Hot Off the Press: Perspectives on the USSR

CHRONICLING the fall of communism has been a hopeless exercise in catch-up journalism. Its complexity and totality is impossible for journalists to interpret as they capture the daily fragments of history.The book writers' task is hardly any easier. Their work is replete with last-minute prologues and epilogues, but even these are overtaken by new developments before freshly printed tomes can reach the bookstores. For the comprehensive story, we will have to wait for the historians and the release of classified files by governments. But somewhere between journalism and history helpful volumes are emerging that offer perspective and background on the events flashing before our eyes. Such a book comes from Don Oberdorfer, one of the most diligent of the Washington diplomatic correspondents. He has not sought to include last month's headlines, but The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era (Poseidon, 514 pp., $25) offers a perceptive and instructive account of the eight years of twisting, turning, testing, backsliding, maneuvering, and nudging that characterized the transformation of United States and Soviet relations from cold war to accommodation and friendship. He begins at a low point in the relationship: the shooting down in 1983 by the Soviets of a South Korean airliner that had drifted off course and into Soviet territory. All 269 people aboard, including many Americans, were killed. The Soviet action shocked the world and repelled Americans. The revulsion was increased by an initial Soviet attempt to disguise what they had done and later an arrogant refusal to express regret. Though some apologists for the USSR and conspiracy theorists attempted to implicate the United States in the tragedy, most Americans saw it as an unacceptable manifestation of Soviet cold-war brutality. Oberdorfer tracks the course of US-Soviet diplomacy from this low to the 1990 summit meeting in the US, by which time the cold war was virtually over and "Gorby"-screaming Americans were treating Gorbachev like an international rock star. The author has painstakingly gone back and interviewed participants in the process - both American and Soviet. He talked extensively to former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, whose persistence in improving the US-Soviet dialogue covered most of the period. The book contains insights, admissions, and vignettes not previously made public and adds a wealth of information to our understanding of "the turn" from cold war to peace. Less satisfying is The Future Belongs to Freedom by Eduard Shevardnadze (translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Free Press, 237 pp., $22.95). Mr. Shevardnadze resigned the Soviet foreign ministership in 1990, breaking with his good friend Gorbachev on grounds that the reform movement had failed, and warning darkly of a looming, albeit unspecified, dictatorship. His book should have been a blockbuster; he resigned as a matter of principle and the coup attempt of August, 1991, proved him remarkably presci ent. But the detail and revelation one might reasonably expect is lacking. Shevardnadze warns ominously of threats past and present but shies away from identifying names and factions. In his reminiscences of earlier days, he hints at oppression he was obliged to carry out while in charge of internal security in Georgia, but he never gets specific. Where he is frank is in his criticism of Gorbachev for "indecisiveness,indifference towards his true allies," his "poor judgment of people," and his tolerance of unworthy and duplicitous lieutenants around him, including military men who practiced deception in the implementation of arms agreements with the US. This is a useful book but not the expose one hoped for. In What Went Wrong with Perestroika (W. W. Norton, 258 pp., $19.95), Marshall I. Goldman has an interesting post-coup assessment of Gorbachev and the reasons for his steady decline in popularity at home when his star was rising abroad. But like Oberdorfer, Professor Goldman - who is director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University - is not as concerned with current headlines as he is with offering a serious analysis of the failure of perestroika over a period of time. His focus is on economics, but his tales, for example, of the tribulations of US companies trying to do business in the USSR are far from boring. When McDonald's set up shop in Moscow it had to grow its own potatoes, was barred from using its own trucks to transport them, was denied sand and gravel for construction, and had to send Russian counter clerks to Canada and the US for training. As the business took hold, the company's Moscow partners jacked up rent and meat prices and gouged profits. So much f or joint ventures in the new era. The August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons, by Mikhail Gorbachev (HarperCollins, 127 pp., $18), is a quick couple of essays and a few appendixes designed to capitalize on interest in the abortive August coup against the Soviet leader. As far as the coup itself is concerned, the book sheds no new light, merely repeating what Gorbachev said in public at his press conference after he was freed. There are some interesting observations about the USSR's current problems. In a chapter entitled "I See No Other Way But Democracy," Gorbachev starkly says: "The most important thing now is how to survive to the spring, how to get through the winter." If things do not go better, this may be the last book Gorbachev will be writing from the presidency.

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