In This Review

Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
By Jack F. Matlock, Jr.
Random House, 1995, 836 pp

Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, chose not to write a personal memoir but to struggle with several fundamental questions: How could a seeming superpower simply collapse? Why did it happen at the time and in the manner it did? And, most controversially, did it have to happen, or, to use Matlock's formulation, was the system transforming itself into something salvageable? As he knows and says, these questions are large and, like the parallel questions about the French Revolution, are suitable for people to argue over long into the future.

His explicit answers, offered near the end of the book, before an epilogue summarizing developments in the first years of the post-Soviet era, tend to focus on leaders and the choices and mistakes they made--centrally Gorbachev and secondly Yeltsin, but others as well. Historians and political scientists will not stop there. Already, with considerable but understandable confusion, they are trying to locate the deeper political and economic causes. Not that Matlock's assessments of the decisions taken and the games played by Gorbachev and others fail to convince. In judging them he is, as in judging the president and the secretary of state for whom he worked as well as other Western leaders, blunt and thoughtful.

In a way, however, his more searching answer to the fundamental questions unfolds in his description of how Gorbachev's grand plans came a cropper and the whole massive edifice dissolved. This detailed account, which constitutes the bulk of the book, buttressed with extensive references to the things that he saw and knew as a highly skilled Soviet specialist with an ambassador's access to people and places, gives Matlock's study a rare authority. It has the detachment and perspective missing from even the best memoirs of key Soviet figures, and the exposure and inside view that few if any scholars can hope to enjoy. To enhance the contribution, he writes with vigor, clarity, and often eloquence.