In This Review

The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Forty Years That Shook the World, From Stalin to Yeltsin
The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Forty Years That Shook the World, From Stalin to Yeltsin
By Fred Coleman
St. Martin's Press, 1996, 459 pp.

Over the years journalists have written up their accumulated thoughts after serving in Russia. It happened in Khrushchev's day, in Brezhnev's, with considerably more excitement in Gorbachev's, and now in steady numbers in Yeltsin's. But no correspondent has extended the exercise and looked back at all of them, doubtless because, unlike Coleman, none has worked in Moscow for a total of 14 years stretching over all these periods.

This is a journalist's book, not a historian's. Coleman does not reconstruct Soviet history nor attempt to explain it. Instead he weaves together what he learned of major events at the time and, in some cases, the background and subsequent insights that did not make it into his and others' reporting. And the major events were many -- from Khrushchev's ouster through the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 to the great breakthroughs in Gorbachev's time. Because Coleman was given to a certain amount of derring-do, such as riding on one of the last Soviet tanks to leave Afghanistan and getting a friend of his who was a photographer dressed in a Czechoslovak soldier's uniform to take pictures inside a Soviet base during the 1968 invasion, the insights are often unusual. The thread through all of this is how much weaker and more insecure the Soviet Union was than U.S. policymakers ever understood, even at moments when they saw it as most threatening.