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A review of Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union

 

Here’s another review of a book about the death of the Soviet empire…  

Conor O’Clery looks at the last day of the Soviet Union.A look at the day the Soviet Union died…

I’m pretty fascinated by the former Soviet Union. Ever since I found out about the Soviet Union as a grade school kid, I’ve enjoyed studying it. I also lived in the Republic of Armenia, which was one of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. I well remember the 1990s and, in particular, that time in August 1991 when there was a political coup that seemed to accelerate the Soviet Union’s downward spiral into eventual oblivion. That’s why I read Conor O’Clery’s 2011 book Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union.

Who is Conor O’Clery? 


It’s pretty clear that with a name like Conor O’Clery, this author isn’t Russian. Actually, O’Clery lived and worked in the Soviet Union during its final days as an award winning journalist for the Irish Times. He’s worked as a journalist for over thirty years and covered stories all over the world. He’s also got some family connections to Russia, having married a Russian born Armenian woman.

The Last Day of the Soviet Union

Having been a teenager when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union, I vaguely remember hearing about the concepts of glasnost and perestroika. O’Clery writes about what led up to the fall of the Soviet Union, providing exhaustive commentary about Mikahil Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and their respective political careers. According to O’Clery, Gorbachev had a lot to do with Yeltsin’s entry into politics, having brought him in to clean up the ministry of construction. They came from very different worlds, though, and did not like each other, but Yeltsin got things done. When the Soviet Union ended on December 25, 1991, it was Yeltsin who was poised to lead the country first post Soviet times.

When Gorbachev was forced to resign the presidency of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin wasted no time in taking over and re-launching Russia. O’Clery goes into great detail in his writing about how Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were treated in the days after Gorbachev left office. They were quickly evicted from their home and given no professional courtesies whatsoever. O’Clery provides some juicy details of the ways Gorbachev was humiliated as he left power. It was payback, though… because Yeltsin was similarly humiliated when Gorbachev had his time in the sun.

As O’Clery points out, Gorbachev had introduced the concepts of perestroika and glasnost; he had been a polished politician who had won over the likes of Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush. But it was Yeltsin who led Russia under those concepts… and he did so despite being alcoholic and unhealthy.

O’Clery does a great job detailing the history of these two men who were from different worlds and had very different personalities. This book is factual, but reads a lot like a political thriller. O’Clery has a way of making the people involved come alive and, for me, it was especially interesting reading because I remember these men so well. O’Clery offers some insight into how Soviet and Russian government work.

I was riveted as I read about the colonels who were tasked with carrying the briefcase that had the power to launch nuclear war. Remembering the 1980s, I recall how people often talked or even joked about the “red button” and how if either the American or Soviet president pushed it, there would be war that would end the world as we know it. Conor O’Clery explains the truth behind that little briefcase that was always in the possession of the man in charge. O’Clery also offers some astute commentary on the reactions of the world leaders of the time, including George H.W. Bush.

This book is a look at one day. But it’s also a look at what led up to that one day when the Soviet Union fell to pieces. If you were around during that time or are interested in Russia or the former Soviet Union, The Last Day of the Soviet Union is an excellent read.

Overall


This book was a challenge to read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it or learn from it. I was young when the Soviet Union fell apart and I saw firsthand what happened in the earliest years after it dissolved. When I lived in Armenia, people were still recovering from the massive changes. A lot of things were still done in a very Soviet way. Indeed, O’Clery writes about how American business leaders and politicians swarmed to Russia and the former Soviet Republics after the Soviet Union fell apart. They were there to offer advice and, of course, make money. In those days, Russia was in very bad shape. As I read O’Clery’s account, I found myself nodding a lot.

I would definitely recommend The Last Day of the Soviet Union to anyone who is interested. I found it a good, entertaining, exciting and useful book to read.

Mikhail Gorbachev resigns.
A truly excellent video about this subject. I just subscribed to History Scope’s channel. He’s got a good touch.

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book reviews

A review of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

Last night, I finished a delightful book written by esteemed food and travel writer Anya Von Bremzen. I had never heard of Von Bremzen before I picked up her book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, even though she is a well-known food writer who has published books and written articles for many well known food magazines.  And as I read her memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I didn’t know who she was.  It wasn’t until I reached the end of her book that I realized that the story I’d just finished about her “weird” past had led to her becoming a James Beard award willing food writer.

I didn’t read Von Bremzen’s book for food, though, even though the title mentions Soviet cooking.  I read it because I remember the Soviet Union and even lived in Armenia for a couple of years after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.  I moved to Armenia in 1995, just a few years after the mighty Soviet Union collapsed into oblivion.  When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was this big threat.  The people were mysterious, living behind the “Iron Curtain”.  We had no Internet in those days, so my curiosity was piqued.  Once I lived in Armenia and saw remnants of Soviet life up close, I was even more curious.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and thought it sounded fascinating.  I had been wanting to read the perspective of someone who had lived grown up in the Soviet Union.  Anya Von Bremzen was born there in 1963, in an era of bread shortages.  She grew up in a communal apartment building where eighteen families shared one kitchen.  Her mother, Larisa, was not a fan of communism and discouraged her daughter from learning the songs about Lenin that were taught in school.  Anya had attended a special kindergarten for privileged kids, where they were fed caviar like some kids are given cod liver oil.  Her mother told her not to talk about the “special food” she got at the school.

In 1974, Anya and her mother left the Soviet Union under the guise of “reconnecting” with Israel.  Since they were Jewish, it was allowed.  Anya also had a childhood form of scleroderma, a disease that is deadly in adults.  That was given as a reason for their departure, though it turned out Anya’s scleroderma was “harmless”.  Via Rome, Anya and her mother moved to Queens, New York, where Anya polished her piano skills and eventually earned a master of arts in piano performance from Julliard.  Anya’s father, Sergei, stayed behind in Russia and eventually sent Larisa a letter asking for divorce.  He turned out to be an interesting character– Anya writes about how he eventually lost all of his teeth, but rather than missing them, he found life without his teeth “liberating”.

Interspersed within Anya’s life story and tales about the food she missed from the Soviet Union.  She includes fascinating tidbits about the Soviet machine when it was still powerful and innovative.  One of my favorite tales in this book was the one Von Bremzen wrote about Anastas Mikoyan, an Armenian Soviet statesman, who was one of Josef Stalin’s top performers.  Miokoyan eventually became the People’s Commissar for Food.  In 1935, he and his wife were sent on a goodwill trip to America to travel around tasting American food, visiting factories and production plants, farms, and slaughterhouses.  Mikoyan tried popcorn, Coca-Cola, hamburgers, ice cream, and hot dogs and he brought new ideas back to the Soviet Union.  In fact, Mikoyan’s cutlets, basically his version of the hamburger, were still enjoyed when I lived in Armenia.  Ice cream was Mikoyan’s biggest love and he was responsible for popularizing it in the Soviet Union.

Anya Von Bremzen writes about her first reactions to American food.  She writes of how grossed out she was by cold Pop Tarts, her mother not having learned that many people prefer them toasted, and super soft, spongy white bread.  I imagine her reaction to American food was much like my initial reaction to Armenian and Russian food.  I had trouble with borscht, dolma, and eggplant, all of which my host family served me during my first weeks in country.  My very first taste of lamb (which was actually probably mutton) was in Armenia.  I didn’t react well to it.

I also enjoyed reading about Anya’s family.  She writes extensively of three generations and the history of how she came to be.  She includes stories of food and drink and how they impacted her family relationships.  I was particularly interested in how the foods she missed from her homeland delighted her when she went back to the Soviet Union years later to visit her family.  Despite her extensive training in music at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Anya turned her fascination with food into a dream career.  At the end of the book, she even includes some beloved Soviet recipes.  

Though I can’t say that everything Anya writes about was appetizing to me, as someone who has lived abroad and missed home, I could definitely relate to how much she missed Soviet food.  I felt the same way when I lived in Armenia and missed American food.  Much to my shame, I even remember spending $7 on a bag of Chip’s Deluxe cookies weeks after my arrival.  I would definitely not do that today, but I’m much worldlier now than I was in 1995.

I learned a lot reading this book.  It’s not just about food and family; it’s also about history, politics, and geography.  Since I have been to three of the former fifteen Soviet republics, I could relate to Anya’s book on a personal level.  For me especially, this book was pretty fascinating… especially as Anya describes how she felt on the day the Soviet Union fell apart.  She was in Abkhazia, an autonomous area in Georgia, when Mikhail Gorbachev came on television to tell his countrymen that the Soviet Union no longer existed.  How weird that must have been.

If you are interested in reading about the Soviet Union and what it’s like to be from a place that no longer exists the way you once knew it, I would highly recommend Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  I found it a true delight and even learned a few new Russian words.

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