Po­lit­i­cal struc­ture doomed Soviet Union

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Graeme Voyer

RUS­SIAN Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has said that the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the great­est tragedy of the 20th century. Tragedy or not, the process of the Soviet col­lapse is metic­u­lously chron­i­cled by Ser­hii Plokhy, a pro­fes­sor of Ukrainian his­tory at Har­vard Univer­sity, in a work that de­vel­ops new in­ter­pre­ta­tionsn and chal­lenges some con­ven­tional aconventional think­ing. Plokhy be­lieves that the fate of the Soviet Union was de­cided inn the last five months of its ex­is­tence, from late July to De­cem­ber 1991. His nar­ra­tive fo­cuses on these months, dur­ing which events oc­curred that changed world his­tory. Plokhy’s story is driven by the in­ter­ac­tions among four prin­ci­pal po­lit­i­cal fig­ures: Mikhail Gor­bachev, then­pres­i­dent of the Soviet Union; then-U.S. pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush; Boris Yeltsin, for­mer leader of Rus­sia, the largest of the republics that com­prised the Soviet Union; and Leonid Kravchuk, then-leader of Ukraine, whose in­sis­tence on Ukrainian in­de­pen­dence doomed the Soviet em­pire. Plokhy evokes the drama of key events — for ex­am­ple, the un­suc­cess­ful coup staged by hard­lin­ers in the KGB and mil­i­tary in Au­gust 1991, and the Ukrainian ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence in early De­cem­ber of that year. Plokhy has ti­tled his ac­count The Last Em­pire for good rea­son. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the Soviet Union was anal­o­gous to the dis­so­lu­tion of other Euro­pean and Eurasian em­pires through­out the 20th century: the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian, Ot­toman, Bri­tish, French and Por­tuguese. The col­lapse of the Soviet Union, he ar­gues, was a func­tion of its “im­pe­rial foun­da­tions, multi-eth­nic com­po­si­tion, and pseud­ofed­eral struc­ture.” As he points out, the Soviet Union “died the death of an em­pire, split­ting along lines roughly de­fined by eth­nic and lin­guis­tic bound­aries.” Plokhy’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Soviet Union as the last of the clas­si­cal Euro­pean em­pires is co­gent, but he could have de­vel­oped it more thor­oughly through­out the course of his nar­ra­tive. When Mikhail Gor­bachev an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion on Christ­mas Day 1991, and the red Soviet flag was low­ered from the Krem­lin for the last time, for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush ex­plained these events as a tri­umph for Amer­i­can val­ues. But Plokhy re­jects this ver­sion of his­tory. In fact, he shows the Amer­i­can lead­er­ship worked to pro­long the life of the Soviet Union and Gor­bachev’s as­cen­dancy. Above all else, he says, Bush and his ad­vis­ers were con­cerned with the se­cu­rity of the Soviet nu­clear ar­se­nal, and they viewed Gor­bachev and his cir­cle as known, lik­able and pre­dictable. Thus, in the in­ter­ests of nu­clear sta­bil­ity, they wanted Gor­bachev to re­main in power. By por­tray­ing the Soviet col­lapse as an Amer­i­can tri­umph, Bush was tak­ing credit for an out­come that he and his team had sought to fore­stall. This was the irony of Amer­i­can post-Cold War tri­umphal­ism — one of Plokhy’s main themes. Plokhy has writ­ten a chal­leng­ing re­vi­sion­ist nar­ra­tive that at­tributes the demise of the Soviet Union to its po­lit­i­cal struc­ture, rather than to Amer­i­can pol­icy.

Win­nipeg writer Graeme Voyer ded­i­cates this re­view to the mem­ory of a won­der­ful cat named Figgy.

The Last Em­pire: The Fi­nal Days of the Soviet Union

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