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02/15/2006 Archived Entry: "Book: Down with Big Brother"

DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER. It's not just a good idea (and a quote from Orwell). It's the title of a book that offers a thrill of hope in dark times. Its biggest message: the strongest, most impregnable fortress of tyranny can fall astonishingly quickly and in the most unexpected ways when the time is right.

It's about the Soviet empire. But you'll recognize (in milder form) some political and economic similarities of the Bushevik era -- or for that matter, any big, powerful, all-controlling government.

I stumbled upon this book while searching for titles by the British political novelist Michael Dobbs, whose astutely sharp-witted book House of Cards was transformed into the even more astute and sharp-witted British mini-series (and terrific trilogy) House of Cards starring Ian Richardson.

I don't usually have much taste for political non-fiction. But I'm on a Dobbs bender. Not realizing that the American political journalist and the British political novelist were different writers, I snapped it up -- and was very glad.

Down with Big Brother reads like a novel while being scrupulously based on the historical record, interviews, transcripts of meetings, and Dobbs' own experiences.

Dobbs has lived much of his life in Eastern Europe and Russia. He was there as the whole Communist dream fell apart. He was the first Western journalist Lech Walesa admitted into the Lenin Shipyards at Gdansk as Solidarity was being born. He walked the halls of the Kremlin and met Soviet leaders. He was in Tienanmen Square as the fatal demonstration was building. He toured the site of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. His own life was in peril as Yugoslavia fragmented into hostile republics. He stood at the feet of Boris Yeltsin when Yeltsin leaped on a tank outside the Russian White House to stop the hard-line Communist coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

The collapse of the Soviet empire is the greatest story of the late twentieth century. Just to have watched it via television was an amazing thing. I remember my puzzlement as the final cracks began to appear ("What? People fleeing to Communist Hungary in search of more freedom? How can that be?") and the joy when the empire's ugliest symbol, the Berlin Wall, was breached and literally torn apart by crowds of partying kids. To anybody who grew up in the Cold War era, the idea of that dark, cold, deadly, impregnable wall being torn down by exuberant teenagers and twentysomethings seemed as likely as a fairy tale coming to life.

In several cases, from Vilnius, Lithuania, to the streets of Moscow, crowds of previously apolitical young people played big roles in turning back Soviet military might. Sometimes these young people had finally gotten a political conscience and decided to take a stand, consciously willingly to surrender their lives. Sometimes ... well, they were just out for a big party. But time and again, when the time was right, the Draconian might of the state couldn't stand against a few thousand ordinary people. And how rapidly the big events rolled!

Up to the day before the Berlin Wall was broken, for instance, the greatest "experts" were confident the wall would last years longer. Then one evening at a news conference, an East German official, who didn't even know what he had in his hands, read an ambiguously worded statement loosening up travel restrictions. He didn't see the line that embargoed the news until the next morning. Nobody at all was sure of what the statement meant. (Communist apparatchiks were masters at vague wording, so that later they could deny responsibility and blame subordinates or "wreckers" for any problems.) But because the announcement hit the media in the evening, thousands of curious, possibly inebriated, East Germans poured toward the Brandenberg Gate, simply wanting to visit the alluring department stores, nightclubs, and sex shops on the other side of the wall.

They believed they were allowed to go. The guards, overwhelmed, weren't sure of anything. And the rest is history.

There are some discouraging stories in the book, also. Dobbs shows how genocidal nationalism in Yugoslavia and elsewhere was released when the empire lost its iron grip. He shows the cynical way members of the Communist nomenklatura used the remnants of Communism to transform themselves into "capitalistic" kleptocrats once they saw which way the wind was blowing. (Dobbs says that the mafia-like economy that replaced Communist central controls was a direct outgrowth of Gorbachev's policies. For all the political freedom he released, Gorbachev refused to the very end to give up price controls. So bureaucrats and their friends were able to seize ridiculously cheap stocks of oil, grain and other goods and sell them in the West at fabulous profits while ordinary Russians suffered even more shortages than they had under pure socialism.)

It's all to easy to see how our own cynical politicians and their well-connected cronies could someday transform themselves in similar fashion. The powerful know how to keep power (until they're shot or imprisoned). They know how to turn every crisis to their own favor. That never changes, it seems.

Still, the book gives an intriguing glance into how total central control worked (or didn't). It's filled with information about how freedom can overwhelm tyranny, how real information can blow away propaganda, how monoliths can crumble, and above all how suddenly and unexpectedly all that can happen. Despite the depressing parts, I read with a soaring heart and closed the book happy and hopeful.

Posted by Claire @ 01:11 PM CST

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