Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy

In "The Last Empire" Serhii Polokhy aims to tell the story of the dissolution of the Soviet Union during the last six months of 1991.  The major players here are Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Bush, Kravchuk, and with limited appearances by Nazarbayev.  The narrative presented ere is well constructed and tackles many interesting developments and events during the main six months the author has decided to concentrate on.

The main points the author continually stresses are that the Cold War was not won by the United States, as proclaimed by Bush sr. and those that came after him, but was ended through with a mutual agreement from both the Soviets and Americans at least two years prior to the collapse of the USSR.  Bush, in fact, tried to keep Gorbachev in power as he felt he could deal with him and those around him in regards to progress on limiting nuclear arms, as well as dealing with various international issues (Afghanistan, Cuba, Israel-Palestine).  This false idea of an American 'victory', according to the author, has gone far in undermining future American efforts on the international arena.  In effect, Plokhy links the Wolfowitz Doctrine that came out as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the eventual invasion of Iraq, in 2003, in a preventive war on the part of the United States.  A bit of a stretch, but there are still links that came be made in regards to how flawed developments and memory of the collapse of the USSR has led to incorrect policy decisions on the part of US administrations.

Coming back to the USSR, the author being an expert on the nationalities issue, stresses the role of Kravchuk and Ukraine in the development of the collapse, at times too heavily and shows something of a bias in that direction.  Not to get mired in the details, suffice it to say that this is an in-depth study that goes a long way in trying to explain how the collapse of the Soviet Union came about as quickly as it did, but in many ways it is still a stepping stone on the way to a definitive study.  My biggest complaint would be that there is little explanation offered or evidence examined in regards to how the populations of the various republics discussed felt about the Soviet Union and the ensuing end of the USSR.  While it's important to keep in mind that the decision to end the existence of the Soviet Union was made by three men (the heads of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) and forced onto a fourth (Gorbachev), Plokhy continually claims that this was a popular decision support from the ground up.   And while referendums are taken, votes are cast, minds are quickly changed in a 180 degree fashion in a matter of weeks or months, the main emphasis here remains on the 'great men' and not the 'grass roots' level.  That 'from the bottom' approach is missing here, and hopefully future studies will be able to fill that important and sorely needed blank spot.

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