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The Last Empire
The Final Days of the Soviet Union
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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. Bush, in fact, was firmly committed to supporting Gorbachev as he attempted to hold together the USSR in the face of growing independence movements in its republics. Drawing on recently declassified documents and original interviews with key participants, Plokhy presents a bold new interpretation of the Soviet Union's final months, providing invaluable insight into the origins of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the outset of the most dangerous crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.
Winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize
Winner of the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize
Choice Outstanding Academic Title
BBC History Magazine Best History Book of the Year
IT WAS A CHRISTMAS GIFT that few expected to receive. Against the dark evening sky, over the heads of tourists on Red Square in Moscow, above the rifles of the honor guard marching toward Lenin’s mausoleum, and behind the brick walls of the Kremlin, the red banner of the Soviet Union was run down the flagpole of the Senate Building, the seat of the Soviet government and until recently the symbol of world communism. Tens of millions of television viewers all around the world who watched the scene on Christmas Day 1991 could hardly believe their eyes. On the same day, CNN presented a live broadcast of the resignation speech of the first and last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was no more.
What had just happened? The first to give an answer to that question was the president of the United States, George H. W. Bush. On the evening of December 25, soon after CNN and other networks broadcast Gorbachev’s speech and the image of the red banner being lowered at the Kremlin, Bush went on television to explain to his compatriots the meaning of the picture they had seen, the news they had heard, and the gift they had received. He interpreted Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation and the lowering of the Soviet flag as a victory in the war that America had fought against communism for more than forty years. Furthermore, Bush associated the collapse of communism with the end of the Cold War and congratulated the American people on the victory of their values. He used the word “victory” three times in three consecutive sentences. A few weeks later, in his State of the Union address, Bush referred to the implosion of the Soviet Union in a year that had seen “changes of almost biblical proportions,” declared that “by the grace of God, America won the Cold War,” and announced the dawning of a new world order. “A world once divided into two armed camps,” Bush told the joint session of the US Senate and House of Representatives, “now recognizes one sole and preeminent power, the United States of America.” The audience exploded in applause.1
For more than forty years, the United States and the Soviet Union had indeed been locked in a global struggle that by sheer chance did not end in a nuclear holocaust. Generations of Americans were born into a world that seemed permanently divided into two warring camps, one symbolized by the red banner atop the Kremlin and the other by the Stars and Stripes over the Capitol. Those who went to school in the 1950s still remembered the nuclear alarm drills and the advice to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear explosion. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and tens of thousands died in wars that were supposed to stop the advance of communism, first in the mountains of Korea and then in the jungles of Vietnam. Generations of intellectuals were divided over the issue of whether Alger Hiss spied for the Soviets, and Hollywood remained traumatized for decades by the witch hunt for communists unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only a few years before the Soviet collapse, the streets of New York and other major American cities were rocked by demonstrations staged by proponents of nuclear disarmament that divided fathers and sons, pitting the young political activist Ron Reagan against his father, President Ronald Reagan. Americans and their Western allies fought numerous battles at home and abroad in a war that seemed to have no end. Now an adversary armed to the teeth, never having lost a single battle, lowered its flag and disintegrated into a dozen smaller states without so much as a shot being fired.
There was good reason to celebrate, but there was also something confusing, if not disturbing, about the president’s readiness to claim victory in the Cold War on the day when Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush’s and Ronald Reagan’s principal ally in ending that war, submitted his resignation. Gorbachev’s action put a symbolic if not legal end to the USSR (it had been formally dissolved by its constituent members four days earlier, on December 21), but the Cold War was never about the dismemberment of the USSR. Besides, President Bush’s speech to the nation on December 25, 1991, and his State of the Union address in January 1992 contradicted the administration’s earlier statements about the Cold War having ended not in confrontation with Gorbachev but in cooperation with him. The earliest such pronouncement was made at the summit of the two leaders on Malta in December 1989. The most recent one was the statement released by the White House a few hours before Bush’s Christmas speech. It praised Gorbachev’s cooperation: “Working with President Reagan, myself, and other allied leaders, President Gorbachev acted boldly and decisively to end the bitter divisions of the Cold War and contributed to the remaking of a Europe whole and free.”2
Bush’s Christmas address was a major departure from the way in which the president himself and the members of his administration had treated their erstwhile Soviet partner and assessed their ability to affect developments in the Soviet Union. Whereas Bush and his national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, had insisted publicly for most of 1991 that their influence was limited, they were now suddenly taking credit for the most dramatic development in Soviet domestic politics. This new interpretation, born in the midst of Bush’s reelection campaign, gave rise to an influential, if not dominant, public narrative of the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the sole world superpower. That largely mythical narrative closely linked the end of the Cold War with the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. More important, it treated those developments as direct outcomes of US policies and, indeed, as major American victories.3
This book challenges the triumphalist interpretation of the Soviet collapse as an American victory in the Cold War. It does so in part on the basis of recently declassified documents from the George Bush Presidential Library, including memoranda from his advisers and formerly secret transcripts of the president’s telephone conversations with world leaders. These newly available documents show with unprecedented clarity that the president himself and many of his White House advisers did much to prolong the life of the Soviet Union, worried about the rise of the future Russian president Boris Yeltsin and the drives for independence by leaders of other Soviet republics, and, once the Soviet Union was gone, wanted Russia to become the sole owner of the Soviet nuclear arsenals and maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space, especially in the Central Asian republics.
Why did the leadership of a country allegedly locked in combat with a Cold War adversary adopt such a policy? The White House documents, combined with other types of sources, provide answers to this and many other relevant questions posed in this book. They show how Cold War–era political rhetoric clashed with realpolitik as the White House tried to save Gorbachev, whom it regarded as its main partner on the world stage. The White House was prepared to tolerate the continued existence of the Communist Party and the Soviet empire in order to achieve that goal. Its main concern was not victory in the Cold War, which was already effectively over, but the possibility of civil war in the Soviet Union. That would have threatened to turn the former tsarist empire into a “Yugoslavia with nukes,” to use a term coined by newspaper reporters at the time. The nuclear age had changed the nature of great-power rivalry and the definition of victory and defeat, but not the rhetoric of the warrior’s ethos or the thinking of the masses. The Bush administration had to square the circle by reconciling the language and thinking of the Cold War era with the geopolitical realities of its immediate aftermath. It did its best in that regard, but its actions far outshone its inconsistent rhetoric.
It is easy to understand (and sympathize with) the excitement of those involved in the events of late 1991 as they saw the red banner going down the Kremlin flagpole and recalled the sacrifices associated with American participation in the global rivalry with the Soviet Union. But it is no less important today, almost a quarter of a century after those events, to take a more dispassionate look at what actually happened. The declaration of the fall of the USSR as an American victory in the Cold War helped create an exaggerated perception of the extent of American global power at the time when such perception mattered most, during the decade leading up to the 9/11 attacks and the start of the nine-year-long Iraq War. Inflated accounts of the American role in the collapse of the Soviet Union feed present-day Russian nationalist conspiracy theories, which present the collapse of the Soviet Union as the outcome of a CIA plot. Such interpretations not only appear in extremist Internet publications but also are voiced on major Russian television channels.4
My narrative provides a much more complex and potentially controversial picture of what actually occurred in the months leading up to the Soviet collapse than the popular image that exists today on both sides of the former Cold War divide. It also claims that the American world, which replaced the Cold War–era division of the globe into two rival camps, came into existence as much by chance as by design. It is important to revisit the origins of that world and the perceptions and actions of its creators, both deliberate and inadvertent, on both sides of the Atlantic if we are to understand what has gone wrong with it over the last decade and a half.
THIS BOOK LIFTS THE CURTAIN OF TIME on the dramatic events leading up to the lowering of the Soviet flag and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The concept of empire, which I include in the title of this book, is vital to my interpretation of the dramatic events of 1991. I join those political scientists and historians who argue that while the lost arms race, economic decline, democratic resurgence, and bankruptcy of communist ideals all contributed to the Soviet implosion, they did not predetermine the disintegration of the Soviet Union. That was caused by the imperial foundations, multiethnic composition, and pseudofederal structure of the Soviet state, features whose importance was fully recognized neither by American policy makers in Washington nor by Gorbachev’s advisers in Moscow.
Although the Soviet Union was often called “Russia,” it was in fact a conglomerate of nationalities that Moscow secured through a combination of brute force and cultural concessions and ruled with an iron fist for most of the Soviet period. The Russians were de jure in charge of the largest republic by far, the Russian Federation, but there were fourteen others. Numbering close to 150 million, the Russians constituted only 51 percent of the total Soviet population. The Ukrainians were the second-largest group, with more than 50 million people, accounting for close to 20 percent of the country’s population.
The victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution allowed them to salvage the Russian Empire by turning it into a quasi-federal polity, at least with regard to its constitutional structure. This expedient prolonged the imperial history of Russia but did not allow it to escape the fate of other empires in the long run. By 1990 most of the Soviet republics had their own presidents, foreign ministers, and more or less democratically elected parliaments. Not until 1991 did the world finally comprehend that the Soviet Union was not Russia.5
I put the collapse of the USSR into the same category as the twentieth-century collapse of the world’s major empires, including the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British, French, and Portuguese. I call the Soviet Union the last empire not because I believe that there will be no empires in the future but because it was the last state that carried on the legacies of the “classical” European and Eurasian empires of the modern era. I approach the history of the Soviet collapse with the basic premise that imperial rule is incompatible with electoral democracy and that the conflict between them led to the fall of the world’s last empire. Once Gorbachev introduced elements of electoral democracy into Soviet politics in 1989, the newly elected politicians in Russia were suddenly empowered to say whether they were willing to continue bearing the burdens of empire, while the politicians in the non-Russian republics faced the question of whether they wanted to remain under imperial rule. Eventually, both groups answered in the negative.
The first to use the opportunity to say no were politicians in the Baltic states and western Ukraine, the parts of the Soviet Union forcibly incorporated into the USSR on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. The next were their counterparts in Russia and eastern Ukraine, which had belonged to the USSR before World War II. In the Baltics, Georgia, and Armenia, new democratic leaders pushed for independence. In the rest of the republics, the old elites hung to power, but with Gorbachev withdrawing the center’s support from its regional viceroys and making their political survival dependent on democratic election, they began making deals with rising democratic forces—a development that eventually led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union along the borders established for its fifteen republics.6
My narrative focuses on five months—late July to late December of 1991—that literally changed the world as critical decisions were made on the fate of the USSR. It was in late July, a few days before George H. W. Bush’s visit to Moscow to sign a historic arms reduction treaty with Gorbachev, that the Soviet president reached a fateful agreement with Boris Yeltsin on reforming the Soviet Union—an agreement that would trigger the August coup of 1991. In late December, Gorbachev’s resignation as president made the Soviet collapse final. While many academic and nonacademic writers have covered the history of the Soviet collapse, they have all but ignored the crucial period between the August coup and Gorbachev’s resignation in December. Some of these authors subscribe, consciously or implicitly, to the proposition that the elimination of the Communist Party after the coup automatically meant the end of the Soviet Union—a misleading assumption, as I show in this book. By the time of the August coup, the party could hold nothing together, including itself. The Soviet Union was wounded during the coup and its aftermath but continued to exist for another four months. It is the period analyzed in this book—the fall and early winter of 1991—that determined what would happen to its constituent parts and, no less important, to its nuclear arsenals.7
In his insightful studies of the Soviet collapse and the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Stephen Kotkin focuses attention on “uncivil society”—the communist elites that ruled the inner and outer Soviet empires before deciding to abandon the communist experiment. It has been argued that the Soviet Union, like the Romanov empire before it, collapsed from the top and that the disintegration of the Soviet state was initiated and carried out by the elites, both in the center and in the regions. Indeed, there were no angry crowds in the streets demanding the dissolution of the USSR. The collapse of the former superpower also turned out to be surprisingly peaceful, especially in the four nuclear republics—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus (Belorussia), and Kazakhstan—which played a decisive role in the disintegration of the USSR. The fate of the USSR was decided, in the last analysis, in high offices. It was decided in the midst of a political struggle that involved major political figures in both East and West—a battle of nerves and a test of diplomatic skills. The stakes were enormous, involving the political and, in some cases, even physical survival of those involved.8
At the center of the events of 1991 were several individuals whom I consider most responsible for that dramatic but also peaceful turn in the history of the world. My narrative is not unipolar, as the world became after 1991, or even bipolar, as it was during the Cold War, but rather multipolar, as the world has been for most of its history and is probably becoming again, with the rise of China and the development of political and economic problems in the United States. I take note of decisions made not only in Washington and Moscow but also in Kyiv, Almaty (previously Alma-Ata, renamed in 1993), and capitals of other Soviet republics that would soon become independent. My main characters are four political leaders who arguably had the greatest impact on what happened to the Soviet Union and, following its collapse, on the world at large.
I tell my story by following the actions and trying to uncover the motivations of President George H. W. Bush of the United States, the cautious and often humble leader of the Western world, whose backing of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and insistence on the security of the nuclear arsenals prolonged the existence of the empire but also ensured its peaceful demise; Boris Yeltsin, the boorish and rebellious leader of Russia, who almost singlehandedly defeated the coup and then refused to take the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s route of saving the crumbling empire or revising existing Russian borders; Leonid Kravchuk, the shrewd leader of Ukraine, whose insistence on his country’s independence doomed the Union; and, last but not least, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man at the center of events who had the most to gain or lose from the way they turned out. He lost it all—prestige, power, and country. Gorbachev’s personal drama—the story of a leader who dragged his country out of its totalitarian past, opened it to the world, introduced democratic procedures, and initiated economic reform, changing his homeland and the world around him to such an extent that there was no place left for him—is at the center of my narrative.
My main argument is closley linked to the idea that the fate of the Soviet Union was decided in the last four months of its existence, between the coup that began on August 19 and the meeting of the leaders of the Soviet republics in Almaty on December 21, 1991. I argue that the most important factor in deciding the future of the last world empire was not the policy of the United States, the conflict between the Union center and Russia (respectively represented by Gorbachev and Yeltsin), or tensions between the Union center and other republics, but rather the relationship between the two largest Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine. It was the unwillingness of their political elites to find a modus vivendi within one state structure that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Soviet Union.
On December 8, in a hunting lodge in the Belarusian forest of Belavezha, having failed to reach agreement on the basis of Gorbachev’s proposed template for the creation of a new Union, Yeltsin and Kravchuk decided to dissolve the USSR and opt instead for the creation of a Commonwealth of Independent States. The Belarusian leaders who played host to the two presidents in Belavezha did not imagine the Union without Russia. Neither did the presidents of the Central Asian republics, who had no choice but to follow suit. A Gorbachev-led Union without Russia or Ukraine did not appeal to anyone. George H. W. Bush contributed to the dissolution of the world’s last empire mainly by helping to ensure that the process occurred without major conflict or proliferation of nuclear arms.
In the two decades that have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the principals in my story have published their memoirs. These include books by George H. W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Leonid Kravchuk, as well as the recollections of their advisers and other participants. While the stories told by eyewitnesses and participants in the events contain a wealth of information and some make for interesting reading, they often fail to present the bigger picture and explain the full meaning of the events they describe. Journalistic accounts, while indispensable for grasping the mood of the time and the feelings of the main actors and people in the street, appeared at a time when confidential documents were still unavailable to the public and participants at the highest levels were reluctant to talk. I have overcome these limitations of many of my predecessors by supplementing their accounts with material drawn from interviews with participants in the events and, most important, with archival documents, which have become available only recently.
As noted above, this book takes advantage of recently declassified American documents made available to scholars through the George Bush Presidential Library. These include National Security Council files, the correspondence of White House officials responsible for the president’s travel abroad, and transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations conducted by President Bush, some of which I acquired through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Combined with other primary sources from the National Archives in Washington, the James A. Baker Papers at Princeton, and the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, these new materials allow me to tell the story of the Soviet collapse with a degree of detail unmatched by earlier writers. I was fortunate enough to interview some of the individuals involved personally, including Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislaŭ Shushkevich of Belarus.
The historical sources that I consulted in writing this book helped answer many “how” questions and quite a few “why” questions. My answers to the second set of queries generally began with an attempt to grasp the ideological, cultural, and personal motives of the leaders at the center of my narrative and learn the information that informed their decisions. I hope that my discussion of both sets of questions will not only shed light on the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union but also help explain the chronic difficulties of the two principal stakeholders in the Union, Russia and Ukraine, in finding a modus vivendi after 1991. I also hope that this book will prove useful to readers trying to understand the involvement of the United States in the Soviet collapse and the role that America should play in a world still largely shaped by decisions made back in 1991. Misunderstanding the reasons for the fall of a rival empire may very well result not only in imperial hubris but also in the decline of one’s own empire, whether it uses that name as a self-description or not.
THE LAST SUMMIT
MEETING IN MOSCOW
A SUMMIT IS THE TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. The word has also been used to denote a supreme achievement, but it was not until 1953 that it entered the vocabulary of diplomacy. That year, as two brave mountain climbers finally conquered Everest, Winston Churchill spoke in the British parliament of a will to peace “at the summit of the nations.” Two years later, when the word was applied to the meeting of Soviet and Western leaders in Geneva, it gained popularity. The world of international politics badly needed a new term for diplomatic meetings at the highest level, which had become an important feature of international relations since the 1930s. “Summit” fit the bill. Although rulers had met to discuss mutual relations since time immemorial, such meetings were quite rare before the age of air travel. The airplane not only revolutionized warfare but also had the same effect on diplomacy, which aimed to prevent war. And so diplomacy took to the skies.
Modern summitry was born in September 1938, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain flew to Germany to try to convince Adolf Hitler not to attack Czechoslovakia. In the course of World War II, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin gave a new boost to the practice of personal diplomacy, which did not yet have a proper name. Summitry reached its peak during the Cold War, as meetings between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, and then Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon, captured the attention of the world media, but it was not until the very end of the conflict that the Soviets adopted the Western term for their own use. In the summer of 1991, in a dramatic shift symptomatic of larger political and ideological changes in Moscow and around the world, Soviet newspapers dropped their preferred term, “a meeting at the highest level,” and replaced it with the English “summit.” This was a pyrrhic victory for a term that would virtually disappear from international relations within the next decade.1
The “meeting at the highest level” for which the Soviets had changed their diplomatic terminology was scheduled to take place on July 30 and 31, 1991, between the forty-first president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, and the first president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev. The summit was long in preparation, but its final date was decided a few short weeks before the event. Until the very end, Soviet and American experts found it difficult to iron out every last detail of the historic treaty that the two presidents were going to sign in Moscow. Bush wanted to do so as soon as possible. No one knew how long Gorbachev would remain in the Kremlin and how long the opportunity to reach agreement would last.
The Bush-Gorbachev meeting in Moscow was presented by the White House to the media as the first post–Cold War summit. What George H. W. Bush was going to sign with Mikhail Gorbachev was a treaty that was supposed to launch the two superpowers into a new era of mutual trust and cooperation, starting with issues as sensitive as nuclear weapons. START I, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was finally ready for signature after nine years of negotiations, called for the reduction of overall nuclear arsenals by roughly 30 percent and of Soviet intercontinental missiles, largely aimed at the United States, by up to 50 percent. In the forty-seven-page treaty, accompanied by seven hundred pages of protocols, the two presidents would agree not just to curb the arms race but also to begin reversing it.2
The confrontation between the world’s two most powerful countries, which began soon after World War II and had brought the planet to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, was now all but over. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, German reunification under way, and Mikhail Gorbachev adopting the “Sinatra doctrine,” which allowed Moscow’s East European clients to “do it their way” and eventually leave the Kremlin’s embrace, the conflict at the core of the Cold War was resolved. Soviet troops began to leave East Germany and other countries of the region. But the nuclear arsenals were virtually unaffected by these changes in the political climate. The famous Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once remarked that if there was a gun onstage in the first act of a play, it would be fired in the next. The two superpowers had placed plenty of nuclear arms on the world stage. Sooner or later there would be a second act involving different actors who might want to fire them.
- "A superb read: a deeply researched, indispensable reappraisal of the fall of the USSR that has the nail-biting drama of a movie, the gripping narrative and colorful personalities of a novel, and the analysis and original sources of a work of scholarship."—Simon Sebag Montefiore, BBC History Magazine (Best History Books of the Year)
- “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.”—Wall Street Journal
- "Using recently released documents, Plokhy traces in fascinating detail the complex events that led to the Soviet Union's implosion."—Foreign Affairs
- "A fine-grained, closely reported, highly readable account of the upheavals of 1991."—Financial Times
- "Plokhy makes a convincing case that the misplaced triumphalism of the senior Bush's administration led to the disastrous hubris of his son's."—Slate
- "A fascinating and readable deep dive into the final half-year of the Soviet Union."—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
- "A superb work of scholarship, vividly written, that challenges tired old assumptions with fresh material from East and West, as well as revealing interviews with many major players."—Spectator (UK)
- "An incisive account of the five months leading up to the Union's dissolution.... His vibrant, fast-paced narrative style captures the story superbly."—Sunday Times (UK)
"Almost a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the actions and reactions of the main figures.... Very relevant to today's Ukrainian crisis...very well recounted."
—Literary Review (UK)
- "Serhii Plokhy's great achievement in this wonderfully well-written account is to show that much of the triumphalist transatlantic view of the Soviet collapse is historiographical manure."—Times of London (UK)
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2015
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Basic Books