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Down with Big Brother


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About the Author

Now a US citizen, Michael Dobbs was born and educated in Britain, with fellowships at Princeton and Harvard. He spent much of his career as a reporter for The Washington Post, where he covered the collapse of communism. His previous books include One Minute to Midnight, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War, and Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, a finalist for the 1997 PEN award for nonfiction.


Washington Post correspondent Dobbs's firsthand account of the unraveling of the Soviet monolith is a remarkable tour de force, a pulsating human drama that resembles a Russian novel, full of biting ironies, driven personalities, momentous confrontations. The author, Moscow bureau chief from 1988 to 1993, was the first Western journalist admitted to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk during the 1980 strike led by Lech Walesa; eyewitness to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre, he covered a beat stretching from the brutal hothouse of Kremlin politics to freezing Romanian orphanages to labor camps in the Urals. Drawing on primary Soviet sources, including interviews and declassified archival documents, he unearths phenomena often overlooked by Western journalists, for example, the leaderless drift of the U.S.S.R. between 1974 and 1982 as Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev suffered a series of nervous breakdowns caused by arteriosclerosis of the brain, or how Gorbachev, "a master obfuscator and manipulator," used the state-run television network to establish a power base among the masses. Unfolding as a series of vignettes extending from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan through Chernobyl to the wild scramble for property and riches following the collapse of Soviet communism, his epic chronicle charts the breakdown of a system that sidetracked the nation into decades of self-imposed isolation, waste and ideological conditioning. (Jan.)

Written by an experienced journalist observer of the Soviet collapse, this study naturally invites comparison with two recent works on the same theme: David Pryce-Jones's The Strange Death of the Soviet Empire (LJ 7/95) and Fred Coleman's The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire (LJ 5/1/96). Dobbs has been able to draw upon materials perhaps not available to the two others, and he has certainly read and interviewed more extensively. His account is thorough and overwhelming in its sheer mass, as he slowly assembles the giant jigsaw puzzle. Events and personalities great and small follow in relentless profusion: Afghanistan, the Armenian earthquake, Chernobyl, Nancy Reagan's astrologer, Mathias Rust, Sakharov, Walesa, and many, many more. Some details might well have been omitted‘Yugoslav events, for example‘but the reader must be impressed by Dobbs sheer industry and breadth of research. His final verdict seems ambivalent as to whether "communism defeated itself" or was destroyed by its would-be savior, Gorbachev. As with the two previous accounts, one is struck by how ramshackle the mighty USSR in fact was. Recommended for public and academic libraries.‘Robert H. Johnston, McMaster Univ., Hamilton, Canada

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