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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fall of Empire and Emigre Angst

When English author David Pryce-Jones set out to write a book about the Gorbachev years, he clearly intended to produce much more than a contemporary account of events. Dense and thorough, "The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991" is a historical textbook that is meant to last.

It is an ambitious project for a non-specialist to analyze the six critical years from 1985 to 1991 when Gorbachev was in power and unwittingly relinquished the Soviet Union's control over Eastern Europe and of its own republics; but Pryce-Jones is up to the task. The author has read widely, travelled far, and interviewed virtually everyone who played a part in the last days of Soviet rule.

Thus the man who ordered the execution of the Ceausescus in Romania tells his tale to Pryce-Jones with remarkable candor. James Baker and Charles Powell paint vivid portraits of the characters of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze as they were revealed during their meetings with Bush and Thatcher.

Less straightforward, but no less fascinating, are the interviews with old communists, such as Anatoly Lukyanov, a chess-playing fox who was a key participant in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev.

The author spurns Gorbachev's own account of events, preferring those of his key aides, first secretaries and ambassadors. And inevitably Gorbachev comes out of the book badly. Short-sighted, vain, indecisive -- the many interviewees agree that Gorbachev lacked the capacity to see things as they were at critical junctures in history. A typical, lying communist party boss, even his staunchest ally, Alexander Yakovlev, remarks that it was hard to tell whether he was telling the truth in his struggles with Yeltsin.

Moving through the countries of Eastern Europe as the old communist regimes toppled like dominoes, the book shows Gorbachev's command over policy to be frequently inconsistent and contradictory. Pryce-Jones likens him to a tragic hero who causes his own undoing at the moment of his greatest potential; the would-be hero turns out to be a fool.

The author is even less complimentary about Yeltsin, whom he portrays as a destructive despot in the mold of Russia's brutal khans and tsars.

The style of "The War That Never Was" is spare. The text is dense with interviews, many of which are printed in unwieldy question-and-answer formats.

But on the rare occasions where Pryce-Jones' own voice does come through -- in his vivid description of current-day Moscow, of Romania's mad revolutionary days, or of the nomenklatura vultures picking the flesh from the bones of the dead Soviet Union -- it is a very good read and an excellent record for the library.

"The War That Never Was: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991" by David Pryce-Jones, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 456 pages, ?22 ($33.99).