Volume 42, No.2 - Summer 1996
Editor of this issue: Robert A. Vitas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1996 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Matlock, Jack F. Jr., Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

New York: Random House, 1995.

In Autopsy on an Empire, Ambassador Jack Matlock provides an excellent, wide ranging view of events in the Soviet Union from the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet empire. His first-hand insight and personal contacts make the book an invaluable source of information on what actually occurred within the Soviet Union from 1985-1991.

Ambassador Matlock's distinguished career placed him at the center of US/Soviet relations from the 1970s through the end of the Cold War. Fluent in Russian, with an academic background in the language, history and literature, he was first assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow in 1961. Beginning at this time, and in his several tours in Moscow throughout the years, the Ambassador took advantage of all available opportunities to meet the Russian people, both diplomats and ordinary citizens, and from this drew a strong understanding of the people and politics of the Soviet Union. After a tour in Africa, he returned to be the Director of Soviet Affairs for the State Department in the 1970s, and later served as the Deputy Chief of the Mission in Moscow. In 1981, he took a short term assignment as interim Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and in 1987 was named as President Reagan's Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Between 1981 and 1987, he served on the National Security Council as the chief Soviet specialist, and was instrumental in the creation of U.S. policy on the Soviet Union in this period. Ambassador Matlock has a self-described 'hard-line' attitude toward the Soviet government and imperial system, but has always been sympathetic toward the Russian people under that system. This experience is the key element which allows for his depth of description and distinguishes this book from others coming out of a more academic background.

Autopsy focuses on the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to the leadership of the Soviet Union, his consolidation of power, his reform policies, the changes in Soviet relations with the U.S., and the many internal and external elements leading to the decline of the Soviet empire. The depth provided in each of these areas would only be possible for someone in Ambassador Matlock's position. The coverage of each subject includes recollections of discussions with key U.S. and Soviet decision makers, descriptions of the background and execution of U.S. policy, insight into the Soviet populace and into the Soviet system, and personal opinions form a key diplomat on the ground for much of what was occurring during the end of the Soviet empire.

Ambassador Matlock looks at the end of the Soviet Union in terms of economic issues, political issues, and the personal choices made by decision makers in light of the times. His discussions of Gorbachev are a focal-point of the book, shedding light on the choices and limitations with which Gorbachev was faced. He discusses the problems inherent in Gorbachev's personal relationship with Boris Yeltsin, the reasons behind Gorbachev's inability to accelerate reform, and Gorbachev's decision, unique among Soviet leaders, to avoid the use of force in suppressing dissent.

The book also goes into depth on the role of several other key figures, including the leaders of several Soviet republics, Boris Yeltsin, and KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. Yeltsin's role in the transformation and dissolution of the Soviet Union is highlighted. Kryuchkov is put forward as possibly the key component of the Soviet downfall, in terms of both the misinformation he provided to Gorbachev, and in his role as the leader of the August, 1991 coup.

Ambassador Matlock spends a significant amount of time discussing the situation in the Baltic republics, which he considered one of the key elements in the end of the Soviet Union. The book relates the impact of all the major events in he Baltics from 1987-91, beginning with the August, 1987 demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (which gave the Baltics to the Soviets). Estonia is noted as the first state to form a "National Front" for independence in 1988 (since all parties except the Communist were illegal), followed closely by the formation of Sąjūdis ("The Movement") in Lithuania. The fact that many Communist party officials in the Baltic states joined these groups was a key to their success. Gorbachev's reaction to the independence movements was that they were „acts of treachery", but his actions remained moderated by the foreign factor and his desire to look good to the West.

One of the more interesting portions of the book involves the Ambassador's descriptions of his meetings with representatives of the Baltic regions; twice with Lithuanians, once with Estonians and once with a joint group form all three states. These meetings sought American support, but this could not be provided or the U.S. would be seen as interfering in internal Soviet matters. What the Ambassador did reiterate was the fact that the U.S. considered the Soviet occupation, following the Nazi-Soviet pact to be illegal, and that the U.S. would not recognize the Baltics as a part of the Soviet Union. Despite his inability to provide assurances, the Ambassador notes that the willingness of these independence leaders to meet publicly with a U.S. Ambassador, in and of itself, was a significant statement on the changes happening in the Soviet Union.

The book provides a comprehensive summary of the Baltics march to independence, placed within the context of occurrences throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at this time. The 1988 declarations of economic autonomy, with the open cooperation of National Fronts and the Communist party, is described as key early event, as is the formation in August of 1989 of the two million person human chain across the Baltic states, representing approximately 40% of the population of the region.

In late 1989, Lithuania is shown to take the lead in the drive for independence, and in December becomes the first state Communist Party to endorse independence. While Gorbachev denounced this move, and subsequently personally visited Lithuania, no strong Soviet response was forthcoming. Lithuania then held republic elections in early 1990, the first Lithuanian Supreme council was seated in march, and it made a formal announcement of independence on March 11. While this was met with significant psychological pressure from the Soviet central government, no military action was taken in 1990.

The January, 1991 attack by Soviet troops on Vilnius is shown as a turning point late in the downfall of the Soviet Union. While Soviet troops occupied the city for a week and shots were fired, they did not topple the government, and Moscow spent most of the time questioning who actually ordered the troops to take control. This weak and belated military response emboldened the independence movements in both the Baltics and other republics throughout the Soviet Union.

While the Baltic movement for independence was shown as very significant to Soviet politics in the period, this is just one of the regions which enjoy a detailed, personal treatment in Autopsy on an Empire. Additionally, Ambassador Matlock's assessments of many of the former Soviet republics post-independence situations provides an excellent conclusion to stimulate future thought. The comprehensive coverage of all of these events, from the rare perspective of a high level official who was intimately involved, should make this book required reading for those interested in the end of the Cold War and the new states which it created out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Brian Endless
Loyola University, Chicago