Magazine article The Spectator

'The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union', by Serhii Plokhy - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union', by Serhii Plokhy - Review

Article excerpt

In the latest - and best - of the books on the end of the USSR, Victor Sebestyen finds that the only good thing about the Soviet empire was the manner of its passing

The Last Empire: The final days of the Soviet Union Serhii Plokhy

One World, pp.484, £25, ISBN: 9781780745299

Vladimir Putin calls it 'the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century', a viewpoint which explains much of his recent behaviour. Few others anywhere in the world, particularly people who live around Russia's borders, would agree that the collapse of the Soviet Union was anything to lament. From Riga to Tbilisi and from Kiev to Tashkent, Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the USSR and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, remains a day to celebrate.

With nearly a quarter of a century's hindsight it still seems astonishing that a great superpower and, with it, an entirely different way of looking at the world -- Soviet-style communism -- disappeared almost overnight and with practically no bloodshed. Two years earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviets abandoned their colonies in Eastern Europe, and the 40-year-long ideological and military rivalry between East and West -- the Cold War -- seemed over. But at the beginning of 1991 few people predicted that the USSR itself would implode. Pundits talked of a long decline, like the Ottoman empire, limping on for generations. So how did it fall apart so swiftly?

The Ukrainian-born Harvard academic Serhii Plokhy's dramatic reconstruction of the last days of the Soviet Union is 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.

Several recent books have covered this territory. Plokhy's starting point follows others. By far the biggest factor was the selection in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as Communist party boss in Moscow. Three Soviet leaders had died in as many years and the gerontocrats in the Kremlin thought they were selecting a younger, vigorous version of themselves, who would maintain Soviet power, Marxist-Leninist faith and the USSR's imperial glory. In fact they had chosen a true reformer who aimed to save communism by ending the ideological conflict with the West and fixing the ailing state at home.

He failed lamentably in the latter cause. By 1991 the economy was in dire straits; food queues in Moscow were longer than they had been after the second world war. But his buzzwords perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) transformed Soviet politics and unleashed forces he could not control -- most ominously for the USSR, nationalism in the Soviet republics.

Gorbachev never stood for election himself, but he did introduce a semi-free press and the most open democracy there had been in Soviet history. From these emerged an opposition and a rival for power: Boris Yeltsin.

Politics is invariably personal and the extreme loathing between the two is the main leitmotif in the book. Plokhy writes well about the strengths and weaknesses of each. Both achieved great things but both had gigantic flaws. Neither emerges altogether well here. Yeltsin's drunken boorishness and refusal to ignore any perceived slight was matched by Gorbachev's extreme vanity, occasional cruelty and excruciating pomposity that drove even his admiring aides to despair.

Little of this is new, though Plokhy's narrative makes it fresh. …

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