-hour meeting when both of them got quite drunk actually and Gorbachev ended up on a bed in the Kremlin crying. But the terms of the agreement were that Gorbachev would leave on the 25th and he had three days to leave the presidential dacha and to leave his own office and hand over. But on the day of his resignation, Yeltsin broke that promise. He sent his security people out to the presidential dacha and literally threw Raisa Gorbachev out of the dacha.
O'CLERYScattered all their belongings, did the same with the official apartment that they had in Lenin Hills. They threw out all their belongings, pictures, books. Gorbachev came home to find this terrible mess. And of course, there were other petty things that went on as well. The nuclear suitcase was supposed to be handed over in front of the cameras. NBC had cameras in there, the only camera crew that were allowed to witness this, apart from CNN which recorded the resignation speech.
O'CLERYBut Yeltsin was infuriated by Gorbachev's resignation speech because Gorbachev never paid any tribute to him for bringing democracy to the Soviet Union. He implicitly criticized him for a coup and breaking up the Soviet Union and he was so infuriated, he said, I'm not going to go along to collect this chemodanchik. I'm going to demand that Gorbachev brings it to me and there was a standoff. It was pretty ugly.
REHMThe book is titled "Moscow, December 25, 1991." The author is journalist Conor O'Clery. If you'd like to join us, call 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Join us on Facebook or Twitter. You mentioned Raisa Gorbachev. What role did she play in Gorbachev's rise and his fall?
O'CLERYShe played a very important role. She was his consigliore in a way. She was his advisor. She was a very highly educated woman with Marxist views. When she came here to the United States with Gorbachev, she lectured people on the benefits of Marxism and Nancy Reagan didn't take to her at all. A lot of Russian people didn't take to her either because she was the first wife of a Soviet leader, who, of course, were all men, to appear in public with her husband to travel around the world with him.
O'CLERYMany Russians were quite proud to see a normal person, but the mass of Russian people resented the fact that she could appear in fine clothes and would have access to things that they couldn't dream about. And it's a very Russian thing to resent what somebody else has got that you have no chance of getting.
REHMSo on the one hand, Gorbachev tried to present her as someone representative of a new age and yet on the other hand, she's resented.
O'CLERYGorbachev once gave an interview, I think it was to Diane Sawyer, in which he said -- he was asked, do you confide in Raisa? And he said, yes, I tell her everything. And she asked, even matters of state? And he said, yes. And this caused quite a lot of outrage in Russia and that stirred up resentment. I came across an account by the head of Soviet television, who was a sympathizer with Gorbachev who lectured Gorbachev about not allowing her on television, not too much because people resented the fact that she was wagging the finger and saying, here's what should be done.
REHMAnd how did he respond to that?
O'CLERYWell, he responded by saying, you know, she's my wife and I want to be a normal couple like other world leaders who bring their wives or their spouses.
REHMInteresting. Conor O'Clery, we're talking about the last days of the Soviet Union. The book is titled "Moscow, December 25, 1991." Do join us 800-433-8850.
REHMConor O'Clery is with me talking about the last days of the Soviet Union, the events leading up to it. Conor, how did you glean your information?
O'CLERYWell, when I set about to write a book about the fall of the Soviet Union, I realized that the last day was actually full of drama and having been sort of looked at very closely by historians and our journalists. And I began to look at -- look for diaries and memoirs that -- in Moscow, that some published, some not published. And of course, I went to Moscow and talked to people like Yegor Gaidar who was Yeltsin's prime minister at the time and brought in the free market.
O'CLERYAnd I talked to people around Gorbachev, like Andre Gratchif (sp?) who was one of his closest aides. And interesting, I found some very human stories that I found intriguing. For example, Gorbachev's closest aid is a man called Chernyaev, 70 years old. And I found his diary for that day. He wrote a very full diary of his time with Gorbachev and his diary for that day is reflecting on the fact that freedom is coming to Russia. And the irony is that he will no longer have freedom to visit his mistress who's called Luda (sp?) and lives quite near the Kremlin.
O'CLERYAnd this diary entry details how he would go home at night and leave a bottle of milk and then go off again to be with Luda. And of course, because he's working with Gorbachev, who works all hours, he's free to do this. And he laments in this diary that now he's not going -- and he's worried that Luda won't respect him anymore because he won't have a job.
REHMIs he married at the time?
O'CLERYI beg your pardon?
REHMIs he married at the time?
O'CLERYYes, absolutely, yes. And this is the thoughts that are going through his head as he's watching Gorbachev making his resignation speech.
REHMSo there were other diaries as well. Who, at the top, kept a diary?
O'CLERYChernyaev was the most important diary. Gorbachev himself kept a fairly good account. Yeltsin has published his memoirs in Russian and in English. And there have been a couple of very good accounts of the last few days by Palazhchenko, who was Gorbachev's interpreter. Probably everybody remembers him as the bald man standing behind Gorbachev during the summit meetings and also Andre Gratchif, his press representative who kept a very detailed account. I spent a lot of time with him going over the events of that day.
REHMConor, there are many in the United States who would argue that it was actually Ronald Reagan who brought the Soviet Union to an end. How do you see the advent of Ronald Reagan and the downfall of the Soviet Union? How connected are they?
O'CLERYWell, he certain played a role. The Soviet Union was spending 25 percent of its output on defense. At the time, Western observers thought it was much less, so 25 percent. And what Ronald Reagan did was he upped the ante with the Star Wars idea. And Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union just couldn't keep matching the defense capacity of the United States. So it certainly played a role, but I think it was part of a whole dynamic. Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union was stagnant, the economy was stagnant and it had to be revived from within.
O'CLERYAnd in the end, it was the impulse of Democratic forces inside Russia that brought the Soviet Union to an end. But certainly, Ronald Reagan upping the ante was very important.
REHMTalk about those Democratic forces inside Russia, plus what was happening in the satellite countries.
O'CLERYWell, Gorbachev made it clear that he would not use tanks to keep the satellite countries in Eastern Europe under the thrall of Moscow. He -- his press spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, said that it's the new Frank Sinatra doctrine, they can do it their way. So that was -- it was only a matter of time before those (sounds like) tips would break away. And to this day they're all very grateful to Gorbachev for allowing that. And that brought the Cold War to an end really. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
O'CLERYBut the Democratic forces in Russia were mostly members of the intelligentsia, you know, in the arts and the -- and literature and in the sciences. And they couldn't really get the support of the masses of the people without somebody like Yeltsin. So you had an alliance between the intelligentsia and this very strong-willed, impetuous stormer, from Sverdlovsk who also had very strong Democratic impulses.
O'CLERYAnd he was -- you know, at the time of the handover, when Gorbachev gave it to Yeltsin, that was the time of greatest freedom in Russian history. The press was free. Yeltsin, two or three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, held completely free elections. His reelection in 1996 was an election like in any other country in the world. So you had a Democratic impulse from the intelligentsia and from Yeltsin. Of course, Yeltsin was able to bring the army and the people with them because they respected him as somebody who came from within the commonest ranks and wanted to bring change.
REHMAs the former correspondent for the Irish Times to Moscow, how much access did you have to those top officials?
O'CLERYAt the time, it was really interesting. When I arrived in Moscow in 1986, '87, it was impossible to get access to Gorbachev or Ligachev or Rushkov or any of the top officials. But as time went on, and especially when Gorbachev held elections to a new people's congress -- they were managed elections, but they were pretty free. At the time, with the congress members of the Polit bureau suddenly appeared in the hallways outside available to journalists. And we could go up and talk to Gorbachev and talk to Yakovlev and talk to people that, before this, had just been figures that we saw on television standing on top of the Lenin mausoleum once or twice a year.
REHMAnd do you speak Russian?
O'CLERYI learned Russian there. You couldn't operate as a correspondent in the collapsing Soviet Union without knowing Russian because a lot of the activity was on the streets. Huge demonstrations, you had to travel around and talk to people in different parts of Russia and the Soviet Union to ask what was happening. And they didn't speak English, of course. Why would one expect them to?
O'CLERYSo, you know, five years earlier, you could get away without Russian because you just had an interpreter and he read...
O'CLERY...the newspapers and told you what they were saying.
REHMYou also write that despite everything, President Bush and other Western leaders wanted the Soviet Union to stay intact.
O'CLERYThat's one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole story of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bush and (word?) Cole and other leaders like Thatcher, they really liked Gorbachev. They trusted him. They saw him as a person, as Margaret Thatcher said, we can do business with. But when the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was a lot of concern here in Washington and Bush reflected this -- President Bush reflected this, that you would have 15 independent countries, some with nuclear weapons, which was less preferable to a managed Soviet Union -- a reformed Soviet Union, which was the devil we know, rather than the devil we don't know.
O'CLERYAnd right up to the end, Gorbachev was trying to reassure President Bush, even two weeks before the collapse, that you could still maintain some sort of a role and keep the Soviet Union intact under a new union treaty where he might continue to control nuclear weapons and foreign policy. But it was too late for that. But there's no doubt that President Bush really -- in fact, he went to Ukraine in August of 1991 and lectured the Ukrainians on nationalism, which didn't go down very well with the Ukrainians either there or here in the United States.
O'CLERYBut he was so keen to help his friend Mikhail Gorbachev to emerge from this whole mess with the reformed Soviet Union rather than 15 different republics which would be unpredictable.
REHMAnd of course, that was President George H. W. Bush who was in office at the time. How much before December 25, 1991, did it become clear that Gorbachev was going to be gone?
O'CLERYWell, interestingly, a lot of people think the end came with the coup and certainly that was the beginning of the end. The coup happened in August, the failed coup. But from my research in the last dying days of the Soviet Union, the end came with a referendum in Ukraine for independence on December 1, 1991. And following that, Yeltsin said to Gorbachev, I'm going to go and meet the Ukrainian leader, Kravchuk, and the Belarus leader, Shushkevich. And I'm going to ask them will they not agree to this new union treaty we've been talking about?
O'CLERYBut Gorbachev knew there was treachery afoot. And when those three Slavic leaders met, and almost in -- though certainly in seclusion -- not in secret, but in seclusion in a hunting lodge near the Polish border, they came up with a formula to collapse the Soviet Union. And the formula was very simple. They -- Kravchuk, for one, said, we're going independent. Ukrainians were becoming independent. There's no -- I'm not going to agree to any union treaty. I don't like Gorbachev. I want rid of him.
O'CLERYThey come up with an interesting formula and it was very simple. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and another entity called the Transcaucasian Federation had formerly legally set up the Soviet Union in 1922. They said, okay, the Transcaucasian Federation doesn't exist anymore so we three, we set it up, can legally collapse it, can legally end it. And they just issued a statement saying that's what we're doing.
O'CLERYAnd following that Yeltsin -- or Gorbachev still thought he could persuade them. He called this just an idea. But Yeltsin went to the other Republic leaders, including Nazarbayev, who was the head of Kazakhstan. And he was in favor of Gorbachev's new union treaty. But Yeltsin persuaded him to look it over. And three days before the end, they all met in Alma-Ata, all the leaders of the Republics and they agreed to set up a substitute for the Soviet Union called the Commonwealth, which was a figment. It was just a fig leaf to cover the divorce.
REHMBut, you know, it is rather curious that all of this was going on and Gorbachev didn't quite get it. He didn't quite understand what Yeltsin was doing behind his back.
O'CLERYHe didn't like Yeltsin at all. He suspected that Yeltsin was conspiring during that last year to -- he was pretty sure that Yeltsin was playing along with the idea of a new union treaty. But at the same time Yeltsin's people, especially a man called Burbulis, who was one of his closest ids, were secretly talking to all of the Republic leaders about how we can get rid of the Soviet Union and get rid of Gorbachev. Gorbachev firmly believed that they wanted to get rid of him rather than the Soviet Union.
REHMYeah, that's what, I mean, leaves you in question. What was the primary motive, Gorbachev or getting rid...
O'CLERYWell, I think the anomic of history was that the Soviet Union was finished. But part of the -- one of the communist deputies who supported the idea of the Soviet Union continued, he said in the Russian Parliament a few days before the end, look, we've got to go through with this just to get Gorbachev out of the Kremlin.
REHMConor O'Clery. The book we're talking about is titled "Moscow, December 25, 1991." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got many callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433--8850. First, to Schwartz Creek, Mich. Good morning, William.
WILLIAMSGood morning, Diane. And thank you very much for such an interesting program.
REHMOh, I'm so glad.
WILLIAMSCan the Commodore validate something that I thought I heard on NPR back around 1991? And it was a translation of a speech made by Gorbachev where he stood up in front of -- and I believe it was called CommCon, Communist Congress, and he said, I will no longer support the entry of the Red Army into member states of those states who abuse their people. Those leaders who abuse their people can no longer depend on the Red Army to bail them out.
REHMAll right. And, William, I'm afraid you misheard my pronunciation of Conor O'Clery's name. He is not Commodore. Can you respond?
O'CLERYYes, William. That speech took place about two years before the -- or three years before the end of the Soviet Union. And it signaled to the world that Gorbachev was really serious about reforming international relations. Up to that point it had always been assumed that if one of the Eastern European countries within the -- behind the Iron Curtain was to try and seek its freedom that the Red Army tanks would roll in, as they had done in Prague and as they had done in Hungary.
O'CLERYBut once Gorbachev made it clear to the leaders of -- the communist leaders of these satellite states that the army would not be used then it was only a matter of time before the East Germans and the Czechs and the Hungarians threw off their communist imposed leaders and elected Democratic leaders who left the (word?) of the Kremlin.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, William. To Paul in Tampa, Fla. Quick question, Paul.
PAULHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
PAULThis is a very provocative topic. I just wanted to go back to something that your guest had mentioned about the Soviet Union spending. I think he referenced 25 percent of its GDP on the military. And I was hoping he could comment on the effects of U.S. spending on military to kinda outspend them to try to win that battle and what the repercussions were for the United States.
O'CLERYThere's absolutely no doubt that the challenge to the Soviet Union coming from the United States in terms of defense spending was a powerful -- played a powerful role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because Gorbachev realized, and the people in his Polit bureau realized that they just couldn't match the technology and spending of the United States.
REHMAnd the United States, how was it affected financially? That's the question we'll come back to after a short break. Conor O'Clery is former Moscow correspondent for the Irish Times.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's an e-mail from Shervan (sp?) here in Washington, D.C. "Ask please about the policies of neo-liberalism and the role of financial institutions in the transformation of Russia during this time. Another author, Naomi Klein, has written a great deal about this." And Shervan is talking about international financial institutions.
O'CLERYThat's a very interesting question. On the very last day of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's deputy prime minister, Igor Gaidar, was in the old communist party headquarters sitting down with representatives from the IMF to discuss what he was about to do, which was the big bang, the transfer from a communist to a neo-liberal economic model. And within days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, price liberalization came to Russia with all that that entailed.
O'CLERYRemember that up to that point the Polit bureau and its ministries set the price for everything, a loaf of bread to a barrel of oil. There were teams of international officials in Moscow at the time and they were preaching to a very receptive group of young reformers around Yeltsin who really wanted to make the transfer from the communist model to the capitalist model very quickly so that there couldn't be road back. And that was going on on the very last day.
REHMTo our last caller who wondered about the financial strain on the United States, that could have come about because of the race to put Moscow out of business, as it were.
O'CLERYWell, I don't think the United States was spending the same amount of its GDP or anything like it on defense because the United States was much more powerful and a much more vibrant economy. The problem with the Soviet Union was that its economy was stagnant and to try and match what the United States was spending was crippling the Soviet Union.
REHMAll right. To Reardon in Detroit, Mich., good morning.
REARDONHello there, Diane, and (unintelligible) to Conor. My question is, do you feel that Vladimir Putin had a hand behind the scenes in contributing to the fall of the Soviet Union because I understand and have read that he was always seeking the presidency from his days in the KGB. And, also, sir, were your movements monitored? Do you felt you were being watched; your correspondence and as you were out and about gathering the facts up? Thank you.
O'CLERYWell, in regard to the first question, I actually found some interesting things about Putin's role in the fall of the Soviet Union. He was very instrumental in ensuring that the coup field in Leningrad, as it was then, because he was inured to the Leningrad mayor who was a democrat. And he played a role in helping the coup collapse. At the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, something very interesting happened.
O'CLERYThe red flag came down all over Russia. Putin was in his office in Leningrad or in St. Petersburg, as it's now called, and he saw that the communist party across the road hadn't lowered the red flag so he sent workers over to pull it down. The next day, it appeared again. He sent workers over again to pull it down. And when this went on for a few days, he eventually sent workers over with an acetylene torch to cut down the metal flag pole.
O'CLERYSo he was definitely in favor of the end of the Soviet Union, but he's changed over time. And when he became prime minister -- when he became president of the Soviet Union, he began to bring back some of the symbols of the Soviet Union. He allowed the Soviet army to use the red flag again, though it's not the flag of the country. He changed the words of the national anthem to reflect the victory of that Russia in the Great War.
O'CLERYHe did this to try and bring stability to the country and to satisfy a yearning to go back to the days of the Soviet Union among many people who saw it as a time when you didn't have Chechen or Islamic violence at a time when people had little, but everybody was more or less treated the same.
REHMInteresting. To Inglewood, Fla., hi, there, Ken.
KENOh, good morning, Diane, Conor. Just so interesting what you're talking about and, especially, the relationship to Afghanistan and the spending that was going on there and the U.S. and trying to counter what was going on in Afghanistan, which, at the end of the day, we're back there doing the same thing of our own ten years and we wage our own financial challenges.
O'CLERYWell, Ken, that's a very, very crucial element in the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said about winding down that war, which had been started by one of his predecessors, Brezhnev, this was also draining capital away from the Soviet Union, but it was also a war they were losing. I remember visiting Afghanistan at that time and the Russian occupiers brought me to the town of Khost and introduced me to some young women teachers there who weren't wearing the burqa, but who made the point to me very forcibly.
O'CLERYIf the rebels in the hills, the Mujahedeen, who were being supported by the United States, that if they won they would have to put on the burqa again and would lose the ability to teach their children in schools. And it was really a very important moment for me, in my perception of world politics because we'd always considered the Russians, the baddies and the Americans the goodies, but, here, it was much more complex.
REHMHum, and here's a question from Diane in Cleveland, Ohio. "What role did Pope John Paul II have in the fall of the Soviet Union?"
O'CLERYWell, Pope John Paul would give moral support to the Polish people at a time when they were making clear that they would no longer tolerate a situation where they were subservient to Moscow. And because Poland's a very Catholic country, and the Pope was from Poland, he became a force that the Kremlin really had to reckon with.
REHMAnd here's a tweet, let's see if I can find it. "What is your opinion of the connection between the downfall of the Soviet Union and the rising and falling oil prices?"
O'CLERYWell, I'm not sure that they're directly related, but certainly, rising and falling oil prices have had a huge effect on the fate of Russia. Russia was recovering from the century of communism pretty well during the 1990's when oil prices rose. When oil prices fell, they had a tremendous financial catastrophe, 1996, I think it was.
O'CLERYSo -- but the benefit of that for Russians was that because the ruble collapsed, they could no longer afford Western consumer goods and they began to make their own, which was something that they should have been doing all along. So it helped to revive the economy.
REHMAnd to Nashville, Tenn., good morning, Carl.
CARLGood morning. An absolutely fascinating conversation we're having this morning. First, a comment and a question. My comment is I remember being there in 1991 and saying to myself, wow, we won the Cold War. We won and we have a young president coming in and there's nothing can stop us now.
CARLLeadership -- there's nothing -- we have good leadership and we had a whole decade of just wonderful leadership in this country then flash forward just a decade later, the leadership that we had pretty much, in my eyes, lost us the decade after that. And the question I want to ask is what leadership do they have in Russia? It looks like they have a two-headed monster going on over there.
CARLWhat leadership do they have because we see in this nation that if you have the right leadership, you have the '90s, a boom time, and if you have poor leadership, you have the first decade of the 2000s in this country that's really going to cost us here two decades. So how is the leadership in Russia right now and who's in control? Thank you.
O'CLERYWell, in regards to who won the Cold War, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the 25th of December, President H. W. Bush gave instructions that that shouldn't be relayed as a victory in the Cold War, but politics in the United States being what they were, within a month or two, he was claiming victory in the Cold War.
O'CLERYAnd he -- in his address to Congress in January of 1992, he said we won the Cold War and he got a huge standing ovation for that. As regards to present leadership in Russia, there's absolutely no doubt that Putin is the stronger of the two. He's prime minister, but there's to be an election next year for president and the question is, will Medvedev seek a second term or will Putin and he agree that Putin should go back.
REHMSo what's going on behind the scenes there?
O'CLERYWell, my opinion is that Medvedev is more of a reformer and a democrat than Putin, but Putin is very much the stronger person. If you look at Russian TV in the last week or two, it shows Putin -- I saw a scene where Putin is riding a motorcycle with the equivalent of Hell's Angels. Now, that is putting forward his macho image and he's always done that before election so, obviously, he's preparing the ground for another run at the presidency.
REHMAnd do the people prefer Putin to Medvedev?
O'CLERYWell, I can't speak for the Russian people, but there are lots of unhappy people in Russia who try to demonstrate for more democracy and get arrested. There's no right to free demonstration in Russia today, but the mass of the people regard Putin, I think, as someone who has restored dignity. They look back at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a time of great national embarrassment. They perceive that they lost the Cold War.
REHMAnd there's some who even yearn for a Stalin-like regime.
O'CLERYWell, there was a poll done on Russian television recently as to who was the greatest Russian of all times and Stalin came third. He was promoted by one of the generals who took part in the coup, Vernikoff (sp?) who was given the job of promoting his favorite for the title and Stalin came third.
REHMLet's go to Severn, Md., Tony, thanks for joining us.
TONYHi, great conversation, great conversation. I had read a huge work on Russia years ago and was fascinated. What I found fascinating, sir, when you were discussing Yeltsin's disagreement with the administration, I'd just like you to comment if that was in the Stalin days, you would have never seen Yeltsin again.
O'CLERYYou're -- you're...
TONYAnd it was interesting that he was able to...
TONY...protest just like we do in America with the political differences and just get dressed down by, you know, the Russian Senate. But I was just amazed that you had that kind of dissention. And so had freedom really come to such a state where the statesmen could disagree with their...
O'CLERYYou're absolutely right, Tony, and that was a key to the development of Yeltsin as a politician. When he was fired as head of the Russian -- of the Moscow community party, he assumed that he was finished in politics. In fact, Gorbachev told him, you're finished as a politician.
O'CLERYBut Gorbachev gave him a job as deputy head of the construction industry which meant he could stay as a member of the central committee of the communist party, but he didn't have a role in the decision making body. Previously to that, and this is all to the credit of Gorbachev, anybody who disagreed or who was dumped from the top ranks could expect to be either shot in Stalin's time, or sent off as ambassador to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia or simply made into a nonperson.
O'CLERYWhen Khrushchev was dumped as leader, he was made into a nonperson. The newspapers were not allowed to write anything about him. It was as if he didn't exist. But Yeltsin suffered some of that, as well. The newspapers weren't allowed to report on him for quite some time, but he was still a member of the administration, if you like, and Gorbachev has thought about this a lot.
O'CLERYIn his memoirs, he reflects that he could have got rid of him, but that he didn't because, you know, things had changed in Russia and those days of -- of assigning people to history were gone.
REHMInteresting. To Greenbelt, Md., Jerry, you're on the air.
JERRYYes, I'd like to comment on the role of President Reagan in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I think it's great -- greatly exaggerated and politically motivated, but I agree with your guest that the spending on defense industries, the guns-and-butter policy, was the leading factor, as well as, (word?) . And the Soviet Union had trouble feeding its people in the '70s.
JERRYI was an intelligence officer in the '70s, '80s and '90s and it was clear to me that the system wasn't working and Gorbachev actually was the secretary for agriculture in the late '70s and I think he realized the impact that defense spending had on the Soviet Union.
O'CLERYYes, absolutely right, but, I think, there's more to Reagan's role that just upping the cost of defense for the Soviets. He met Gorbachev at Reykjavik in the first major summit of Gorbachev's time. And they didn't agree on anything there, but they did realize that both of them wished to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
O'CLERYThat was their ultimate goal, even though strategically or tactically they were competing on defense. And Reagan came to like Gorbachev and to trust him and Gorbachev came to have the same opinion of Reagan, that they could work together to make a better world, which would have less nuclear weapons. And they began seriously to discuss joint reduction in nuclear weapons. And that was very important in making Gorbachev a figure of substance to the rest of the world.
REHMAnd a final e-mail from Ron in Chicago. "Number one, is there any chance Russia will make a turn towards democratic reform and, two, I have read that Russians, in general, prefer economic stability over democratic freedom."
O'CLERYWell, that's the Chinese model. The Chinese leadership, about 20 years ago, said to its people, okay, you can make money. You can do what you want. You can travel, but don't challenge the system. And we have a form of that in Russia today, but I think the Russian people, as the middle class grows in Russia, they will want more accountability. And there is more of a desire for democracy, I think, among the Russian people today than you would find in China.
REHMConor O'Clery, former Moscow correspondent for the Irish Times, pardon me, his new book is titled, "December 25, 1991, Moscow: The Last Day of the Soviet Union." Thank you so much.
O'CLERYThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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