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Political structure doomed Soviet Union

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

Tragedy or not, the process of the Soviet collapse is meticulously chronicled by Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, in a work that develops new interpretations and challenges some conventional thinking.

Plokhy believes that the fate of the Soviet Union was decided in the last five months of its existence, from late July to December 1991. His narrative focuses on these months, during which events occurred that changed world history.

Plokhy's story is driven by the interactions among four principal political figures: Mikhail Gorbachev, then-president of the Soviet Union; then-U.S. president George H.W. Bush; Boris Yeltsin, former leader of Russia, the largest of the republics that comprised the Soviet Union; and Leonid Kravchuk, then-leader of Ukraine, whose insistence on Ukrainian independence doomed the Soviet empire.

Plokhy evokes the drama of key events -- for example, the unsuccessful coup staged by hardliners in the KGB and military in August 1991, and the Ukrainian referendum on independence in early December of that year.

Plokhy has titled his account The Last Empire for good reason. According to the author, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was analogous to the dissolution of other European and Eurasian empires throughout the 20th century: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British, French and Portuguese.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, he argues, was a function of its "imperial foundations, multi-ethnic composition, and pseudofederal structure."

As he points out, the Soviet Union "died the death of an empire, splitting along lines roughly defined by ethnic and linguistic boundaries."

Plokhy's interpretation of the Soviet Union as the last of the classical European empires is cogent, but he could have developed it more thoroughly throughout the course of his narrative.

When Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation on Christmas Day 1991, and the red Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time, former president George H.W. Bush explained these events as a triumph for American values.

But Plokhy rejects this version of history.

In fact, he shows the American leadership worked to prolong the life of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's ascendancy. Above all else, he says, Bush and his advisers were concerned with the security of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and they viewed Gorbachev and his circle as known, likable and predictable.

Thus, in the interests of nuclear stability, they wanted Gorbachev to remain in power.

By portraying the Soviet collapse as an American triumph, Bush was taking credit for an outcome that he and his team had sought to forestall.

This was the irony of American post-Cold War triumphalism -- one of Plokhy's main themes.

Plokhy has written a challenging revisionist narrative that attributes the demise of the Soviet Union to its political structure, rather than to American policy.


Winnipeg writer Graeme Voyer dedicates this review to the memory of a wonderful cat named Figgy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 8:52 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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