The Last Empire
The Final Days of the Soviet Union
Basic Books, New York, 2014, 520 pages
Book Review published on: November 17, 2017
The echoes of history resound in The Last Empire, in which Serhii Plokhy addresses the period associated with the fall of the iron curtain, the decline of the communist party, and the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, also known familiarly as the Soviet Union). These distinct events that took place between 1989 and 1991 are, in popular culture, sometimes perceived as all part of the more magnificent triumph of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Plokhy explains why these three events may have been interrelated but were not caused by the same machinations. He also explains why the narrative of a Western triumph over the USSR is an erroneous interpretation. The policy of the U.S. government was to maintain the Soviet state to control its nuclear arms, not defeat it. Plokhy argues that the Soviet state, much like the dissolution of the Ottoman, British, or Portuguese empires, fractured along ethnic lines as “colonies” such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan became more of a burden than an asset. In a way, the Soviet Union was the “last empire” in the world to disintegrate. Plokhy masterfully pulls these themes through the political intrigue and fantastic events during the waning years of the Soviet Union and the rebalancing of idealism and real politick taking place in the region.
The story begins by describing the implications of Mikhail Gorbachev’s move toward perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). His dissolution of the Iron Curtain was an opportunity for Western capitalists but also for democratic forces within the Soviet sphere. The emboldened presidents of the Soviet states, most of all President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, sought to undermine the power of Soviet President and General Secretary Gorbachev. However, it was a time of profound cooperation between Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. W. Bush, working to spread freedom throughout the USSR and reduce nuclear stockpiles. Yeltsin, disliking his role as the second most powerful president in Russia, did as much as possible to assert himself on the world stage and undermine Gorbachev’s relationship with the West. The combined effect of perestroika and glasnost was too much for the USSR to absorb at once. Political power was dissolving and economic reorientation was decreasing living standards. Soviet leaders decided to take action to reverse the country’s fate.
It was not until the August Putsch (Coup), when Soviet hardliners confined Gorbachev to his quarters in Crimea and attempted to take over the USSR that Yeltsin, realizing his charisma and the power of his position, reached out to Russian citizens and called for protests against the coup. After surviving a siege on his compound and in direct communication with Bush, Yeltsin dispatched a plane to Crimea to rescue the beleaguered general secretary. Upon Gorbachev’s return, he removed the coup’s plotters and ultimately dissolved the Communist Party. Though Gorbachev took these measures to further the cause of his Soviet presidency, it significantly decreased his influence.
Gorbachev, in his bid to save the USSR, attempted to coerce the Soviet states to reaffirm their commitment to the Soviet Union, but Yeltsin and other leaders of Soviet republics recognized the warning signs. They understood that they needed to turn to the people instead of the party to remain in power. Leonid Kravchuk, the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine, used his control of the country’s political structure to his advantage. He enacted a referendum for Ukraine to secede and to become the president of the country. Both measures passed with resounding support.
In the aftershock of this referendum, the three presidents of the USSR’s Slavic republics (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) met in Minsk, Belarus. They developed the Commonwealth of Independent States and declared that the USSR no longer existed. Less than a month later, Gorbachev resigned his position as caretaker of the Soviet legacy.
In The Last Empire, Plokhy does a masterful job deconstructing the political intrigue and geopolitical ramifications of the dissolution of the “last empire.” The complicated story of this period in the USSR, often glossed over by Americans, is amplified and equalized by Plokhy’s storytelling, allowing the reader to understand the progression of history and the personal relationships of those that played such a large part in it. These relationships, extending across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, were pivotal to the waning days of the Soviet experiment. The United States was complicit in the dissolution of the “last empire,” despite its efforts to consolidate Soviet control. In recounting the histories, the shadows of the present emerge and a better understanding of ethnic orientation for or against Russian hegemony within Eastern Europe can be identified. The Last Empire allows American readers to see and understand what has been previously shielded by political rhetoric and an ignorance of extranational domestic politics. It is the book to understand how the Soviet empire was deconstructed and in which ways current regimes could attempt to construct it again.
Book Review written by: Maj. Kenneth T. King, U.S. Army, Fort Riley, Kansas