The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union

Serhii Plokhy

Language: English

Pages: 544

ISBN: 0465046711

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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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best to communicate his cautious optimism about the Soviet future to the American president, Bush showed greater interest in nuclear security than in anything else. He wanted to reduce the Soviet nuclear arsenals as much as possible while Gorbachev was still in a position to do so. “I’d like to hear your view,” said Bush. “This is a situation where the center has a role, and you have a stake.” Gorbachev assured Bush that there was nothing to fear. “George,” he said, “a lot of what you hear in

Yeltsin’s career, a “logical end,” as he told his liberal adviser Anatolii Cherniaev. In reality, Yeltsin’s public resignation from the party signaled the end of its preeminent role in society, unleashing a wave of desertions from the party. They were generally undemonstrative: party members simply stopped paying dues, attending meetings, and carrying out party assignments. As the party lost members, its power diminished. In 1990, the year of Yeltsin’s exit, it lost 2.7 million members, dropping

prepared a report in which it recommended that the president make use of his visit to Ukraine to stimulate separatist attitudes there, as that is strategically important.” Bush denied any knowledge of it: “I do not know about that report. But I hope you were informed that I stressed the need for the utmost tact in preparing the itinerary of the visit. I would be prepared not to visit Kyiv but Leningrad, for example. I would very much like to visit one of your cities. But I am not about to support

Muscovites cursed the traffic jams and the army but were generally friendly to individual soldiers. They talked with the young recruits, whose average age was nineteen. They also brought food and candy and bombarded the troops and officers with endless questions: Why did you come? Are you going to shoot? The soldiers did not know the answer to the first question but knew that they would not fire on civilians. As the plotters saw it, things were going their way. There were no demonstrations in

as long as possible.18 JAMES BAKER CAME TO appreciate the scope of the changes in the Soviet Union since the collapse of the coup when he flew to Moscow for the September 10 opening of a human rights conference under the auspices of the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). He found the experience “surreal.” Next to the Russian White House, he saw barricades and flowers placed in memory of the three young men who had died less than three weeks earlier. At the conference, he

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