Book Review Autopsy of an Empire


Remember the Eiggghtiiiess?

Autopsy

Growing up in the eighties, most of the images of Russia in my world were limited to submarines, hammers and sickles, and many, many spies. The word “comrade” was meant to make you perk up your ears, and the word “revolution” when it came to Russia was about the same as referring to Nazi Germany. In other words, we were mostly taught the USSR was over there, and was most often unfriendly. My family had a set of encyclopedias from the 1960’s which were not especially helpful concerning what the USSR was up to. New countries had come and gone, and basically I learned that if you heard a Russia accent in James Bond films, there was a good chance that person was “not a good guy”.

Russia Politics Back Then

So, I picked up Autopsy on an Empire with some hesitation in the sense that Russian politics are about as clear as mud to me from that time period. I knew a whole lot of things went down in a very small amount of time. I remembered Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and a little bit of a shirtless Putin wrestling bears or something, but that was about it. Part of my ignorance on the subject matter was, I think, because Russia had such a foreign system compared to the US when I was growing up. The names sounded very different, and the institutions were radically different. It is hard for me, as an American, to truly understand the dialog after say Tsar Nicolas II. Why? Cause commies, that’s why! America(tm).

I Did Not Understand Squat Back Then

Reading through Autopsy on an Empire gave me an appreciation for the tremendous pressure Gorbachev was under. He had to try to do something new and different while also attempting to make sure not to alienate a base that wanted neither. He was trying to hold the center such that the entire country could roll into a new kind of unity that it had not had previously. Some of the old would have to be carried over, and a lot of it would have to be chucked out the window. At any given moment, it was difficult to tell what should be retained and what should be chucked. It is to Gorbachev’s credit that the entire country did not erupt into a bloody massacre.

Political Pressures

In essence, Russia had outgrown communism, but it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be when it grew up into what it was becoming. What was apparent was that the Revolutionary economy was not going to cut it anymore, and Empires were more of a liability than an asset. What caught my attention in this book was the tension between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev had to be the “let’s sorta hold the old together” which allowed Yeltsin to be the “Screw it, rip it all up” guy. Though they were often rivals, I am not sure things could have gone as they did without their two personalities being involved. Yeltsin could afford to be more radical BECAUSE of Gorbachev. Gorbachev needed some foil like Yeltsin to show the regular party members what would happen if they didn’t figure things out. Interestingly, and somewhat worryingly, Yeltsin was mostly trying to get Russia to unify as per a UN understanding of what unity among nation-states looked like under that model.

In The End…

In the end of the book, Gorbachev isn’t being radical enough fast enough to keep up with Yeltsin, and so Yeltsin winds up taking the point and essentially ousts Gorbachev as a relic of communism when in reality Gorbachev certainly did not care for communism. Gorbachev becomes little more than a reminder of the past of Russia, although without him it is unlikely any other meaningful change could have occurred. Certainly, the Revolution would have been bloody yet again.

My Intepretation

I found the book a little hard to follow, but that was more because my mind drifted across Russian words that I did not fully know. I had to remind myself what was being done and why. In about the middle of the book, it was like all that cleared up, and everything made sense in terms of the nation changes that started to happen. Toward the end, Matlock gives you a “the rest of the story” about what happened after everything unified. Matlock, the author of the narrative, was the US ambassador who wrote his impressions of the fall of the USSR.

I think it is likely that the Q movement referenced this book because the United States as at a not dissimilar point to the USSR in the sense that we have to put up or shut up. Nations periodically change, and it is time for the United States to become more of what it should be and less of what it should not be. As can be seen, free speech has been hushed up with regard to the movement, and now there is nearly a terrorism label if you question certain narrative lines. None of those are inherently American values, regardless of whether in practice that has been the case in the past or not. Matlock keeps up the dialog with Reagan and Bush Sr. with what is an American adversary and the result is that the whole thing implodes and changes. While I think there is an advantage in speaking to an apparent adversary, like the USSR in the 80’s, I also think there are times and places where no discussion or diplomacy is applicable. I am not sure that the US is not in a place where we are past the point of discussion. I’d like to think there is still the ability to have freedom of choice, but it is beginning to feel more and more like the only freedom you can have is the freedom that is available at the tip of a sword.

Book Takeaway!

My feeling is that this book ought to be read by anyone who lived during the time periods wherein the USSR was a super power. It will give you a different insight into what was happening during a time when the “Iron Curtain” was large and cold. It might also help you understand some of the stuff you lived through without knowing it, and it might as well show you what can happen to any super power that cannot roll with the punches.

JB Schirtzinger

Jacksonville, USA
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