The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union

Overview


On Christmas Day, 1991, President George H. W. Bush addressed the nation to declare an American victory in the Cold War: earlier that day Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as the first and last Soviet president. The enshrining of that narrative, one in which the end of the Cold War was linked to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the triumph of democratic values over communism, took center stage in American public discourse immediately after Bush’s speech and has persisted for decades—with disastrous ...
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Overview


On Christmas Day, 1991, President George H. W. Bush addressed the nation to declare an American victory in the Cold War: earlier that day Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as the first and last Soviet president. The enshrining of that narrative, one in which the end of the Cold War was linked to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the triumph of democratic values over communism, took center stage in American public discourse immediately after Bush’s speech and has persisted for decades—with disastrous consequences for American standing in the world.

As prize-winning historian Serhii Plokhy reveals in The Last Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union was anything but the handiwork of the United States. On the contrary, American leaders dreaded the possibility that the Soviet Union—weakened by infighting and economic turmoil—might suddenly crumble, throwing all of Eurasia into chaos. Bush was firmly committed to supporting his ally and personal friend Gorbachev, and remained wary of nationalist or radical leaders such as recently elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Fearing what might happen to the large Soviet nuclear arsenal in the event of the union’s collapse, Bush stood by Gorbachev as he resisted the growing independence movements in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Caucasus. Plokhy’s detailed, authoritative account shows that it was only after the movement for independence of the republics had gained undeniable momentum on the eve of the Ukrainian vote for independence that fall that Bush finally abandoned Gorbachev to his fate.

Drawing on recently declassified documents and original interviews with key participants, Plokhy presents a bold new interpretation of the Soviet Union’s final months and argues that the key to the Soviet collapse was the inability of the two largest Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine, to agree on the continuing existence of a unified state. By attributing the Soviet collapse to the impact of American actions, US policy makers overrated their own capacities in toppling and rebuilding foreign regimes. Not only was the key American role in the demise of the Soviet Union a myth, but this misplaced belief has guided—and haunted—American foreign policy ever since.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
04/28/2014
Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, investigates the collapse of the Soviet Union, revealing the often brutal political chess game within the Kremlin that ended in President George H. W. Bush's address of the end of the Cold War on Christmas, 1991. Drawing from unreleased presidential material, confidential foreign memos, and declassified documents, Plokhy largely discounts Reagan's get-tough policy as a cause. He credits Mikhail Gorbachev's embrace of Glasnost and electoral democracy in 1987 with loosening the grip of the party apparatus and rigidly controlled media, opening government matters to widespread public criticism despite fears of the Soviet military. Bush and his advisers cautiously tried to prolong the reign of Gorbachev, but worried about both the ambitions of the "boorish" Boris Yeltsin and the potential falling into the wrong hands of the nuclear arsenals in the newly freed republics. Plokhy's taut narrative features rapid snapshots of Yeltsin's soaring rhetoric to the masses as he stood atop a tank, the ruthless efficiency of the plotters against the powerless Gorbachev, the crisis of rebellious Ukraine, and the vigorous debate within the White House. This account is one of a rare breed: a well-balanced, unbiased book written on the fall of Soviet Union that emphasizes expert research and analysis. (May)
From the Publisher

Wall Street Journal
“A stirring account of an extraordinary moment…what elevates The Last Empire from solid history to the must-read shelf is its relevance to the current crisis.”

Slate
“Serhii Plokhy’s extraordinarily well-timed new book …makes a convincing case that contrary to the triumphalist American narrative of Cold War victory, or the more recent paranoid Russian narrative of Cold War defeat, the U.S. never anticipated the breakup of the Soviet Union—in fact, the U.S. tried to use what little influence it had over the situation to prevent it…Plokhy makes a convincing case that the misplaced triumphalism of the senior Bush’s administration led to the disastrous hubris of his son’s.”

Pittsburg Tribune-Review
“Especially provocative given current affairs, this book doesn't dismiss U.S. Cold War policy's contributions but contends the USSR fell mainly because of its imperial nature, ethnic mix and political structure, with the inability of Russia and Ukraine, the biggest Soviet republics, to agree on continuing unity as the straw that broke the Soviet camel's back.”

Library Journal, Starred Review
“Plokhy’s cleanly written narrative presents a clear view of the complex events and numerous parties involved in the Soviet Union’s demise as well as the reasons that the Soviet government could not ultimately rein in Ukrainian and Russian national movements. VERDICT: Plokhy’s fine scholarship should be set alongside such great works as David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb and Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire. An excellent text for historians, students of current events, and anyone fascinated with political intrigue.”

Publishers Weekly
“One of a rare breed: a well-balanced, unbiased book written on the fall of Soviet Union that emphasizes expert research and analysis.”

Kirkus
“[Plokhy] provides fascinating details (especially concerning Ukraine) about this fraught, historic time.”

William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
"Serhii Plokhy’s fine book combines a colorful, fast-paced narrative with trenchant analysis of key players in the Soviet collapse: Gorbachev and Yeltsin battling each other to the bitter end; President George H. W. Bush encouraging the former ‘evil empire’ to stay together, while unintentionally facilitating its demise; Ukrainians’ all-out push for independence turning out to be the coup de grace. By far our best account yet of the death spiral of the USSR."

Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History
"At last, a definitive account of the breakup of the USSR: for the first time, Serhii Plokhy tells the story not just from the point of view of Moscow, and not from Washington, but also from Kiev and the other republics where many of the most important decisions were actually made. If you don't understand what really happened in 1991, and if you don't remember the roles played by the former Soviet republics, then you'll find it impossible to understand the politics of the region today. This book usefully eviscerates some of the remaining mythology about the end of the Cold War, and is an indispensable guide to the tensions and rivalries of the present."

Rachel Polonsky, author of Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History
“Serhii Plokhy’s dramatic account of the high politics behind the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be more timely. Serhii Plokhy examines the choices, fears, personal conflicts and geopolitical delusions of the principal actors in the drama in the US and across the republics of the disintegrating USSR. While the world was spared a nuclear apocalypse, the seeds of new tragedies were sown. As Serhii Plokhy sees it, the mistaken belief that the US had ‘won the Cold War’ led directly to the hubris of the Iraq invasion of 2003. Now, in the context of what many see as a new Cold War between Russia and the West, it is crucial that we understand what really happened in 1991. The Last Empire is a brilliant work of political narrative: vivid, original, urgent and, above all, wise.”

Vladislav Zubok, Professor at the London School of Economics
“Serhii Plokhy’s masterful book provocatively places Ukrainian independence as the central factor in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Gripping reading, full of surprises and revelations for everyone, especially on the American role in this revolutionary event.”

Library Journal
★ 05/01/2014
The recent Russian-Ukrainian crisis has its roots in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Here, Plokhy (Ukranian history, Harvard Univ.; Yalta: The Price of Peace) details the collapse of the USSR in late 1991. His contention is that the USSR, which he views as the last great European empire, dissolved under the stress of internal tensions and ethnic clashes. Rejecting the notion that the United States won a great victory in the Cold War, the author uses the memoirs, correspondence, and other writings of American and Soviet officials to strengthen the picture he puts forth of an American leadership that failed to understand the players and movements shaping Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Plokhy's cleanly written narrative presents a clear view of the complex events and numerous parties involved in the Soviet Union's demise as well as the reasons that the Soviet government could not ultimately rein in Ukrainian and Russian national movements. VERDICT Plokhy's fine scholarship should be set alongside such great works as David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb and Vladislav M. Zubok's A Failed Empire. An excellent text for historians, students of current events, and anyone fascinated with political intrigue.—Jacob Sherman, Texas A&M Univ. Lib., San Antonio
Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-29
A dour, authoritative look at the last bitter months of 1991 leading up to the Soviet Union's collapse. Plokhy (Ukrainian History/Harvard Univ.; The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires, 2012, etc.) uses access to newly declassified documents and rich primary sources for a close study of these final decisive months, from the July summit in Moscow between President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Gorbachev's resignation from the defunct state on Christmas Day. Bush was sympathetic to the travails of Gorbachev and, unlike his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, wanted to proceed with caution as the satellite republics began to peel off from the Soviet motherland under Gorbachev's new reform policies. The second most populous Soviet republic, Ukraine, was a prize neither Gorbachev nor Boris Yeltsin wanted to lose, however, as underscored in Bush's unfortunate (for Ukrainian independence) "Chicken Kiev" speech, in which he drew a wishy-washy line between "freedom" and "independence." Events hurtled to a climax as Gorbachev and his family were virtually imprisoned in his Crimean dacha by a "state of emergency" when the KGB hard-liners attempted a clumsy coup d'état—which very well might have succeeded in the old-school Soviet style if Yeltsin had not made a strong, public stance and Bush and the Western media not made their dissatisfaction known. Yeltsin and the Russian Federation emerged triumphant, with Gorbachev clearly in retreat, forced to ban the Communist Party at Yeltsin's instigation. Once Ukraine grasped the new political landscape, its parliament voted overwhelmingly for independence, causing shock waves throughout the union. Plokhy delineates the nerve-wracking wrangling over maintaining some form of economic union of Slavic republics, up to the very end, while Bush and others supported Gorbachev and a Soviet center—which could not hold. The author provides fascinating details (especially concerning Ukraine) about this fraught, historic time.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465056965
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Pages: 520
  • Sales rank: 75,274
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. A three-time recipient of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies prize and author of Yalta: The Price of Peace, Plokhy lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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