Grachev is a uniquely important witness to the Soviet Union's startling end. From the failed putsch in August 1991 until it was all over in December, he served as Gorbachev's press spokesman and confidant, enabling him to sit in on the summits among Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the other key republic leaders and most of the Soviet president's meetings with world leaders. Earlier, while a senior figure in the party's International Department he had been one of the intellectual forces behind Gorbachev's transformation of Soviet foreign policy.
It was in the nature of Grachev's job to keep verbatim notes on what transpired in these last chaotic sessions, and, thus, when he tells the story, he can let the participants speak in their own voices. For the most part Gorbachev plays the role of the bull in this fight, well-meaning, that is, determined to keep the country together, supremely confident of his ability to pull it off, but utterly naive about the outcome. Yeltsin is the somewhat ambivalent matador, determined to establish his power and ready to push for (Russian) republic autonomy to get it, but not with the intent of destroying the Soviet Union. Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian leader, and Stanislau Shushkevich, his Belorussian counterpart, are somewhat shadowy picadors, hanging back but fully determined to bring it all down and give their nations independence.
In the contest, Grachev's heart is with the bull, but his head tells him that the object of his sympathy was too often too late in taking the necessary steps (toward reform, toward a new union, and toward a workable relationship with those who could destroy his hopes) and too often impressed by his own ability to carry the day with ideas rather than actions. Out of this discussion the reader gets a better notion of what made Gorbachev act as he did than Yeltsin as he did, and almost no sense of the motivations and calculations of the others. Still, Grachev's vantage point, shared in a succinct and engaging book, was crucial, not the least because, as we learn from him, most of the world leaders during these last months also sympathized with the bull.