Victor Sebestyen
Pantheon Books, New York, 2009
ISBN 978-0-375-42532-5


Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

"Vivid, panoramic... The writing is taut, the scene-setting dramatic, giving the book an almost cinematic feel... Sebestyen excels at this kind of micro-history."
The Sunday Times (London)

"Sebestyen brilliantly pulls together the events that led to the fall of the Soviet empire."
—The Spectator

"Graphic and detailed... Leads us right into the heart of the intimate dramas that make history ... Excellent."
Scotland on Sunday

Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

"A small masterpiece that should be read and treasured by all who value mankind's eternal quest for freedom."
New York Post

"Excellent ... A gripping, detailed reconstruction."
The New York Times Book Review

"A fast-paced journalistic narrative built scene by scene, moving deftly among the key players ... Steeped in detail."
The Wall Street Journal

"Sebestyen is excellent at bringing to life the revolutionary movement. Personalities leap from his pages."
Financial Times

From the author of Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution comes a revealing new account of the collapse of the Soviet Union's European empire during months of largely peaceful revolution that profoundly changed the world.

At the start of 1989, six European nations were Soviet vassal states. By year's end, they had all declared national independence, embarking on the road to democracy. How did it happen so quickly? Why did the USSR capitulate so readily? Victor Sebestyen, who was on the scene reporting for the London Evening Standard at the time, draws on his firsthand knowledge of the events of 1989, on scores of interviews with other witnesses and participants, and on newly uncovered archival material to answer these questions in unprecedented depth.

Sebestyen tells the story through the eyes of ordinary men and women, some of whom found themselves almost miraculously transformed: the furnace stoker who became the Czech foreign minister; the Romanian poet who, just freed from jail, was made vice president of the newly liberated nation. He shows how power was wielded or ceded by Mikhail Gorbachev, George H. W. Bush, Lech Wałêsa, Václav Havel, and Margaret Thatcher, among others; how the KGB helped bring down former allied regimes; how the United States tried to slow the process; and why the collapse of the Iron Curtain was the catalyst for the fall of the entire Soviet empire.

Authoritative, riveting in both its broad political sweep and its abundance of personal detail, this is an essential addition to the annals of contemporary history.

VICTOR SEBESTYEN is the author of Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He has worked for many British newspapers, including the Evening Standard. Born in Budapest, he lives in England.


List of Illustrations
Map of Europe in 1989


1    The Workers' State
2    A Message of Hope
3    Solidarity
4    The Electrician
5    Civil War
6    The Bleeding Wound
7    The Power of the Powerless
8    Able Archer
9    America's Leading Dove
10  A Pyrrhic Victory


11  The New Tsar
12  The Sword and Shield
13  Lenin's Apostle
14  Silent Memories
15  'We Cannot Win'
16  'Let Them Hate'
17  Chernobyl: Nuclear Disaster
18  Ethnic Cleansing
19  Humbled in Red Square
20  The Gang of Four
21  Gorbachev's Vietnam
22  Old Men s Tales
23  Endgame in Poland
24  President Bush Takes Charge
25  Triumph in Manhattan


26  The War of Words
27  Havel in Jail
28  The Round Table
29  Shoot to Kill
30  The Friendship Bridge
31  The Curtain Falls
32  The Cautious American
33  The Loyal Opposition
34  The Dictator Pays his Debts
35  A Stolen Election
36  Expulsion of the Turks
37  The Landslide
38  Funeral in Budapest
39  A Presidential Tour
40  Trail of the Trabants
41  A Government of Dissidents
42  Refugees
43  The Birthday Party
44  People Power
45  The Wall Comes Tumbling Down
46  The Coup
47  The Velvet Revolution
48  The Moment of Weakness


It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws. But when it comes, it moves irresistibly.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Ideas that have outlived their day may hobble about the world for years, but it is hard for them ever to lead and dominate life. Such ideas never gain complete possession of a man, or they gain possession only of incomplete people.

God preserve me from those who want what's best for me.
From the nice guys
always willing to inform on me
from the priest with a tape recorder under his vestments
from the blankets you get under without saying good evening
from those angry with their own people....
now when winter's coming.
Mircea Dinescu


This is a story with a happy ending. Nobody who witnessed the joy on the streets of Berlin, Prague or Budapest at the end of 1989 will ever forget those extraordinary scenes of celebration. The people's will had triumphed over tyranny in a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions which changed the world. That is where this narrative finishes, at a point of bright hopes, intelligent optimism, sincere thanksgiving—and great parties. One of history's most brutal empires was on its knees. Poets and philosophers who had been languishing in jails became presidents and government ministers. When the Berlin Wall fell on a chilly November night it seemed as though the open wounds of the cruel twentieth century would at last begin to heal. These were not entirely foolish dreams. Some pundits—most notably, but not uniquely, Francis Fukayama—became carried away and predicted the end of history and of future ideological conflicts.

The pundits were right about the scale and importance of the changes in 1989—if not about the end of history. An entire way of life and of looking at reality—communism as inspired by Marx, Lenin and Stalin—had been exposed as a gruesomely failed experiment. Freedom and independence for a large part of Europe that had been imprisoned for four decades became feasible within weeks. At the start of 1989 neither seemed possible for years ahead. The Cold War was declared over. There remained two powers which possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilisation several times over, but neither now looked like using them. The Year of Revolutions appeared as a beacon of hope for oppressed people elsewhere who dared to dream that they too could free themselves.

The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire was entirely unexpected. After the event, many sages in academia, the military, the media, politics and diplomacy boasted that they had seen it coming. But it is hard to find any evidence, least of all from inside the intelligence agencies. Espionage played a vital role in the Cold War—in reality aswell as in the imagination of a public in East and West fed on a diet of thrillers and spy movies. Despite the huge resources lavished on the intelligence services in both camps, spies were not telling their masters in Washington or Moscow or London how weak the Soviet system was. Before it happened, nobody of significant influence proposed that the entire monolithic structure feared by so many for so long would disintegrate—and within a matter of months. I discount the late British journalist Bernard Levin who at the end of 1988 wrote an unusually prescient piece that foreshadowed events with bizarre accuracy, but at the time even he said that he was indulging in fantasy, not prophecy. Received wisdom was that the USSR faced a long, slow and painful decline and it would be many years, maybe decades, before the satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe escaped the Soviet orbit. As James Baker, the US Secretary of State during part of this story, said: Anyone who tells you they knew it was going to happen—well, they're blowing smoke at you.'

For nearly half a century, the Soviets had held on firmly to their spoils of war. The Red Tsars in the Kremlin saw possession of their satellite states as proof of their power and a vindication of their Communist faith, though by the 1980s nationalism had become a stronger impulse than ideology. They had crushed any potential rebellions with ruthless savagery—in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. It looked as though the Iron Curtain, 300 kilometres of concrete walls and wire fences dividing a continent, was permanent. Many revisionists since have argued that it was inevitable the Soviet empire would fall the way it did. They claim it was a classic case of imperial 'overstretch'; the USSR could not afford to hang on to its burdensome outposts. To the brave Czechs, East Germans and Bulgarians who demonstrated in their hundreds of thousands demanding freedom, the fall of their oppressive regimes did not seem inevitable at the time. If the police answering to their own dictators did not shoot at them, the Soviets might. The Russians had done so before, many times and at a high cost in blood. It was not beyond the realms of possibility that the Red Army, with an occupation force of more than half a million soldiers, would revert to traditional methods. An entire way of life was swept away along with a half-dozen incompetent, corrupt and at times vicious tyrannies. It happened with little violence, apart from a few days in Romania. But it was not a given that these revolutions would be peaceful. There were many occasions when one spark could have lit a fuse that set half a continent ablaze.

No other empire in history had ever abandoned its dominions so quickly or so peacefully. Why did the Soviet Union surrender without a fight? And why at the end of the 1980s? Archives in the USSR and Eastern Europe show how exhausted, bankrupt and painfully aware the Soviets were that communism had failed. The USSR lost its will to run an empire. The imperialists in the Kremlin could have expired slowly, over many decades, like the Ottomans. The Soviet Union could have limped along for a long time as 'Upper Volta with Nukes'. The Soviets chose not to do so.

I have written extensively here about Afghanistan. Some readers might ask why I have set so much of a book that is principally concerned with Central Europe in the hills around Kabul? Losing the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s caused Soviet leaders to abandon their 'outer empire', though at the time they did not see the consequences so logically or clearly. The Soviets' disastrous military campaign in Afghanistan made them reluctant to send troops into battle anywhere else. Without the implied threat of force, they were in no position to hold on to their empire in Europe. The crippling foreign debts incurred by the satellite states, some of which by the late 1980s could barely meet their interest payments, was one of the main factors. The Soviets were no longer prepared to guarantee them, particularly as the collapse in oil prices during the mid-1980s triggered a crisis in the USSR from which the state never recovered. Communism in Europe survived only as long as capitalist bankers from the West were willing to bankroll it.

The human factor is the principal answer, as so often. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a contradictory figure. A new kind of Kremlin chieftain, he could walk, talk and think on his own, unlike the geriatrics who preceded him, whose physical decay seemed to symbolise the condition of their country. He and a few of his advisers thought that the Soviet Union's satellite states were not worth keeping if they could only be held with tanks. He did the right things, but for the wrong reason. His overriding aim was to save communism in the Soviet Union. He believed the people of Eastern Europe would choose to stay allied to the Soviets in a socialist commonwealth. His miscalculations were staggering. Given the chance, the East Europeans joyfully abandoned communism. Nor was Gorbachev able to save it in the USSR. By his own lights he was a failure, but millions of people have cause to be thankful to him. He was consoled for his errors when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

A few of the other big personalities who emerge from these pages had a much clearer and more realistic grasp of events than the Soviet leader. The Polish Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałêsa, the workers' leader who defeated the workers' state, Vaclav Havel, the playwright/ philosopher who turned himself into a man of action, and the hard-nosed East German despot Erich Honecker all knew communism was doomed if it was pushed in the right way As this was the first fully televised revolution in history they became familiar faces. Television had a powerful effect in this drama. When people in Prague saw the Berlin Wall come down, they began to believe they too could overthrow their rulers. Ten days later they did. Nicolae Ceaușescu lost power the moment his face was seen on Romanian television looking confused, then petrified and finally weak as crowds booed him at a Bucharest rally. Four days later he was dead.

East Europeans liberated themselves, but the West played a vital part. The United States 'won' the Cold War and victors tend to write history. The classic narrative is that the toughness of Ronald Reagan brought down the evil empire of the Soviet Union. But Reagan was misunderstood. It was forty years of Western 'containment' that weakened the Soviet Union, and Reagan made no progress whatsoever in his first four years. It was only after Gorbachev emerged and Reagan tried a new, more conciliatory approach that a process began which ended the Cold War. Reagan was admirable in many ways, as this story will I hope show. But his cheerleaders praise him for the wrong things. That is less of an irony than the fate of his successor, George H.W. Bush, a cautious, moderate and sensible man. He valued 'global stability' as one of his primary aims. During periods of 1989, when revolutions were happening so fast, he feared the globe might become seriously unstable. He had been a Cold Warrior in his time and a former head of the CIA. He was leader of the Free World. As documents now show, as well as interviews with his aides, there were times in the middle of the year during which he tried desperately to keep Communist governments in power when he felt that Eastern Europe might be careering out of control.

A word on geography and terminology. This story is about the fall of what the Soviet Union called its 'outer empire'—the six countries that comprised, under the USSR's tutelage, the Warsaw Pact. They are very different places with vastly contrasting histories, cultures, religions and experiences. In the past they had as many antagonisms as alliances. I have not attempted to lump them together to invent a monolithic whole. But one thing they shared historically is that for forty-five years they were joined together, effectively under one ruler. It made sense to stick with the Warsaw Pact countries because they, in the 1989 story, formed a discrete whole. Nor have I covered Yugoslavia, which had begun its agonising death throes in 1989 but was not part of the Soviet sphere. That tragedy requires a book of its own.

Throughout this narrative I have used the terms Central Europe or Eastern Europe interchangeably and I realise that is a liberty. I do not wish to tread on toes. Entire books have been written about the 'meaning' of Central Europe as an idea and as a place, where it ends and Eastern Europe begins. I intend them to mean the same thing, purely to avoid repetition of the same phrase too often. Similarly with Soviet Union, the USSR and Russia. Obviously I know 'Russian' is not the same as 'Soviet'. I use them loosely solely in the interest of style.

As a journalist in the 1980s I covered many of the events described in this book. It was more than just a story for me. My family had fled Hungary and, a tiny child, I was a refugee from 'behind the Iron Curtain'. From my earliest memories people around me were speaking as though the all-powerful Soviet empire which had transformed our lives would be there for ever. It turned out to be far weaker than everybody supposed. I am lucky that I was there at some of the crucial points as it fell, amid the excitement and drama that I describe here.

London, December 2008.


Târgoviște, Romania, Monday 25 December 1989.

AT 11.45 A.M. TWO MILITARY HELICOPTERS landed outside the army barracks in Târgoviște, a bleak steel town 120 kilometres north of Bucharest built in the brutalist style favoured by Communist dictators from Stalin onwards. From the larger aircraft emerged six army generals in immaculate uniforms weighed down by gold braid and medals. They were followed by three lower-ranking officers attached to the Romanian General Staff, along with a group of four civilians.

One man, clearly in charge, began to bark orders as soon as the delegation touched down after its thirty-minute flight from the capital. He was silver-haired, fifty-three-year-old General Victor Stănculescu, representative of the newly formed National Salvation Front government that had yet to win complete control over Romania. That morning he had been given an urgent task that required some delicacy and plenty of ruthlessness: he was told to organise the trial of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romanian dictator for almost a quarter of a century, and his wife Elena. Three days earlier, amidst jubilant scenes of revolutionary fervour, the couple had been forced to flee their capital. They had been captured within a few hours and were held at the Târgoviște barracks while their fate was decided in Bucharest. Forces loyal to Ceaușescu—the Securitate secret police—were still fighting to reinstate him as President. The uncertain revolutionary government finally decided it had to act speedily to bring the Ceaușescus to justice and to show Romanians who was now in charge of the country.

Stănculescu was chosen as the fixer. A tall, elegant man, he was known as a smooth and subtle operator. In the old regime, until 22 December, he had been Deputy Minister of Defence, a long-time friend of the ruling family, regular dinner companion at the Presidential Palace and one of the chief sycophants of the Ceaușescu court. But he was quick to see the wind change and was among the first senior army officers in Romania to pledge loyalty to the revolution. Along with his political flair for timing he was also a meticulous organiser. He had brought with him from Bucharest the judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers needed for a trial. Stănculescu had also attended to other details. In the second helicopter, he had placed a specially selected team of paratroopers from a crack regiment, handpicked earlier in the morning to act as a firing squad. Before the legal proceedings began the General had already selected the spot where the execution would take place—along one side of the wall in the barracks' square.

A 'court room' had been hastily prepared in a shabby lecture hall with rust-coloured walls. Five plastic-covered tables served as the bench. A dock had been set up with two tables and chairs in a corner. The squalid surroundings may have lacked the dignity usually thought necessary for such a momentous event, but from Stănculescu's point of view they served their purpose. When the delegation from Bucharest arrived in the room just after midday the accused were already sitting down, flanked by two guards. Three days earlier Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu had been the most feared and hated couple in the country. They had the power of life and death over twenty-three million Romanians. They ran the most brutal police state in Europe. Domestic television and the press hailed them each day as virtual demigods. Now they were simply a querulous and confused old couple, exhausted, nervous, bickering together gently. They were dressed in the same clothes they wore when they made their escape from the capital—he in a black woollen coat over a crumpled grey suit, looking older than his seventy-one years. Elena, a year older, was wearing a fawn-coloured fur-collared coat, with a blue silk headscarf covering her grey hair.

That morning in Bucharest, the prominent lawyer Nicu Teodorescu was having Christmas breakfast with his family when he was telephoned by an aide to the new President, Ion Iliescu, and asked by the National Salvation Front to be the Ceaușescus' defence counsel. He replied that it 'would be an interesting challenge'. After thinking it through for a few moments he agreed. The first time he met the couple was in the Târgoviște 'court room' when he was given ten minutes to consult with his clients. The interview did not go well. With so little time to prepare any defence he tried to explain to them that their best hope of avoiding the death sentence was to plead insanity. The idea was brushed aside gruffly 'When I suggested it,' said Teodorescu, 'Elena in particular said it was an outrageous set-up. They felt deeply insulted ... They rejected my help after that.'

The 'trial' began at around 1 p.m. There were five military judges, all generals in uniform, and two military prosecutors. It was public in the sense that a junior officer filmed the event, but he was ordered only to show the defendants. At no point were the judges, prosecutors or defence counsel recorded on film. It lasted fifty-five minutes. The ousted dictator snarled throughout most of the proceedings. On occasions he angrily picked up his black astrakhan cap from the table in front of him and threw it back down again as if to emphasise a point. She was far less demonstrative, looking straight in front of her most of the time. Occasionally they would hold hands and whisper to each other, always addressing each other as 'my dear'.

There was no written evidence produced against them and no witnesses were called. From the beginning the ex-President rejected the court's right to try him. 'I recognise only the Grand National Assembly and the representatives of the working class,' he said repeatedly. 'I will sign nothing. I will say nothing. I refuse to answer those who have fomented this coup d'état. I am not the accused. I am the President of the republic. I am your commander-in-chief. The National Treason Front in Bucharest... usurped power.'

The charges were read out by the prosecutor. Ceaușescu's bravado remained consistent throughout:

PROSECUTOR: These are the crimes we charge against you and ask this tribunal to sentence both of you to death.
    1. Genocide.
    2. Organising armed action against the people and the State.
    3. The destruction of public assets and buildings.
    4. Sabotage of the national economy.
    5. Attempting to flee the country with funds of more than US$ 1 billion, deposited in
        foreign banks.
Have you heard this, accused? Please stand up.

CEAUȘESCU: (remains seated) Everything that has been said is a lie. I do not recognise this tribunal.

PROSECUTOR: DO you know you have been dismissed from your position as... President of the country? Are the accused aware they face trial as two ordinary citizens?

CEAUȘESCU: I do not answer those who, with the assistance of foreign organisations, carried out this coup. The people will fight against these traitors.

PROSECUTOR: Why did you take these measures of bringing the Romanian people to this state of humiliation today ... Why did you starve this nation you represented?

CEAUȘESCU: I refuse to answer questions. I do not recognise you. Everything you allege is a lie... I can tell you that never in Romania's history has there been such progress. We have built schools, ensured there are doctors, ensured there is everything for a dignified life.

PROSECUTOR: Tell us about the money that was transferred to Swiss banks?

CEAUȘESCU: I do not answer the questions of a gang which carried out a coup.

Elena was restrained, remaining mostly silent except when the prosecutor asked: 'We in Romania could not obtain meat. What about the golden scales your daughter used to weigh meat she got from abroad?' She exclaimed loudly, 'How can you say such a thing?' At one point Ceaușescu said, 'Let's get this over with' and looked at his watch.

The court had a recess of just five minutes to consider its verdict and sentence. Ceaușescu refused to rise when the judges returned. While the death sentences were read out—along with the confiscation of all their property—neither the president of the court nor the prosecution looked directly at the couple. Asked if they wanted to appeal, they remained silent. Under Romanian law death sentences could be carried out no earlier than ten days after they were promulgated, whether there was an appeal or not. But Teodorescu did not raise this in court. Possibly, the Ceaușescus, though they had sent unnumbered people to their deaths, were not aware of this technicality of the law. But it was not a day for legal niceties.*

Justice was summary, squalid and clumsy. Inside the court room, the Ceaușescus' hands were tied behind their backs with rope. Nicolae was dignified and fairly brave in his last few minutes. 'Whoever staged this coup can shoot anyone they want,' he said. 'The traitors will answer for their treason. Romania will live and learn of your treachery. It is better to fight with glory than to live as a slave.' Elena wept, and was shrill to the end. Almost in hysterics, she shouted, 'Don't tie us up. It's a shame, a disgrace. I brought you up like a mother. Why are you doing this?' They were escorted forty metres along a corridor into the courtyard of the barracks. As they were being led along, one of the soldiers who had tied their hands said, 'You're in big trouble now.' Elena snarled back at him: 'Go fuck your mother.' Nicolae began singing the first few bars of the Internationale. They seemed to have no idea they were to be executed immediately—until they were outside in the courtyard. Then they looked terrified. 'Stop it Nicu,' she shouted. 'Look they are going to kill us like dogs. I don't believe this.' Her last words were 'If you are going to kill us, kill us together.'

The firing squad had been made ready around halfway through the trial. Eight paratroopers had originally been selected by Stănculescu and were flown from Bucharest. They did not know what their mission was until they arrived at Târgoviște. Now three were chosen to perform the deed: Dorin Cârlan, Octavian Gheorghiu and Ionel Boeru. Armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, they were standing by a flower bed waiting for the couple when they reached the courtyard. The executioners' orders were not to fire at Nicolae above chest level. He had to be recognisable in pictures taken after his death. No similar orders were given regarding Elena. The firing squad marched the Ceaușescus to a wall, he on the right, she on the left, a pathetic-looking elderly couple. 'She said they wanted to die together so we lined them up, took six paces back and simply opened fire. No one ordered us to start, we were just told to get it over with,' Gheorghiu said later. 'I put seven bullets into him and emptied the rest of the magazine into her head.' He buckled backwards on his knees. She slumped sideways.

Chaos ensued. Almost the entire complement of the base had watched the execution. Once the firing squad had completed its business, everyone in the courtyard with a weapon began shooting with abandon at the dead bodies until the barracks commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Mares, ordered them to stop. For many years afterwards there were impact holes of over a hundred bullets along one of the walls in the courtyard and window frames more than ten feet above ground.

The corpses were wrapped in tent cloth. They were taken to the capital by helicopter, guarded by the paratroopers who had executed them. They were unloaded on to a playing field at the Steaua Bucharest football team's practice ground, in a south-western suburb of the city. In a macabre twist, their bodies were mysteriously mislaid at some point that evening. Frantic army search parties scoured the area all night before finding them the next morning near a shed within the stadium grounds. What happened to the corpses during those few hours remains a mystery. The next day they were buried at the nearby Ghencea cemetery. In death they were laid fifty metres apart, separated by a pathway, and given new names. Plain wooden crosses were found and hastily painted over in simple lettering with false identities—Popa Dan for the feared dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and Enescu Vasile for his wife.

* The president of the tribunal, Colonel Gică Popa, was well known as a Ceaușescu courtier. A paunchy fifty-seven-year-old, he was a good friend of the dictator's brother, Ilie, who was a Deputy Minister of Defence. On 1 March 1990, less than three months after the trial, Popa shot himself in a mysterious suicide. The causes have never been entirely clear. Popa was not the kind of man to have developed a conscience about the way the court proceedings were run or about his past relationships with the Ceaușescu circle. At the time of his death he was facing investigation on a range of criminal allegations from embezzlement to murder.