Revolution 1989, By Victor Sebestyen

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The Independent Online

The years 1985-1992 must be among the most exciting and exhilarating periods that any European of the author's generation - and mine - can have lived through. Within that period, 1989 was the climax. The collapse of the Soviet Union came a full two years later. So when Victor Sebestyen calls his book Revolution 1989, this is not hyperbole or salesmanship. This was the year when the impossible became possible, when the iron curtain was raised, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet empire withdrew. Every month, every week and - towards the end - every day brought an unheralded turn of fate.

Sebestyen opens with a foretaste of how the year was to end - with the uprising in Romania that culminated in the summary execution of the Ceausescus. This rollicking mix of high drama and sordid reality is a fitting preface to a narrative that starts slowly, and accelerates as the revolutions gather pace across east and central Europe.

Some may feel that Sebestyen is too methodical in his strict chronology, with short chapters that flit from country to country. They may feel frustrated when he rounds off one episode and skips across to a neighbouring country, or to Moscow. But this is not an account only of how communism ended in East Germany or Hungary. Nor does it impose big ideas. It is an attempt to capture the whole picture of what happened in the order it happened – each upheaval was specific to each country, but everywhere was also connected. And in this he succeeds.

Indeed, after so many big-ideas books about the end of communism, it is quite a relief to have the story told as conventional history, spiced with telling quotations. I enjoyed his story of Jacek Kuron, newly appointed minister of labour in Poland's first Solidarity government, who was warned by a neighbour, as he so often had been before, that an official car was lurking outside his house. In the past, such cars had taken him for questioning; this time, it was his ministerial chauffeur.

The straight narrative offers quite enough for anyone to absorb - even those of us whose job it was to report or analyse developments at the time. It also avoids the traps that await those who try to generalise too much. Yes, the experience of Soviet domination had features in common across what we then called the Eastern Bloc - the material deprivation, the greyness, the fear, and the sense especially among intellectuals that they were called upon to live a lie. But the way in which the system entrenched itself and the particular pressure points were different. People experienced, coped with, and resisted communism in diverse ways. Sebestyen gets the similarities and differences admirably in proportion.

So why did I turn the last page with a slight sense of dissatisfaction? One reason was that, especially in the early chapters, I sensed an agenda that was never fully spelt out: one that saw communism very much in black and white – all good or, rather, all bad. With the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader, things became more complicated, as Sebestyen well charts. But I felt the early judgements were slightly too glib. Even in Cold War times there was room for shades of grey. Was every communist leader a "dictator"?

A second reason was the setting up of conventional arguments to be knocked down. Sebestyen presents Ronald Reagan's conversion to nuclear disarmament as a surprise revelation and suggests that his view of Gorbachev as a communist reformer who failed (because the regime collapsed) is more original than it is. But he makes a nice point of symmetry when he notes that both Reagan and Gorbachev separately concluded that, in almost any circumstance, they would never be capable of pressing the nuclear button.

A third reason for my hesitation is the biggest, but also most subjective – a sense that something was missing. It is what it felt to be there among the people who made it all happen. With the exception of later chapters about Hungary – the atmosphere at the ceremonies to rebury the 1956 leader, Imre Nagy, is particularly strongly conveyed - I missed the sense of danger, the uncertainty, the raw excitement, and the profound awareness of so many that they were making history. Sebestyen has written a chronicle in small print that deserved something more.