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.

Darkness at Noon













in the zone of its political and economic influence.” This was the program presented to Shakhnazarov by Gennadii Burbulis, Sergei Shakhrai, and the other Russian negotiators. It would eventually become the basis for Russian policy vis-à-vis the former Soviet republics. Shakhnazarov also argued that it was futile to insist on the revival of a strong Union center and that Gorbachev would be better off focusing on the role allocated to him by Yeltsin and other republican leaders—that of commander

thanks to, among other things, his boundless energy. An engineer by education, he first made a name for himself in the construction industry, arguably the toughest sector of the Soviet economy. Always underfunded and understaffed, unlike the military-industrial complex, construction companies fulfilled their five-year plans by relying on the work of recent convicts and riffraff sent to building sites by party officials. Much depended on the individual construction chief’s sheer strength of

adopted at the Almaty summit.26 Quite apart from the Belarusian proposal, the Almaty meeting had to take a stand on the breakaway regions. As the date of the Almaty meeting drew closer, two breakaway regions, Transnistria in Moldova and Nagornyo-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, applied for membership in the Commonwealth before their “home” republics did so. Meanwhile, Russia recognized the independence of Moldova and Armenia in their Soviet-era borders. This did little to defuse tensions in the breakaway

Transition,” A24. 24. Proposed agenda for meeting with the president, December 13, 1991, 11:00 a.m., James A. Baker Papers, box 115, folder 8; James Baker, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” Chapter Files, James A. Baker Papers, box 195, folder 5, ch. 31, 7–8. 25. Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy, 564. 26. Ibid.; Celestine Bohlen, “Moscow Misery: The Planes Don’t Fly and That’s Not All,” New York Times, December 13, 1991. 27. Beschloss and Talbott, At the Highest Levels, xi–xiv, 451–452; John Kohan

permission for a temporary shutdown of the Central Committee premises. Shredding was indeed going on, although the machines broke down when party apparatchiks, eager to destroy all traces of their participation in the coup, failed to remove paper clips. Apparently in an attempt to appease Yeltsin, Gorbachev signed the memo, thereby authorizing the closure of the Central Committee buildings. His fate as head of the party was now sealed, and his position as president was weaker than ever before.

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