One of the best-known contacts for many Western reporters covering Poland and the Solidarity protests of the 1980s was Konstanty ‘Kostek’ Gebert. A fine journalist who usually wrote under the name Dawid Warszawski, he seemed to know everyone in Warsaw, liked to talk late into the night about ideas and gossip, wore his vast learning lightly and had an invaluable gift for putting complex issues into broad perspective.
Russian officials today, much like the Soviet authorities of a past generation, encourage a cult of the Great Patriotic War. In the national narrative, this was their Finest Hour, still invoked on significant anniversary days as an example of heroism and sacrifice by politicians such as Vladimir Putin.
Nobody saw it coming — this superb account re-creates in vivid detail the passing of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. So many moments are instantly identified as “the day the world changed” that it is easy to forget the relevant date — or indeed the event the label is supposed to describe. But it is no hyperbole to tag Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, as one of those dates. Very likely, future historians will judge it to be far more significant than 9/11.
In the 1980s, the Polish economist Bronislaw Kaminski used to make an observation that confused liberal, leftist and even some conservative intellectuals in the West. Communism, he argued, was not a good idea implemented badly, but a terrible idea implemented surprisingly well.