ewx: (penguin)
[personal profile] ewx
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.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-10 12:40 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pentamer.livejournal.com
I may be wrong about this, but if I remember rightly, there was some kind of rotating presidency thing proposed around that time, between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. (Was that the same time?) Was that a partial concession to independence minded Ukrainians, or maybe it was something which triggered the nationalist feeling? I wonder what Belarus' role was in this? It's never really had that strong a national movement beyond language and culture has it? Or maybe I'm misremembering completely!

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-11 06:59 pm (UTC)
ext_8103: (Default)
From: [identity profile] ewx.livejournal.com
When the CIS was initially negotiated at the Viskuli hunting lodge it was just those three countries, and it does seem to have a rotating presidency. Formally speaking it was re-founded from scratch at Almaty, in order that none of the constituents were seen to be privileged over any of the others. So I think you are remembering the detailed structure of the main event.

The background was indeed Ukrainian independence. The referendum had returned a majority in favor in all districts. That enabled Kravchuk to refuse everything short of full independence; once the Russians accepted that their hand was forced it became possible to design the structure that became the CIS.

There was not a lot of detail in the book about Belarussian politics, and many of the index entries for the country actually refer to phrases like "Ukraine and Belarus". The main event I can find is the presentation of an old Tsarist city charter to the Belarussian parliament, which was bit of a blunder as the democratic opposition interpreted it as a signifier of Russian domination. (It reminded me of Baudouin's Kinshasa speech, the one that provoked Lumumba's powerful response.)

Belarus is not a country I know a great deal about, other than that it used to be part of (essentially) greater Lithuania.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-11 10:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pentamer.livejournal.com
I visited Belarus as a child, during 1989, so I've always had an interest in it (and found it slightly baffling). I stayed with a host family whose father was a small-scale entrepreneur (a one-man company, I'm not sure how legit), selling imported IBM PCs, VCRs and fridges, but who was also a dedicated Marxist and Leninist. His father had fought in WWII, Belarus being on a brutal longitude during the German advance and also a committed orthodox Christian. The area had been variously purged of its Jewish population, then by Stalin in various migrations, etc. Every village and town seemed to have a memorial to its obliterated population, and those photos where everyone on it except one or two were to die (Bosnia style). And it was only a few years after Chernobyl back then: it didn't seem to have much luck as a place throughout history, a bit of a Poland.

What was odd was the lack of any real independence movement or really anger at their neighbours. Everyone just seemed to go to church and be proud of Chagall (who seemed to symbolise the lost Jewish culture from WWII, and lost peasant culture from Stalin), and their letter i (which is a variant on Cyrillic И) and variant spellings, their distinctive bread and carpets, etc. Maybe it hasn't been at peace long enough to have a national sense of statehood. I suppose there are other places which have a strong cultural sense of separation (as a nation) but not as a state. But it's an interesting contrast to Ukraine, which you might imagine it could resemble. It almost seems like a "control". It was such a sad place.

(As we brought in foreign currency and as much of the country was unemployed, there was also a vast amount of drinking of very poor "vodka". Worse for wear myself, I remember dragging a twelve year old follow student through the snow to the trolleybus avoiding passing soldiers).

(no subject)

Date: 2015-01-10 01:09 pm (UTC)
gerald_duck: (Oh really?)
From: [personal profile] gerald_duck
Ooh — sounds interesting, thanks!

I've stuck it in my Amazon shopping basket, but I still like physical books and reckon I can afford to wait for the paperback. (-8

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