Jan. 10th, 2015

ewx: (penguin)
The Last Empire, Serhii Plokhy, 978-1-78074-529-9

An account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Plokhy skims quickly through the background, before engaging with the details in the run-up to the August coup and from then until the formal dissolution of the USSR. The broad outline is familiar enough but, whether due to (necessarily) incomplete reporting at the time or simply forgetting over the course of nearly a quarter of a century, there is a lot of interesting detail that I don't recall from reporting at the time.

Most notably the role of Kravchuk’s Ukraine is emphasized. This isn’t to play down Yeltsin’s central position: after the coup his position was enormously enhanced and he was involved in key decisions. But the Ukrainian drive to independence, deftly piloted by Kravchuk, left Russia comparatively isolated within the rump USSR, and ultimately forced to seek its own exit.

Much is highly relevant today. The author documents Russian threats to tear up border treaties, and a plan (at the time not executed) to stir up unrest in majority-Russian parts of Ukraine. Interestingly, Kravchuk managed to achieve a majority for Ukrainian independence not only nationally but even within the Crimea, having put substantial effort into selling the idea to the locals.

Gorbachev struggled for power and relevance, right until the end, but it was always a doomed struggle - eventually he was fighting for little more than for relevance. The coup demonstrated that his power base was untrustworthy and its failure allowed Yeltsin to undermine much of the rest - in the end he was able to simply de-fund the USSR’s institutions.

The American viewpoint is also discussed in detail. Bush and his team supported Gorbachev, as far as they could, long past his sell-by date; only Cheney favored helping the USSR to its end. While this somewhat contradicts the subsequent (electorally targetted) rhetoric about victory in the Cold War, the reasoning was rational enough - the Americans had found Gorbachev a reliable negotiating partner when it came to arms control, while the leaders of the Soviet republics in which nuclear weapons were stationed were much less well understood - indeed the worst case scenario was characterized as “Yugoslavia with nukes”.

Comprehensively written and an easy read, well worth a look if you’re either interested in the fall of the USSR or want a bit of background on recent events.

August 2017

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